Claire Heymann, an Auschwitz survivor who grew up in a strictly Orthodox home in Germany, had a bit of trouble adjusting to the idea of an egalitarian synagogue.
But a female rabbi? Don’t ask.
About five years ago, when northeastern Queens shul memberships began to dwindle and local purse strings tightened, Heymann’s traditional “Conservadox” synagogue, the Israel Center of Hillcrest Manor, made the decision to merge with two other local congregations — the Electchester Jewish Center and the Conservative Synagogue of Jamaica Estates. Together, they formed the fully egalitarian Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Flushing Meadows, which now has a total of approximately 265 families.
In making the decision to merge, “We had to make a choice, [so] that we shouldn’t sell the synagogue
to a Korean church,” said Heymann, 85.
After the merger came the big change. Last summer, the Israel Center hired a female rabbi — the first female rabbi at any Conservative synagogue in Queens.
Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, who will be officially installed by the temple board on Sunday, has changed the minds and won the hearts of many aging synagogue members who, like Heymann, say they were skeptical of having a woman as their leader.
“When [the synagogue] went egalitarian, I had a tough time. When I heard that we were going to get a woman rabbi, that bothered me,” Heymann said, noting that 27 members were vehemently against hiring Rabbi Bodzin because of her relatively young age, 35, and gender. “All I can tell you [is that] I love her now,” Heymann said. “I have a very good connection with her.”
Rabbi Bodzin takes over at the Israel Center synagogue as several trends, both within Conservative Judaism and within the Queens Jewish community, collide. Nationally, the entire Conservative movement, once the dominant American Jewish religious stream, is shrinking, losing members and synagogues. At the same time, the move toward egalitarianism has created splits in more tradition-bound Conservative shuls. Add to that the demographics of northeast Queens, which lost roughly half of its Jews between 1991, when some 53,000 Jews lived there, and 2002, when that figure fell to 28,000, according to the “Jewish Community Study of 2002,” a census carried out by UJA-Federation of New York. And while the Jewish population in central Queens has remained more stable, due to a vibrant Bukharian population and many Orthodox Jews, it has lost Conservative and Reform Jews.
With the changes has come a flurry of Conservative synagogue mergers.
According to the Queens Jewish Historical Society, a year before the Israel Center merger, the Flushing Jewish Center merged with the Fresh Meadows Jewish Center, selling the Flushing building to a Korean church. And the following year, the Jewish Center of Bayside Oaks merged with the Jewish Center of Bayside Hills.
There has even been talk of two big synagogues in Forest Hills, the Conservative Forest Hills Jewish Center, and the Reform Temple of Forest Hills (itself the product of a 1994 merger), sharing space and support staff.
As Rabbi Bodzin tries to respond to her elderly congregants while aiming to grow the synagogue and revive its youth, her situation is something of a microcosm of what is taking place in northeast Queens.
Some scholars are excited that full egalitarian Conservative Judaism and female spiritual leadership have finally come to northeast Queens, formerly a bulwark of more traditional Conservative shuls.
“I was totally shocked,” said Rabbi Judith Hauptman, a professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “This is an incredibly positive development — the future of Conservative Judaism lies in egalitarianism. Any [Conservative] synagogue that refuses to be egalitarian is separating itself from the core values of Conservative Judaism.”
“Thirty years ago,” said Rabbi Hauptman, “even if they had merged with another synagogue, I don’t think they would have been open to such change. Our society has become an egalitarian society,” she said, adding LGBT inclusion as another important issue in the Conservative community.
Rabbi Bodzin grew up in Toronto and prior to her appointment at the Israel Center, she was an adjunct rabbi at Chicago’s 1,300-member Anshe Emet Synagogue as well as rabbi-in-residence at the Chicagoland Jewish High School. She was ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles in May 2005 and has since graduated from the Keshet Training Institute/Hineini Education Project, where Jewish leaders learn to ensure safe spaces for LGBT community members. Although gay-friendly, she is herself heterosexual and married.
Previously, Rabbi Bodzin received a master’s degree in social work and a certificate in Jewish communal service from Yeshiva University.
“I firmly move in a world where I can live with tradition and change,” Rabbi Bodzin told The Jewish Week. “I’m very traditional — I live a life according to halacha, but halacha as understood according to the principles of Conservative Judaism.”
For Heymann, Rabbi Bodzin has become a breath of fresh air and an invaluable source of support — particularly after the longtime member’s husband of over 60 years died three months ago.
“It took me a few weeks until I met her in person,” Heymann said. “She took me out for lunch, and I was very honest with her.”
Since then, Heymann said she has grown to appreciate the long hours that Rabbi Bodzin spends in the synagogue and the special attention she gives to her congregants, both through public sermons and personal visits.
Heymann has even adjusted to the large choir that now accompanies most services, one that wasn’t there at the Hillcrest Manor shul.
But Heymann’s early skepticism matched the initial feelings of many aging congregants, who say they had difficulties adjusting both to egalitarian services and female leadership.
“We have largely elderly congregants, and there was some concern,” said Sam Weiss, a temple board member. “They expressed some concern themselves about whether they would feel comfortable. But in fact everything has gone smoothly.”
Gussie Wertheimer, 85, a member of the shul for 50 years, says she initially saw the new rabbi as more of a granddaughter than a spiritual leader.
“I was 100 percent against it. I’m a traditional person. If I mention the word rabbi, I immediately think it’s a man,” Wertheimer said. “Somehow I just couldn’t picture myself relating to her and hearing her as a rabbi at the pulpit.”
But she changed her mind abruptly when she returned to Queens from Florida this summer and learned about the scandal involving Orthodox rabbis in the Syrian community in Brooklyn and New Jersey.
“I was thinking to myself, here I’m against a woman rabbi, and there are these very Orthodox rabbis who would not even shake my hand or come near me,” Wertheimer said. “When I went to the election, instead of ‘no’ I wrote ‘yes.’”
Other congregants were much more supportive of Rabbi Bodzin’s appointment from the get-go.
“I was very much in favor of it,” said congregation President Marilyn Kaufman. “I’m not a bra-burning feminist, but by the same token I believe that women should have absolutely the same rights in everything that a man does. In other words, who does the best job?”
Among the other candidates for the Israel Center post were several women, as well as men, including a gay male convert. But Rabbi Bodzin seemed the best fit for the congregation.
“We’re at the point right now where there are women in their 80s and 90s who take aliyot,” the rabbi said, excited to be a part of such change, where women are called to the Torah.
In addition to enhancing adult learning with new classes and curricula, Rabbi Bodzin began collaborating with Rabbi Manes Kogan at the Hillcrest Jewish Center to create a joint Hebrew school and revive the community’s youth programs. For post-bar and bat mitzvah aged teens, Rabbi Bodzin leads a program called “J. High Teq,” in conjunction with Hillcrest Jewish Center as well as Hollis Hills Jewish Center, according to Kaufman.
“Because of where we are in Queens, we have a lot of fantastic engaged congregants in our synagogues, but there are not young families right now,” Rabbi Bodzin said. “We’re hoping they’ll move in soon when the word gets out that Queens has young, energetic rabbis.”
Her most skeptical congregants, like Heymann and Wertheimer, are now some of Rabbi Bodzin’s biggest fans, and they believe in her ability to reignite the congregation.
“I think she’s wonderful,” Wertheimer said. “She’s very, very outgoing, and she reaches out to the community. She tries really hard to get young people back.”
The rest of the series: Astoria, Long Island City, Sunnyside drawing young Jews, and a look at Queensborough Community College’s new Holocaust center.