More than a minyan

More than a minyan

12 women plus 25 years equals a Shavuot celebration at Teaneck shul

From left, rabbis Joyce Newmark, Amy Roth, Iscah Waldman, Rebecca Sirbu, Sharon Litwin, Toni Shy, Shelley Kniaz, Lori Forman-Jacobi, and Rebecca Kahn-Troster all are members of Beth Sholom. So are rabbis Julia Andelman, Cathy Felix, and Dara Klarfeld, who are not in the picture. Photos: Johanna Resnick Rosen/Candid Eye

It is not clear that there is such a thing as a typical synagogue, but it is clear that if there were one, it would not be Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.

For one thing, the Conservative shul has about 40 rabbis among its members, along with a similarly high number of other Jewish professionals.

For another, 12 of those rabbis are women. And two of those 12 rabbis – Lori Forman-Jacobi and Shelley Kniaz – graduated among the first cohort of women to be ordained by the movement’s flagship seminary, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. That ordination – which changed the face of American Judaism – happened 25 years ago. On the first day of Shavuot this year, Forman-Jacobi will give the d’var Torah in Beth Sholom; all 12 of the rabbis will teach on the second day.

The 12 rabbis hold a range of jobs. Among them, only one now has a pulpit – Cathy Felix – but that is not surprising. In general, rabbis with full-time pulpits do not belong to other shuls unless there is a particularly compelling reason for them to do so. A number of the other women have held pulpits, which they have given up for such reasons as retirement, marriage, motherhood, and the political realities of synagogue life.

A striking number, on the other hand, are teachers. Being a teacher, of course, is as built into the rabbinate as leading pastorally or heading a congregation in prayer. Some teach adults, some children, some in day schools, others in afterschool programs.

Forman-Jacobi and Kniaz, both in their early 50s, each grew up assuming that the rabbinate was out of her reach. Both were drawn to Jewish life and learning, though, and each found herself positioned to take advantage of the door into Jewish leadership as soon as the seminary cracked it open.

Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi grew up in Los Angeles. “I’m a product of Camp Ramah in Ojai,” she said. The Ramah camps are run by the Conservative movement; there are eight sleepaway camps across North America, along with a scattering of day camps. Ojai is in California’s San Fernando Valley.

“My parents weren’t that involved or observant, but when I was 10, my synagogue gave me a partial scholarship to camp, and it changed my life,” she said. “It gave me a community and a Judaism that I would never have known otherwise.”

Ramah tends to have a strong effect on campers. In California, unlike here, most summer camps tend to be only one session, Forman-Jacobi said, so “my parents had sent me to a Girl Scout camp first that same summer, and I cried through the entire thing. They thought they’d never get me on a bus again. I was so homesick at the Girl Scout camp – and then I was so happy at Ramah.”

She ended up going to camp for many summers after that, and reinforced it by studying at a Hebrew high school for several years. At 15, she went to Israel, and “I really fell in love with Hebrew,” she said.

Although she did not – could not – think seriously of becoming a rabbi, “the unusual thing about growing up in L.A. then, in the 1960s and ’70s, was that it was a good eight to 10 years ahead of East Coast synagogues in addressing the question of girls, so I read Torah in 1973 at my bat mitzvah, at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills.

“That was very early.”

Forman-Jacobi graduated from UC Berkeley, studied in Israel, and spent time on a B’nai Akiva kibbutz there. “It was a wonderful window into the modern Orthodox world,” she said. In 1983, she came to New York to explore graduate school; she thought about earning a master’s degree in Jewish education at JTS, or about working toward ordination at the Reconstuctionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, which had begun to train women to be rabbis. Soon after her arrival, walking on the Upper West Side, she ran into a friend, Elana Kanter, who had been her roommate at the kibbutz. “She told me to hold on,” Forman-Jacobi said. “She said that in a month JTS would vote on allowing women. She said ‘you’ve got to come here.'”

The vote was in favor of ordaining women, and Kanter and Forman-Jacobi graduated together. (Kanter is now in the pulpit at the New Shul in Scottsdale, Ariz.)

Since ordination, most of Forman-Jacobi’s work has been in education. She was a rabbi-in-residence at the UJA Federation of New York, where “I was one of two rabbis on staff who created the Jewish backbone and context,” she said. She went on to be the principle of a collaborative Hebrew school on the Upper West Side, to the American Jewish Committee, and then to the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, where she was associate principal.

After a stint at Prozdor, JTS’s afterschool high school, she is now the director of the Jewish Journey Project at the JCC in Manhattan. “It’s a great job,” she said. “It’s a collaborative effort to education elementary school children, but outside of a school. Our three pillars are innovation, flexibility, and collaboration.”

She always wanted to be an educator, she said. “I always loved pedagogy and teaching. I’m in educational administration, which I really love, because I get to implement a big vision, and create with many different partners.”

About 10 years ago, Forman-Jacobi and her family – her husband, Simcha Jacobi, and their son and daughter – moved to Teaneck. She loves Beth Sholom, which, she points out, has always included a large number of JTS faculty among its members. “It’s a dynamic Conservative shul, both egalitarian and observant,” she said. “The Shabbat community is big, there is a community for our children, and there is great intellectual engagement.”

