Rabbi’s New Leadership Role at Rodeph Shalom is Historic

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Congregation Rodeph Shalom installed its new senior rabbi over the weekend of Nov. 6, but to congregants she’s been a familiar face since 2001.

Rabbi Jill Maderer officially became senior rabbi during a weekend celebration, which featured Shabbat services; speeches from her mentors, Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El of Westfield, N.J., and Rabbi William I. Kuhn, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Rodeph Shalom; a Saturday night cocktail party; and a Sunday tzedakah project in which they assembled packages for Project HOME’s Hub of Hope.

She is the congregation’s first female senior rabbi.

For Maderer, who grew up in North Jersey, assuming this position has personal significance.

Rabbi Jill Maderer | Photo provided

“To be senior rabbi is really meaningful to me because in some ways I get to do all of the things I already love doing at Rodeph Shalom,” she said. “It’s meaningful to me because it’s a congregation I already know and love.”

“Rabbi Maderer brings a remarkable sense of engagement — being truly present in the moment — with a commitment to our Rodeph Shalom community and beyond,” Executive Director Jeffrey Katz said. “She knows what matters and how to bring the community together to accomplish a vision for tomorrow.”

She joined the congregation after receiving her ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, after studying at Brandeis University.

Becoming a rabbi wasn’t always the plan, but a Jewish path became clear when she started to think about college. Her parents encouraged her to study something she would really immerse herself in and devote her studies to.

“I really hadn’t devoted myself to studies in the past, and I think they were just trying to get me to be a better student,” she laughed, “but it helped me realize, well, if I could study one thing, anything, that’s going to captivate me, the only thing I could imagine was Torah, Jewish studies.”

She learned about different rabbis and rabbinates and became connected to social justice. She hopes to use her platform to bring the congregation closer to that cause and to each other.

“I strive to be a rabbi who can touch my congregants in their individual moments and who can build community among those congregants so their connections are to one another,” she said, “and then who can help our congregation have a larger role in social justice and moral leadership.”

Assuming her new role comes at a time when many women are speaking up about malpractices in the workplace toward women — from the tech industry to Hollywood.

The significance of her position is not lost on Maderer.

“There is a different level of responsibility that I take really seriously,” she noted. “It’s really new for the congregation and for most the world to have a senior rabbi who’s a woman. That’s something that outwardly people are really excited about but inwardly people are probably still needing to adjust to in some implicit ways.”

Sally Priesand became the first woman ordained a rabbi, teacher and preacher in America in 1972, noted an article from the Jewish Women’s Archive. Women began to receive rabbinic ordination in the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements through the ’70s and ’80s.

But there is always room for progress.

“Much like many other leadership positions in other fields out there, we see very few women in the very top levels of leadership. I don’t think Jewish life is special for that,” Maderer said. “A great work of our next generation is bringing people not only into professional roles but into professional roles that include the highest levels of leadership, and that’s for women and men and for us to acknowledge that right now that there is an imbalance.”

She uses her platform to educate the community about these important issues, especially as reports exposing powerful men of sexual assault and harassment continue to dominate headlines.

“I spoke explicitly about this from the bimah, about … what it means to be men and women and what we can do in our worlds when it comes to mentoring women, getting them into the pipeline and calling people out for even really silly language mistakes that indicate an imbalance of power,” she said. “And I spoke about what men in particular can do in their world. … We’re all a part of a system with power imbalance when it comes to gender.”

She’s challenged congregants to think about how they can make a difference in their own workplaces and communities, such as men committing to decline sitting on all-male panels.

“I’m looking forward to constantly reflecting on how the Jewish community is changing,” she said, “and how Rodeph Shalom can continue to be a place for each new generation to come find meaning.”

Maderer is facilitating that search for meaning during what she calls a “learning season.”

“My personal goals are just to partner with as many people as possible so that I can do the learning I need to really serve the congregation,” she said, “and I’ve had wonderful leadership partner with me in that way.” 

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