Mazel Tov! : Arrival of 26-Year-Old Female Rabbi Revives Troubled Conservative Synagogue

Times Staff Writer

It was Friday morning in the day-care classroom at Mishkon Tephilo Synagogue, and the teacher welcomed a smiling young woman who came to look in on the children's pre-Sabbath snack.

"Who's this?" the teacher asked as the children chewed on their braided challah (egg bread) and spilled their grape juice. "Is it the Sabbath queen?"

"No," they squealed. "It's the rabbi!"

They were right. The Sabbath queen would come later, wafting in with the smell of chicken soup to symbolize the day of rest in Jewish homes. But this was Rabbi Naomi Levy, a 26-year-old Talmudic scholar who reported for work this month as the rabbi of their troubled synagogue.

Levy is not the first female rabbi in Los Angeles, but she is the first outside the East Coast to lead a congregation of the Conservative movement, the largest of the three major branches of American Judaism.

Mishkon Tephilo's previous full-time rabbi, also a bright young scholar, fled after three years of rancor, and many of the young people he had attracted dropped away. Some of the older generation went elsewhere or passed on.

But the arrival of Naomi Levy has brought new life to Mishkon Tephilo, whose name in Hebrew means Tabernacle of Prayer.

Reflecting Changes

The olive green walls have been painted a bright sea-blue to stand out on a newly gentrified stretch of Main Street that straddles the line between Santa Monica and Venice.

From a high of 240 families in the early and mid-1980s, membership has dropped to 160, but synagogue leaders hope that Levy will bring in some of the large number of unaffiliated Jews believed to be living in the area. Many of them are single, divorced or otherwise different from the traditional families that make up a typical suburban synagogue, and Mishkon Tephilo's membership reflects that diversity, said Stan Dorn, a director of the synagogue.

"Judaism isn't what it was when they were 13 (the age of bar mitzvah, the rite of passage that means the end of organized religion for many youngsters). By challenging people with a woman rabbi who's sharp as a tack, maybe we can bring them back," Dorn said.

Levy comes well recommended by her teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where she was named outstanding rabbinical student and outstanding student of Jewish law, and by members of Temple Beth Am in San Antonio, Tex., where she commuted once a month last year to lead prayers and study groups while she finished her rabbinical studies. The rabbi is also an unpublished poet and an expert on modern Israeli poetry.

"She was an extremely intelligent, wonderfully bright student, with a very, very keen literary sense, a good interpreter of (Biblical) texts, asking good questions of the texts and demanding that they speak to modern issues, which makes her a good rabbi," said Burton Visotzky, a professor of Jewish law at the seminary.

Intellect and Depth

"We got a call from (Mishkon Tephilo)," said Paul Mohl, ex-president of the San Antonio synagogue. "I told them they should grab her while they could, because she has the intellect and the depth to be a scholar and academician if she wants to go that route. She has the sensitivity to go the counseling route if she wants to do that, and she had the skills to be a first-rate pulpit rabbi."

An honors graduate of Cornell University, Levy attended an academically demanding high school that was strictly traditional Orthodox, even though her parents belonged to a Conservative synagogue.

Unlike the Conservative and Reform movements, Orthodoxy does not ordain women rabbis.

"It was a Conservative Jewish household that really stressed Jewish education, so I always went to Orthodox yeshivas ," Levy said, referring to day schools.

She knew from early childhood that she wanted to be a rabbi, but it was hard to reconcile that with the role of women in Orthodox Judaism, which she describes as "problematical."

"I knew that I had a place. It wasn't in the kitchen," she said. "What makes religion important, from my perspective, is that there's such a rich tradition of ritual, and I think it's important to feel a tangible connection to tradition and to something beyond yourself, and I never really understood it, except for watching men at services, reading the Torah (Bible scroll), or wearing a kippah, tallit and tefilin ," referring to the skullcap, ritual shawl and leather boxes that observant Jews wear during prayers.

"I knew there was power in it," Levy said. "Not ruling power, but religious power. Spiritual power. There's a whole world of ritual, something tactile, that you can touch and feel and that is important in creating a spiritual feeling."

But, although the Reform movement and the much smaller Reconstructionist branch ordained their first women rabbis in the early 1970s, the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary did not open its rabbinical program to women until 1984, so she had few role models, Levy said.

"I didn't take it seriously," she said, comparing her desire to a young girl's dream of becoming a ballerina: "(It was) something you clearly knew you wanted to be, but you clearly knew you couldn't be. Maybe as a young child I didn't realize that, but I soon realized it."

Women Allowed

When the seminary opened its doors Levy was ready, having studied psychology and Hebrew literature at Cornell. She entered the seminary's first class that included women.

