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Conversation with… Rabbi Debra Cantor

 

Bloomfield rabbi reflects on the state of American Jewry – 25 years after being among the first group of women ordained by the Conservative movement.

By Cindy Mindell

Rabbi Debra Cantor

Rabbi Debra Cantor

BLOOMFIELD – She was in the first group of women ordained by Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and among the latest detained for reading Torah aloud and wearing tallitot at the Western Wall. During the quarter-century in between, Rabbi Debra Cantor has not only witnessed change in the Conservative movement and the Jewish communities in the U.S. and Israel, but also often been at the forefront of significant developments.

On June 23, B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom in Bloomfield, where Cantor serves as spiritual leader, will celebrate the 25th anniversary of her ordination.

An Ellington native, Cantor earned her BA from Brandeis and was ordained by JTS in 1988, the first Connecticut woman to become a Conservative rabbi. She was hired that summer to serve as spiritual leader of Kane Street Synagogue in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, the first Conservative synagogue in New York to hire a woman rabbi.

Cantor returned to Connecticut in 1992 to serve as rabbi of Congregation B’nai Sholom, a Conservative synagogue in Newington that merged in April 2011 with Congregation Tikvoh Chadoshoh in Bloomfield to create B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom, where Cantor is rabbi.

Cantor has an extensive background in Jewish education, with particular expertise in adult learning, teacher training, synagogue change, leadership development, and Jewish outreach. She served as executive director of Camp Ramah in New England and as an education and synagogue consultant for the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Boston and adjunct lecturer at Hebrew College.

She is on the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford Jewish Community Relations Council and serves as rabbinic advisor for the Women’s Philanthropy division of the Federation. A member of the Rabbinical Assembly, she is founding chair of the Task Force on Women, a member of the Ethics Committee, and incoming president of the Connecticut Valley region.

Cantor is married to James Beede and they have two children, Max and Penina.

She spoke with the Ledger about her own Jewish journey and where she sees American Jewry heading.

Q: When did you know that you wanted to be a rabbi?

A: I grew up in Ellington, where my paternal grandparents had a large poultry farm. When I was really little I wanted to marry a rabbi and be a rebbetzin because a rebbetzin would know a lot of Jewish stuff, would be very Jewishly educated, and it would be her job to visit the sick and help people do Shabbat and do mitzvot and teach. When I was little, girls weren’t rabbis, so that’s how I translated that desire to be Jewishly educated and involved – rebbetzin was the closest I could get.

Later, as women were starting to be ordained, it came to me that I wanted to do the things rabbis do: a whole variety of activities as well as attaining a facility with Hebrew and Jewish learning – that package appealed to me.

I grew up in a little Yankee town with a small, close-knit Jewish community where I was the only Jewish kid in school until the end of high school, and I felt very, very fortunate to be Jewish. Not every Jewish kid would have reached that conclusion in that kind of environment. But it’s because of the way I was raised: my mother made every holiday so special and would send me to school before each Jewish holiday with props – a box of matzah before Passover; candles and chocolate gelt before Chanukah – and I would give a lecture to my class because I was the only Jewish kid. My family, and especially my mother, made it such a positive, joyful thing to be Jewish and I felt sorry for all my friends who were just like anybody else, “just Christian.” It was not a sense of superiority. I saw Judaism and Jewish life as being wonderful and so special.

 

 

Q: The Conservative movement didn’t ordain women until 1988. But the more liberal seminaries began accepting women earlier. Once you realized that you wanted to be a rabbi, why didn’t you apply to one of the other seminaries?

A: The Reform and Reconstructionist movements were accepting women and I seriously considered going to one of those seminaries, while at Brandeis and later, in graduate school, because JTS wasn’t moving so quickly to accept women. But I realized that I wasn’t really a Reform Jew – I was more traditionally observant than that. I thought I probably could get into Hebrew Union College but I would have to misrepresent myself. I couldn’t do that to go to rabbinical school; it would take away my integrity. I felt that it would be stealing because each movement heavily subsidizes their schools and training programs. Money from the Reform movement would subsidize my education when I am not intending to serve the Reform movement or function as a Reform rabbi. I know people who did that and some ended up in the Reform movement, but I knew who I was and I was not going to do that.

