By Chaye Kohl
THE JEWISH STATE www.thejewishstate.net
March 14, 2008
Author's note: The Purim story highlights the leadership of Queen Esther. Today, in the modern Orthodox community, more young women have become leaders within Jewish communal life, providing services that until now were the purview of assistant rabbis. This column highlights Rachel Kohl Finegold, a former resident of Highland Park, now Education and Ritual Director at Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation in Lakeview, Chicago. The writer is her proud Mom.
"Did anyone get up and walk out?" My mom was quizzing me on the details. I was recounting the awe inspiring (and yes, awesome) Rosh Hashanah 5768 I had spent with my daughter. The experience included hearing her deliver a sermon, on day two of the chag, to Congregation Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation of Lakeview, in Chicago, Ill.
Rachel graduated from the Drisha Scholars' Circle in New York last May. In July, she and her husband Avi moved to Lakeview -- he to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, and she to assume her new position as Education and Ritual Director for a Modern Orthodox congregation.
One evening she phoned, inviting me to spend Rosh Hashanah in Chicago. Although my check was in, and a seat reserved at my shul, I went online and immediately bought an airline ticket. For weeks, my daughter and I had managed only hurried conversations when Rachel had a few moments. The brief anecdotes gave me a sense of what she was doing -- I relished the opportunity to see her in action, up close and personal.
My initial motherly curiosity about where Rachel and Avi had set up housekeeping (they have been married a year) was eclipsed by my anticipation of being at Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation. Over the next three days (Rosh Hashanah and the Shabbat that followed on its heels) I kept "rabbi's hours." I joined Rachel, coming on time to services and praying three times a day with a minyan. I watched her interact with congregants. She asked about family members, answered queries about holiday issues, and presented Divrei Torah (Torah discourses). She was, in effect, doing the job of an assistant rabbi, all within the parameters of Modern Orthodoxy.
Often my eyes teared; sometimes there was a lump in my throat. Rachel had found a job where she could use all of the Torah education she had studiously acquired. She was serving the Jewish community using her penchant for working with people, her ability to teach, her talent for organization, and her theatrical talent.
How did this "come to pass?"
The Search Committee of Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation in Chicago began interviewing young men -- they wanted to hire an assistant rabbi. Meanwhile, Rachel, a Drisha intern at The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. was asked to speak at the National Synagogue's Yom Iyun (Day of Learning). One of the other panelists at the day of learning was Rabbi Asher Lopatin, rabbi of Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation. Later, after Rachel had made her presentation, Rabbi Lopatin asked her about her post-Drisha plans. She explained that she was in the process of looking for a job, hoping to work for Hillel on a college campus or teach high school at a Jewish Day School. "My congregation is looking for an assistant rabbi," Rabbi Lopatin said, "but they really should hire someone like you, only they don't know that yet." Rachel submitted her resume, went through the interview process, and was installed in the Carol Fuchs Kaufman Rabbanit Chair, a newly endowed position at Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation, in July 2007.
When she writes her memoirs, Rachel will provide her perspective and the benefit of hindsight will enrich the account. This essay, however, is an Ema's perspective. While I sat in the synagogue watching Rachel, and as I later recounted the experience to my mom, I was having "flashbacks." Mileposts along the way, as Rachel grew from child to teen to young adult all had pointed to this job. I was now seeing it so clearly. Years ago, I never imagined that my daughter would be one of the five Modern Orthodox women in the United States who currently function as assistants to senior rabbis in congregations. In each congregation they may hold different titles, but their roles encompass programming, education, and rabbinic responsibilities.
What went into the making of this Rabbanit?
When Rachel was in second grade she had regular homework phone calls, working with Sarri, a girl in her class. Rachel would be working at the kitchen table and I would be preparing dinner, a non-threatening, eavesdropping mother. Rachel never gave Sarri the answers. Instead, she provided encouragement, guiding Sarri to discover the answers for herself. I was convinced that Rachel would someday be a teacher.
