Last August, Leslie Alexander became the first female rabbi in the United States to be appointed to a pulpit position at a major Conservative synagogue.
The 31-year-old is the new assistant rabbi at Adat Ari El synagogue in North Hollywood. Her position with the 1,000-family, 48-year-old congregation is considered by many in the Conservative branch of Judaism to be a major historic milestone.
Said Moshe Rothblum, senior rabbi at Adat Ari El, "Other women rabbis have served in smaller Conservative congregations. Rabbi Alexander was the first to be in a major Conservative synagogue as a rabbi, as opposed to being an education director or in some other role."
There are about 130 women rabbis in the United States, but except for a handful, most are associated with the Reform branch or with Reconstructionism, an outgrowth of Conservative Judaism. Of the three major branches, Conservative Judaism is between the Reform and Orthodox in terms of strictness in adhering to traditional Jewish law and custom.
Position Is Unique
Alexander is aware of how unique her position is. For her, it is the end of a historical barrier to women as well as a personal triumph to become the rabbi she has wanted to be since the age of 17.
She knows about barriers. Alexander was ordained a Reform rabbi from the Hebrew Union College in New York in 1983, although she was raised as a Conservative Jew and wanted to be ordained a Conservative rabbi. It was not until 1985, however, that the Conservative branch began to ordain women.
As an undergraduate at UCLA majoring in history, Alexander concurrently enrolled at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and continued on into the Conservative institution's graduate program.
"It was the equivalent of their Rabbinic program," said Alexander. "In 1980, when the Conservative movement tabled the issue of women's ordination, didn't say yes or not, but just voted not to decide, I had to make a decision. I wanted to be a rabbi. It wasn't going to be appropriate for me to do something else. So I went to Hebrew Union College," a Reform organization.
Her family is proud of her. After all, she comes from five or six generations of rabbis, she said. Her father is Theodore Alexander, rabbi of Congregation B'nai Emunah, a Conservative synagogue in San Francisco.
"When I told my parents I wanted to be a rabbi, they were extremely supportive and very realistic. They told me exactly what they thought I should expect if I was going to make a choice like this. They said, go for it, but expect that if you're going to pioneer, there are going to be some roadblocks and disappointments ahead."
Her first roadblock was not being able to become a Conservative rabbi. But, said Alexander, she had faced challenges to her personal and professional commitment to Judaism before.
She grew up in Walnut Creek, southeast of San Francisco, where Jewish observance was a rich part of her family life.
"For the most part, I experienced living in a home where being Jewish was not just something that punctuated the seasons of the year, but permeated our everyday lives. I was aware constantly that I was Jewish. I said blessings in my home and we kept kosher."
But as one of only a few Jewish students in her high school, she stood out and felt different, said Alexander. "This became clear to me in a positive, rather than a negative way. Instead of being intimidated by my difference, I became very proud of my Jewishness."
She was proud of it, even when her faith was openly challenged. "This was during 1973 when there was a big campaign for conversion to Christianity. I was their goal at school. People would be outside every single one of my classes with Bibles to try to convert me. It intimidated some of my teachers to the point where I could no longer respect them. I learned a lot from that. It wasn't the kind of thing where somebody is threatening your life, they're just threatening your freedom."
It was around this time that Alexander decided to become a rabbi, she said. "I was very involved in a youth group for the Conservative movement. The more I got involved in Judaism and Jewish life, the more I felt that I would like to make a contribution to my people. I wanted to be able to teach and counsel, because I was interested in psychology, and to public speak, because I really enjoyed that--it spelled rabbi."
Worked in San Diego
Alexander's first major position after rabbinical school was as director of adult activities and community education at the Jewish Community Centers in San Diego. She met her husband, Dr. Kenneth Atchison, in San Diego also. He still works in private industry there as an organic chemist and commutes home to North Hollywood several nights each week.