When Rabbi Johanna Hershenson set off from Orange County for Alaska's sweeping vistas and majestic peaks, she was eager for a new congregational experience and professional challenges.
She discovered that most Alaskan Jews are exiles by choice who sought the wilderness of the nation's largest state rather than institutional life.
Apart from the 175 member families she served at Anchorage's Congregation Beth Sholom, Hershenson found little other Jewish life. As the only non-Orthodox rabbi in Alaska, she became a long-distance consultant to lay synagogue leaders in even more isolated areas, such as Homer and Fairbanks. A local Chabad rabbi and his wife were welcome colleagues, she said.
"It became clear there wasn't a lot of room for me to grow professionally," said Hershenson, who left Alaska after three years and spent the last 12 months in Madison, Wis., for a self-imposed sabbatical. She considered pursuing a doctorate by researching the juncture of spirituality and psychology but ended up filling in for vacationing colleagues.
On July 1, Hershenson, 35, along with her family, will return to Aliso Viejo's Temple Beth El, where she will serve as the assistant rabbi to Allen Krause for a second time. Then, like now, the senior rabbi is departing for a sabbatical, although this time Hershenson will not be on her own but helped by a temporary replacement rabbi.
"Jewish life is thriving there," Hershenson said, pointing out the congregation's growth since 1998, the start of her first Beth El stint, from 425 families to 700. "It's demography that changes; it's not that the synagogue has magic pills."
Another female rabbi will also start work locally in July. Westminster's Temple Beth David is Rabbi Nancy Myers' first solo pulpit. She previously served for six years as associate rabbi of the 900-family Temple Chai of Long Grove, Ill. With a two-year contract at the smaller, 350-family Beth David congregation, Myers is the permanent replacement for Robert Klensin, who served a year as interim rabbi.
The opening arose because of the unexpected resignation of Beth David's 13-year spiritual leader, Michael Mayershon, who stepped down in spring of 2002 (see story, page 9).
Myers, 34, impressed the Beth David search committee, which observed during a daylong trial as each finalist taught an adult education class, led a tot Shabbat service and offered pastoral counseling advice to a congregant struggling with teenagers, said Mark Sklan, the congregation's past president.
"She was magnificent," he said.
Myers, along with her husband, Paul Prunty, and two toddlers, relocated last month to Cypress.