A poster child for the rabbinate

A poster child for the rabbinate

Rachel Kahn-Troster — a third-year rabbinical student at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary — realizes now that when she applied for the program, she forgot to submit an important letter of recommendation.

That letter — from former JTS Chancellor Gerson Cohen — was written on behalf of Rachel and her twin sister, Sara, when the two were 4 years old.

It’s a great story, involving a protest, a poster, and a postcard. It’s also a story the ‘6-year-old rabbi-in-training heard throughout her childhood and clearly took to heart.

In 1979, said Kahn-Troster, her parents — COEJL Rabbinic Fellow Rabbi Lawrence Troster and Jewish Standard senior writer Elaine Kahn, now Teaneck residents — helped found a group called G.R.O.W. (Group for the Rabbinic Ordination of Women) to advocate for the ordination of women in the Conservative movement.

Following a positive recommendation on the issue by a special JTS commission, the issue had apparently been tabled. (The recommendation didn’t come up for a vote until 1983, when a decision was made to ordain women rabbis.)

G.R.O.W. pulled out all the stops in an effort to ensure that the JTS faculty would bring the measure up for a vote. According to Kahn-Troster, "They organized rallies, a petition drive, and a speakers bureau. They wanted to keep the issue alive. They didn’t want it to be put off for another generation."

The couple also took a picture of wide-eyed Rachel and Sara wearing child-size rabbinical school T-shirts bearing the year they would enter JTS — should they be accepted into the rabbinical school.

Said Kahn-Troster, "They made the photo into postcards and sent them to select members of the faculty." The photo was also blown up into a poster, and a copy was sent to then Chancellor Cohen. "He replied by sending them a letter of recommendation for Sara and me to attend the rabbinical school. I meant to send it in."

Another copy of the poster, which hangs proudly in the Kahn-Troster home, was "definitely part of my inspiration," said the JTS rabbinical student.

"But I never felt pressured," she added. "I went back and forth deciding what I would do. I remember when I was 7 or 8, trying to figure out if I could both be a rabbi and play second base for the Blue Jays."

Kahn-Troster was born in New York and lived in Toronto until she was 14. "Coming from Toronto," she said, "it was very much an identity issue. I felt I had to assert the right of women in Judaism."

When the family moved to South Orange, where her father took on the leadership of a large Conservative congregation, she and her sister attended the Solomon Schechter High School of Essex and Union, where the two were part of a small contingent of girls who laid tefillin and wore a tallit.

Kahn-Troster did her senior thesis for Barnard College on the ordination of women in the Conservative movement. "I did this at the same time as I was applying to rabbinical school," she said. "It was invigorating. I read the transcripts of the JTS commission and knew the people who were quoted. I felt as though I were a part of the history of the movement."

Out of the 134 rabbinical students attending JTS this year, 45 are women. Kahn-Troster estimates that about 150 women have already been ordained by the movement. And while she loves rabbinical school, the word "busy" doesn’t begin to describe her life. Besides maintaining a heavy course load, she is president of the rabbinical school student organization, engages in advocacy — this summer she spearheaded a student presentation to the search committee charged with finding a chancellor to succeed Ismar Schorsch — serves as a rabbinic intern for the JCC in Manhattan, shadows a JTS faculty member involved in programming, tutors students in Hebrew school, and leads High Holy Day services at Brown. Last year, she interned as a hospital chaplain and co-headed the JTS women’s center.

"Rabbinical school provides a wonderful opportunity to learn so many things. I want to do it all," she said.

Fortunately, she added, her husband, Dr. Paul Pelavin, who grew up in Woodcliff Lake, is supportive of her career.

According to Kahn-Troster, there is a growing effort among many women rabbis, and some male rabbis, to change the model of the rabbinate, awarding more prestige to what she calls its "non-pulpit aspects."

"Rabbis also need time with their families," she said, noting that it is important for synagogue religious leaders to model proper Jewish behavior, which includes quality time with the family.

"I appreciate my parents for modeling that," she said. "My mother said that my sister and I probably only remember them going to committee meetings. But what we really remember is that we always ate dinner together as a family. They showed it can be done."

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