Her career spans women’s rights in DC to Renewal rabbi in Carmel

At 83, Leah Novick is, by her reckoning, one of the oldest female rabbis in the country. It’s a part of her identity she carries with pride.

A driving force for more than four decades in the Renewal movement, the Carmel-based rabbi is an influential spiritual leader, Kabbalah teacher and champion for the “divine feminine” in Judaism who spent the first half of her career in politics, advocating for the same feminist and progressive values she would later incorporate into her Jewish teachings.

“She is just a real light,” said Rabbi SaraLeya Schley, rabbi emerita at Berkeley Renewal congregation Chochmat HaLev. “She has done so much toward bringing consciousness of the divine feminine into Judaism.”

“I don’t feel like I have to deny where we came from,” Novick said, referring to her understanding of early Judaism’s pagan roots.

Novick spoke to J. in her comfortable office in Carmel Valley where she sees clients for spiritual counseling. A corner display holds Native American feathers and a silver wand with crystals that she has used as a Torah pointer.

Bringing out a small replica of a statue representing the mother goddess Asherah, she explained that the female deities were part of the ancient world in which Judaism evolved. She noted that the Torah describes Rachel bringing idols from her father’s house.

“If you go to the excavations in Israel, what do they find around the ovens [in ancient homes]? There are thousands of these figurines in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem,” Novick said. “I don’t sit and pray to a statue, obviously, but I’m not uncomfortable with statues … It’s an important part of understanding where the divine feminine comes from.”

It was a long road Novick traveled from her Orthodox upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to her political activism and congressional advocacy as a young adult and, finally, at midlife, to Jewish Renewal and the rabbinate.

Novick at a “Kabbalah of Love” workshop photo/courtesy laura jones lewis

Born Jan. 21, 1932, Novick remembers her grandfather tutoring her daily in Hebrew and Jewish subjects starting at age 3. When she was a teenager, her family moved to New York, where she attended an after-school Jewish and Hebrew program and considered herself a Zionist. (She maintains a strong connection to Israel and visits often.)

She graduated from Brooklyn College and went on to get a master’s degree in public policy. When her three children were young, she worked as a social science researcher and was an energetic activist for civil rights, peace and other causes. In the late 1950s, while living in West Chester, Pennsylvania, she participated in sit-ins and lie-ins to integrate the community’s swimming pools; later, living in Westchester County, New York, she helped organize Jewish groups to attend the 1963 March on Washington.

Novick ran unsuccessfully for the New York state Legislature in 1970 and moved to Washington to work as chief aide for Jewish Rep. Bella Abzug. She focused on legislative issues that would help women and families, such as child care and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. In 1977, she helped coordinate the International Women’s Year Commission, a one-time congressional conference held during the Carter administration. “I was very defined by my work and, of course, my family,” Novick said.

But she was already on her way to a period of great transformation and change — her life’s second act.

The spark was a 1975 visit to Big Sur, where Novick was awed by the natural landscape, which seemed imbued with a divine and, in her eyes, uniquely feminine presence. Although she’d always felt a strong connection to nature, the landscape brought her back to a spiritual openness and freedom she remembered feeling when she was young.

“Soul Essence Portrait” by Sofanya White in Novick’s office.

“As soon as I arrived, I felt a sense of connectedness. I saw feminine forms in the mountain and the ocean,” Novick said. “I think in some way there was that quality of being able to go to … the Garden of Eden. That there’s someplace that feels whole and feels safe and perfect, and where we understand that we are part of the divine, that there is no separation.”

California in the ’70s was at the vanguard of spiritual exploration, from a newfound fascination with Eastern religions to self-improvement training courses like EST, founded in San Francisco. The Esalen Institute in Big Sur already was a hub of New Age inquiry, offering workshops on Eastern religions, mindfulness and psychology.

Novick knew she had to be a part of it in some way. With her 27-year marriage ending and her youngest child in his teens, she told a friend, “I’m going to leave my work in the East and come to California.”

“There was a point in my life where I needed to go inward, and I needed to respond to what was calling me internally,” Novick said. “I think our Christian colleagues have the right word: It’s a calling.”

In 1978, Novick accepted a position at Stanford as a guest professor, sharing her political experience with students. On campus as an ambassador from the East Coast political world, Novick felt as if she’d arrived in Camelot. “My colleagues were riding to work on bicycles in shorts,” she said.

Novick (left) with Congresswoman Bella Abzug at 1977 National Women’s Conference photo/Copyright © 1977 Diana Mara Henry / www.dianamarahenry.com

She spent only one term at Stanford but decided to stay in the area, periodically returning to the East Coast to drum up work assignments. While living in San Francisco, Novick wrote a book on the history of women at Democratic political conventions; in 1980 she moved across the bay and spent much of the next decade teaching at U.C. Berkeley’s graduate school of public policy.

