Barbara Penzner

Rabbi Barbara Penzner has been a moral force for her congregation, leading it in multiple actions to uphold human rights around the world and in the local community. Penzner graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1978 and earned a master’s degree in religion from Temple University in 1984. She was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1987, and became president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association in 1996. In 1995 she became the rabbi of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, where she has led the congregation in celebrating Human Rights Day and committing to social action. Alongside her congregational work, she has been active in the Boston Jewish community through her work as a board member of the Mayyim Hayyim mikveh, a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, and as co-chair of the Jewish Labor Committee. In 2009 she led 200 clergy in protesting the Hyatt hotel chain’s mass firing of housekeepers at their Boston-area hotels, and she has worked to get supermarkets to sign pledges not to buy produce from farms with abusive working conditions.

Scope and Content Note

Barbara talks about her childhood in Kansas City and the presence of Judaism in her family life. She describes attending Hebrew School, going to Camp Ramah, and living on a Kibbutz in Israel. Barbara recounts first knowing she wanted to be a rabbi after holding a Torah for the first time at age 22. She talks about attending the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the 1980s and coming to Boston afterward. Barbara reflects on how the gender dynamics and atmosphere of the Board of Rabbis in Boston have evolved since the '80s. Her goal in her rabbinate, as she states, is to bring communities together and use the Jewish tradition to nurture meaningful lives. Barbara describes her spiritual practice and using meditation and yoga to ground herself in her spirituality. Next, Barbara explains her exploration of the mikvah ritual, starting from her experience before getting married, when she decided to embrace mikvah as a feminist practice. Barbara then articulates her understanding of God and her attention to holiness and divinity in her own life. Her work in her rabbinate now involves a lot of working with interfaith couples and bringing non-Jews into the community and the synagogue sphere. Finally, Barbara talks about her balance of motherhood and family life with her career as a Rabbi, sharing the story of her daughter's recent wedding to a non-Jewish man and the emotional significance of that occasion. 

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How to cite this page

Oral History of Barbara Penzner. Interviewed by Ronda Spinak. 25 February 2014. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 18, 2024) <http://jwa.org/oralhistories/penzner-barbara>.

Oral History of Barbara Penzner by the Jewish Women's Archive is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://jwa.org/contact/OralHistory.