Poet-temple leader gives voice to women in Judaism

Margaret Kaufman, award-winning poet and new president of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, views recovering the voice of women in Judaism as a central challenge of Jewish life today.

As a poet, she has provided a vehicle for the unheard women in the Bible, including Lot's wife and Sarah. Her prize-winning book, "Sarah's Sacrifice," explores a mother's perspective on Abraham's intended sacrifice of Isaac.

"Sarah just drops out of the story," said Kaufman, who feels it's essential that women's voices be restored. "I have a particular interest in bringing to life, to contemporary life, those stories from our heritage which can speak to us if we listen."

That's why, as temple president, the Kentfield resident and mother of three adult children is working with a committee on changing the liturgy to reflect the increasing role of women.

"Today is a really good time to be both a woman and a Jew," said Kaufman, who is the daughter and sister of temple presidents.

According to Sherith Israel Rabbi Martin Weiner, "Margaret brings a unique spirit to our synagogue," where she has been a long-time participant in Torah study sessions and chavurot (informal family groups), as well as an active board member.

"Through her poetry, she has explored the soul of the first biblical matriarch. Through the inspiration of her family tradition, she provides an active model of synagogue leadership," Weiner said.

Her new role as congregation president is familiar terrain, since Kaufman's father, Alfred Fleischer, and sister, Alice Schwartz, both have served as congregation presidents at Shaare Emeth in St. Louis.

Her father, Alfred Fleischer, "whose whole life has been dedicated to public service," was "an exemplary role model for both my sister and I," Kaufman said.

In addition to her work at Sherith Israel, Kaufman has served on the board of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, headed by executive director Anita Friedman, who is Sherith Israel's new vice president.

Kaufman, also active in the arts community, coordinates a Napa Valley writers workshop and teaches a poetry workshop at Book Passage in Corte Madera. She has also led poetry workshops for seniors at the Marin Jewish Community Center.

"We are now seeing an awakened interest in poetry," said Kaufman, who lived in San Francisco for many years and who has published two books.

Her first, "Sarah's Sacrifice," was published in 1989, winning the second annual Anna Davidson Rosenberg award for poems on the Jewish experience — out of 800 entries. "To win this award is quite an accomplishment," said Paula Friedman of Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum, which presented the award.

Two years later, Canadian composer Ben Steinberg adapted "Sarah's Sacrifice" into a cantata, which had its world premiere at Sherith Israel in 1991.

Sherith Israel Cantor Martin Feldman, who was tenor soloist, said Kaufman is at the forefront of "the emergence of women in the Bible and in all spheres of life…We are no longer dealing with just patriarchs but with patriarchs and matriarchs."

Kaufman's second book, "Aunt Sally's Lament," is about an aging woman artist. A recent recipient of a Marin Arts Council grant, she is writing another book that will be coming out this fall, "Praise Basted In." It is a companion piece to "Aunt Sally's Lament."

In "Lot's Wife," Kaufman reflects on the legendary "grieving wife" who looked back.

"Who grieves for this nameless woman, Lot's reflective wife?" she writes. "I grieve."

Both Weiner and Feldman view Kaufman's new position as congregation president as a natural progression from her previous involvement in the Jewish community, both as an artist and as a synagogue activist.

Feldman said, "I've seen her move from a congregation member to a board member [to] a congregation president. I've seen her emerge and bring tremendous leadership to her position."