"There weren't any practical obstacles. The school was opened to women and that was that," she said. "The hardest thing is that you're fighting, or maybe it's not that you're not fighting, but that you're trying to shatter myths about what a rabbi can be.

"Most of the time I can do that just by meeting people," Levy said. "When they meet me, their ideas have to change about what a rabbi is, about who a rabbi is. That's true about women in most professions but the rabbinate is just opening up."

Despite their endorsement by the Conservative movement, the appointment of a female rabbi can be a wrenching thing for a congregation, often pitting a traditionally minded older generation against a younger group that is eager for change.

Rabbi Gordon Tucker, dean of Levy's rabbinical school, said the seminary has graduated 15 women rabbis since 1984, and the numbers are growing. Women now make up about 30% of the student body of 130.

'Sure, Why not?'

"I'm reluctant to make general statements on the basis of what is still a small database," Tucker said. "Still, individual congregations have shown confidence in them and accepted the idea. As more and more women of really high quality are out there, more and more congregations are struggling with it and asking, 'Could it be us?' and saying, 'Sure, why not?' "

In addition to the small group ordained by the Conservative movement, there are another 115 women who are Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis.

"Clearly, if this didn't raise hell, I don't know what could," Levy said. "But the older community here has welcomed me in very nice ways. They invited me to be the guest of honor at their annual dinner. I dhink that, whatever factions there have been in the synagogue have decided to work together and create something."

Founded in 1914 by summer visitors from the old Jewish neighborhoods of Boyle Heights and City Terrace on the Eastside, Mishkon Tephilo has seen its share of internecine battles, but it always has been colorful, old-timers agree.

Rabbis in the early years were expected to slaughter chickens because there was no kosher butcher.

At one point during Prohibition, someone apparently sold ritual wine to Gentiles, causing a scandal.

The congregation was "fractious and rowdy," according to Arnold Springer, a historian who has studied its archives. But he said its members were always concerned with Jewish education.

In the late 1940s, the head of the religious school offered youngsters bats and baseballs for enrolling their friends.

Reduced Membership

But few of the founders' grown children stayed in the area, which had begun to decay. Many of them moved to the San Fernando Valley after World War II and left their parents behind to maintain the synagogue.

As the oldsters dwindled, a group of young people led by author and film critic Michael Medved gained control of the board in the 1970s, introducing Orthodox-style innovations like a barrier to separate men and women. His group left after failing to agree on a new rabbi, and the old guard took over again.

It was in that heated atmosphere that Dov Gartenberg, then 31, became rabbi in 1983, offering new styles of prayer and study that brought the membership up to 240 families, the highest it had been in years.

Gartenberg, now rabbi of a synagogue in Seattle, remembers his time at Mishkon Tephilo as "a very, very difficult struggle."

Older members who had been burned by the Medved experience were happy to see the new people come to services, he said, but some of them were edgy about Gartenberg's new ideas "and became kind of a rejectionist front."

Generational Frictions

"They were comfortable with having a rabbi give a sermon and then you go home, so this new style was more participatory," said Paul Nissenbaum, a former vice president of the temple who has since left the congregation. He said the debates were not "Let's talk and make a decision. It was, 'Who are you to talk about it?' "

Gartenberg said that Levy should find Mishkon Tephilo a happier place "because the young guard has pretty much gained control of the synagogue."

Martha Wax doesn't say how old she is, but she makes no bones about belonging to the old guard.

"I'm a senior citizen, let's put it that way," Wax said.

During Gartenberg's years, the senior members welcomed the newcomers, she said, but many of them thought the younger group should have kept a low profile, as her generation had done when she joined the synagogue 35 years ago.

Instead, "They wanted to make a young synagogue, and the older people didn't have a place there. And a lot of older people felt displaced from their religious home," Wax said.

Hopeful Future

Although she said her daughter feels out of place at Mishkon Tephilo today, Wax feels that it may come alive again.

"If there's a Jewish population there, maybe this rabbi can reach out to them," she said. "I feel, to me, that it's more important to keep the synagogue going, and I hope this rabbi will be able to entice these people to join the synagogue, because I wouldn't want to see anything happen to our religious home. And if these young people can work something and keep it going, then more power to them."

Lillian Vanatek, a member for 55 years, is also reserving judgment.

"Yes, it did shock me," she said of the decision to hire Levy. "A woman rabbi is a very new thing. Some people take to it, and some people don't. We still like tradition. She seems very nice, and we'll have to see how she works out."

But Rose Fragin, 80, daughter of a founding member of the synagogue, has made up her mind.

"It isn't an age gap, it's just that the old people are dying," she said. "What can we do? So we're getting the young people in, and they have ideas."

As for Levy, Fragin said, "She knows exactly what she wants to say, and she doesn't hem and haw. And she has a nice smile. I like her."

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