The column | She’s top dog among Reform lay leaders

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For Daryl Messinger, the question isn’t why it took the Reform movement so long to appoint a woman as chair of its congregational arm, the Union for Reform Judaism. Rather, said the Palo Alto resident, the real question is why more women don’t fill top posts in general.

“It’s important for women to be leaders everywhere,” said Messinger, who was formally installed as the URJ’s chair last month at the group’s biennial in Orlando, Florida. “One of the most important things I can do is be a really good leader, be a role model. I want our daughters and granddaughters — and husbands and sons — to know that women are as capable and deserving of leadership [as men]. It is a role that women fill. There is no difference.”

She paused to take a sip of the coffee she’d grabbed from the lobby café at the Washington, D.C., Hilton, where we both were attending last month’s General Assembly of the Jewish federation system. It was early morning, and yes, she was better dressed than I was at that hour.

And a lot more awake, which was pretty incredible considering the ridiculous amount of airtime she’d logged the previous four weeks: In mid-October, she and her husband swept through New York, Paris and Budapest to visit Moishe Houses and Reform communities; then she flew to Israel for the World Zionist Congress, where she was an elected delegate on the Reform slate; next, home to unpack and pack again before setting off Nov. 1 for the URJ biennial, and then straight up to D.C. for the GA the next week.

Tired? Nope — energized, especially after spending time with young Reform communities in Europe, which she called “vibrant” and “really exciting.”

“When people say ‘Reform Judaism,’ there’s a belief that it has a uniform look and feel,” she told me. “But there’s a real spectrum. Certain ideals are basic — egalitarian, pluralistic, the idea that there are many ways to engage and be Jewish. But [approaches to] God, Torah and Israel are not as uniform as one might think, even in North America. Even in San Francisco you can see a real range of practice, in terms of music, bar mitzvah expectations and so on. It’s not, ‘Here’s the script and you must follow.’ ”

Everywhere in the world, Reform communities take on specific characteristics as they respond to local realities. In Israel, where 45 congregations are affiliated with the Reform movement, worship services vary widely, she said, from the American-friendly singing at Kol HaNeshamah, a large, established shul in Jerusalem, to the small Reform congregation in Netanya, largely composed of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, which gives it a different character altogether.

Messinger told me about a Passover seder she attended in Hong Kong, where many of the members are ex-pat American men married to Chinese women who, although not Jewish, have become active in Jewish life. And the matzah balls in the soup were made of whole wheat, which she pronounced “delicious.”

“I love the idea of a Chinese chef using Chinese women’s recipes to make traditional Ashkenazi food,” she said. “Everywhere you go, there’s enough that’s similar, but each culture puts their imprint. That’s the beauty.

“I don’t think enough people take advantage of seeing themselves as part of a worldwide movement. It’s something I really enjoy.”

Another thing she enjoys is bringing the best of Bay Area values to the larger Reform community, from an emphasis on social justice to California’s pioneering spirit. It’s no coincidence, she says, that both she and Amy Asin, the URJ’s vice president for strengthening congregations, are from the Bay Area — in fact, both are members of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, where Janet Marder, the senior rabbi, is a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical association (and the first woman to fill that role).

“I think we take for granted how innovative and risk-taking our Jewish organizations are in the Bay Area, how vibrant and experimental,” Messinger said. “That’s something we need to celebrate more.

“Yes, we’re not as ‘affiliated,’ and we may be more intermarried, but we’re growing, and we have consistently great leadership. Not many places can say that.”

Sue Fishkoff
is the editor of J., and can be reached at [email protected].

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].