From its founding in 1881 by six rabbis, back in a time when only men could enjoy that title, the New York Board of Rabbis has never had a woman president. Until now. Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman, also the first female rabbi to serve at Congregation Emanu-El and the first female spiritual leader of the Reform Union Temple in Brooklyn, where she now serves, will officially become the 61st president of the board on March 14. The board, which is known for its work on chaplaincy and interfaith dialogue, has 700 members that are Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist in addition to Reform. But only about 70 are women. Goodman aims to change that.
Q: What is significant about a female president of the New York Board of Rabbis?
A: On a certain level, it isn’t radically different. But women’s voices have been silenced in a number of ways for a long time, so for us just to raise our voices and join the conversation is significant. It’s been done, but not quite in this capacity … This is a pluralistic organization. If women aren’t there in the top levels of leadership, then maybe it really isn’t as pluralistic as it needs to be or aspires to be.
Was there any resistance to the idea of a female president?
Not to my knowledge; not at all. I’ve been treated with great respect. Everybody seems very happy that this is happening.
Then why did it take so long?
Conventions die hard. People may be philosophically in agreement with a concept, but putting into practice in reality is a lot harder. This group does include all streams of the Jewish community, and I think maybe there was some hesitation … I have experienced nothing but courtesy and respect and collegiality and friendship from the people on the board but you know the reality is, when we went on a mission to Israel in 2008 I was the only woman … there have been other situations in which there’s been a group of us, and there haven’t been women’s voices in the room.
Will you try to recruit more female members?
Yes … I think [younger female rabbis] just don’t know a lot about the board. Several of my colleagues had asked me, ‘What does the New York Board of Rabbis do?’ … For newer rabbis coming out, and for some who’ve been out for some time, especially some women, it hasn’t been on the forefront of their consciousness, and maybe that’s some of the work we need to do.
What are the issues you will focus on as president?
I would say there is a need for the Board to study issues of gender discrimination, salary and benefits discrepancies, and discrepancies in employment opportunities. In addition, there is the whole gamut of issues regarding women’s health that we really ought to be addressing more extensively … I’ve been very involved in issues of social justice and women’s equality and women’s rights in particular. I think I’m going to have to learn to navigate my own way in terms of what belongs in the Board … I’ve been active in the ongoing fight for reproductive choice and reproductive rights. I fought hard last year for marriage equality for New York State.
You’ve been on the Board since 1991. How has it changed over the years?
Certainly this upcoming installation represents a pretty visible change. But I think it’s also important for me to say that in a very fundamental way, the Board has not changed. Specifically, that is in its ability to manage a membership that represents very disparate views and approaches to Judaism, politics and the rabbinate itself, all the while maintaining an atmosphere of mutual respect and friendship among its members. While it’s clear that there are areas of substantial disagreement between us, we all seem to feel that we need each other as Jews and appreciate each other for that which binds us together. That is our commitment to Klal Yisrael, and also to New York itself.