I did always believe that eventually, the Conservative movement would ordain women, but not in time for me. I thought maybe I’d be able to do it as a late second career, but it was very frustrating and hard. Initially, my optimism was the result of naïveté: I was a Judaic and Near Eastern studies major at Brandeis and became convinced in the middle of sophomore year that I really could become a Conservative rabbi. The world seemed to be so rapidly changing; women were being ordained in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, and it was only a matter of time before the Conservative movement did so as well. As a sophomore, graduation seems very far off. Two years later, as a senior, I was taken aback that the JTS still wasn’t accepting women – I thought it would have happened by then for sure.

I went to the seminary for an interview and met with Gerson Cohen, then head of the graduate school and later JTS chancellor, and said that I really would love to go to rabbinical school. He told me to come to the seminary as a graduate student in Talmud and rabbinics, almost all taught in the rabbinical school, and someday, when women were admitted, I’d get credit for that. And that’s what happened, but not right away. In between, I left the seminary, got married, and worked in the Soviet Jewry movement and for Hillel in greater New York City. I came back five years later as part of the first rabbinical school class that included women. I was voted class speaker by my fellow classmates.

 

Q: What do you see as the signs of challenge and of hope in the Jewish community?

A: What all the sociologists tell us and what we know anecdotally is that younger people do not affiliate with synagogues and churches in the way that people used to, with a very few notable exceptions. On the other hand, younger people do become very active and engaged in causes that they feel strongly about. From the new sociological studies and from talking to younger people and hearing about what my congregants’ children are doing, I see that they’re globally connected. They’re going all over the U.S. and the world and starting amazing projects and doing things on a startup, grassroots level, and funding creative projects on a grassroots level. In the Jewish community, we have begun a little bit to encourage and direct some of that energy Jewishly, but that’s an area of hope – to engage younger people around their passions.

At the same time as we have lots of families with young kids, for instance, who are not particularly engaged Jewishly, we also have the runaway success of things like PJ Library, and you can build other activities around that. There are some really interesting innovative outreach ideas and there’s such a large cohort of young Jews who have had very intensive Jewish learning experiences – day schools, overnight summer camps, retreats, programs in Israel, youth groups. There are many more younger Jews with a much deeper, richer Jewish education.

I really believe in both formal and informal intensive Jewish experiences. In February, I became “famous” for getting arrested at the Wall in Jerusalem [see “Bloomfield rabbi makes international news,” Jewish Ledger, Feb. 20, 2013]. But it was the Kiev part of that mission, with 31 fellow members of the Jewish Federations of North America Rabbinic Cabinet that was really transformative for me. After a short time in this place, we understood that the question we needed to ask was, “When did you find out you were Jewish?” because we met many young people involved in Jewish life, and every person has a story about how their family’s hidden Jewish identity was revealed to them.

What do you do with a community like that? That’s a very extreme example of how to do outreach, more extreme than the Jews of Connecticut. The answer is to provide these intensive, positive Jewish experiences. For example, they have great success with family camps run by Jewish Agency for Israel and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee [JDC], funded in part by our Federation dollars. I increased my Federation donation after seeing the results of this work on the mission.

If you talk about saving the Jewish people, JDC resettled Jews after the Holocaust, and they’re now saving the Jewish people in other ways. These people simply would not be Jews without these amazing programs they do – retreats, trips to Israel, family camps, Shabbatonim. And if that’s working there, it can work here.

Locally, Moishe House just opened, part of a worldwide network of young Jewish professionals in their ‘20s and ‘30s living together in a house and doing Jewish programming for their peers and for the community. On the Kiev mission, each of us rabbis was randomly assigned to visit different fledgling Jewish organizations and teaching seminars. Moishe House in Kiev had requested to meet with some of the rabbis about women rabbis and I was randomly assigned to that project. Moishe House West Hartford will partner with Moishe House Kiev.

It’s just like the Bayit movement in the ‘70s, an old idea and a good idea. Now, because of networking, you can be part of a larger Moishe House community that transcends your physical location.

 

Q: What kinds of changes have you witnessed over your 25-year rabbinical career and what do you think they mean for the Jewish community?

