In 1922, the CCAR passed a resolution allowing women to be ordained as Reform rabbis. The resolution stated clearly and specifically: “In keeping with the spirit of our age, and the traditions of our Conference, we declare that women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” This was a groundbreaking moment in contemporary Jewish history, but it’d be another 50 years before the CCAR’s decision resulted in real culture change and before women were given access to the place they rightfully belonged: on the bimah and leading the Jewish community. In 1972, Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi in the world ordained by a rabbinical seminary, shattering the stained glass ceiling and becoming a hero and role model for the women who have followed her. Still, even today, the concept of women rabbis can be novel enough that women are often still firsts—first woman rabbi in their congregation, in their geographical location, to serve on boards, and the list goes on. And many women still struggle to be seen as “real” rabbis.
During Women’s History Month—and always—we share the stories of women rabbis, their profound wisdom and impact, and celebrate their unique contributions to the Jewish community. Here, we share the “firsts” of Rabbi Karen L. Fox, LMFT, ordained in 1978.The CCAR is proud to be an organization that lifts up women and has done so for 100 years—and counting.
It’s quite amazing that 100 years ago the CCAR asserted the possibility of women’s inclusion as rabbis within the Reform community. Although at that time, most women had not come out from behind a mechitza in synagogue settings, and if they did it was to allow family seating in services. Stepping into Jewish leadership would break the halachic/Jewish legal boundaries, the social expectations of women, and the psychosocial transference that congregants project to their rabbis. And yes, change takes time…perhaps 100 years or more.
Finding courage In the 1920s, my great aunt Dr. Charlotte Schwarzenberger (Lotte)studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and became a PhD in Psychology. Her sisters also pushed the envelope for that time— Frida became a LCSW, and Trude, a partner in a citrus import-export business with her husband. My grandmother Berta wanted to go to medical school, but she married early and had two children; she certainly would have loved the medical profession and had the intellect to pursue it. The influence of these great aunts, the Tantes, and my grandmother gave me courage to enter the rabbinate when there was only one woman rabbi yet ordained.
Two male rabbis influenced me as well. Rabbi Haim Asa, a Bulgarian-born refugee became our family rabbi in Fullerton, California. He encouraged me to attend UAHC Camp Swig, and later to enter the rabbinate. His joy of Jewish people and community was contagious. Rabbi Richard Levy, the UCLA Hillel director while I was an undergraduate, also reflected joy and purpose in his love of the rabbinate, encouraging me, saying “It was fun!”
When meeting with Rabbi Alexander Schindler, I argued for maternity/parental leave, and he responded, ‘None of our other rabbis asked for parental leave before.’ My response, ‘None of the other rabbis have been women before.’
Rabbi Karen Fox
Firsts, finally When I was ordained from HUC-JIR in 1978, I was approached by the UAHC (now the Union for Reform Judaism) to become an assistant regional director. That was clearly flattering—I only knew Reform Jewish life from my HUC-JIR studies, UAHC camps, and my home congregation. It was my opportunity to learn the administrative, social, and political agenda of Reform Judaism. And I grabbed it, also because I could stay in New York as a single woman.
What I now know is that most regional directors were experienced rabbis with pragmatic congregational, administrative, and financial experience they could share with congregations in their areas. Looking back, I believe my unspoken function, was to serve as an informal orientation to Reform congregations regarding women rabbis.
In the hundreds of congregations in the New York and later the New Jersey region, I was often the first women rabbi people would meet, asking me all the awkward woman rabbi questions. I was not offended by their naive or intrusive questions as I understood I was among the first to shift this rabbinic leadership culture. Often I was the only woman professional who was not a secretary or assistant in meetings, board rooms, or conferences.
When meeting with Rabbi Alexander Schindler, I argued for maternity/parental leave, and he responded, “None of our other rabbis asked for parental leave before.” My response, “None of the other rabbis have been women before.”
I received three months and promptly shared this news with my women colleagues.
I felt passion to be the best rabbi I could be representing Reform Judaism at that time and promoting women in the rabbinate as part of my purpose of reseeding Jewish life in America.
