OHEB SHALOM WELCOMES NEW CLERGY TEAM by Malia Rulon Herman
It’s all-female, but that’s beside the point
Congregants of Oheb Shalom, a Conservative Jewish temple in South Orange, gathered this summer for an unusual ceremony: the passing of the Torah scroll to incoming Rabbi Abigail Treu and Cantor Eliana Kissner from their immediate predecessors.
Rabbi Mark Cooper retired after 23 years, alongside Cantor Erica Lippitz, who retired from her position after 34 years. With joyful smiles and evident camaraderie, the pair addressed the congregation for the last time as their spiritual leaders before physically handing over the ornately-dressed Torah scroll.
“You are all witnesses, participants in a moment of generational transition,” Cooper told the nearly full sanctuary.
Indeed, during the same year in which the U.S. swore in its first female vice president, congregants of Oheb Shalom, founded more than 160 years ago in Newark, welcomed its newest clergy team, which happens to be all female. That makes Oheb one of the few Conservative congregations in the New York metropolitan region with an all-female clerical leadership.
But to dwell on that detail would be to miss the point.
When asked how she felt about being part of the newly appointed all-female rabbinic team at Oheb Shalom, Rabbi Treu told Matters Magazine in an interview: “It’s awesome. Good clergy of all genders serve people of all genders.”
“On the one hand, it’s terrific to be part of an all-female team,” she continued. “In this moment, where gender fluidity is something that is still new, it’s wonderful. … But within the broader context, it feels both exciting and a non-starter.”
Indeed, ever since Sally Priesand made history in 1972 as the first woman ordained as a rabbi by a Jewish seminary, women have joined clergy teams of synagogues – Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist – across the country, most notably in New Jersey, where Priesand spent the majority of her career.
Just down the street from Oheb Shalom is Beth El, also Conservative, which recently installed Rabbi Rachel A. Marder as one of its two spiritual leaders. And in the other direction is Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, a Reform synagogue in which two of three clergy positions are held by women.
A quick look at neighboring towns confirms that it’s not just a SOMA thing. Indeed, there are female rabbis in most surrounding towns as well – many of them holding senior positions.
In Millburn, Temple Sha’arey Shalom, a Reform synagogue, has been led by a female rabbi since 2015 while Congregation B’Nai Israel, which is Conservative, has two of three clergy positions filled by women, including Cantor Lorna Wallach, who was in the fifth class to allow women to be invested as hazzanim (cantors).
In Summit, Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue, hired Rabbi Erin R. Glazer last year to lead an all-female clergy team of three, and Congregation Beth Hatikvah, which is part of the Reconstructionist movement, has had a female rabbi since 2014. In Short Hills, at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, which is Reform, three of four members of the clergy are women. And in Springfield, Rabbi Adrienne Rubin serves as spiritual leader at Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, a Conservative synagogue.
Oheb Shalom is no stranger to paving the way for female firsts. Cantor Lippitz herself was recruited by Oheb Shalom shortly after her 1987 graduation from the Jewish Theological Seminary as one of the first two female cantors in the United States.
“The feminism of the congregation has deep, strong roots,” Treu acknowledged.
Paul Schechner, president of Oheb Shalom and great-grandson of the temple’s first rabbi, described the new clergy team of Rabbi Treu and Cantor Kissner as “the next generation.”
“Let’s be mindful that we are passing not only the tradition of our people – the words, the passages, the parashat (lectionaries) that are contained in this scroll – we are passing also the history of this congregation,” he told congregants during the ceremony.
Treu said she takes that responsibility seriously, describing her vision for the Temple as one of “openheartedness.”
“For some, inclusion is a buzzword,” she said. “But what I mean by it is that I really want Oheb to continue to grow as a place that is loving of wherever you are on your Jewish journey, whether you were born Jewish, whether you’re now part of a Jewish family but you yourself are not Jewish, or you’re figuring it out.”
“My vision is for (Oheb Shalom) to be a place where people can grow and feel not judged or not pressured, but just come as you are,” she continued.
Rabbi Cooper described Treu as someone who “will challenge you, inspire you, and motivate you to strengthen your connection to the Jewish tradition and to this sacred congregation.”
Rabbi Treu, who grew up in Princeton, N.J., graduated from the Jewish Theology Seminary in 2008 and served as interim rabbi at Agudas Achim Congregation in Columbus, Ohio. She is also the former director of the Center for Jewish Living and the David H. Sonabend Center for Israel at the Marlene Mayerson Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.
Cantor Kissner, meanwhile, is a South Orange native: her family were members of Beth El. She is a 2021 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary and was mentored by outgoing Cantor Lippitz.
“In Cantor Kissner you have found someone who will help you to deepen your appreciation for Jewish prayer, music and the joy of singing together as a congregation,” Cooper told congregants.
Schechner, speaking to Matters after the ceremony, said the fact that Rabbi Treu is a woman didn’t come up during their search for a new rabbi.
“That was not part of it,” he said. “That’s one of the coolest parts. In fact, our two finalists were both women.”
Schechner said the bigger picture is that Rabbi Treu represents “a fresh new perspective” and puts Oheb on the map as a “forward-thinking Jewish community.”
“I feel like I’ve been blessed to be at the birth of a new synagogue,” he said. “While we have traditions that we have to respect, they don’t bind us. We can go in a new direction. It’s very exciting.”
Malia Herman married into a Jewish family but is not herself Jewish. She finds Rabbi Treu’s vision refreshingly welcoming and, despite it being a nonstarter, the fact that she’s a woman very exciting indeed.