Monday, September 27, 2004

Rabbi finds faith outside convention

This is an article about my classmate, colleague and friend Rabbi Susie Tendler. Susie is now the Assistant Rabbi at Beth David in Greensboro, NC.

By Nancy H. McLaughlin Staff Writer
News & Record

GREENSBORO -- The yarmulke question came up the second day of Rosh Hashana, when Rabbi Susie Tendler, newly arrived at Beth David Synagogue, was to stand before the congregation alongside the senior male rabbi.

In Jewish custom, a woman doesn't wear a head covering until she's married, and Tendler, 29, is single. On the other hand, virtually all rabbis wear head coverings during religious ceremonies. But most rabbis are men.

Would she or wouldn't she?

"I don't just not cover my head to not cover my head or to be rebellious," Tendler says. She found middle ground that day, wearing a fashionable knitted cap resembling a yarmulke.

Tendler is devout to her faith but less concerned about customs shaped for thousands of years by men.

"I'm attracted to the traditional ways (of Judaism), but I find unconventional ways of understanding them that are me," says the energetic and engaging young rabbi.

That mix -- traditional Jewish beliefs with a modern-day approach -- was what appealed to the Greensboro synagogue when they hired her as the first female rabbi for the congregation -- making her one of a few female rabbis in the state.

"She's a very conservative rabbi, but she is also very much herself, and being herself also includes being a young woman," says Bob Miller, president of the synagogue and a member of the search committee.

"She knows who she is, and I personally respect that."

Tendler, who has studied ancient Hebrew, recognizes the irony in her embrace of traditional Judaism and the fact that she is a woman.

"I had a college professor who was Muslim, who would comment that if a religion, or anything for that matter, ceases to be applicable to today or to fit into modern times, it ceases to be relevant," Tendler says.

She is evidence that you can be both, says her mentor, Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Va.

"Her visits to the margins of convention make her exquisitely qualified to speak to the hearts of people searching for their grounding in relationship to God and Jewish life," Moline says.

Tendler, who graduated rabbinical school in May, didn't have the experience of some other candidates for the position. But she had qualities that aren't measured on a resume.

"We needed a person who is engaging, who is forthright, who knows how to develop rapport -- and who does it instinctively," Miller says. "That is Susie Tendler."

Rabbi Eli Havivi, the senior religious leader at the synagogue, says he knew that the day he met her.

"She has a good spark -- of spirit, and of personality," Havivi says. "She is bright and engaging. She looks you in the eye, and she sees you, and then she speaks."

Sitting in front of a mural of Jerusaleum that's penciled onto the beige wall of her office -- which was battleship gray when she inherited it from her predecessor -- Tendler is busy searching the Web for information on an old-fashioned molasses farm for a youth field trip.

The life and rich color she hopes to bring to the mural, which an artist and several children in the congregation are helping her complete, gives unspoken insight into who she is, Havivi says.

"She loves Israel and has an ability to articulate what is in her heart," Havivi says. "She also has a good sense of art and beauty and the importance of religious education, and religion being not just intellectual, but physical and visual and experiential."

Her faith always was strong. In the small town of Woodbridge, Va., where she was the only Jewish child in her class and one of three in her school (counting her two brothers), she was excused from the elementary school chorus for months at a time because the Christmas songs practiced for the holidays were more than words to her.

"I wouldn't sing them because I couldn't proclaim that Jesus was God," Tendler says.

Unconventional influences in her faith formation started early.

Though a devout Jew, she knelt with her best friend for mass at the local Catholic church every week.

Only she never closed her eyes in prayer. She never took Communion.

Her friend, in turn, attended Friday night service at Tendler's synagogue.

"My parents always encouraged us to be open-minded and respectful and tolerant of other people, of knowing and experiencing," Tendler says.

The rabbi at her bat mitzvah was Judith Abrams, one of the first 100 female rabbis in the country.

Tendler attended the Alexander Muss High School in Israel right before the Persian Gulf War, when many American students were afraid to visit.

She was the first student to return to Alexander Muss as a teacher, and the other teachers became her mentors.

"Because I had so many different influences, I was able to find my own voice," Tendler says.

At Beth David, her job includes serving as director of religious education, which includes a cadre of programs and activities aimed at the range of parishioners, from kindergartners to older adults.

She's also responsible for religious services, from bar mitzvahs to weddings.

A primary focus is strengthening the religious school.

"It's very, very difficult," Miller says. "It's after secular school, and kids are tired. We compete with soccer and football and basketball, and you name it -- we compete with it.

"There has to be a principle attraction. There has to be reason for kids to come."

Activities such as a corn maze and the overnight "pizza in the hut" are part of the plan to get people more involved.

There's also a new 8 p.m. service on Fridays designed to attract college students and those who might want to eat dinner before service.

Tendler says she sees Judaism as a continuing spiritual journey and recalls reading the story of Noah last year in preparation for a big sermon.

"I read it in a way I had never read it before. … At first I was very excited that I was giving my sermon on Noah, because there's the rainbow and recreation and the covenant with God and the dove and the olive branch and nature.

"And I thought, 'Gosh this is beautiful,' and I read it, and all I saw were these evil things, not just the Tower of Babel, but the evil that pervaded the world and the way his children treated him right afterward.

"It taught me an important lesson about the lenses through which we see things.

"When I read it again a few weeks later, I found the rainbow and the dove and Noah being God's partner and creating the earth and all those beautiful concepts."

Her outlook has made many people, including Abrams, the female rabbi and successful author, proud of her and what she's doing with her life.

"Sometimes people get into the clergy for the wrong reasons," says Abrams, one of Tendler's early role models. "She's in it for the love. Not just the love of God, but the love of people. That's what you want."

Contact Nancy H. McLaughlin at 373-7049 or

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