I was supported by two outstanding colleagues at the UAHC—Rabbi Alan Bergman and Rabbi Sandy Selzer. Each suggested ways to handle the “old boys” network of the Union and the landmines of their agenda. My women colleagues were the angels to my right and left—especially Rabbi Rosalind Gold and Rabbi Deborah Prinz.
A first at Wilshire Boulevard Temple I was a first at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and I’m grateful to two men for guiding my path. I came to the position as rabbi and camp director because of previous relationships. I knew Rabbi Harvey J. Fields from my New Jersey days, and he had recently become the senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Steve Breuer, the executive director, had hired me as a teen to work at Camp Hess Kramer. They both came to bat for me before it was common for women to be on the pulpit and worked with the lay leadership to welcome me as a rabbi there. At Wilshire, there were many firsts: funerals, when folks didn’t really want a woman; weddings for those who had been longtime congregants. Some began with resistance and ended in lifelong respectful and significant relationships. Developing programming for women business professionals, offering support for families experiencing infertility, guiding women to leadership in prayer practice through adult b’nei mitzvah and minyan leadership, celebrating women’s seders in the 1980s; all of these acts were new at the time, as was bringing additional women rabbis to Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Family first My brother Steven A. Fox is also rabbi and was ordained two years after me, in 1980. He shared his 1980 ordination day with classmate Rabbi Michael Weinberg whose sister is Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus (ordained HUC-JIR, 1979). I gave the invocation and she the benediction. Sharing the rabbinate has allowed us a shared language as siblings, a closeness within a circle of friends and family, and a commitment to common values.
I kvelled at his Installation to the CCAR as Chief Executive and cried at his retirement, knowing how proud our parents would have felt: Dave and Senta Salomons Fox came to American as European refugee survivors, as Dad said “with nothing,” and never imagined that their children would become significant Jewish leaders.
One hundred years ago, in 1922, the CCAR passed a resolution allowing women to be ordained as Reform rabbis. It stated clearly and specifically: “In keeping with the spirit of our age, and the traditions of our Conference, we declare that women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” This resolution was groundbreaking, but it’d be another 50 years before the CCAR’s decision resulted in real culture change and before women were given access to the place they rightfully belonged: on the bimah, behind the Torah, leading the Jewish community. In 1972, the peerless Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi in the world ordained by a rabbinical seminary, shattering the stained glass ceiling and becoming a hero and role model for the women who’ve followed her. Still, to this day, the concept of women rabbis is new enough that women are often still firsts—first woman rabbi in their congregation, first woman rabbi in their town, first woman senior rabbi in their congregation, first woman rabbi to serve on boards. And many women still struggle to be seen as “real” rabbis.
During Women’s History Month—and always—we share the stories of women rabbis, their profound wisdom and impact, and celebrate their unique contributions to the Jewish community. The CCAR is proud to be an organization that lifts up women and has done so for 100 years—and counting.
I grew up in Great Neck, New York assuming that the world was Jewish. Well, not the whole world. But my whole world. Every kid in school. Every house on my block. Every family I knew. “Old Mill Road” was known as “Temple Row.” For some peculiar reason, each of the synagogues were located on Old Mill Road. Every kid I knew went to either Great Neck Synagogue (it was Orthodox), or Temple Israel (it was Conservative), or Temple Beth El (it was Reform).
My family went to Temple Beth El. Or more aptly, my family belonged to Temple Beth El. (Interesting: today more people go to synagogue without becoming members. Back then, people joined synagogues but didn’t go.) My family was definitely among the “didn’t go-ers.” Back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was unthinkable not to be a member of a synagogue. My parents were the children of immigrants. Born and bred in Brooklyn. All of my grandparents, were from Poland and had left Poland for America in the early 1920s. My Uncle Aaron was born in Poland. His family was old-fashioned. They kept kosher. They were old-country. My parents were fiercely American. Even though they grew up speaking Yiddish in their home, my parents went to public school and became more American than the pope, to mix a few metaphors.
