Congregation appoints first woman to serve as senior rabbi
August 1, 1979
Reconstructionist rabbi Linda Joy Holtzman was appointed the spiritual leader of Beth Israel Congregation in Coatesville, PA, on August 1, 1979. The appointment made her the first woman to lead a Jewish congregation in the U.S. Although Sally Priesand had been ordained as a rabbi seven years earlier, and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso was the first woman to be ordained as a Reconstructionalist rabbi in 1974, no woman rabbi prior to Holtzman had won appointment as the leader of a synagogue. Women ordained as rabbis in the 1970s generally either served as associate or assistant rabbis, or found jobs outside the synagogue. In hiring Holtzman, Beth Israel broke with tradition in a second way; the congregation was affiliated officially with the Conservative movement, which had not yet authorized the ordination of women.
Holtzman's appointment was greeted with excitement by supporters of women's ordination, who understood that she had opened a door that more women rabbis would then be able to walk through. Holtzman told the New York Times that she believed her appointment was "very significant for women and for the Jewish community." Similarly, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly called it "an historical breakthrough and simply fantastic," noting that Holtzman's hiring would make it easier for other congregations to move forward with hiring women without having to feel that they were breaking entirely new ground.
Holtzman remained at Beth Israel for six years. Following her tenure there, she moved to Beth Ahava in Philadelphia, a gay and lesbian synagogue. While at Beth Ahava, she founded the Reconstructionist Hevrah Kadishah of Philadelphia, or traditional Jewish burial society. Later, Holtzman helped to found Kavod v'Nichum [Honor and Comfort], an organization which works to educate Jewish communities about the traditional practices of honoring the dead and comforting the bereaved, and to help communities and families adapt the rituals to their own needs. After leaving Beth Ahava, Holtzman served as interim rabbi for Philadelphia's Congregation Mishkan Shalom, and then for five years as that synagogue's Education Director.
Holtzman is currently an associate professor of practical rabbinics and director of the Department of Practical Rabbinics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She has published extensively, including chapters in Twice Blessed (1989) and in Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation (2000).
Sources:www.rrc.edu; New York Times, August 16, 1979; www.jewish-funerals.org/morekavod.htm; www.jew-feminist-resources.com/a_0730_0805.html; www.jewish-funerals.org/conference/conferencespeakers.htm.