Rabbi Jan Kaufman of University of Maryland's Hillel Foundation has been asked the question too many times. Her reaction is swift and blunt when she hears, "What is it like to be a woman rabbi?"
"I don't talk about being a female rabbi," she says, rapid-fire. "There's not one iota of difference between what I do and what my male colleagues do. . .In my job, (being a woman) is irrelevant."
Still the question is to be expected. Only 29 women, including the 25-year-old Kaufman, have been ordained as rabbis in the United States by what many consider to be the more liberal branches of Judaism, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. Orthodox and Conservative seminaries, which strictly interpret Jewish law as stipulating that only men may become rabbis, do not ordain women.
Kaufman, who was ordained as a Reform rabbi in June 1979, is the only woman rabbi in the Washington area. Another woman, Sara Perman, is a rabbinical intern at Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in the District.
Since 1972, when the first woman rabbi was ordained in the United States, publicity has followed -- and in some cases, hounded -- the women who chose to break with Jewish tradition or parental expectations in becoming spiritual leaders.
Kaufman says she was offered positions as assistant rabbi at two synagogues but instead last year chose a job as associate director at the University of Maryland's Hillel Foundation, a program sponsored by the Jewish self-help organization B'nai B'rith providing social and religious activities for Jewish students around the country.
Complaints about sex discrimination Kaufman admits have been made by other women rabbis are largely unfounded and can only hurt the women who voice them, she says.
"I don't think there's any great conspiracy by men to keep women out of leadership roles," Kauffman says. "I think women who harp about the fact that they're women rabbis -- like, 'Look at me, aren't I great?' -- have a harder time.
"People will say, 'Oh she's cute, but can she talk about anything but being a woman rabbi?'"
Besides Kaufman said, people don't like to hear complaints. "If you just do your job and are good at what you do,generally you don't have trouble being accepted."
Still, Kaufman has come in for her share of disparagement as a woman rabbi during her year at Hillel. Last fall, at the High Holiday season when the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement are observed, one benefactor sent Hillel a smaller donation than ususal because Kaufman had been hired.
On another occasion a woman called Hillel and asked to speak to "the rabbi." When Kaufman told the caller she was speaking to the rabbi, the woman muttered that women were too "flaky and emotional" to be rabbis and demanded, "Where's the real rabbi?"
In addition, some students belonging to the Orthodox branch of Judaism, which disapproves of women being ordained as rabbis, treat Kaufman "as a joke. They have a lot of comtempt. They mock me.But I'm not sure whether it's because I'm non-Orthodox or because I'm a women.
Such incidents can hurt badly, Kaufman admits, but she finds that she must ignore the criticism.If she argued back, "that's all I would do. It would make me crazy," she said.
Kaufman grew up in Baltimore and attended Hebrew Day schools there but dropped out of Western High School because she says the teachers were not challenging. Goucher College accepted her and she was graduated with a bachelor's degree at age of 18. Kaufman also has a bachelor's degree in Hebrew letters from Baltimore Hebrew University.
In her small, cluttered office at the University of Maryland's Hillel House, Jewish New Year cards are taped to the wall and a box filled with blue and white Hillel softball T-shirts lies near the desk. Kaufman drags her black-and-gold-framed ordination certificate from Hebrew Union College -- Jewish Institute of Religion from the closet and hastily hangs it slightly askew, on the wall, joking, "I guess I'd better get this up."
Officially, Kaufman's duties at Hillel include counseling, teaching non-credit courses and planning social and religious programs for students.
Unofficially, Kaufman's goal is to urge students to discover and adopt Jewish traditions. "There's very little hostility to Judaism," she notes, "just a lot of apathy."
She encourages observances such as resting from work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, "as a spiritually enriching experience for one's life." Keeping the Sabbath and keeping kosher, she says, are important because "that's what keeps Jews together. They are the things that make us Jewish."
Rabbi Bob Saks, the Hillel director who is Reform, cites Kaufman's "personal warmth." Rabbi Medel Abrams of the Conservative Beth Torah congregation in Hyattsville, president of the Washington Board of Rabbis to which area rabbis of all branches of Judaism belong, describes Kaufman as "a can do lady," who takes on projects with "preciseness and thoroughness" and "all the enthusiasm of a football team."
Kaufman says she enjoys working with students "because I can mold them. They're much more impressionable than adults."
But there are drawbacks.
"It's stifling for my social life because I don't get to see adults," she says. To improve that situation, Kaufman recently moved from College Park, near her office, to upper Connecticut Avenue in northwest Washington because "College Park is not the place for a single Jewish girl." And she jokes that she should have become a doctor since "a doctor is a better marriage prospect than a rabbi."
Kaufman's parents, however, weren't joking when they urged her to become a doctor or a lawyer. They were "disappointed" when she did not go into medicine or law "because they were concerned I wouldn't make enough money."
Finally, though, "because I was a girl my father said I'd get a husband, so it didn't matter what I wanted to do." With fondness, she adds, "My father is a male chauvinist."
Kaufman likes to joke that she's the "Jewish mother" at Hillel because "the kids spill their hearts out to me." She proudly points out in her office a humorous poster a student gave her caricaturing a "Yiddische mama" (Jewish Mother). For student get-togethers at her home, she bakes chocolate-chip cookies. She observes with a grin, "Probably male rabbis wouldn't bake cookies." And she admits to making first-rate chicken soup.
But kaufman primarily wants to be thought of as a teacher. "I was ordained to transmit the wisdom of the sages, to teach people to become observant Jews and to understand the tradition."
She adds, "I feel I have more to give to the Jewish community than my gender."