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Carole Meyers, 50; was L.A. area's first female rabbi

July 29, 2007|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

Rabbi Carole Meyers, who became the first female rabbi to lead a congregation in the Los Angeles area when she took over Temple Sinai of Glendale in 1986, has died. She was 50.

Meyers died of bone cancer Thursday at her suburban Los Angeles home, 10 weeks after being diagnosed with the disease, said her husband, U.S. Magistrate Judge Ralph Zarefsky.

A vibrant preacher and insightful teacher who called herself a liberal activist, Meyers resigned in 2001 to devote more time to her husband and two children. But she remained a leader in the Jewish Reform movement, serving on the board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, developing curriculum for Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and presiding at marriages and bar and bat mitzvahs.

The appointment of a 29-year-old single woman three years removed from seminary as solo rabbi was uncommon for the time.

"What was unusual, to my mind, was what an unusual person Carole was," Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College, said Saturday. "Just a very thoughtful, wise person who listened unbelievably well, was just very intelligent."

Reform Judaism ordained its first female rabbi in 1972, and the Conservative movement followed in 1985. Orthodox Jews oppose the ordination of women. By 1987 there were 101 female Reform rabbis in the United States. Few of those women led their own congregations, however; most worked in social services, on college campuses or as assistant rabbis.

Meyers, ordained in 1983 after graduating from Hebrew Union College in New York, was an assistant rabbi in Houston when Temple Sinai selected her.

Mary Baron, a member of the Glendale synagogue's search committee, favored hiring Meyers.

"I said the congregation is ready to do this," Baron recalled Saturday. "And we need to do it -- choose this woman and not be afraid to break the mold of what the world saw as who a rabbi should be.

"One of her abilities was to answer questions directly and honestly," Baron said. "Part of what allowed the congregation to make this historic transition is that she was able to acknowledge that this was different and might seem scary and there might be uncertainties. And overall the congregation simply embraced her."

Temple Sinai of Glendale, founded in 1928, flourished during Meyers' 15 years as rabbi. Membership grew from about 200 families to a high of about 300. Her monthly storytelling services for children packed the synagogue, education programs for children and adults were expanded, and interfaith families were welcomed.

"In a world where in almost every profession one sees more and more mediocrity, Carole really held on to the values of excellence," said Rabbi Lee Bycel, executive director of the Western region of American Jewish World Service and a former dean at the L.A. branch of Hebrew Union College.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who represents California's 29th District, which includes Glendale, was one of those new members who were attracted to Meyers' stewardship.

"What brought us into the temple was not the fact that she was a woman," Schiff said. "It was her radiant personality and the power of her sermons. They were always very thought-provoking and made you step back from the hurly-burly of your life and think about what was important."

Meyer's influence was felt outside the temple. She volunteered as chaplain for the Glendale Police Department and was active in other community organizations. In the mid-1990s she served on a Glendale task force formed to develop a response to hate crimes after swastikas were spray-painted on Temple Sinai and other houses of worship.

"I have never known a religious leader in my experience to have had a more positive impact than Carole did on our whole community," said the Rev. Phil Wood, former pastor of First United Methodist Church in Glendale and a member of the task force. "She was able to speak to people who disagreed with her and did so in a way that was not confrontational but was always healing."

Women in the pulpit are no longer so rare. Rabbi Richard Schechter, who leads Temple Sinai, said at least half of all graduating Reform seminary students these days are women.

Meyers "was at the forefront of what was to come in Reform Judaism, where women were taking spiritual roles in leadership," he said.

Meyers was born June 12, 1957, in Washington, D.C., to Irving Meyers, a salesman, and his wife, Hortense, a homemaker, and grew up in the district's Maryland suburbs. She considered studying to be a rabbi after her father died when she was 13 and she was comforted by the spirituality of the grief rituals at her family's Reform synagogue.

She received a bachelor's degree in philosophy and Jewish studies from the University of Maryland in 1978, then enrolled at Hebrew Union College seminary.

She met her husband, then a lawyer, at Temple Sinai, and they married in 1990. They had two sons, Joe and Gus.

In addition to her husband and sons, she is survived by brothers Lawrence Meyers of Boynton Beach, Fla., and Eric and Philip Meyers, both of Potomac, Md.; sister Marian Fox of Columbia, Md.; and her stepfather, Daniel Zwick of Washington.

Services will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles.

"She was a rabbi's rabbi," Levy said. "People sought her out for her wisdom. And that's been true for a long time."

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claire.noland@latimes.com

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