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Conservative leader seeks a new ‘normal’
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Conservative leader seeks a new ‘normal’

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld champions religious equality in U.S., Israel

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, admits that it’s sometimes lonely at the top.

“There’s a real dearth of women in the top levels of leadership,” Schonfeld said in a recent phone conversation. “There are lots of women in the rank and file, but it’s the rule rather than the exception that when we convene meetings of 10 or 15 or 20 or 25 leaders in Jewish life, I’m the only woman in the room, other than those from Hadassah or Jewish Women International, or other classic women’s organizations.”

Schonfeld, who in 2009 became the first woman to head the RA, will serve as scholar-in-residence at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell during Shabbat, Jan. 10-11. In a wide-ranging conversation with NJJN, she shared her views on women in Jewish life, pluralism in Israel, and the challenges facing Conservative Judaism.

Schonfeld, who served as rabbi at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before joining the RA as its director of rabbinic development, is regularly named to annual lists of the most influential Jewish leaders and Jewish women leaders.

But she still laments that more of the latter are not included among the former, and blames a combination of factors, not least among them the fact that women “do a disproportionate amount of caregiving” at home. How will women “ever be able to ‘lean in’ when there is no tolerance for men to find a [work/home] balance and ‘lean out’ for any period of time?” she asked.

Her solution? Plenty of mentoring and coaching for women rabbis and leaders — and what she calls “surfacing cultural norms.” “When people become aware of them, it’s easier to change” these norms, she said.

She also advocates for these norms in Israel. Schonfeld applauded the May 2012 decision by Israel’s attorney general to require the State of Israel to pay the salary of Rabbi Miri Gold — the first non-Orthodox woman rabbi to be so recognized in Israel. “This decision was a major victory and a huge step forward,” said Schonfeld. “It’s a real shifting of the ground beneath us. We need to zero in on this issue. It’s fundamental if we’re going to create the kind of Israel that — as [former Israeli ambassador to the United States] Michael Oren said in a recent interview — will be a homeland for the world’s Jewish population.”

Schonfeld fully supports the recent plan laid down by Natan Sharansky for women’s prayer at the Western Wall, which would expand an existing egalitarian section of the Kotel plaza and improve access to its egalitarian section.

“It’s very important to have government endorse space for egalitarian, pluralistic Judaism. It is not perfect, but it is an unprecedented step,” she said.

Schonfeld advocates a “unified strategy” for religious equality in Israel. “The Diaspora community needs to come together. It looks like there will not be any separation of synagogue and state in Israel. Therefore, we have to move to campaign for equal funding for the different strains of Judaism,” she said.

Despite polls suggesting the growth of “post-denominational” Judaism, Schonfeld remains a strong advocate for Conservative Judaism, separate from other non-Orthodox denominations, especially Reform Judaism.

“These are two very distinct philosophies of Jewish life and Jewish practice, though they are both very vital,” she said, referring to Conservative and Reform Judaism. “And in practice, they are very distinct.”

The biggest challenge facing the Rabbinical Assembly will be “figuring out how to help rabbis reach more people and bring Judaism more fully into their lives.” But she also sees a number of pressing issues in society, such as human trafficking, gun violence, and immigration, for which she believes Judaism has “a powerful response” and with which she plans to be engaged over the coming year.

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