As a 21-year-old, I remember being given permission to tell someone 80 years my senior what to do and how to do it.
I was in college at the time, running an intergenerational theatre group with students and seniors from a local senior facility. It was one of the first times I became acutely aware of my power.
At first I was hesitant, uncomfortable. But the professor told me that, yes, they are older than you, but in this field you are much more experienced. Just make sure to treat everyone with respect.
It was one of the first times I became acutely aware of my power.
In our last meeting together, the residents of the senior facility thanked me for treating them like regular people and setting my expectations for their performance high. They appreciated my directness, assertiveness and authority.
In 2012, I began my long journey towards ordination, first at the Jerusalem-based Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) and then at Yeshivat Maharat in the Bronx. Becoming a rabbi was a dream that I didn’t always think I could achieve — the barriers to entry, as a woman, were high.
As a student, I learned that power came from knowledge. I needed to show to the outside world that I was really studying and understanding the materials. I had to prove that I was worthy to teach and even speak in the field of Torah.
Becoming a rabbi was a dream that I didn’t always think I could achieve — the barriers to entry, as a woman, were high.
Many attempted to quiet my voice — these attempts only prompted me to make my message clearer. I frequently felt the pressure to prove myself — the assumption that I was not deserving of power, or capable of wielding power, hummed in my ears. In response, I cloaked my vulnerability in determination. The cost of showing “weakness” was too great — I had too much to prove — not just for myself, but for my friends and fellow rabbinical school students. So I fought my way towards ordination.
Since receiving rabbinic ordination in June 2017, the struggle has not gotten easier. If anything, assuming the title ‘Rabbi’ after five years of intensive study has only made things more difficult. While before I could get away with teaching in certain places because I did not have a title, now, with a title next to my name my presence is frequently not permissible.
Still, I kept fighting. The reality accompanying my ordination was simple: I was no longer just ‘Eryn;’ at work, I was a rabbi, and people responded to me and expected thing from me accordingly. In addition to respect, there is reverence and a desire to learn with someone who has dedicated tremendous time and effort to understanding religious texts.
I was no longer just ‘Eryn;’ at work, I was a rabbi, and people responded to me and expected thing from me accordingly.
As a hospital chaplain, my badge reads ‘Chaplain.’ That automatically gets me into every door in the hospital. Patients, families and staff members look to me for guidance, comfort and prayer, regardless of their religious affiliation. In some ways, I lose my name and become my title. I will hear, “Hello rabbi!” “Rabbi, please come in we were waiting for you;” “Chaplain, give me some words, I’m feeling down.”
I balance being Rabbi Eryn with hiding Rabbi Eryn. It is not that I want to put myself down, but in many ways I am scared of what such great power can do. Or at times it is what I need to do in order for someone to feel comfortable receiving care.
But, as my supervisor tells me often, I do people a disservice by questioning my own authority. My title allows me to be powerful when a patient, a family member or a hospital employee is feeling in need.
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When I am pulled into a room along with the medical team to help a child grieve the passing of a parent; receive a letter asking me to bring ashes to a loved one on Ash Wednesday; counsel a 15-year-old boy about his fears of leaving the hospital and returning to “real life”; name a baby to come back only a few hours later and recite prayers over the infant’s passing, while holding the mother’s hand; hear a psychiatric patient 22-year-old man talk about wanting to walk in the way of God, and ask me how; connect with the atheist over the music he has created, and to be the one to comfort his family and friends when he passes — this is what it means to assume my full, uncompromising power as a rabbi.
Join Rabbi London and Yeshivat Maharat for a panel discussion on Wed., May 9th to discuss the complicated nature of power in the pulpit. Moderated by JWMG Staff Writer Hannah Dreyfus. More information and ticket reservations available here.
Rabba Eryn London grew up in Randolph NJ. She made Aliyah in 2010, but currently is living in New York. She went to Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, studied at Tochnit Ayelet Hashachar post high school, received her BA at Goucher College (2008), MA at Goldsmiths, University of London (2009), and smicha from Yeshivat Maharat (2017). She is a chaplain resident at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
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