Emanu-Els new role model: lesbian, woman, Jew, rabbi

Until that time all the rabbis Mintz had known were men. While Priesand did not play a pivotal role in Mintz's life, "just realizing she was an ordinary person who made a radical decision was important."

Last Sunday, Mintz, now 30, achieved her goal. She was ordained at the Reform New York School of the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion. In July she joins the staff of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco as its fourth rabbi.

A self-described "progressive congregation," according to Senior Rabbi Stephen Pearce, Emanu-El already boasts one female rabbi, Helen Cohen, and a female cantor, Roslyn Barak. Mintz is the congregation's first openly lesbian spiritual leader.

Some applaud Mintz's hiring by one of the Bay Area's largest Reform congregations, a synagogue with 1,555 member households, as a giant victory for gay and lesbian Jews. But both Pearce and Mintz contend that sexual orientation had nothing to do with the hire.

"I'm ordained as a rabbi, not as a lesbian," Mintz said. "It's happening all over the country. My gay and lesbian predecessors and colleagues are also getting jobs with a few of the `best' synagogues in the country."

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Mintz also studied at the Oxford University Center for Post-Graduate Hebrew Studies and served as rabbinic intern at San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, teen program director at the S.F. Jewish Community Center and Jewish program director at Camp Tawonga.

"We interviewed 14 soon-to-be ordained rabbis. What appealed to us was Sydney's solidness," Pearce said. "She has a world of experience working with youth. She loves children. And she felt that the Bay Area was the right kind of community to settle her family into."

Following a final year of rabbinic school in New York, Mintz and her partner Deborah Newbrun, associate director of Camp Tawonga, will move to San Francisco with their 20-month-old son Eli. The two women exchanged vows and rings in a Jewish ceremony led by Emanu-El Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan nearly two years ago.

Mintz does not plan on using her position to "educate" people about gays and lesbians. But she acknowledges that she will "hopefully be a role model — as a lesbian, as a woman, as a Jew and as a rabbi.

"Some of my dearest mentors have been gay and lesbian rabbis. But to me, they are just successful rabbis. Coming out of five years of training, contributing to the Jewish community is in the forefront of my mind."

Mintz will be serving Emanu-El in three capacities: developing community service and social action projects for congregants, working in youth and family education and assisting in life-cycle events like weddings, funerals and b'nai mitzvah.

"One of the things we're trying to do is to involve our members in opportunities of outreach and service," Pearce said, pointing to the congregation's Pe'ah Project.

Two years ago Pearce challenged his congregants to turn unused cemetery ground into a garden to help feed the poor. To date, they have raised and donated 4,000 pounds of organic vegetables.

"We're looking to Sydney to create more opportunities like this for our members to put their Judaism to work," Pearce said.

Among Mintz's ideas are developing a Mitzvah Corps for high-school students and a Jewish big brother-big sister program. In addition, she will help bring students up to speed in Hebrew.

Since making first-year membership dues voluntary, the congregation has gained 200 households. Because many of these children had never attended Hebrew school before, a new first-year Hebrew class for older students was launched to accommodate them.

Mintz is the first individual to hold this position since 1992.

Because of financial restraints and the search for a new senior rabbi, Emanu-El's leadership decided not to fill the position when it was vacated five years ago. However, growing membership and a foundation allowed Emanu-El to re-establish the position.

Emanu-El's board of directors put Wolf-Prusan and Pearce in charge of the rabbi search.

"And we brought back the stellar graduate," Pearce said.