They’re accustomed to saying “Madame president” at Congregation Beth Israel — which wouldn’t be major news if it were a Reform synagogue.
But Beth Israel is Modern Orthodox.
In a list put out by the New York–based Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance a few months ago, Beth Israel of Berkeley stole the show. The JOFA Wall of Honor, which singled out all the known women to have served as congregational presidents at Orthodox shuls, listed Beth Israel seven times.
And now it’s eight.
Newly installed president Lois Marcus is the synagogue’s eighth female president, the highest tally of any Orthodox shul in the country. Moreover, it is the only synagogue of its kind that can claim women presidents as far back as 1973, in addition to a number of female vice presidents and treasurers over the years.
Judy Heicklen, the president of JOFA, a nonprofit that works to expand equality and opportunities for Orthodox women in synagogue and Jewish institutional life, said Orthodox women are making strides in terms of synagogue presidencies, but such postings remain rare.
“Obviously, ‘Orthodox’ covers a whole spectrum of beliefs, behaviors and culture,” Heicklen said, “but even within the more centrist [synagogues] of Modern Orthodox, it’s still pretty unusual to have a woman as a shul president.”
Beth Israel, its leaders say, has long strived for as much inclusivity and egalitarianism as possible within the bounds of halacha, or Jewish law.
In services, before the Torah is returned to the ark, it goes first to the men’s side of the mechitzah (the traditional separation of men and women which, at Beth Israel, is low), then to the middle, where a female congregant places it in the ark. Frequently, the synagogue also offers a women’s Torah service.
“I love everything about Congregation Beth Israel,” said Marcus, the new president, who grew up in a Reform household in Cincinnati and is a former president of Berkeley Hillel. “It’s very welcoming, and it seemed very natural for women to assume leadership roles.”
“It’s like basketball,” said Leslie Valas, who served as Beth Israel’s president from 2006 to 2008. “Women have control of the ball. Women have access to the physical experience of being with the Torah. That does not happen at every Orthodox congregation.”
Some Orthodox congregations forbid women from taking high leadership roles such as the presidency. Valas recalled a recent visit to Philadelphia where she toured an Orthodox synagogue. When she mentioned to her guide that she was a past president of a shul, the guide told her “That wouldn’t happen here.”
Said Beth Israel Rabbi Yonatan Cohen: “Beth Israel was formed as an organic community, as a spiritual family and home. It was only natural for both men and women — and we have been blessed by strong women — to step up and lead. One of the critical legacies of our founders is that in the Beth Israel family every person counts.”
In addition to Valas, the other past presidents are Katy Tornheim (1973-1974), Joan Sopher (1975-1978), Maxine Winer (1986-1988 and 1992-1993), Barbara Budnitz (1988-2000), Denise Resnikoff (2002-2004) and Rebecca Landes (2010-2012).
Heicklen said she suspects one reason for Beth Israel’s super egalitarian stance has to do with location.
“Berkeley does have that reputation for being much more open minded and free-thinking,” she said, “and has always been on the cutting edge of women’s equality. So it doesn’t surprise me at all.”
Marcus, meanwhile, isn’t dwelling on past feminist breakthroughs of her synagogue. With her vice presidents Noah Alper, Sara Schnittman and Jo-Ellen Pozner Zeitlin, she and the rest of the board are focused on the challenges facing the congregation as a whole.
“Beth Israel is growing,” Marcus said, “and how to accommodate that growth is the challenge, how to integrate the new people with older [congregants], the young with the old.”
Added Cohen: “At Beth Israel, we constantly strive to make sure that this Torah, these mitzvot, this spiritual family, belongs to every member, no matter what side of the mechitzah.”
View the Wall of Honor on the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance website at www.jofa.org/Advocacy/Presidential_Wall_of_Honor.