Chaya Baker, Israel’s only female Masorti pulpit rabbi, urges American Conservative Jews to “help us fix” the problems her movement faces. Photo by Robert Wiener
February 21, 2008
After growing up in Ra’anana as the daughter of a father who embraced Orthodoxy and a mother whose views inclined toward the Reform movement, Chava Rowan Baker made an interesting career choice.
She became a rabbi in the Masorti movement — the religious strain that American Jews call “Conservative.”
Although there are other Conservative woman rabbis in Israel, she is currently the only female Masorti pulpit rabbi in the country, serving at Congregation Ramot-Zion in the French Hill section of Jerusalem.
She spoke with NJ Jewish News on Feb. 15 at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange after a meeting with members of the Women’s Department of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. Baker said that when she sought Masorti ordination, she had the full support of her understanding parents.
“They are two outstanding people,” she said. “They really knew how to be tolerant. My father is a very devoted, very observant Orthodox Jew, but he is also very liberal in his thinking. He knows how to accept the fact that he doesn’t own the full truth and the other outlooks are very valid,” she said.
Together, her parents gave her, if not the desire to enter the rabbinate, an abiding interest in Judaism. Baker graduated from MetroWest High School — Ra’anana is a partnership community of UJC MetroWest — then received a bachelor’s degree in Jewish history and archeology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a master’s from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.
“It has not been my lifelong dream to be a rabbi,” Baker confided. “I went to rabbinical school because I wanted to learn Judaism on a high level. At Schechter Institute I got a stipend, and the only thing they asked is that I be a rabbi for three years. I figured ‘OK, what does a rabbi do? A rabbi teaches. I’ve been doing that all my life and I’m good at it. I love it.”
She was ordained in December, but already, the rabbi said, she has “fallen in love with the work” and plans to keep at it long after her three-year commitment ends.
Like many other working women, however, she faces the pull of family and parenthood. In fact, she said, her husband, Etai Baker, a business consultant, “was not so happy about my becoming a rabbi.” The couple has two small daughters, and he “knows what it means to be married to a rabbi. He knows it’s a lot of work.”
Baker began her job in December and is her synagogue’s first religious leader in 20 years. As such, she said, she feels a bit of a pioneer spirit and pays homage “to a generation of women rabbis out there before me.”
And yet, “I feel like everything is still forming. I am still defining what it means to be a pulpit rabbi and a mother. It is a huge challenge. There is no set standard way of going at this.”
Even within her own religious movement, Baker said, there are obstacles. “Some Masorti congregations do have problems with a woman rabbi. Some won’t hire a woman rabbi, even though they are egalitarian. But in my congregation I find only support.”
Baker’s synagogue has a dues-paying membership with “a high level of observance,” she said, but her goal is to urge closer involvement for more of the people who “only come three times a year” or those “who come in for the children’s service then leave and go to the beach.”
The rabbi works in a nation whose political and religious structures are dominated by the Orthodox establishment, which controls such institutions as marriage, burial, and conversion.
Baker is intrigued by the notion that “there are people who are throwing the idea around” to organize non-Orthodox observant Jews into a political party. “In Israel, our movement is 20 years old and people are thinking, ‘What have we done? Where are we going?’ If we had political power it would be very helpful in terms of getting money and recognition.”
And yet, she recognizes that “people are very afraid of getting into the political arena. In Israel, being in politics means necessarily that you have to take a stand on the territories and those issues. Each of us has our own stand on the occupation and the settlements, but our agenda as a religious movement is religious and not territorial.”
When it comes to sermonizing about politics from the pulpit, the rabbi said, she does so “very carefully. The congregation says it doesn’t want people preaching Right, people preaching Left. So the problem is: What is politics? Some people say if I talk about social justice, that’s political and it’s generally more leftist. But I object to that rule.
“When you touch on civil rights, then it borders on talking about the Palestinians. Am I allowed to talk about civil rights? To my mind you are allowed to and you have to, but I haven’t had many chances to preach yet in my shul. When I do, I am sure there will be people who will get angry at me. But I am going to tell them that just because I am not allowed to identify with a certain party doesn’t mean I can’t identify with the burning issues of our society.”
After attending her movement’s recent Rabbinical Assembly in Washington, DC, Baker prepared for a taste of Conservative Judaism, suburban style, as weekend scholar-in-residence at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell.
“My main message is out of a bit of frustration,” she said a few hours before attending Shabbat services at CAI. “I hear a lot from Masorti Americans that people are thinking of making aliya, but religiously, things are not the way that they want. Things are difficult for the Conservative movement in Israel. My message would be: ‘Help us fix it.’
“There are many, many reasons not to make aliya; I can only imagine how difficult it would be to leave America,” she said. “But if things are not that great, let’s get together and let’s fix them. Let’s pool our forces and help those in Israel who are fighting these things, so that in 10 or 20 or 50 years, these things will be history.”
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