A: In college, I thought the world was changing; now, I know it is, and so much more so. This is a time of great ferment in terms of ideas, the bifurcation of the political landscape – and a similar thing is happening in Israel. The society is undergoing such tremendous social ferment and political change, and not from outside threats, but the inner turmoil that Israeli society is dealing with is in many ways similar to the turmoil and issues in American society at this time.

What happens in times of great change is that, even as new vistas and opportunities open up, there’s also this pushback. People think about what they can hold onto in a time when it seems that the ground beneath is ever-shifting. I think that, at times like this, we can either be excited or terrified or a combination of both.

When we look at the possibilities just opening up now, especially in the Jewish community, I think we ought to approach those discussions not so much with trepidation but with discernment: Let’s try to figure out what is authentic, rich, and beautiful in our tradition, and worth really keeping at the center. How can we keep our eye on what’s essential – the ikar, in Hebrew – and continue to build that and be creative, while at the same time not saying, “It’s got to be this way, it’s got to be the way it’s always been?”

On the other hand, how can you know at any given moment how to balance tradition and innovation? When are things so changed that they’re empty of meaning and devoid of connection to the ikar, and when is something really rooted in tradition and giving us this strong basis?

For my rabbinate, I have always emphasized devotion to Jewish learning and to the exploration of Jewish texts. When we encounter texts and bring ourselves and our own life experiences and wrestle with the issues addressed, that’s one thing that’s kept Judaism alive: the dialogue, not only between but among the generations. The discussion among the generations that you see on a page of Talmud were not written by scholars sitting in the same room in the same era.

 

Q: How would you define the American-Judaism atmosphere today?

A: There’s a great thirst for meaning and communal connection among young Jews and older Jews as well. The difference is that, for older Jews, some of our current institutions satisfy those needs a little more than for younger Jews. The search for meaning is a shared one: as we get to different points in our lives, we look for meaning and Jewish meaning and Jewish connection and ask, where is God in my life? How can I be part of something larger and be part of a community and do something that’s meaningful to make the world a better place? How can I delve more deeply into Jewish learning?

For young people, it may be a more obvious search because they’re looking at general questions of self-definition and identity and what will I do with my life. Jewish questions are intermingled with general questions about identity and direction.

What’s facing the Jewish community now is what kinds of institutions are going to help younger people evolve from the way they engage with one another and with community. It’s not just taking an institution and giving it a Facebook page; it’s a good idea to have a positive web presence but that’s not the end of the discussion. I’m part of the organized Jewish community and I have a huge stake in seeing that community strong and growing it in creative ways. But we have to remind ourselves that we can’t be invested in one specific institutional approach; we have to be open, and that’s both scary and exciting.

What grounds me, because I am a creative person and feel that I’m more excited than fearful, is reminding myself what still works, what is still at the heart of the enterprise of the Jewish people, and that is Torah, God, and community.

Another thing I’ve learned is that, at the end of the day, it’s all about relationships. After I was first ordained, I had this idea that my work was about creative programming. Those are nice, I still love to do them, but my work is about the people – not only their connecting with me as a rabbi, but me connecting them with each other and figuring out their pathways, not only as Jewish individuals but with others. We’ve absorbed that American spirit of individualism but as Jews, we’re much more communally focused. So even as we carve out our individual pathways and Jewish journeys, we have to have some company along the way. You can do it on your own for a while, but it’s really hard to sustain that on your own for a long time. How people will find that community and connect – that, we’ll see.

My daughter just completed two years as president of USY [United Synagogue Youth] Hanefesh Region and is going off to Israel for two years. She says, “What will happen to our movement?” and I say, “Whatever happens with specific institutions, I guarantee that there will be all kinds of ways for you to meaningfully engage in a vibrant Jewish life.” I don’t know exactly what it will look like, but I’m very excited to be involved in these creative explorations of how we’re getting to where we’re getting next, how we will continue to engage and grow the Jewish community.

B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom celebrates the 25th anniversary of Rabbi Debra Cantor’s ordination on Sunday, June 23, 4 p.m., 180 Still Road, Bloomfield.  For information call (860) 243-9601, www.btsonline.org.

 

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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