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Through the temple ceiling

Last modified: 7/21/2010 12:00:00 AM
Growing up in a traditional Conservative Jewish synagogue, Robin Leonard never imagined that she would become a rabbi. And back then, she couldn't.

When Leonard - now Rabbi Robin Nafshi - was born 49 years ago, even the most liberal Jewish denominations would not ordain women. And they certainly would not ordain gays or lesbians.

On Friday night, Nafshi led services at Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, her first official duty as the temple's new rabbi. She is the congregation's first female rabbi and its first openly gay rabbi. And perhaps most remarkably, congregants see neither factor as a big deal.

"It was simply not an issue for the congregation," Nafshi said. "If I were a straight man with the same background, I would have been as attractive a candidate to the community as a lesbian woman."

Nafshi came to the rabbinate in a roundabout fashion. She grew up in Oakland, N.J., and attended a synagogue where women had very few roles in the public worship service.

"It left me with a sense that there was no place for women, forget gays, in leadership in Judaism," Nafshi said.

When she left home, Nafshi said, "I had tremendous pride and love for Judaism and wanted to stay as far from organized Judaism as I could."

Nafshi went to New York University, followed by Cornell Law School. She moved to San Francisco, where she briefly worked in family law before taking a job writing and editing self-help law books. It was during her 16 years in San Francisco that Nafshi reconnected with the organized Jewish community.

She cast aside her more traditional upbringing in favor of the more progressive Reform movement. "I didn't go thinking I'd become a rabbi," Nafshi said. "I was 24 years old hoping to find a community."

Nafshi came to San Francisco in 1984 - 12 years after the Reform movement ordained its first female rabbi, and a year before the Conservative movement would follow suit. For the first time, she met female rabbis. She also met gay rabbis, although the Reform rabbinical seminary, Hebrew Union College, would not admit openly gay rabbinical students until 1991. (The Conservative movement began ordaining gays in 2006.)

Nafshi got involved with the San Francisco synagogue, Congregation Sha'ar Zahav. She taught, led services, served as president, chaired a rabbinic search committee and published the synagogue newsletter. As membership committee chairwoman in the 1980s, she often visited elderly men in the hospital who wanted to reconnect with the Judaism of their youth as they were dying of AIDS. Nafshi served on the regional board of the Union for Reform Judaism, and worked with other local Jewish groups, including the Jewish newspaper.

In 2000, Nafshi decided to go to rabbinical school.

"My Jewish life as a volunteer was more compelling to me than anything I was doing," Nafshi said.

She said she wanted to give back to the community, and to integrate the various parts of her Jewish identity - her learning, her community involvement and her personal spirituality. Nafshi was awarded the prestigious Wexner Graduate Fellowship, which paid for her tuition and a stipend.

Nafshi spent a year at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, where she met her partner, Shira Silverman. The couple changed their last names to Nafshi - which means "my soul" in Hebrew. They chose the name based on a verse in Song of Songs, which states, "I have found the one that my soul loves."

Shira Nafshi will work as a cantor at Temple Adath Yeshurun in Manchester.

After finishing rabbinical school in New York, Nafshi took a one-year position as assistant rabbi at a temple in New Jersey, then spent two years directing an adult Jewish education program. In 2008, she took a job as associate rabbi at Temple Beth-El in New Jersey. She also worked as community chaplain for a Jewish healing center that covers three counties.

Nafshi said she was looking to move to a smaller community where she could be the sole rabbi. Temple Beth Jacob was looking to replace Rabbi Richard Klein, who retired after 14 years. When Nafshi visited Concord for a weekend, she said, "it felt like home."

The committee received 15 applications, interviewed five people by Skype and brought two in for personal interviews, before choosing Nafshi. Carol Sobelson, immediate past president of the temple, and a member of the 18-person rabbinic selection committee, said Nafshi was one of the first people interviewed.

"We were blown away by her responses," Sobelson said. "She was incredibly personable. She knew everyone's name within five minutes, and our children's names."

"She exudes a warmth and a familiarity the first time you meet her," said Temple President Mark Lewy.

According to several temple members, there was little discussion about Nafshi's gender or her sexuality during the selection process, or when the congregation voted to hire her.

"There's certainly some dissension, but there's dissension when you change the color of the carpet, too," said former temple president Nancy Jo Chabot.

