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Association Picks Gay Woman for Leadership Spot

April 19, 2007 By:
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Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Toba Spitzer thinks it's no big deal that she happens to be the first openly gay rabbi to head the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association -- or, for that matter, any major Jewish clerical association in the United States.

After all, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was the first to admit openly gay and lesbian students in 1984 and endorse the ordination of gay rabbis.

In 1987, the same rabbinical association became the first in the country to name a woman as its leader. In fact, Spitzer admitted that the movement's leadership decided to highlight her sexual orientation in the hopes of garnering some media attention, adding that the relatively small movement still struggles for coverage from mainstream press.

"But I do think it's a harbinger of things to come," Spitzer noted, saying that on the issue of homosexuality, other non-Orthodox branches have tended to follow the Reconstructionist lead, even if change has come much later. The 1997 graduate of RRC pointed to the fact that the Jewish Theological Seminary -- the Conservative movement's flagship rabbinical school -- had just changed its longstanding policy, and is now accepting openly gay rabbinical students.

Spitzer was elected to the two-year presidential post last month at the RRA's 33rd-annual convention in Scottsdale, Ariz.

For the past 10 years, she has served as religious leader of Congregation Dorshe Tzedek in West Newton, Mass. The legalization of gay marriage in the Bay State has proved a controversial political issue, and she said that the Catholic Church has been particularly vocal in its opposition.

"It's important that people here see that there are religious voices that don't see homosexuality as problematic from a religious standpoint," she said.

Spitzer and her partner, Gina Fried, had a legal marriage ceremony in 2004, and prior to that, a religious commitment ceremony. They are raising Fried's daughters from a previous marriage.

The native of Chevy Chase, Md., is a 1985 graduate of Harvard University and Radcliffe College. From 1989 to 1990, she worked as assistant director of the Jewish Peace Lobby in Washington, D.C., pushing for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even before Oslo.

And at a time when the nature of the debate on Israel within American Jewry has received so much attention -- take, for example, Alvin H. Rosenfeld's critique of "Progressive Jewish Thought" or recent assertions that AIPAC stifles debate on the Middle East -- what does it mean for the RRA to be led by someone whose roots were firmly planted in the peace movement?

Again, Spitzer reiterated that doesn't represent such a break with the past: "As a movement, we've been more on the progressive side. For years, we've had positions supporting a two-state solution and speaking out against settlement in the West Bank."

Spitzer noted that Reconstructionism will take political stands "when we cannot just jump on the bandwagon, but when we can be first."

Other goals include helping the movement become stronger on the West Coast, and working to connect the roughly 60 percent of RRC graduates who work outside the movement, at Hillels or other synagogue denominations.

While a student at RRC, Spitzer lived in the Mount Airy and Germantown sections of the city. During her first year, she helped organize a rabbinic human-rights mission to Haiti. She also helped found the Philadelphia Interfaith Coalition for the General Welfare, a group that fights poverty.

In her spare time, she writes folk and liturgical music, and bowls -- a lot. Spitzer has thrown strikes and spares at alleys in 29 states, and one day hopes to knock down pins in all 50.

"I wanted to have an achievable goal," said the rabbi with a 120 average. "World peace is my unachievable goal." 

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