New Year Rings in New Role for Rabbi
Rabbi Toba August likes to accentuate the positive, and the new year is no exception.
“Too often for the High Holidays, we’re told about our shortcomings,” August said. “I want to concentrate on what we’re doing right…. We don’t recognize the things we do that matter. I want us to walk out of services feeling elevated and validated and renewed.”
August has reason to focus on the positive, because this summer she was made the principal spiritual leader of Adat Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in West Los Angeles. Currently, August is one of only two women to head a longstanding Conservative congregation in Los Angeles. (The other is Rabbi Sally Olins of Temple Bnai Hayim in Sherman Oaks.) Her appointment comes just as the Conservative movement is grappling with the disparity of women rabbis in the movement.
A study last year found that Conservative women rabbis make less money, marry less and are less likely to be the head of a congregation than their male counterparts.
August is a good choice to break that mold. She was one of six women in Jewish Theological Seminary’s graduating class in 1988, the first class with more than one female student (the first female to graduate the school had done so just three years earlier). But August still had some personal challenges.
Soon after taking leadership of a 150-family synagogue in Fort Meyers, Fla., August gave birth to her daughter, Lena.
“I remember having contractions while we were practicing for a bat mitzvah,” she said.
She took only two weeks off before returning to work.
When her daughter turned 4, August wanted to send Lena to a Jewish day school. Her marriage had broken up, and she moved on to stints as religious school director in Boca Raton and day school principal in St. Petersburg before being offered a position at Stephen S. Wise Temple.
“Being a pulpit rabbi was a great experience,” August said. “But it was hard being a single mom. I’d promise Lena that we would spend Mother’s Day together and then I’d have to officiate at a funeral. Funerals trump Mother’s Day.”
August believes that the demanding schedule of a pulpit rabbi causes many women rabbis to chose education or chaplaincy instead.
In 1998, August left Stephen S. Wise and took an associate rabbi position at Adat Shalom, which gave her more time with her daughter. She also served as the synagogue’s associate rabbi and religious school leader. There, she and musician Cindy Paley helped establish Lev Eisha, a community of women who meet for a popular monthly Shabbat service incorporating song and dance with prayer and study. She is also on the faculty of the Academy of Jewish Religion, California, a multidenominational seminary that trains rabbis and cantors.
When Adat Shalom’s head rabbi, Michael Resnick, left in July to take a pulpit in Florida, August was tapped to fill the opening.
But August is ready this time to be a full-time rabbi. Her daughter is 16, and she has remarried.
“We know that there are challenges in terms of pay and job satisfaction and that there is a disparity of longevity [between male and female rabbis],” Nashuva’s Rabbi Naomi Levy said. “But given that information, it’s also very exciting to see a colleague take on the mantle of a synagogue. I have a world of faith in Toba and her ability to lead a community.”
Now August hopes to generate the kind of enthusiasm found at Lev Eisha into all synagogue services.
“We’re adding more songs and niggunim [melodies] to make things more frailech,” she said, using the yiddish word for joyful.
She wants services to be interactive and inviting.
“Adat Shalom is a very haimish — warm and embracing community, and it’s an honor to build it to the next level,” she continued. “I want us to be a presence here on the Westside, where people can celebrate their Judaism and their lives.”
For more information on Adat Shalom, call (310) 475-4985 or visit www.adatshalomla.org.