THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
“Every generation needs the intergenerational connection with elders.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, September 2022
JW: Good morning. I’m Judy Waxman. It’s September 21st and I’m in Washington, DC. Would you please introduce yourself and tell us when and where you were born?
LG: Yes, my name is Lynn Gottlieb, and I was born in 1949 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which is on unceded Lenape land.
JW: Could you tell us briefly what your childhood was like? And please include information about ethnic background, religious background, et-cetera?
LG: Yes, I am Lynn. My Hebrew name is Miriam. I am the daughter of Harriet, whose Hebrew name was Tsivia, daughter of Bessie, daughter of Delia, daughter of Jenny, daughter of Henrietta, who came with her husband Wolf, to Eastern Pennsylvania in 1839. They were German Jews. They were part of the second wave of Jewish immigration to the United States. They co-founded a temple in eastern Pennsylvania called Brit Shalom, or Covenant of Peace. And that is my legacy, my inheritance of my ancestors.
My mother, Harriet, was a puppeteer and a theatre person. I grew up around Puppeteering, and she co-founded Civic Little Theater in Allentown, Pennsylvania. One of the most memorable aspects of my childhood was her puppeteering. She had a puppet stage in the basement and rehearsed, and she was always making something. The Civic Little Theater, where I was already on stage performing by the time I was seven years old to a public audience, I believe that gave me the confidence that I needed and the creativity that I needed to face so many different situations as I grew into my rabbinic life.
My father was a furniture salesman and he liked to take long walks. They were both involved in the reform movement in Allentown, Pennsylvania. My mother traveled with her puppeteering and I often went with her, and that was very memorable. I also have to mention that the rabbi of my youth, Rabbi Stephen Schafer, was very involved in civil rights and brought that issue into the community, into the congregation, and also invited us as youngsters, to contribute.
And so, in the 8th grade, I put on my first protest ceremony. It was a planned protest. He was giving a sermon about segregation in the United States. I wrote a creative service and recruited seven other people and we interrupted his sermon with the question, “What can we do?” We walked up on stage and then presented our own version of what we can do. So, by the time I was in 8th grade, I already was initiated I guess, into the life that I continue to live, of using ceremony, poetry, theatre, and Jewish cultural arts to highlight and create solidarity around issues of inequity.
JW: And what brought your attention to inequity for women?
LG: Well, there were certainly hints of it in my childhood that I noticed because I was raised on 1000 fairy tales…literally. That was just part of my life, the consumption of stories about women from around the world that my mother was very interested in and of course, other stories. It became very clear to me that many of those stories were about women taking power in an unjust situation. This is very common in fairy tales. The third child who takes a lot of abuse and then fights back, usually through acts of kindness and bravery and willing to travel a path that requires courage and kindness.
When I entered rabbinic school, or rabbinic training at the age of 23, I was completely unprepared and women around me were engaged in feminism. The early feminism of 1972, 1973, and in my role as, at that time, as one of only seven living women rabbis on Earth, at the age of 23…I had already stepped into a rabbinic role at Temple Beth Or of the Deaf and Hebrew Association of the Deaf, which trained me to further widen my scope of understanding the intersectional nature of inequity. That inequity occurs across the board, with many different groups.
In addition, by 1966, which I realize is very early…due to an encounter I had with a Palestinian journalist living in Nazareth who I sought out and interviewed at a very young age, I learned about the Nakba, or the Palestinian catastrophe. That shattered my innocence of somehow, that if you’re a victim, you can’t be a perpetrator. So, by an early age, I was learning a lot, even though it was still very confusing. And because I stepped into leadership, and my congregation hired me…I suspect due to my passionate interest in sign language and the fact that my mother worked with special needs kids through theatre, I walked into the first Jewish feminist conference in February of 1973, I believe.
And again, my world was blown open by the scope and diversity of women in Judaism, which included trans women in Judaism, lesbian women in Judaism, orthodox women in Judaism, all the denominational Jews, secular Jews, Bundist women. It was quite a crowd, and I realized that I had to serve a very wide group of people because there just weren’t very many of us.
In addition, women started coming to me with issues of sexual and domestic abuse, which I had no idea about or how to cope with. So, 23 and 24 and 25, I was trying to learn as much as I could by interviewing people and speaking to people and seeking out wisdom through the psychiatry department in Brooklyn. I just realized I had a lot to learn, and I was very lucky to be in touch with women at Union Theological Seminary. I came to realize how antisemitism works a little bit more.
