Shared Vision

New women rabbis are working to increase participation in their Conservative congregations

By Jim Merritt
Jim Merritt is a freelance writer.

November 1, 2003

The Saturday night service at Congregation B'nai Israel in Freeport was a bit out of the ordinary, befitting the annual celebration of Simchat Torah.

A few minutes earlier, Rabbi Cara Weinstein Rosenthal led about 30 members of the congregation in some Jewish rap- singing - in the parking lot next to the Sukkot tent. Then, they all returned inside to chant and parade around with the Torah scrolls.

Now was Rosenthal's opportunity to stand at the pulpit and give a little child-friendly, electronics-age spin explaining why Jews celebrate this festival marking the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings and the beginning of another cycle.

"I don't know if you know that at the end of the Torah, it says, 'Please be kind, rewind,'" Rosenthal said.

It's the kind of clever touch the congregation now expects from Rosenthal, 28, who became the new rabbi in August, a few months after ordination by the Jewish Theological Seminary's Rabbinical School, Manhattan.

"Rabbi Rosenthal's services are very uplifting and spiritual," said Florence Helfand of Merrick, president of the congregation, at a cake and candy- apple reception following the service.

Rosenthal is one of four women who became Conservative rabbis on Long Island during August. The others are Rhonda Nebel at Temple Beth Chai in Hauppauge, Leslie Schotz at the Jewish Centre of Bay Shore and Jan Uhrbach at the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons in Sag Harbor. Of 55 rabbis at Conservative synagogues in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, five are women, said Bruce Greenfield, executive director of the New York metropolitan region of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. (In Queens, about 15 rabbis, all men, serve Conservative congregations.)

"My main goal and my main interest as a rabbi is outreach," said Rosenthal, who is beginning her tenure at the 160- family congregation at a time when Conservative Judaism - once the largest segment of U.S. Judaism - is losing ground. The recently reported National Jewish Population Survey found a 10 percentage point plunge from 1990 to 2000 in affiliated U.S. Jewish households belonging to Conservative synagogues, down to 33 percent.

"I want to reach Conservative Jews who are involved in Judaism to different extents, and I want to bring them closer into the religion," Rosenthal said. "I'd like to encourage Conservative Jews to be more active and observant."

Women leading Conservative congregations may be a relatively new trend but a positive one for Long Island's Jews, said Bonnie Steinberg, a Reform rabbi at the Jewish Home and Hospital Life Care System-Bronx Division. "I think there are just more women doing the job, and it's more accepted."

Steinberg, of New Hyde Park, said she believes she was the first woman to lead a Jewish congregation on Long Island when she headed the Hillel chapter at Hofstra University in Hempstead beginning in 1979. That was the year she graduated from the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan, in the first class with a significant number of women at the Reform rabbinical school, Steinberg said.

"Women can provide a unique perspective on Scripture and on life," said Phyllis Zagano, author of "Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church," and special associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at Hofstra. "The sticking point about women's ordination has historically been ... that women were thought not to be able to be in authority over men, so that little piece of the rabbi's job to me is a very critical piece that has been overcome by these congregations."

Whether they are newly ordained or seasoned veterans, these spiritual leaders are meeting the challenges of being the "woman rabbi" with some good-natured humor - where appropriate. Nebel, 44, was among the first class of women accepted in 1984 at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Ordained in 1990, she previously was affiliated with synagogues in Massachusetts and Connecticut. "I keep saying that I'm a rabbi that happens to wear a dress," she said.

At her first Rosh Hashanah service in Hauppauge, Nebel told the congregation: "All God requires of us is that you be a mensch, forgive each other, believe in God and be a person - that's all you really need for the year."

Nebel said she would take steps to expand the membership, which currently ranges between 120 and 150 families. "Seventy percent of the Jews in this area are unaffiliated; it's my aim to find them, and let them come in and give it a little try."

Schotz, 42, also would like to see more activity in her congregation, which is currently at about 75 families. The Jewish Centre of Bay Shore is one of the area's oldest synagogues; it was founded from a burial society in the late 1800s. "Maybe we need to offer things that people want," she said, "such as Jewish yoga and Jewish meditation, although also sticking with traditional things such as the minyan that meets Monday and Thursday, the Torah reading."

Schotz's congregation, which is so close to Fire Island that it advertises "the last minyan before the ferry," already has women as cantor and congregation president. And Schotz, ordained in May 2002 after completing studies at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Manhattan, has longtime community roots. She was born at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip, not far from the synagogue.

"There are people in the congregation who also grew up in this area, so I end up hearing stories about my grandparents, Julius and Mary Adasse, who had a dairy farm in Central Islip," Schotz said.

This is a special time to be leading a Jewish congregation on Long Island, she said. "We're making some sort of history, having for the first time ordained female rabbis in Suffolk County."

Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.

Rabbi Leslie 
Rabbi Leslie Schotz (Newsday Photo / Michael E. Ach)

Rabbi Rhonda 
Rabbi Rhonda Nebel (Newsday Photo / Michael E. Ach)

Rabbi Cara 
Weinstein Rosenthal
Rabbi Cara Weinstein Rosenthal (Newsday Photo / Michael E. Ach)