Jewish Journal

First Woman Heads Reform Conference

by Abby Cohn

Posted on Apr. 3, 2003 at 7:00 pm

Rabbi Janet Marder has a surprising confession for someone who is making history as the first woman president of the Reform movement's 1,800-member Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).

She's seriously shy.

"I had years of stage fright before I had to stand up in a crowd," said Marder, senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, near San Jose. "I still get pretty nervous."

The 48-year-old Marder was able to shake off her jitters March 29, when she was installed before hundreds of her colleagues at a Washington, D.C., ceremony. Elected by her peers, she is taking over the helm of the world's largest group of Jewish clergy from a Bay Area colleague, Rabbi Martin Weiner of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel.

"It's exciting, it's daunting," Marder said with characteristic modesty. "It's a wonderful kind of recognition."

Marder, a soft-spoken California native, is well aware of the historic nature of her appointment, describing it as a milestone for women in general.

"I really see this as a tribute to all of us, and it makes a statement about what kind of a movement we are," she said.

Weiner, in a speech at the ceremony, called her installation "incredibly significant in one sense but really incidental to her achievements as a truly outstanding rabbi."

Rabbi Lewis M. Barth, dean at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, said he thought Marder, a former student, would excel in her new position.

"She was and remains one of the most brilliant students we've ever had," he said. "She is an extraordinarily gifted rabbi, thinker and speaker."

Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills said Marder helped make the Reform movement more open to gay men and women because of her work at Bet Cheaim Chadashim, a Southland synagogue catering to homosexuals. In her new role, Geller said she expects Marder to focus on the "internal, spiritual lives of rabbis."

Marder comes to her new post with an ambitious agenda. It includes working to strengthen progressive Judaism in Israel; transforming worship services at Reform synagogues with more music, Hebrew and celebration, and responding to any gender inequities in the salaries of female clergy and Jewish professionals.

In an interview last month, she said she intends to call upon this country's 1.5 million Reform Jews to join ARZA/World Union, the movement's Israel advocacy organization. Saying she wants to ensure that Israel remains an open and democratic state, she added: "I think our movement has a critical role to play."

As for gender issues, Marder said she is awaiting results of a salary survey the CCAR plans to conduct next year. "I have the sense that there may be some differences" between salaries of men and women in the movement, she said. In addition, "some congregations still don't offer parental leave."

While cognizant that Marder's post with a New York-based organization will mean less time with the 1,270 families at Beth Am, congregants expressed both support and pride for their rabbi of almost four years.

Congregants credit Marder with making dramatic changes at their synagogue, including writing new prayer books, introducing more music and adding a 6:15 p.m. Friday service.

"The Friday night service is incredibly joyful," said President Jim Heeger, estimating that 300 to 400 people attend. "Maybe we'd get 100 before."

At the same time, congregants say their rabbi has a gentle and personal touch, particularly with those suffering a family emergency or other crisis.

Beth Am Vice President Susan Wolfe remains amazed at the hospital visit Marder paid to her after Wolfe underwent emergency open-heart surgery on Oct. 9, 2000. The date was important, because it fell on Yom Kippur, and Marder raced up to the hospital in Redwood City between services on one of the busiest days of her year.

"She really cares for individuals and makes those superhuman efforts not just for me, but for everybody," Wolfe said.

Congregants also gave Marder high marks for a weekly Torah study class that regularly packs in 60 to 70 participants. "The class keeps getting bigger and bigger," Caryn Huberman, a Palo Alto children's writer, said. "It has become the center of my week."

Despite Beth Am's size, Marder has worked to make her congregation an intimate place, where members reach out to one another in times of joy and need. One example is a professional network in which congregants act as "connectors" to unemployed members. Marder estimates that up to 10 percent of her congregants are out of work.

 She has worked to make Saturday services at Beth Am a community event, rather than a private affair reserved for families celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah.

While she is away on CCAR business, Marder said her congregation, one of the largest in the Bay Area, will be in good hands with "a terrific team" that includes three other rabbis, along with a cantor, music specialist, educators and administrators.

"There's a lot of travel involved," said Marder, who has two teenage daughters and is married to Rabbi Sheldon Marder of the Jewish Home in San Francisco.

"I certainly intend to be with the congregation every Shabbat," she said. "I've made clear to CCAR leadership that my first priority remains with Beth Am."

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