So I grew up in a household that was NOT observant and NOT religious and NOT kosher. We did NOT honor Shabbat in any way, but my parents were very proud of being Jewish. All their friends were Jewish. They joined a temple once they had children. And since they were blessed with two boys and a girl, they made sure that their two boys had bar mitzvahs. I still had to go to Sunday school, but when it came to the twice-a-week afternoon component that focused on Hebrew, I didn’t have to go. My brothers did. I was given a choice, and at the very wise age of seven, I said no. Besides, the only girl who went to Hebrew school was Marcie Harmon and she was the cantor’s daughter. Why would I do that?
A condition of my going only to Sunday school was that I had to stick it out through Confirmation in the 10th grade. I hated Sunday school. It didn’t mean anything to me. It wasn’t even where I could experience being Jewish because everybody in my public school was Jewish anyway.
When I got to Confirmation, there was a requirement that you had to go to services once a month. I lived for the onegs. The services were—sorry—unbearable. Somehow I learned, mid-year, that if you went to the youth group service, it would “count”’ for the monthly service requirement. I knew it’d be shorter (though I didn’t know if they had onegs there!) but I figured I’d try it.
I walked in, and there was a band on the bimah. Two guitars, a keyboard, and a drummer. They were playing “My Sweet Lord.” I guess you could say that George Harrison made me who I am today. I enjoyed the service, I liked the kids, and I got involved in the youth group. (Just this past February, we had a Zoom youth group reunion. Fifty of us were on the screen. Our youth advisors and our rabbis were also there.)
I had two rabbis: Rabbi Jacob Rudin and Rabbi Jerry Davidson. I didn’t know it at the time, but Rabbi Rudin was the senior rabbi. He looked like God. Or at least, if asked to draw a picture of God, I think everyone would have drawn a picture of Rabbi Rudin. Rabbi Davidson was the young, hip rabbi. Both were extraordinary rabbis.
To this day, I read Rabbi Rudin’s book of sermons every year before the High Holy Days to inspire me. I also quote him at every rabbinic installation I’ve ever been privileged to address. He first said these words to an ordination class of the Hebrew Union College in 1959. They have been in my heart ever since. He implored these about-to-be-rabbis with this advice:
“If you do not love those whom you serve, you will not be successful. If you do not care passionately, you will not convince your hearers that they should. If you preach from outside your subject, you will leave your hearers outside. If you preach from within, you will take your hearers into that same inner place.”
It was in my junior year of high school that I decided I wanted to be a rabbi. I had powerfully spiritual experiences in my youth group. My public high school allowed me to take Hebrew and Yiddish for my foreign language courses. I was also empowered to create my own curriculum and thereby study seriously, one-to-one, with my rabbi who introduced me to Rashi.
Both of my rabbis were great. It was 1971. There were no female rabbis….in the world. I had no female role models, except of course, my mother, who always said I could be anything I wanted to be. Being a rabbi was not what she had in mind. More like President of IBM or the United States. But she came along, and so did my father. They never ceased to be proud of me.
I had one secret though. I was gay. Ironically, I never worried that being female would keep me from being a rabbi. But being gay? That was another story. I worried. A lot. I confided in my friends. I wrote a letter (remember those?) to my high school confidante when we were each at our respective summer camps. I shared my anxiety. Her response—and this is a direct quote because I saved the letter: “What good does it do the Jewish faith for sincerely dedicated and concerned people like yourself to be alienated because of a Neanderthal attitude towards Lesbianism?”
I appreciated her logic. I decided to walk through that door. I had no idea what would hit me after I entered.
But first, I had to go to college. Kenyon College was the best choice I could have made. No Hillel. Barely any Jews, but a great Religion Department and the most Talmudic environment for learning that I have ever experienced.
Noted for its English department, I remember proudly turning in my first English paper— I believe it was on Tess of the d’Urbervilles. When I got it back, it had a big red letter grade that did not make me happy. I had researched and researched. At the end of my paper, my professor had written: “What of it?” I went to speak with him after class and he said, and I am quoting from memory: “If I wanted to know what some important scholar has to say about Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I could look it up myself. I want to know what YOU think.” That became a very important lesson in my life. Kenyon College taught me how to think.
