Rabbi Janet Ross Marder, a Los Angeles native, has become the first woman president in the 114-year history of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical arm of Reform Judaism.
Marder, 48, who served the Los Angeles Jewish community until becoming senior rabbi of a Bay Area congregation in 1999, assumed the presidency of the conference Wednesday and was to be installed tonight during the organization's annual conference, being held this year in Washington.
The Reform movement, the nation's largest Jewish denomination, has spoken of the equality of men and women since the 19th century, but it was not until 1972 that a woman was ordained, said Marder, who was ordained in 1979. "Thirty years later a woman is named president," she said. "The promises are finally being fulfilled."
As president of the conference of 1,800 Reform rabbis in North America, Marder said she will stress two goals at the outset of her term: the importance of a personal religious life for rabbis and the need to support progressive Judaism in Israel, where the Orthodox rabbinate is dominant.
"There's a great danger that rabbis can become engulfed in administration" and overwhelmed by their public roles, Marder said, echoing a sentiment heard by leaders of many religious denominations. But unless rabbis' public role rests on a foundation of personal prayer and study, they risk burnout, she said.
Congregants, she said, must be made aware that it is important for their rabbis to "nourish the soul." At the same time, Marder said rabbis must develop the self-discipline to make time to culture a deeply religious life. "It's easy to be tyrannized by the urgent and ignore the important and essential," she said.
The growth of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel is "of urgent importance," she said. "It's critical that there be voices in Israel that reaffirm Jewish identity but are also open to modernity, egalitarianism, inclusion and grounded in the most human values of our traditions.
"It's necessary for those voices to be heard to counteract other voices of extremism and fanaticism that endanger the existence of Israel and a Jewish and democratic state," she said.
Israel gives government funds to Orthodox religious groups in Israel, but not to Reform and Conservative congregations, which depend on financial support from American Jews, she noted.
Marder was born in Oakland but was reared in Los Angeles from the time she was a few weeks old. In 1983 she became the first ordained rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim, a Los Angeles synagogue with a special outreach to gay men and lesbians. She founded Nechama -- Hebrew for Comfort -- a program of AIDS education for the Jewish community funded by the Jewish Federation in Los Angeles.
From 1988 to 1999 she served the Union of American Hebrew Congregations -- the congregational arm of the Reform Movement -- in the regional division that covers Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas. In August 1999 she became senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Am, a 1,300-family synagogue in Los Altos Hills, near Palo Alto.
She is married to Rabbi Sheldon Marder of the Jewish Home in San Francisco. They have two teenage daughters.