New senior Rodef Sholom rabbi wants to help disenfranchised

When Stacy Friedman was 12 years old, her family moved from the heavily Jewish Rockland County, N.Y., to the mostly Mormon Salt Lake City, Utah.

On her first day of school, she was in for a shock: She was asked her name and then her religion.

"In New York it wasn't important, and here it was the first thing they asked," she said. She immediately became friends with the other Jewish girl she met that day.

In her confirmation speech at age 15, she talked about wanting to become a rabbi. Pursuing that path seemed "like a combination of all the things I could see myself doing: being a teacher, therapist, community organizer, serving my community as a scholar and public speaker. Even at that age I loved Judaism, and it seemed like a wonderful thing to do — making people's lives more meaningful through Judaism."

And luckily at that time, Friedman knew that becoming a rabbi was something a woman could aspire to.

Friedman's recent 40th birthday coincided with the 10th anniversary of her arrival at Congregation Rodef Sholom. And what a present she got: As of July 1, she will be senior rabbi of the San Rafael Reform synagogue.

Friedman's ascent to the senior position, replacing Rabbi Michael Barenbaum after 27 years, marks the second time a woman has become senior rabbi of a large congregation in the Bay Area — Rabbi Janet Marder, who became senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills in 1999, was the first.

"I wasn't in the original wave of women rabbis, and I don't see myself in the original wave of women senior rabbis," said Friedman. Speaking of her colleagues like Marder and Rabbi Laura Geller in Southern California, she said, "Because of them I can do my job and do the best I can in this community, but they were the pioneers in doing this."

Geller, who was among the first handful of women to be ordained by the Reform movement, became senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills — a 1,000-plus family congregation — in 1994.

Rabbi Arnold Sher, director of placement for the Reform movement, said there are about 12 women in senior rabbi positions, meaning at congregations with more than one rabbi on staff.

Friedman is well-aware of the demands of the job, as she has dealt with them for the past 10 years. But just as her job description will change a bit, her life has changed over the years as well. When she arrived, she was single and now she is married to industrial designer Frank Friedman, and they have two children, ages 3 and 1.

"You know about 'Take Your Children to Work Day?' Well, I do that quite often," she cracked.

Friedman said she was looking more for a synthesis than a balance, in juggling her career and her family, adding that having her kids in day care next door at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center made things much easier. She is no different from many of the other professional women in her congregation who commute to work while raising a family, she added.

In addition to having a husband who does his share, she said, "I am lucky enough to have a demanding job that I'm passionate about. Of course there are certain encroachments on my personal time, but I really feel so blessed to not only have a job but a calling."

While Friedman said Barenbaum was a large part of the reason she stayed in one place for so long — Rodef Sholom is the only synagogue where she's worked since her 1993 ordination — she said she is looking forward to the transition as an opportunity to see how to make some changes.

"This is an excuse and opportunity to talk to people, and celebrate what we do well and explore how we can change and grow," she said.

Friedman has several areas in which she would like to make more of a mark: Enriching worship for congregants is one and dialoguing with interfaith clergy in Marin County is another, particularly on the issue of homelessness.

"In this day and age, that people are going to sleep hungry on the streets in one of the wealthiest counties in the country is shameful," she said.

At the synagogue, too, she hopes to help more people feel welcome.

"There are a lot of disenfranchised people looking for more meaning," she said. "I want to build stronger communities within the congregation."

Discussing her predecessor, she said the things she's learned from him are too numerous to mention. But she especially complimented on his people skills.

In addition to admiring him for standing up for his beliefs, his continual pursuit of knowledge and his sense of humor, she said, "He treats all people the same, whether they're big givers or he's never met them or if they don't have a roof over their heads."

Though Friedman has been at the 1,100-family temple for the last 10 years, she was not automatically handed the position when Barenbaum announced his retirement. She had to apply for it, by submitting her resume to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which does placement for Reform rabbis.

"We knew we had a strong candidate, but we felt we really needed to look at everyone out there to see who the best candidate was," said Ellen Levin, who co-chaired the synagogue's search committee. From about 15 resumes, the committee held telephone interviews, and brought several of the candidates to the synagogue.

While the search committee consisted of both people who knew Friedman well, and others who didn't, "Stacy really wowed everyone at the interview," said Levin. While all the candidates had the requisite experience and knowledge needed, Levin said, "part of this decision you make with your mind and part you make with your heart. When we took a final vote, we were very solidly behind Stacy."

Rabbi Michael Lezak, who is currently associate rabbi at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, will serve as Friedman's associate rabbi.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."