I spent the first semester of my junior year in college in Israel, living on Kibbutz Usha, outside of Haifa. I picked a lot of grapefruit, ate a lot of falafel, learned Hebrew at the kibbutz ulpan, and went twice a week to the University of Haifa. I fell in love with everything about Israel, and when I came back to the United States I explored joining Garin Arava, a group of young Reform Jewish Americans who were trying to establish the first-ever Reform kibbutz in Israel. Which path should I follow? Rabbi or Kibbutznik? Both afforded me the opportunity to live a serious, liberal Jewish life in community with others. Matthew Sperber, a Great Neck classmate of mine, was also in Garin Arava. He ended up starting what became Kibbutz Yahel in 1977. He still lives there. The headline of a recent article about his life reads: “His Mother Wanted Him to Be a Rabbi, But He Went to Build a Kibbutz.” I decided to apply to rabbinical school.
Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute for Religion has four campuses: New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem. My family had moved from Great Neck to Santa Monica, so I figured I would go to rabbinical school in Los Angeles.
If I got in. I wasn’t worried about the academics and I wasn’t worried about the Hebrew. I was worried about the psychological testing you were required to undergo. Among the battery of tests was the Rorschach. In one of the inkblots, I saw two people kissing each other. I was convinced they would identify me as lesbian and there would be no rabbinical school for me. Oh, I neglected to say, but surely you realize—in 1977 there was NO CHANCE that a gay person would be accepted into rabbinical school. Zero. None.
I worried and worried, but a family friend who was also a psychologist, assured me that the inkblot was called, in the biz, “the love card.” “They just want to make sure you see love,” she said. Which I did.
I hated my first year of rabbinical school. I loved being in Jerusalem, but none of my classes did what Kenyon College had done. It wasn’t about thinking. It wasn’t about meaning. It was more about cramming and regurgitating. Thank God for Jerusalem. The city became my classroom and I was eager to learn.
Back in Los Angeles, school was better. But I was closeted. I still couldn’t be my whole self. So, I took a leave of absence to see if I was better suited to be a bank teller. I went to San Francisco for the year but never made it as a bank teller. I got a job with the Union for Reform Judaism and developed retreat programming for students all over the Bay Area so they might have a better time in Religious School than I had experienced.
I returned to rabbinical school, but this time in New York. The campus is right off of Washington Square and I figured that would be a better environment in which to plant myself. I was still closeted. The College made it very clear, in no uncertain terms, that if they learned that a student was gay they would be expelled. I confided in friends, I came out to my parents, but while I didn’t fear that my good friends would break my confidence, they feared that my own yearning to be open would ruin me. As Rachel Kadish wrote in The Weight of Ink, her recent book about the Inquisition: “Truth-telling is a luxury for those whose lives aren’t at risk.”
I was ordained May 24, 1984. I stepped off the bimah at Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue in New York, and onto an airplane headed to Minnesota to become the assistant rabbi at Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul. My motto: “To know me is to love me.” Surely, once we get to know each other, everything will be okay.
I had a blessed four-year tenure at Mt. Zion Temple. I loved the temple and the people who comprised it. We flourished together. Though it was not yet an official federal policy, I think we lived happily together under the rubric of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Falling in love with Nancy Abramson changed all that. While Nancy and I still jointly adhered to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy, our decision to live together pushed Mt. Zion members over the brink. Rumors started to fly and complaints started to be registered with the senior rabbi at the time. He and I had such a good relationship that I had shared my sexual orientation with him back in my first year, and he was okay with that, as long as it remained a secret. It wasn’t a secret anymore and there were an awful lot of complaints, he told me, and so, he told me, I would have to go. And now, get this: I understood! Of course, I would have to go.
But thankfully, when my departure was announced, there were members of the congregation who did NOT understand. There was a ruckus. On Thursday, February 18, 1988, I received a phone call from Clark Morphew. He was the religion editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. We had a relationship over the years. He told me, not unkindly, that there was going to be an article in the next day’s paper.
