After many years as a clinical psychologist, Rabbi Marsha Friedman, the new religious leader of Princeton Reconstructionist Synagogue: A String of Pearls, felt an important piece was missing from her life.
What she missed was “working with a community to work on what it really means to be part of a community that learns together, celebrates together, and helps people feel they are part of something bigger than themselves and their own issues.”
While she always saw “how important being part of a close Jewish communal structure is,” she told NJJN, it did take her a while to decide on a second career in the rabbinate.
Her attachment started early. Growing up in Woodcliff Lake, she attended the Conservative Temple Emanuel, where she attended religious school and was part of the youth group and whose rabbi, Andre Ungar, she “always admired,” she said, “It was the place I felt most comfortable in the world.”
At the University of Pennsylvania she was active in Jewish activities, but it was at Washington University in St. Louis, during graduate school, that she became an activist helping to create Jewish community. With none in place, she said “we had to create one ourselves through Hillel,” drawing people from all disciplines “to be able to have a Jewish address at Hillel, to come together to celebrate Shabbat and holidays, study together, and form a community.”
After graduation, Friedman moved to Philadelphia, drawn to its large liberal Jewish community. She started reading widely in the work of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. She discovered that she “liked the way that it addressed contemporary issues while still holding to Jewish tradition,” which, she said, she wanted to be involved in, “but not necessarily bound by strict rules of Jewish law.”
At the Germantown Jewish Centre’s Reconstructionist minyan, Dorshei Derekh, Friedman found a diverse, inclusive group of people who took their Jewish practice seriously while creating new celebrations and prayers. They incorporated “all types of families: gay and lesbian, interfaith,” and those who were not particularly observant.
As a first-year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, she served part-time in a pulpit in Bristol, Pa., where she learned everything traditional, “which is important if you are going to innovate and change. You have to know the past if you are going to make changes,” she said.
She also enjoyed her work at different Hillels around the Philly area. “I loved working with students…, meeting them where their interest level was, hearing what they needed…and talking about their Jewish journeys,” she said.
She served as student rabbi under Rabbi Sid Schwartz at Adat Shalom in Bethesda, Md., a congregation that was working to officially become a “welcoming congregation” to the gay and lesbian community.
“We studied a lot about love and sexual relationships in Jewish tradition and values that go along with creating families from a Jewish perspective and why it is so important to be open to all families interested in raising children in a system of Jewish values,” she said.
Since graduation, Friedman has continued her private practice and her work as a psychologist at Belmont Behavioral Hospital in Philadelphia. She has worked as an assistant rabbi in Maryland, the rabbi of the gay and lesbian congregation of Philadelphia, and as the director of the Tri-College Hillel of Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore colleges. She also taught in the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning for 13 years in Philadelphia and developed and taught a course for Gratz College.
Friedman has a particular interest in serving interfaith couples. “If we do not show we welcome them and that they are integral parts of our community, they don’t have to choose us, and that will result in a weakened Jewish community for all of us,” she said.
Friedman has three children, Shira, 23, Eitana, 18, and Noah, 16.
“What I have learned is that there are some people who are really hungry for Jewish learning, for having more of an intentional or whole Jewish experience and that a rabbi can really guide them,” she said. “A lot of people may not have had the benefit of exposure to a lot of Jewish learning earlier in their lives, and this is the time and place where they can really get that.”