It was just an awful lot to take in the world and try to parse it out. And feminism, and then nonviolent training with Reverend James Lawson and other amazing members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Allan Solomonow, my teacher, Rabbi Everett Gendler, helped ground my work in the art of nonviolence. And by the time I was 25, 26, I had accumulated a lot of information and a lot of perspective, which complicated being one of the first women rabbis.
JW: Well, I wanted to ask you about that. You sort of casually said you entered rabbinical school. How many women were in your class? Tell us about that.
LG: I am the first woman ordained by Rabbi Zalman Schachter and also was ordained by Rabbi Everett Gendler. And I have to say that in addition, the community embraced me. Because what I had to offer was my capacity for making theatre. I realized that negotiating difficult issues of feminism worked a lot better, [by] taking women into ceremony by themselves and using the method of rosh chodesh and ceremonial magic to bring forth stories and create agency among the women that I was working with across the country. I was already traveling nationally to hundreds of congregations over a period of 5-6 years.
And storytelling, because I could perform and tell stories, I was writing feminist tales. And that was just an amazing way to share Jewish culture, but in this radically different context. Familiar context of people, but also with very different messages. And rabbinic school, I realized, I never fit well into institutional settings because…well, for many reasons. As it turns out, in the early 70s, people like Arthur Green, Zalman Schachter, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, recognized me, and others recognized me, as someone with unusual and unique capacities. Even though I was studying first at HUC and then I studied at Jewish Theological Seminary, many professors and male rabbis invited me into their class, into their circle, and supported me in what became the methodology of the Jewish Renewal movement.
JW: And how did the other students take to this woman in their group?
LG: Well, reactions varied, of course. There’s always a spectrum, right? I did not last long at Hebrew Union College. It just was not the right place for me. I was already you might say, a street rabbi in the sense that the kinds of demands that were being made on my life were unlike any other.
JW: Like what?
LG: Like traveling nationally. Like trying to deal with sexual abuse and domestic violence. Like working on the question of Palestine. Which at the time, the radical piece was still framed in the context of a two-state solution. Even though way early on, earlier than any of my other colleagues, I realized that was not a possible solution, because I was in touch with so many Palestinians. The issue of racism in the Jewish community and in society. There were so many issues which rabbinic schools still are only slightly dealing with at the moment. And they just did not have the capacity.
So, on the one hand, I wanted to learn the classical forms, and I did, with Zalman and under the guidance of Yitz Greenberg for a couple of years. And in my own initiative, I saw my journey as someone who could not really be confined to a single movement because I was serving so many people across the board. Still, I put in my time studying Talmud with Danny Boyarin and others, and Midrash and Tanakh of course, and tried to make myself as knowledgeable as possible. Because I learned very early on, that people, when they encountered me, wanted to know how much I knew from a traditional point of view.
JW: Oh, I can imagine. Yes. Are you legitimate?
LG: Yes, exactly. I needed to be grounded in traditional knowledge, and that’s still the case. And still what I enjoy…I enjoy very much. I enjoy learning very much. That’s always been a part of my time and pursuit. Now, I’m unpacking teshuvah in my own special way.
JW: Explain that for our audience.
LG: I call it Indigenous Land Back and Reparations teshuvah, and that is…the application of teshuvah to systemic violence. Teshuvah is a five-step system of creating repair that involves acknowledgement – acknowledging that harm is taking place. Becoming accountable for the harm, so, unpacking how we’re intertwined in perpetuating harm, public confession, reparations, which includes compensation, rehabilitation and restoration, and guarantees of non-repeat of the harm. So in that framework, that dovetails very well with some critical issues in movement building that have been going on for the past, well…my whole life and before me. But now that more people are interested, especially younger people, with whom I’m still very much engaged, that is to say, 20’s and 30’s and beyond that.
JW: Give me one example. A specific example of your work.
LG: I am board chair of Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity here in California, which works on immigrant rights and abolition, ending mass incarceration, and the prevention of deportation. It is a People of color led organization, both in the staff and in the board…except for me, because of my long history in movement work. I get to do a lot of on the ground work, so in that role, I was very supportive of the work of reparations and trying to figure out how reparations fit into our community, which is the idea that ending mass incarceration is a form of reparations.
