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March 22, 2016

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez

Kate Hart
melissa scholten-gutierrez headshot
Oh, internet. Some days, you are beyond exhausting. But some days, I remember how you've connected me with incredible women all over the world -- and I have you to thank for my friendship with today's Badass Lady, Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez. Mel and I met in an online community almost ten years ago, and since then I've been awed by her dedication to her family, her education, and her passions. Mel is a trailblazer who does things her own way, and I'm so glad the internet allows me to share her with the rest of you.


Mel studying at Yeshivat Maharat
(photo by Uriel Heilman)
Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?

Melissa: I am a future (female, duh) Orthodox rabbi. While I don't know what my actual title will be when I complete my studies at Yeshivat Maharat, I will be applying for the same jobs as rabbis, so I'm owning it as a descriptor. I will be in the sixth group of women to graduate from my institution, the first (and currently only) place ordaining Orthodox Jewish women in the US and will be among the first ~25 women worldwide to receive Orthodox ordination. My passion in the rabbinate is in working with Jewish communal organizations to infuse Judaism into all their work and to ensure they are places that meet the needs of the broad spectrum of Jews who utilize their services, be that in a community center, on a college campus, or nationwide.

I am also a blogger. It seems like a funny thing to include as a defining thing, but the reality is that my blogging allowed me to capture my feelings of being a displaced religious feminist woman, with a husband who was interested in being a rabbi, and a very unclear journey in front of me. I was able to connect with women worldwide who my words resonated with, and to form a virtual community when I needed it most. It also connected me to the woman who would ultimately convince me to attend Yeshivat Maharat - its all so cyclical sometimes. [Editor's note: Keep an eye out for a future profile of Mel's co-blogger!]

Before all this, I was a medical social worker and health educator who missed being involved in the Jewish community, until I moved into donor relations for Jewish non-profits. Along the way, I fell in love with writing, editing, and social media, and came up with a crazy scheme to someday combine them all with my rabbinic training. We'll see if that ever happens. I'll come back here to talk about it if it does. ;-)

Mel holding a Sefer Torah
Kate: Do you have any creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)?

Melissa: Writing is my most favorite and consistent creative outlet. I sometimes like to knit and color, but I'm not sure I have the patience for either to make the cut in the long haul. Once upon a time I used to dance, and I really miss it, but haven't found a way to incorporate it into my current life beyond having dance parties in the living room with my toddler.

If I'm being honest with myself, I actually think my biggest creative outlet at the moment is in getting dressed. Until I was re-reading my earlier answers, I hadn't thought about how much I use my creative brain in picking fun patterns and colors and accessories that really express myself in clothing that is simultaneously modest, classic, funky, comfortable, and uniquely Melissa.

Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Melissa: I am super insecure and conflict-avoidant, and that has a horrible trickle down effect into life.

Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Melissa: When I was in graduate school the first time, a professor told me the following: "I have no doubt that you will be an amazing social worker, but you are a horrible student." While there was no actual failure that led to that comment, it felt like I was a complete failure at what I was trying to do with my life and it stuck with me for a very long time and got in the way of my applying for additional graduate programs and fellowships.

Thankfully, she was only half right - I was an amazing social worker. And while school is not my biggest strength, I pulled through social work school with success and am doing alright in rabbinical school. Take that!

young Melissa with her mother
Young Mel and her mother

Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten? 

Melissa: Honestly, the biggest compliments I get are when people say I remind them of my deceased mother. She was a truly amazing woman in so many ways and I am proud of living in a way which carries that forward. She was most known for being kind-hearted, sending cards for birthdays and just because, always selecting thoughtful gifts, and adventures in crafting.

Allow me to share just one brief example that goes beyond her everyday awesomeness, and touches deeper (that I just connected with my own journey as I was thinking about this awesome interview...): For the last ~15 years of her life she was a "secretary" for the investigations department of my hometown police department. She, and everyone else, knew that her role was more similar to jobs held elsewhere in the organization, and she appealed to have her title (and presumably pay and benefits) changed to better reflect the job she was actually doing. The job title change went through right before she died.

Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work?

Melissa: The only "defining moment" I ever think of was when I was 11 and picking the date for my upcoming Bat Mitzvah and my teacher told me I had to have a specific one because it really resonated with her for me. (The segment of the Torah read that week contains the story of the daughters of Zelophad fighting for their inheritance - a pivotal early feminist moment.) We had many discussions about feminism in that context, but without ever really using the word, and it was what I spoke about that day and has fueled my life since. It is sort of ironic that my religious feminism lead to my more expansive feminism, given that many people don't believe in that sort of intersectionality - but it is true.

Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Melissa: I think that this is so subjective. Every woman needs support in different ways. If you really want to be supportive, don't assume you have the only solution. Find out how the women in your network need to be supported and start there. Small changes make big impacts.

Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Melissa: Believe in yourself, and find other women who believe in you. Don't believe anyone who tells you your dreams are too big or not possible. Create a community for yourself that supports your badassery and wants to see you succeed.


Melissa Scholten-Gutierrez is a social worker, writer, educator, advocate, and student at Yeshivat Maharat. ​Melissa's ​passion lies in combining​ her personal, professional, and educational experiences in order ​to create and sustain​ meaningful Jewish experiences and communities that transcend denominations.​

Melissa​ graduated with undergraduate degrees in Psychology & Social Behavior and Sociology from the University of California, Irvine and received a Masters in Social Work with a health care concentration from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Melissa worked in oncology, hospice, and prenatal health education before transitioning into development and donor relations for Jewish non-profits, all the while exploring her passion for writing and social media.​ Immediately before beginning her studies at Yeshivat Maharat​ she spent two years living and learning in Jerusalem, one year each at Midreshet Nishmat and Machon Pardes​.​

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