She continued to take frequent trips to Big Sur and Esalen, where she delved into Gestalt psychology and  meditation, a practice she continues. At Esalen she was exposed to Hindu, Buddhist and Native American spiritual practices, laying the groundwork for an ecumenical approach to faith that became an essential part of her religious life. She studied with Daniel Matt, a leading Kabbalah scholar and Zohar translator at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. And she was exposed to the goddess movement, a neopagan spiritual practice that elevated a female conception of divinity.

“During the 1960s and 1970s, women who were identifying with the new feminist movement were looking around for places to find themselves spiritually,” said Leigh Ann Hildebrand, a Ph.D. candidate in Jewish history and culture at GTU who has written about the intersection of neopaganism and Jewish feminism. “One of the problems that they were seeing was male God language; they were feeling oppressed by the structure of their religions and looking around for other sources.”

Though their search for a female divine force pulled some women toward pagan practice (notably Starhawk, a Bay Area spiritual leader from a Jewish background), Novick’s search led her deeper into Judaism.

Perhaps the biggest influence on her spiritual development was Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of Jewish Renewal, whom she met in the 1970s.

At her 1987 ordination, Novick with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi photo/courtesy yehudit golfarb

Novick was drawn to his mystical approach to Judaism and his knowledge of other spiritual traditions. Through Reb Zalman, Novick became interested in what she describes as Judaism’s prepatriarchal roots. She learned, among other things, about female-centered forms of pagan worship during biblical times in which idols were used to represent kitchen goddesses and fertility goddesses — a notion that has since been embraced by other scholars, but which was unusual at the time.

“I saw his cosmic mind,” Novick said, noting that Reb Zalman was an expert on everything from whirling dervishes to Roman Catholic Mass. “He had the most broadly ecumenical knowledge that I’ve ever encountered in anybody.”

She developed an ongoing relationship with the former Lubavitch rabbi, who inspired the creation of Berkeley’s Aquarian Minyan and regularly visited the Bay Area. On those visits, Novick would often drive him to his various appointments. She used their time together to encourage him to ordain more women.

“Ultimately, he turned to me and said, ‘What about you?’ ” Novick said.

Reb Zalman ordained Novick in 1987 at age 55. He accepted her studies, research and writing as part of the fulfillment of requirements for smicha, or ordination, she said. She also studied with Reb Zalman and other teachers for seven years before her smicha.

Much of Novick’s rabbinical work has focused on studying, teaching and reclaiming the Shechinah, the divine female energy variously understood in Jewish mysticism as God’s consort; as a presence representing God’s feminine qualities; or as the fully realized feminine aspect of God.

After her ordination, Novick founded the Berkeley Renewal group Beit Shekhinah, which celebrated Shabbat and holidays together. It grew out of a women’s Rosh Hodesh group, used feminine and nongendered God language, and welcomed gay, lesbian and interfaith families. She did similar work after moving to the Monterey area, where in the 1990s she founded the Renewal group Shabbos in Carmel. She also helped to create Ruach Ha’Aretz, a Renewal retreat group established with Reb Zalman’s encouragement.

“She created a particular atmosphere that was particularly Leah Novick. It had the sense of a theater,” said Rabbi David Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, who occasionally attended Beit Shekhinah. “It isn’t just an issue of saying the right words and singing the right songs and saying the right prayers, but creating an atmosphere of sacred holiness.”

In 2008, Novick published “On the Wings of Shekhinah: Rediscovering Judaism’s Divine Feminism.” And in 2012, she convened a cross-denominational retreat of female rabbis in Northern California.

“She carries a lineage of women rabbis,” said Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El, a Reform congregation in Aptos, who helped organize the retreat. “You could feel her embodiment of so much love and years of service.”

Novick still has plenty of projects underway. She’s working on a book about notable Jewish women throughout history, and is lobbying Jewish museums to start a collection of women’s tallitot, including many she owns. She also hopes to build a Jewish meditation garden in the shape of the sephirot, or attributes of God, on the kabbalistic tree of life. And she continues to conduct weddings and other lifecycle ceremonies and lead meditation and guided visualization workshops.

Novick swims daily for exercise and walks on the Carmel beach. She’s preparing her papers to be archived at the University of Colorado, where Reb Zalman’s archives are kept. And much as he turned his attention to what he called “eldering” in his final years, Novick has begun leading workshops about the end of life and conscious dying.

“I see a lot of messiness that goes on because people don’t have a plan,” said Novick, who has five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. “An important part of dealing with end of life is not just having a plan, but having a way of going gracefully.”

She says one of the most important lessons she’s learned has been about staying open to changing course, even at an age where most people simply would stay put. “My life,” she said, “has been about constant change.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.