And also, pilgrimage. We had been doing a small pilgrimage to Angel Island, another place of coming in for especially the Chinese American community, other immigrants. But this year we launched a larger pilgrimage to sites of wounding, that is to say, sites of carceration and detention in California. We hit ten sites. That has a lot to do with my shepherding, I guess you could say, because I’ve been involved in the use of pilgrimage as a methodology for movement building since 2002.
JW: I’d like to go back to the early years. Obviously, you started your work in the ’60s and ’70s. Is there an early experience from those times that you might tell us about?
LG: In that time period, there were no women’s shelters. There was one that I was aware of in Poughkeepsie. I began to realize in congregational life, there were not very many resources for women, and Jewish Women’s International held some capacity. It wasn’t yet an interest in sisterhoods within congregations, and so I had a lot of conversations with women around the country, initiating a conversation about domestic violence and sexual abuse within their communities, and whether there were resources and how people dealt with it.
Even at that time, saying that there is domestic violence and sexual abuse within Jewish communities was an incredibly divisive topic. Because most of the male leadership, really until five years ago I would have to say…I mean, throughout my entire career, there’s always been denial. The idea that women carry a double burden in the Jewish community, and other directly impacted communities with systemic violence, is that the face that you show on the outside has to be somehow that our communities are good. We’re model citizens, we don’t have alcoholism, we don’t have domestic violence and abuse. We’re good people. This is the model minority idea. Which meant that internally, the issue was never discussed.
I created a theatre piece called, About Lilith. It’s a very funny piece, and I performed it thousands of times. And in this piece, Lilith, as the old story goes, as we learn from Judith Plaskow in particular, Lilith refuses to be on the bottom. And rather than put up with her domineering mate Adam, who wants her to be on the bottom, she flies off. And I had a lot of fun with this story, and I used to create workshops. What would happen if Lilith met Eve?
I did that hundreds of times, and I tried to create a safe space for women to explore issues of agency. Because issues of domestic violence and sexual abuse on the preventative side can happen if women feel more agency. That’s one aspect. Especially young girls, if they have the language to feel like they can resist and they know how to keep themselves safe.
Another component is the question, “What resources does the community have that can assist women?” So, in Albuquerque, where I was a rabbi for 25 years, I’m still rabbi emeritus there – Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I founded my own community. That’s something else I learned from feminism. It’s a lot harder to reform…it’s almost impossible to reform, actually. I realized I needed always to start with a clean slate, and I could build an infrastructure from the foundation that was equitable. That was really the only way for me, and I believe for many people, to not spend years banging your head against the wall, but rather just from the beginning to create that space.
I’ve always done that. I’ve founded a lot of different communities and [it] seems to work pretty well. In Albuquerque, my congregation, Nahalat Shalom, suggested in the ‘80s that we begin to look at domestic abuse and sexual violence in our communities and that we should have training. I remember all the rabbis said, “It doesn’t exist,” so we had to disabuse them of that. And then we created training with partners. That’s another feminist strategy – networking, coalition building, movement building, across the board, so that you can bring to bear different communities and understand their needs. Communities have different needs. And also, best practices at the time. None of the rabbis showed up for that training.
And that hasn’t changed. If you look at the rabbinic schools, they still do not spend any significant time on prevention, let alone intervention. And often, intervention can be too late. Because by that time, usually people are highly traumatized, the children are highly traumatized. Unless women have capacity and queer folk have capacity to organize in safe spaces that can then come in and influence the institutional life, one doesn’t get very far. Even a single sermon a year.
JW: Now you did say that nothing changed. No acknowledgement until 5 years ago. So, what happened then?
LG: #Metoo. Years and years of organizing. The thing is with organizing, is that you have to keep building leadership, and training the next generation so that when the moment is ready, people can move into action. And then there were some highly significant cases. Probably the example I’m most famous for, is outing Shlomo Carlebach, who was a famous rabbi who passed, and he was abusing and sexually harassing young girls and women for decades. And still, if you go on the website of certain Renewal congregations, you can find all of his teachings.
