First Woman Heads Reform Conference

Rabbi Janet Marder has a surprising confession for someone
who is making history as the first woman president of the Reform movement’s
1,800-member Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).

She’s seriously shy.

“I had years of stage fright before I had to stand up in a
crowd,” said Marder, senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos
Hills, near San Jose. “I still get pretty nervous.”

The 48-year-old Marder was able to shake off her jitters
March 29, when she was installed before hundreds of her colleagues at a Washington,
D.C., ceremony. Elected by her peers, she is taking over the helm of the
world’s largest group of Jewish clergy from a Bay Area colleague, Rabbi Martin
Weiner of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel.

“It’s exciting, it’s daunting,” Marder said with
characteristic modesty. “It’s a wonderful kind of recognition.”

Marder, a soft-spoken California native, is well aware of
the historic nature of her appointment, describing it as a milestone for women
in general.

“I really see this as a tribute to all of us, and it makes a
statement about what kind of a movement we are,” she said.

Weiner, in a speech at the ceremony, called her installation
“incredibly significant in one sense but really incidental to her achievements
as a truly outstanding rabbi.”

Rabbi Lewis M. Barth, dean at Hebrew Union College in Los
Angeles, said he thought Marder, a former student, would excel in her new

“She was and remains one of the most brilliant students
we’ve ever had,” he said. “She is an extraordinarily gifted rabbi, thinker and

Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills said
Marder helped make the Reform movement more open to gay men and women because
of her work at Bet Cheaim Chadashim, a Southland synagogue catering to
homosexuals. In her new role, Geller said she expects Marder to focus on the
“internal, spiritual lives of rabbis.”

Marder comes to her new post with an ambitious agenda. It
includes working to strengthen progressive Judaism in Israel; transforming
worship services at Reform synagogues with more music, Hebrew and celebration,
and responding to any gender inequities in the salaries of female clergy and
Jewish professionals.

In an interview last month, she said she intends to call
upon this country’s 1.5 million Reform Jews to join ARZA/World Union, the
movement’s Israel advocacy organization. Saying she wants to ensure that Israel
remains an open and democratic state, she added: “I think our movement has a
critical role to play.”

As for gender issues, Marder said she is awaiting results of
a salary survey the CCAR plans to conduct next year. “I have the sense that
there may be some differences” between salaries of men and women in the
movement, she said. In addition, “some congregations still don’t offer parental

While cognizant that Marder’s post with a New York-based
organization will mean less time with the 1,270 families at Beth Am,
congregants expressed both support and pride for their rabbi of almost four

Congregants credit Marder with making dramatic changes at
their synagogue, including writing new prayer books, introducing more music and
adding a 6:15 p.m. Friday service.

“The Friday night service is incredibly joyful,” said
President Jim Heeger, estimating that 300 to 400 people attend. “Maybe we’d get
100 before.”

At the same time, congregants say their rabbi has a gentle
and personal touch, particularly with those suffering a family emergency or
other crisis.

Beth Am Vice President Susan Wolfe remains amazed at the
hospital visit Marder paid to her after Wolfe underwent emergency open-heart
surgery on Oct. 9, 2000. The date was important, because it fell on Yom Kippur,
and Marder raced up to the hospital in Redwood City between services on one of
the busiest days of her year.

“She really cares for individuals and makes those superhuman
efforts not just for me, but for everybody,” Wolfe said.

Congregants also gave Marder high marks for a weekly Torah
study class that regularly packs in 60 to 70 participants. “The class keeps
getting bigger and bigger,” Caryn Huberman, a Palo Alto children’s writer,
said. “It has become the center of my week.”

Despite Beth Am’s size, Marder has worked to make her
congregation an intimate place, where members reach out to one another in times
of joy and need. One example is a professional network in which congregants act
as “connectors” to unemployed members. Marder estimates that up to 10 percent
of her congregants are out of work.

 She has worked to make Saturday services at Beth Am a
community event, rather than a private affair reserved for families celebrating
a bar or bat mitzvah.

While she is away on CCAR business, Marder said her
congregation, one of the largest in the Bay Area, will be in good hands with “a
terrific team” that includes three other rabbis, along with a cantor, music
specialist, educators and administrators.

“There’s a lot of travel involved,” said Marder, who has two
teenage daughters and is married to Rabbi Sheldon Marder of the Jewish Home in
San Francisco.

“I certainly intend to be with the congregation every
Shabbat,” she said. “I’ve made clear to CCAR leadership that my first priority
remains with Beth Am.”