Last August, Leslie Alexander became the first female rabbi in the United States to be appointed to a pulpit position at a major Conservative synagogue.
The 31-year-old is the new assistant rabbi at Adat Ari El synagogue in North Hollywood. Her position with the 1,000-family, 48-year-old congregation is considered by many in the Conservative branch of Judaism to be a major historic milestone.
Said Moshe Rothblum, senior rabbi at Adat Ari El, "Other women rabbis have served in smaller Conservative congregations. Rabbi Alexander was the first to be in a major Conservative synagogue as a rabbi, as opposed to being an education director or in some other role."
There are about 130 women rabbis in the United States, but except for a handful, most are associated with the Reform branch or with Reconstructionism, an outgrowth of Conservative Judaism. Of the three major branches, Conservative Judaism is between the Reform and Orthodox in terms of strictness in adhering to traditional Jewish law and custom.
Position Is Unique
Alexander is aware of how unique her position is. For her, it is the end of a historical barrier to women as well as a personal triumph to become the rabbi she has wanted to be since the age of 17.
She knows about barriers. Alexander was ordained a Reform rabbi from the Hebrew Union College in New York in 1983, although she was raised as a Conservative Jew and wanted to be ordained a Conservative rabbi. It was not until 1985, however, that the Conservative branch began to ordain women.
As an undergraduate at UCLA majoring in history, Alexander concurrently enrolled at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and continued on into the Conservative institution's graduate program.
"It was the equivalent of their Rabbinic program," said Alexander. "In 1980, when the Conservative movement tabled the issue of women's ordination, didn't say yes or not, but just voted not to decide, I had to make a decision. I wanted to be a rabbi. It wasn't going to be appropriate for me to do something else. So I went to Hebrew Union College," a Reform organization.
Her family is proud of her. After all, she comes from five or six generations of rabbis, she said. Her father is Theodore Alexander, rabbi of Congregation B'nai Emunah, a Conservative synagogue in San Francisco.
"When I told my parents I wanted to be a rabbi, they were extremely supportive and very realistic. They told me exactly what they thought I should expect if I was going to make a choice like this. They said, go for it, but expect that if you're going to pioneer, there are going to be some roadblocks and disappointments ahead."
Her first roadblock was not being able to become a Conservative rabbi. But, said Alexander, she had faced challenges to her personal and professional commitment to Judaism before.
She grew up in Walnut Creek, southeast of San Francisco, where Jewish observance was a rich part of her family life.
"For the most part, I experienced living in a home where being Jewish was not just something that punctuated the seasons of the year, but permeated our everyday lives. I was aware constantly that I was Jewish. I said blessings in my home and we kept kosher."
But as one of only a few Jewish students in her high school, she stood out and felt different, said Alexander. "This became clear to me in a positive, rather than a negative way. Instead of being intimidated by my difference, I became very proud of my Jewishness."
She was proud of it, even when her faith was openly challenged. "This was during 1973 when there was a big campaign for conversion to Christianity. I was their goal at school. People would be outside every single one of my classes with Bibles to try to convert me. It intimidated some of my teachers to the point where I could no longer respect them. I learned a lot from that. It wasn't the kind of thing where somebody is threatening your life, they're just threatening your freedom."
It was around this time that Alexander decided to become a rabbi, she said. "I was very involved in a youth group for the Conservative movement. The more I got involved in Judaism and Jewish life, the more I felt that I would like to make a contribution to my people. I wanted to be able to teach and counsel, because I was interested in psychology, and to public speak, because I really enjoyed that--it spelled rabbi."
Worked in San Diego
Alexander's first major position after rabbinical school was as director of adult activities and community education at the Jewish Community Centers in San Diego. She met her husband, Dr. Kenneth Atchison, in San Diego also. He still works in private industry there as an organic chemist and commutes home to North Hollywood several nights each week.
"But," said Alexander, "I'm a rabbi. There's only so long that a rabbi who likes to counsel, preach and teach can work in a social-work-type position." She found out about the assistant rabbi position at Adat Ari El last January while attending a Rabbinic conference. Daniel Gordis, the current assistant rabbi, was there and mentioned that he would be leaving the position to become dean of students at the University of Judaism.
"I had dreamed about working at Adat Ari El," she said. "This was the perfect job and perfect congregation; they're community oriented and very concerned about Jewish life. Rabbi Gordis said to me, 'Why don't you try for it?' And I said, 'Come on, Rabbi Gordis, haven't you noticed that I'm a female?' He said he would find out if there was any openness to the idea. There wa s , so I applied.
Alexander was chosen over five other candidates, all of them men.
'Most Dynamic Candidate'
Said Dr. Alvin Mars, head of the synagogue search committee, "We were looking for someone who would relate well to our congregants and work well with our rabbi. Rabbi Alexander was the most personable and dynamic candidate. There were people on the committee who were uncomfortable about the idea of interviewing her at first. But after meeting her, those concerns dissipated."
Being the first woman rabbi at a major Conservative synagogue is a distinction that Alexander hopes will fade over time. She wants to be thought of as a rabbi first, and a woman second.
"But I'm not negating my femininity," she said, as she showed a visitor her office. "My office . . . is burgundy and pinks and pillows on the chairs. I really want this to reflect that there's a woman here."
Alexander did have her worries about how the congregation would perceive her at the beginning. One of those worries concerned the daily minyan or prayer service which she leads in the mornings and evenings.
'Was Scared to Death'
Said Alexander, "the daily minyan is made up of mostly older men--wonderful men. And I was scared to death to start working with them. The assumption was that they wouldn't feel comfortable with me and I think that they were pretty leery about it.
"The cantor tells me that sometimes when he's in the minyan, they'll hear me approaching in my high heels. They'll smile and say, 'Oh, here comes Rabbi Alexander.' The reality is that they've kind of adopted me as their granddaughter and it has worked out just fine."
The rabbi also teaches confirmation classes, a seminar for 11th and 12th graders on Jewish history and comparative Judaism, adult classes, reads the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) during services, and counsels congregants as the need arises.
Alexander considers herself a feminist but also believes strongly in the male and female roles of traditional Jewish ritual.
Maintains Some Traditions
"My life doesn't really fit any patterns. I don't think that Jewish ritual is a particularly male thing or female thing. I don't observe Shabbat (the Sabbath) because I'm a woman. I observe Shabbat because I'm a Jew. I light Shabbat candles and my husband says the blessing over the wine and those are traditional things to do for men and women. There's beauty in that. We do it that way because there's no reason to turn something upside down for no reason whatsoever."
She decided to keep her maiden name a long time ago, said Alexander. "It was not done for professional reasons. It was a decision I made because most of my family was killed in the Holocaust. I am my parents' only child and I was unwilling to have my name end. So I'm carrying on a tradition to keep the memory of the people who held this name alive."
Tradition is all-important to Alexander. She hopes to influence those congregants who have not been observant Jews by her example of observing the Sabbath and through her teachings.
"My major goal in life, from a professional perspective, is to turn people onto the beauty of Jewish observance. That's going to be done by me in many different ways. If I am able to touch somebody's life so that they can appreciate our tradition and in turn have a fuller life, then I've succeeded."