Rachel was the second young woman to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah at our shul, the Yavneh Minyan of Flatbush. She delivered a dvar Torah to the entire congregation at the conclusion of tefilah, from the pulpit -- something unheard of in other shuls in our neighborhood. She and I worked on the dvar Torah and her elocution. I was struck by her assumption that this opportunity to speak to the congregation was her birthright. After all, her brother read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah, and this was her way to indicate she had come of age as a bat Torah. I proudly watched her deliver her talk, wondering if she would have an opportunity like this ever again.
In high school, Rachel had leading roles in every school play; she directed portions of musical productions. She was the musical director of a Jewish a cappella group and organized myriad activities at Boston University Hillel. As a college senior, she began working part time for Ma'ayan, the women's learning initiative in Boston. She stayed on, as full-time program director the following year, computerizing their records and professionalizing their operations.
Rachel has volunteered with Livnot Ulehibanot in Israel; been a counselor at Szarvas, the Lauder sponsored camp in Hungary; and been director of the teen program, MaGeN, at Camp Nesher. She has tutored, given talks, and written her share of papers. All this helped her discover her talent for organization and her ability to connect with people. But that is not the entire story.
A memory from her teenage years: It is Shabbat, and Rachel, a teenager, has a few girlfriends who are spending Shabbat with our family. Halfway through the meal, I begin to read an excerpt from an article just published in The New York Times. It profiles the first two women to be congregational interns in Modern Orthodox congregations. I am enthusiastically explaining how groundbreaking this is, and Rachel turns to me: "Ema, I understand why you are so excited -- this never happened when you were a kid. But, it makes sense for these women to get these jobs -- that's what they were educated for."
The other girls concurred. I remember thinking: "Hey, Chaye, you're not in Kansas anymore!"
During my holiday stay in Lakeview, congregants at Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation, having figured out the mother-daughter connection between Rachel and me, introduced themselves to me and lauded my daughter's work at the shul. The programming Rachel organized for the young children ran smoothly and was meaningful. Rachel had also instituted a new program for teens, and as a veteran high school educator I was asked to be part of it. It was a spiritually oriented, age appropriate set of sessions. I was proud to be part of it.
The highlight of my chag, though, was hearing Rachel speak before the congregation. At each prayer service, preceding the reading of both the Torah portion and the Haftorah, there was a pause in the action. A short summary of the text about to be read, punctuated with a thoughtful question, was presented. Rabbi Lopatin alternated with Rachel. Each of them stood near the bima -- he spoke from his side of the mechitzah and she spoke from her side. The mechitzah is low enough so that all congregants could see the rabbi and Rachel when they stood.
Sermons, on the other hand, delivered before shofar blowing, were delivered from the pulpit at the front of the sanctuary. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5768 I watched and listened as Rachel delivered the sermon to the congregation. I was reminded of the depths of her scholarship while at the same time I marveled at her poise. Hours spent riding in the carpool home from drama rehearsals; years of yeshiva tuition; the post-high school year at Midreshet Lindenbaum; three years of 9-to-5 days spent in the Beit Midrash and classrooms of Drisha; they all had led to this moment.
The congregants' rapt attention included occasional nods, and giggles in the right places. Rachel had found her niche; I felt so privileged, as her mother, to celebrate her accomplishment.
I wrote this article in 2008. Rachel and Avi, now parents of two daughters, still live in Chicago. Rachel is in her sixth year at Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation as Education and Ritual Director. For three years Rachel has been telecommuting for an advanced degree. She has been pursuing rabbinic studies and in June 2013 she will graduate as part of the first class of Yeshivat Maharat.
Ms. Chaye Kohl is Head of School at Hillel Community Day School, the Jewish community day school in Rochester, New York, and the author of the children’s book, My Telephone Savta. She has been working in Jewish education for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, and is also a sought-out Torah teacher.