Rabbi Beth Kalisch has led congregations in uncommon places, serving as a student rabbi in Wyoming and Mississippi, but neither of those were as uncharted as her current position.
Kalisch has spent the last year as Beth David Reform Congregation’s interim rabbi and was recently appointed to the position permanently, marking the first time the Gladwyne congregation has had a female rabbi in its 70-year history.
Kalisch, 32, said she has experienced “subtle resistance” to the idea of hiring a female rabbi during interviews at other congregations but not at Beth David, which has had a female cantor since 1984.
Female rabbis have been ordained by the Reform movement since 1972.
“For some people, it’s been exciting to see a woman in a rabbinic role and for other people, they needed to experience me as an individual, as their rabbi,” said Kalisch.
The task of winning people over did not deter Kalisch, who has not shied away from past challenges. As a student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, Kalisch said, she had a choice between serving as an intern at a congregation in the area or temporarily leading congregations in other parts of the country that are too small to hire a full-time rabbi. She chose the latter and wound up out West and down South.
“I took those jobs because I wanted to see what Jewish life was like in other parts of the country. I had spent almost my whole life in the Northeast,” said Kalisch, who graduated from Yale University with a degree in religious studies.
In Laramie, Wyo., she met congregants who were “real Westerners” but Jews just the same. And in Mississippi, she was struck by the Brookhaven residents, who most of the year traveled to a synagogue in Jackson but wanted to keep their local synagogue alive during the High Holidays.
“I loved it. I loved seeing how in small communities people really have to take ownership over being part of the Jewish community. They know if they don’t do it, no one else is going to step up and get involved,” she said.
Kalisch fills the position once held by Rabbi Henry Cohen, who was known for starting a bicultural black-Jewish nursery school, serving as chairman of the Jewish Coalition for Peace and campaigning for the release of refuseniks, including the parents of Beth David cantor Lilia Kazansky.
Kalisch said the tradition of fighting for social justice is what made her want to become a rabbi and part of what attracted her to Beth David. Growing up in Westchester County, just outside of New York City, she learned from notable rabbis such as Beth Singer, who leads Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, and Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
“I loved hearing my rabbis speak from the bimah. They were people of real integrity who cared about issues in the world,” said Kalisch, who served as a rabbi at Central Synagogue and at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, both in New York, before joining Beth David.
The biggest hurdle for Beth David and Kalisch was not her gender but rather her interim status, which typically precludes consideration for a permanent post. The congregation search committee interviewed 10 candidates but, after much lobbying from members, leaders successfully petitioned the Reform movement’s Rabbinical Placement Commission for a waiver to the usual rule.
“She’s really a very unique person,” said Beth David president Susan Anderer. “We like to call her part of ‘the new wave of rabbis’ in that she is not only spiritual and very personable but also socially conscious and aware of how congregational life is changing and how to connect with the next generation.”