As she looks back over the last quarter century, she sees that much has changed and much has remained as solid as ever. “We really thought that in 25 years the Jewish world would look tremendously different, and in a way it does,” she said. “Women have gained leadership roles. But women still have problems getting those roles.

“And remember what’s going on in Israel,” she said, referring to the difficulties egalitarian Jews, particularly women, face at the Kotel, among other places. “I applaud the Women of the Wall. But be conscious that there is a real movement in Israel to erase women’s image from the public. We want to celebrate where we’ve come to, but we know that there are many women in the world, both Jewish and not, who suffer under oppression.”

Rabbi Shelley Kniaz is from Madison, Wis. Her father was a psychiatrist and her mother, who stayed home when her children were young, went to college and then on to law school once her children were old enough for her to feel comfortable doing so. “We were at school together,” Kniaz said. “It was a pivotal event for me and my siblings, because I learned that you don’t have to stay one thing all your life.”

Her father had been in the Air Force for two years as an officer physician, so the family lived on a base there, where they saw such artifacts as bathrooms still labeled for “whites” and “colored,” although Kniaz thinks that by then they were no longer segregated. Her father had been proudly agnostic but he loved to daven, and the Jewish community there was “a motley crew, with no rabbi and no chaplain, so my dad the agnostic stepped into the breach, got a recording of a Friday night service, the Air Force has a siddur, and we had services, and an oneg afterward.”

When the family returned to Madison, they joined Beth Israel Center, a Conservative shul there. “For me, it was a second home,” Kniaz said. “I loved it there. And of course, any kid who goes to shul is going to get a lot of strokes, so I felt like I had an extended family there.”

She began to tutor, and then to run educational programs, when she still was in high school. Like Forman-Jacobi, she went to a Camp Ramah – in her case, Ramah Wisconsin. She didn’t discover the camp until she was too old for more than one summer, but she loved it.

And she learned. “I learned so much Hebrew, and also to read Torah. At that time my synagogue was not egalitarian, but the camp was. It was where I had my first aliyah. I remember that I was shaking like a leaf, but it wasn’t performance anxiety. It was emotion.”

Kniaz got her undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and like Forman-Jacobi spent much time studying in Israel. She had been enormously influenced by her rabbi, Charles Feinberg, “and I knew that I wanted to do what he did and be like him, but it wasn’t until Sally Priesand spoke in Madison that I realized I really could do it.” (In 1972, Priesand became the first woman ordained a rabbi by the Reform movement.)

From 1982 to 1984, she worked on a master’s degree in Jewish education at the seminary. Once the faculty voted to allow women into the rabbinical program, she knew her next step was clear. She applied and was accepted.

Still, she knew that she always wanted to teach. Ordination was “the right kind of preparation for the kind of teaching I wanted to do,” she said. “Also, it gives you different relationship with families.” And there was yet another reason. At JTS, “I was like a kid in a candy store,” she said.

Kniaz taught at the Society for the Preservation of Judaism in Manhattan and then at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County when it was still at Temple Emanuel, which was then in Englewood. Next, she moved to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, where she was an assistant director in the education department. Now, she is the director of congregational education at Temple Emanuel of Woodcliff Lake. She is married to Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, who teaches at JTS, the mother of a 14-year-old son and four grown stepchildren, and the grandmother of two children. Two years into her life in Teaneck, Forman-Jacobi and her family moved in two doors down the street.

Dr. Anne Lapidus Lerner of Teaneck is neither a rabbi nor a member of Beth Sholom, but she is a scholar who has firsthand memories of the struggles to get women ordained at JTS.

The changes that eventually led to ordination started soon after World War II ended, the servicemen came home, and the push to the suburbs began, Lerner said. “By 1955, most Conservative shuls had mixed seating, and they were beginning to introduce some kind of bat mitzah.” She thinks that the seeds were planted even earlier than that, when women began to be well educated, both Jewishly and in secular subjects; by the time so-called family seating was introduced, “it was the beginning of an unstoppable trajectory,” she said.

In 1972, a group of Jewish women calling itself Ezrat Nashim – the words, literally women’s help, is the name for the women’s section in gender-separated synagogues – came to a Rabbinical Assembly convention to demand that the Conservative rabbis gathered there include women as full synagogue members, count them in minyanim, and allow them to serve as witnesses and to initiate divorces. (Some of those reforms still have not been made.) Eleven years and countless intrigues and machinations later, the vote to permit women to become rabbis was taken and the motion passed.

Lerner has held many positions at JTS, starting in 1969 – she was the first woman to be vice chancellor, dean of List College, associate dean of the graduate school, and a member of the department of Jewish literature. She is now an emerita member of the faculty. She was present when the vote was taken, on Oct. 24, 1983. “It was amazing,” she said.

“It felt as though finally there had been a huge breakthrough. It took your breath away. It felt on the one hand like something that was absolutely right and just, and on the other hand something that hadn’t been done before, but it made perfect sense and was ethically, morally, and even halachically correct.