There was a lot of snow on the ground when I woke up that next day. I walked down our driveway and pulled the newspaper out of the mailbox. I opened it. My knees started shaking. Front page. Headline. Lesbian Rabbi Fired. So much for “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
First worry: our kids. They were in fourth grade and seventh grade. What would happen to them? That evening, Jill’s best friend’s parents came over with flowers. Charlie’s best friend’s parents came with a box of chocolates. Nancy and I cried. So much hate, and so much love.
Our family’s world was imploding and exploding around us. But I truly felt the fierce power of the biblical words: those who sow in tears will reap in joy (Psalm 126:5). And at the end of the day, that is exactly what happened: those congregants at Mt. Zion Temple who felt they’d lost their spiritual home created a new one. They called it Shir Tikvah, Song of Hope. In June of 1988, Shir Tikvah became the first mainstream congregation to hire an openly gay rabbi. Together, over twenty years, we grew the congregation from 40 households to 400 households.
I loved my congregation, and I poured myself into my work. We were true partners in creating meaning in people’s lives, shifting the world towards justice, and living and breathing Jewish values and teachings. Nancy and I assumed we’d one day retire in Minnesota, she from her amazing career in mental health, and me from Shir Tikvah. We’d live happily ever after and one day be buried in that beautiful Jewish cemetery around the corner from where we lived.
But that was not to happen. Out of the blue, I received a phone call one day from the President of the Union for Reform Judaism. I was recruited to be a Vice President at the URJ. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. Instead of being the rabbi of one congregation, I would be rabbi to the 900 congregations that formed the URJ. Besides: our daughter and son-in-law now lived in New York and my parents had come back to New York, where my mother was now living with terminal cancer. It had always plagued me that I wouldn’t be able to walk with her through her final days and this was an opportunity to do just that.
Nancy and I packed up our Prius and moved to New York City. We did have more time with our children, and yes, our first grandchild was born and we were able to be right there. Nancy and I spent time with my mother daily. She died ten weeks after we came to New York.
I missed synagogue life. I missed holding the Torah. I missed being able to make a difference in people’s lives. Being a bureaucrat, I discovered, was not for me.
But what to do? Shir Tikvah had been my “one and only.” I wasn’t convinced that I could go back to synagogue life. So I decided to try it out by serving as an interim rabbi at Adath Emanuel, a congregation in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. I loved my time at Adath. I loved being back at the synagogue, standing on the bimah before the open ark. I loved it so much that I knew I wanted to seek a long-term relationship with a congregation.
And that is where Temple Beth Tikvah comes into the story. It felt like a match made in heaven. The people. The values. The potential. The history. The hope. Nancy and I were taken with it all.
You are all a part of the rest of the story. Nancy and I have treasured our years with you. We have grown together and learned together and been challenged together. There have been births and b’nei mitzvah, weddings, and death. There has been illness and recovery. There has been a pandemic, and still, we are building and growing.
And soon, there will be a new chapter. A new chapter for Temple Beth Tikvah and a new chapter for Nancy and me. In Mishnah Pirkei Avot, the rabbis discuss the proper relationship with the Torah. It counsels that the Torah should never be a kardom lachpor, the Torah should never be a spade to dig with. In other words, don’t use it to make a living. Rather, the best experience of Torah, the best learning of Torah, is torah lishmah, Torah that is learned for its own sake (Pirkei Avot 4:5).
It’s a tricky path, but I have been blessed to have my life’s work be Torah. And soon, upon retirement, I look forward to the sweetest Torah of all, that which is lishmah, Torah for its own sake.
I feel twice blessed. It has been a privilege to make a career of Torah and to be personally sustained and anchored by Torah at the very same time.
Rabbi Stacy Offner served as the Rabbi of Temple Beth Tikvah from 2012 – 2021. Rabbi Offner is also the Founding Rabbi Emerita of Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis. A Magna Cum Laude graduate of Kenyon College, Rabbi Offner earned both her M.A. and Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa, from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.For more about women in the rabbinate, read The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate.