Being the first isn’t a new experience for Rabbi Janet Ross Marder, the newly elected president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. Twenty years ago, just four years after being ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, she became the first rabbi to lead Los Angeles’ predominantly gay and lesbian congregation, Beth Chayim Chadashim. While there, she established a federation-funded AIDS education program for the Jewish community.
In 1988 she joined the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations as a regional director for synagogues from California to Texas. And in 1999, she became senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif. Now she becomes the first woman to serve as president for the CCAR, which has about 1,800 members. Three of the CCAR’s top six officers are now women.
Rabbi Marder is married to a colleague, Rabbi Sheldon Marder, who provides spiritual leadership for the Jewish Home in San Francisco, and together they are raising two teenage daughters.
The Jewish Week: What are your goals for the CCAR during your tenure?
Rabbi Marder: I’d like to initiate a conversation about the personal religious life of the rabbi. It’s easy for us to get engulfed in administrative responsibilities and to neglect our inner life. But I believe that everything we do in public depends on the spiritual resources we cultivate through private prayer, study, reflection and solitude.
I’d also like to mobilize our movement to provide proper support to Progressive Judaism in Israel. Our movement is poised for success in Israel now. We have a network of congregations, schools and kibbutzim throughout the country. In a recent survey, 34 percent of Israeli Jews said that the Progressive movement is the Jewish movement they most identify with. Clearly, Israelis are hungry for what the Progressive movement has to offer: a Judaism that is rooted in tradition but is open to modernity, egalitarian, inclusive, non-coercive and committed to the prophetic ideal of social justice.
Most important, we have 37 Israeli students now studying for the rabbinate at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem. Their leadership could transform the face of Israel, a country where too many Jews have turned away from religion, finding it dominated by a narrow and fanatical Orthodoxy. Since Orthodox institutions still receive nearly all Israeli government funding, it’s up to North American Reform Jews to help subsidize positions for these newly ordained rabbis.
What do you think is the most pressing issue facing the Reform rabbinate today?
It’s the same one shared by all rabbis today: the challenge of strengthening religious commitment among American Jews. We live in an open society offering a vast panorama of choices, and we will win the allegiance of the next generation only by showing them that Jewish learning and Jewish practice can add depth, meaning and significance to their lives.
What is the Reform movement’s greatest strength?
Our openness to diversity, our welcoming and inclusive approach, and our willingness to address the intellectual and spiritual challenges posed by modernity.
What is the Reform movement’s biggest challenge?
To lift the level of Jewish learning among our members, and to overcome the impression that Reform Judaism is a minimalist religion which asks nothing of its adherents.
What do you love most about being a Reform rabbi?
It allows me to bring together my passions: for learning and teaching, for Hebrew language and literature, for worship, music and liturgy. Most of all, it allows me to bring the power of Jewish tradition into the lives of our members, to help them discover the incredible gift of Shabbat and the richness of being in community.
What do you love least?
Our members are still too rabbi-centered. I’d like to see more Reform Jews take ownership of primary Jewish acts (prayer, study and deeds of loving concern) rather than expect their rabbi to do those acts for them. And I’d love to overcome the privatization of bar/bat mitzvah. Too many services on Shabbat morning are perceived as private affairs designed for the invited guests of the bar/bat mitzvah family.
How does it feel to be making history?
Our movement has embraced the ideal of women’s equality since its inception in the early 19th century. It feels good to see that ideal gradually being realized in our own day.
How would you describe the position of women in the Reform rabbinate?
About half the students currently studying for the rabbinate at HUC-JIR are now female, and hundreds of women rabbis are now working in the field. By and large we’ve been extremely well accepted. Some congregations are still resistant to the idea of maternity leave, feeling that it places a financial burden on the congregation.
Do female Reform rabbis face a stained-glass ceiling and if so, what do you think will change that?
Up until a few years ago there were no women who served as senior rabbis of large congregations. Now there are a few, and I expect that we’ll see more. Once congregations realize that women can function successfully in those roles, they’ll be less reluctant to engage one. The numbers will also increase as women are in the field longer and attain the seniority needed to serve in these positions. Finally, more women will begin to apply for these positions as they see other women role models and as they reach a time in their lives when they’re ready to do this highly demanding work. I didn’t feel ready to work at a place like Beth Am until my children were in their teens.
How do you hope to make a difference for female Reform rabbis?
While I’m in office I’ll certainly be working to ensure that there is gender equality in the way that rabbis in our movement are treated and compensated. Probably the most important thing I can do is simply to show that a woman can lead our movement effectively.