When Debra Hachen went on vacation one summer several years ago, a retired man filled in for her at the synagogue. He'd just finished the services one evening when a little girl walked up and tugged on his robe.
''Who are you?'' she wanted to know.
''Why, I'm a rabbi.''
''You can't be a rabbi,'' the youngster retorted. ''Rabbis are women.''
It's a story Debra Hachen tells with quiet understatement. Although she says it's not a ''big deal,'' it does point to some remarkable changes that are taking place in Judaism today.
Debra Hachen is one of only 49 ordained women rabbis (of a total 1,200 rabbis) of Reform Jewish congregations in the United States. Like six other women rabbis, she now has graduated to a solo pulpit after five years of rabbinical school and several years of part-time ministry.
Her new synagogue looks out on a yard full of flowering lilacs and pink dogwood on a quiet residential street in Westborough, Mass. An inconspicuous wooden sign hanging on the front porch of the white frame house reads ''Congregation B'nai Shalom.''
It's a young, liberal congregation, typical of the Reform Jewish groups that have hired women rabbis in the past few years. ''When I was interviewed, and asked what I thought would be positive about coming here, I said I liked the fact that there were a lot of people with young families, and I said I'd like to start my own family in this environment,'' Rabbi Hachen recalls. ''Fortunately, our son was born during the summer, before the fall holidays. I don't know what would have happened if I'd had a baby in the middle of Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur.''
Although her career has generally paralleled that of other ordained women in the Reform Jewish movement, Rabbi Hachen is atypical in one regard: She's the only woman rabbi whose father also was a rabbi.
''When I was growing up I thought about being like my father in the same way that every child does,'' she explains. ''Nobody told me I couldn't be a woman rabbi, but I wasn't stupid, either. I could look around and see there weren't any.''