And still to this day, people say, “Well…what about his music?” Really? That’s what you’re concerned about? It’s kind of astounding. I realized I just knew too much about who he had harmed, including people in my own congregation. And I decided to contact Lilith magazine and put it in a journalistic context and they did research, and wrote an article in ’94 maybe? And only a couple of years ago was there a broader public acknowledgement of his crimes. And take the reform movement. There have been recent cases of some really bad actors among the clergy, Shelly Zimmerman for one, and a Conservative rabbi somewhere or other.
And usually what you see is…we’re going to study the issue. Rather than, these are the trainings we want to give all rabbis, these are the institutional requirements that we have for any congregation in our network. Hotline information in the bathroom, something so simple that anybody can do. Knowing that you never take couples together on intake, things like that.
And that comes to, I suppose, another central methodology in organizing. Always centering the leadership and experience with an acknowledgment to the diversity of directly impacted people. Whether it’s in the area of transphobia and homophobia, or fighting these various systemic violence’s, or Palestinians in the war against Palestinians that’s been going on for the last 100 years, or women in their struggles. Once other people who are in the privileged position, if they center themselves, it’s unlikely there will be positive change, whose outcome is the dismantling and end of systemic violence.
JW: In closing, it does sound like feminist philosophy began early in your agency as a child, as you spoke about that, and has obviously led you to be one of the first women rabbis in our country.
LG: That’s an interesting point also, because I don’t think I would have chosen that route if I had not been chosen by the rabbis that were around me. Already, when I was in 10th grade, the Reform movement was still not offering Bat-Mitzvah to girls. However, they did have confirmation. The Reform movement was highly influenced by its Protestant surrounding.
So, in the 10th grade, I gave a confirmation speech on Shavuot called, Man in the Moral Law. I mean, I’m telling you from an early age, I was passionate about justice and injustice already by then. It has just always been part of my passion to stop harm and to have been so influenced by people who try to do that. And that influence was also people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. That people can save a life. We can save lives. We don’t have to stand passively by while people are harmed. In fact, we can’t stand. So, in this speech, Man in the Moral Law, I spoke about segregation and poverty and so forth, in a kind of spoken word, because I had already been trained as a theatre person from the age of 7.
I’d already been doing that for more than a decade. I remember the congregation clapped, which was kind of unusual, this little Reform synagogue in Allentown, Pennsylvania. And I turned around and the arc doors were open, and the rabbi was standing up on some steps, and he put his hands on my shoulder, and I looked up and I saw the Torah, the eternal light. There was a phrase, Know Before Whom You Stand – Da Lifnei Mi Attah Omed.
And the rabbi said, Lynn, you have a poetic soul, and someday you will be a rabbi. And that was the seed of recognition or acknowledgment that I could be a spiritual leader. I did not even realize women couldn’t be rabbis at the time. I guess if I thought about it, maybe…but I hadn’t really thought about it that much. And then Zalmon Schechter, Everett Gendler, others, reached out to me recognizing my spiritual leadership. So, I was guided along this pathway.
JW: That’s a lovely story.
LG: It is, really. I’m proud of my young self for not giving up and for continuing to walk a path, and I’ve seen many people try to fit themselves into an institutional setting. I knew for radical change that I could come into institutions and share story and ceremony, and my perspective and workshops, and teaching in many different communities and create retreats and so forth. But places that I wanted to call home, had to be places where I could shape the foundations.
JW: Do you have some final thoughts for our interview?
LG: Every generation needs the intergenerational connection with elders. As I enter this year, my 50th year of rabbinic service coming this Sunday, as the year passes into 5783, I’m aware that young people need the courage of elders to help them realize that there is a history of struggle and we can stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. We can walk together carrying the flames of beloved community, and our passion for equity, and our desire to create access for the things that we need. So, I would say that the intergenerational piece and elder wisdom is really my concern at this point, and making myself available especially to younger people. And that is not limited to the Jewish community.
It’s never been limited to the Jewish community. I’ve always reached out and found people very interested from Muslim communities, from the diversity of Muslim communities and Christian communities, from African American communities, from Indigenous communities. It’s really important as we move forward to understand that we are in a global age, that we have to be intersectional in our solidarity, and that one group of people cannot claim rights at the expense and degradation of another people. That is a foundational value that has to be put into place and understood in all of the struggles that we’re negotiating. That is my thought as I move into the future. That we stand in our beauty, our bow to our best selves, seek help from each other, and find ways of mutually supporting each other as we try to institutionalize equity in all the aspects of our lives together.