“So the rest of it was administrative.”

She explained that eight women entered the rabbinical school at the same time, in 1984. The first woman, Amy Eilberg, who had been taking classes in the rabbinical school for years, waiting for the day when she could matriculate there, needed just a year to finish her studies. She was the first woman ordained a Conservative rabbi. The next year, it was Nina Bierber Feinstein’s turn; her situation was similar to Eilberg’s. The year after that, 1988, saw the graduation of six of first group to enter. That group included Kniaz and Forman-Jacobi.

Rabbi Cathy Felix is the one of only two of the women rabbis at Beth Sholom who has a pulpit now. Rabbi Sharon Litwin, who directs the Northern New Jersey Jewish Academy, also is associate rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood. Felix is in her ninth year at the helm of the Jewish Center of Sussex County in Newton, only a few miles from an earlier pulpit in Lake Hopatcong. She is also the only rabbi there to have been ordained at HUC; that was 33 years ago.

Felix grew up in Chicago; her family belonged to a synagogue so classically Reform that its one-hour Sabbath services were held on Sunday mornings. (The Jewish Center is unaffiliated and tends toward the Conservative, as did the one in Lake Hopatcong.)

“I was always interested in God and Judaism,” she said. She earned her undergraduate degree at Yale – another institution newly open to women – and although when she was a child she had never thought it possible, in the post-Sally Preisand era, nothing was off limits to her. “I felt that if I were going to go into the Jewish world, I would be a rabbi,” she said. One of her motivations was to work in Jewish education – “I spent one year of Hebrew school in the bathroom with my friend who smoked,” she said. “I didn’t even smoke! But I thought that it would be better even to be in the bathroom with a friend who smoked than to be in those boring classrooms.

“I also thought that there had to be a better way.”

Felix graduated from HUC in 1980, and first worked as the women’s chaplain at Brown University. (That odd-sounding job description was an attempt to diversify the formerly all-male chaplaincy department.) “It was interesting, those first couple of years,” she said. “People had never heard of women rabbis, but you could see them putting the concept of women and the concept of rabbis together in their heads. And then in three or four years it was already like, yeah, I know, my cousin in Houston has a friend somewhere else and they have a woman rabbi, so yeah, I know.

“It was a fascinating process,” she said.

Felix is married to Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, who is the associate executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly, and they have three grown sons. They have lived in Teaneck and belonged to Beth Sholom for 22 years; this makes her the longest-tenured woman rabbi there.

Rabbi Julia Andelman, on the other hand, at 37 is one of the youngest and newest of the local rabbis.

“Growing up, I didn’t really think about being rabbi,” she said. “I had no rabbinical role models.” She grew up in suburban Boston and got her undergraduate degree at Harvard. “I really wanted to keep learning after college,” she said. She went to the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem; it is a school, run by United Synagogue, that operates on the principle of Torah lishmah – Torah learning for its own sake, for the sheer joy of it. “I didn’t have an image of myself as a rabbi until I got there and met all these amazing women,” she said.

After she was ordained, Andelman took over the pulpit at Shaarei Tzedek, a venerable Upper West Side shul. For her, the roles that a rabbi can play are entwined; she had always wanted to teach but leading davening is key for her, and she is recognized for her skill and the musicianship she brings to it.

“I see being ba’alaah tefillah as seamless with being a rabbi,” she said. “The job of both is to engage people religiously, to give them a sense that when you come to shul anything is possible. You can be moved by the sermon, and by the music.

“Leading tefillah is an exercise in musical interpretation of the text,” she said. “It should be the same each time you go. It should be something different on different days.”

Andelman is married to Dr. Eitan Fishbane, who teaches at JTS, and the mother of two children, one of them still a baby. She loves Beth Sholom. “It’s great,” she said. “There are so many skilled, knowledgeable people there. It’s almost as if they have more human resources than they know what to do with.

“It’s a good problem.”

Rabbi Iscah Waldman is 42 and from Philadelphia; she graduated from JTS in 1999. Her father is a rabbi who had a pulpit and then taught at Gratz College. Waldman did not know that she wanted to be a rabbi at first; instead, “I did a master’s in midrash, and I was going to get a PhD at the seminary,” she said. “T hen I sort of had a moment when I realized that I wanted to be a little more well-rounded.

“I realized that I wanted to be rabbi because it allows you to teach anything. I wanted to be more of a Jewish renaissance person. But I always stayed out of pulpit life.

“I’m teaching. I’m doing exactly what I had planned.”

Waldman works at the Solomon Schechter High School of Long Island, where she teaches rabbinic texts. She and her husband, Matthew Agin, have lived in Teaneck since three weeks before their older child, who is now almost 5, was born. They also have a 2-year-old.

“We moved to Teaneck specifically for the shul,” she said. “The reason there are so many rabbis is because they all moved there for the shul.

“It is a vibrant Jewish community. It’s a warm community. It’s convenient. And it’s egalitarian. That is non-negotiable for me.”

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