Chabot said she thought Nafshi would have a great effect as a role model for girls in the temple. And she said the congregation has been growing more diverse over the past 15 years, with Asian children (including Chabot's adopted daughter) and African children.

"I think it's very significant for girls especially, and for all kids, to see that diversity is welcome in our own community," Chabot said.

 Breaking barriers

When Temple Beth Jacob started as an Orthodox synagogue in 1907, there was little public role for women. Men and women sat separately during services, and only men led prayers. But in the 1940s, the temple began to affiliate with the more liberal Reform movement.

"In traditional Judaism, man was the worshipper who went to the synagogue; the woman was in charge of spiritual life in the home," said Ruth Zax, the cantorial soloist at Temple Beth Jacob. "Reform Judaism has enabled women to take a more fulfilling role in both."

But the path has not been easy. Temple member Arnie Rocklin-Weare went to rabbinical school with Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained by the Reform movement.

"She had to be not twice as good, but four times as good," Rocklin-Weare said.

In the 1960s, Zax received her classical musical training at a conservatory and dreamed of becoming a cantor. But she could not find a teacher.

"No cantor in the Boston area would work with me because I was a woman," Zax recalled.

It wasn't until the late 1970s that Zax found a job as a cantorial soloist in Manchester, then came to Temple Beth Jacob in 1985.

Sobelson said the 1980s saw a gradual shift in temple leadership. Women became more involved in running temple committees and teaching in its Hebrew school.

Betty Shapiro served as the first female board president from 1978 to 1980. In the old days, Shapiro said, the temple sisterhood did "women's things": supplying the kitchen and setting up and cleaning up refreshments after services.

"Some years back, the sisterhood took a stand and said 'No, we're not doing that,' " Shapiro said. " 'We're out of the kitchen.' "

Since Shapiro's days, there has been a succession of female board members and presidents.

Klein's daughter, who has visited the temple, is a rabbi, and there are other female rabbis in New Hampshire.

"Members of the congregation have seen the face of a female rabbi and know what she can bring to a gathering," Shapiro said.

 Growing acceptance

Ordaining gays and lesbians has been a more recent development - and one that some in the Jewish community nationally, even in the Reform movement, still have trouble accepting.

Nafshi said she interviewed at one temple where the president told her, "I hope the community votes to confirm you to prove we're not a bunch of rednecks."

Reform Rabbi Melissa Simon, 28, was ordained in May and just started a job as assistant rabbi at a synagogue in Minneapolis.

Simon, who has a female partner, said many congregations would offer health benefits to the husband or wife of a heterosexual rabbi but would not offerthem to the partner of a gay or lesbian rabbi. She knows gay and lesbian rabbinical students who believe they were not hired for jobs because of their sexuality.

Simon said she and her partner struggled when she spent two years on the Hebrew Union College campus in Cincinnati and her partner could not get health insurance benefits because she was not Simon's legal spouse.

"There have been great highs in my rabbinic training process when I felt very included and welcome," Simon said. "The lows have really been about invisibility and a lack of understanding of what it means to be a non-straight person in the world."

Nafshi said a friend, who is a rabbi and psychotherapist, told her that there were four categories of rabbis who had trouble finding full-time pulpit work: women, clergy couples, gays and lesbians, and second-career rabbis.

"I said, 'I'm four for four,' " Nafshi said. " 'Tell me something positive.' "

In Concord, some congregants said they believe the controversy surrounding the ordination of gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson in 2003 paved the way for other gay clergy in New Hampshire.

Robinson said he would be happy to think he played a small role. He noted that when the country's second gay bishop was elected recently in California, there was much less public outcry than when he was elected.

"So many people of faith are getting to know gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in their own congregations, that we're not so scary anymore," Robinson said. "We're pretty good at ordained ministry."

Nafshi said she did not come to New Hampshire because it allows gay marriage, though the law was an added plus for her. She will not get married here, however.

Nafshi said she and her partner already had five commitment ceremonies. They became domestic partners in New York when the city passed a domestic partnership bill. They moved to New Jersey, where they had a Jewish wedding ceremony and registered as domestic partners again.

They upgraded to a civil union when New Jersey allowed those. Then, while attending a cantors' convention in California, they got married during the brief window when it was legal in that state.

"Many people ask us, 'Will you do number six in New Hampshire?' " Nafshi said. "The answer is no. We feel like if we do it again, people will think we're doing it for the toasters. We have enough."


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