This has been a poignant month for Rabbi Carole Meyers. When The Journal visited her study in late May, she had just filed her last column for the temple newsletter. The next week was also her last family service. It's been more than a month of lasts, leading up to her last Shabbat service.
On June 30, 44-year-old Meyers will give up a job she loves -- rabbi of Temple Sinai in Glendale -- to devote the bulk of her time to another job she loves, being mom to her two sons: Joe, 8, and Gus, 3.
"I came to understand that for me, congregational life, which I love and have cherished for these 18 years, is incompatible with raising children and having a reasonable home life," Meyers said. "I've fought to balance as best as I could all these years, and it's too much of a fight."
It's been 15 years since Meyers, then 29 and single, came to Temple Sinai; 15 years of what she calls "a wonderful adventure."
After her 1983 ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, she spent three years as assistant rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Houston. Next came the Sinai job, when she became the first female rabbi to head a congregation full time in Southern California.
Meyers met her husband, Ralph Zarefsky, then a lawyer, now a federal magistrate judge, at the temple. Not long after she started at Sinai, Zarefsky, who lived near the synagogue, saw an article about Meyers, illustrated by a photo, in the Los Angeles Times. Intrigued that she had served a congregation in his hometown of Houston, he decided to check out the new rabbi in town. "I don't think he knew before reading that article that there was a synagogue in Glendale," Meyers said.
Meyers entered rabbinical school at age 21 in 1978, when you didn't need all your fingers to count the number of women in the American rabbinate. But having grown up in a completely egalitarian Reform shul outside Washington, D.C., she didn't know she had chosen an unusual career. "I was entirely naive about the status of women in Jewish life and had been absolutely protected from the realities of our history and the patriarchal nature of our tradition," she said.
She "lived and breathed" Jewish communal life from childhood, she said, and became interested in the rabbinate after her father died when she was 13 and her stepfather died when she was 19.
"What really convinced me that I wanted to enter the rabbinate was the combination of community support and the precious nature of the rituals involved in grieving, which saved my life," she said. "And I knew at a very young age that I could do that with people and for other people, and help them through."
Accordingly, she said, "That's been a big part of my rabbinate: reinvigorating the observance of shiva, teaching the critical importance of attendance at shiva minyans, helping people understand that they are mourners for close to a year, and urging people to take advantage of that time to do the grief work that they need to do in order to come fully back to life."
With duties including but not limited to officiation at and preparation for services and life cycle events; pastoral visits, counseling and teaching, being the sole rabbi of a thriving congregation can require 80 hours a week or more.
"I need to regenerate," Meyers said. "I'm going to read and, hopefully, have the energy to write some. I'm gonna be with my kids and work on my house and learn to cook, and then I'm going to start looking around and see what smaller kinds of rabbinic work with clearer boundaries I can do and still feel like I'm really present as part of my family."
She was quick to say that other rabbis are able to balance motherhood and a pulpit -- and she's not sure her decision would be different if she were a dad instead of a mom.
"With my particular personality, I might be doing this if I were a man," she said. "I think the question of how families will work and who will raise the children is one of the most important on the horizon that our society, for all its chitchatting about it, is not taking seriously." She's been raising such questions for years in her volunteer work with the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement's rabbinic organization.
Meyers leaves a temple that has almost doubled its membership in 15 years, from 160 to about 300 member households. "The synagogue has grown as Glendale has grown, as I've grown," she said, adding that Sinai "has become more well-educated, livelier, very diverse." The entertainment industry, she said, has brought many young Jewish families to Glendale and neighboring communities.
She's especially pleased that Temple Sinai is "a profoundly welcoming place for interfaith families," almost all of which have committed themselves to Jewish identity and child-rearing.
The congregation has had a terrific response simply by putting the line "Interfaith families welcome" in the ads it places in the local press.
"We've had tons of conversions," Meyers said. "I think that outreach work has really benefited the synagogue." She said she's proud also that during her tenure, she's been able to make meaningful for adults festivals such as Purim and Tu B'Shevat, which many temples have made exclusively child-centered.
It doesn't sound as if her decision to leave congregational life is permanent. "It's a wonderful way of life, and it's possible to accomplish so much; I suspect that I'll come back to it eventually," Meyers said. "But I think one has to adjust oneself to different stages of the journey, and that's what this is for me."
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