Beth Am — one of largest to hire woman as senior rabbi

In welcoming Rabbi Janet Marder, Congregation Beth Am has become one of the largest synagogues in America to hire a woman as a senior rabbi.

"They didn't seem to be overwhelmed by anxieties over gender. I thought that was quite progressive," said Marder, who began Aug. 1 at the Reform congregation in Los Altos Hills.

Marder previously served as director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' regional office in Los Angeles. Working for the Reform movement's congregational arm, she acted as a resource and counselor for nearly 75 congregations in the Southwest region.

"I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly," Marder said. "I've seen some really outstanding congregational programs. I've seen some disasters. I've seen a lot of the rancor and bitterness that can characterize synagogue life. I have seen congregations riddled with gossip."

Because she has had intimate contact with so many congregations, "I think I can recognize a healthy and positive congregational atmosphere and appreciate how rare it is."

She joins the congregation's cantor, Kay Greenwald, and two other rabbis, Kenneth Carr and Josh Zweiback.

Marder comes to the Bay Area with her husband, Rabbi Sheldon Marder, former rabbinical school director at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. He recently became full-time rabbi at San Francisco's Jewish Home.

It has been about 10 years since Marder held a full-time pulpit. Her last was Beth Chayim Chadashim, a Los Angeles congregation with special outreach to gays and lesbians. Originally, she took a break from congregational life to raise her two daughters, Betsy, 16, and Rachel, 13.

Now, she feels the time is right to go back.

"I'm a little bit tired of being on an airplane and having my energies diverted in 73 directions," she acknowledged. "The idea of focusing my energy and care on one place is very appealing."

Marder said she was struck by Beth Am's diversity and commitment to family education.

"I found at Beth Am an unusual combination of stability and dynamism," the 45-year-old rabbi said. "It's really a warm, welcoming and unpretentious sort of place."

Marder replaces Rabbi Richard Block, who has moved to Israel to become president and chief executive of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

"Rabbi Block told me as far as he was concerned, this was one of the greatest positions in the congregational rabbinate," Marder said. "That struck me as quite remarkable."

Marder underwent a rigorous selection process before the rabbinic search committee recommended her unanimously.

The challenge at Beth Am, with 1,200 households and growing, is sustaining a sense of intimacy. Marder hopes to cultivate many small groups focused on study, tzedakah and social action.

"The goal is to have as few peripheral and disengaged members as possible," she said.

Though she grew up in Los Angeles and has lived there for years, Marder has Northern California roots. She was born in Oakland and received her bachelor's degree from U.C. Santa Cruz. Three of her sisters live in the Bay Area — in Orinda, San Rafael and Burlingame.

Moving to the Bay Area "was a big decision," Marder said. "My children are at ages where they don't particularly like to move. But there are good education and youth programs at Beth Am, so I felt comfortable. They're being good sports about it."

Marder has known she wanted to a be a rabbi since age 19.

Sitting in services when the Yom Kippur War erupted in 1973, she suddenly felt her plans to go to law school dissipate.

"At the moment when the war broke out, I realized how deep my Jewish commitment was."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.