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#1693: Women Religious Leaders, Part Two | 51%

On this week’s 51%, we continue our series talking to women religious leaders. Rabbi Debora Gordon discusses how music can help build connection and community.  And we also speak with soferet Julie Seltzer about the art of writing and transcribing holy Jewish texts.  

Guests: Rabbi Debora Gordon, Congregation Berith Sholom; Julie Seltzer, STAM Scribes

51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. It’s produced by Jesse King. Our executive producer is Dr. Alan Chartock, and our theme is “Lolita” by the Albany-based artist Girl Blue.

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You’re listening to 51%, a WAMC production dedicated to women’s issues and experiences. Thanks for tuning in, I’m Jesse King. This week, we continue our series speaking to women religious leaders, and celebrate the different ways that women worship – particularly across faiths that may be traditionally male-led. 

Our first guest today has been the rabbi at Troy, New York’s Congregation Berith Sholom for almost 25 years. Rabbi Debora Gordon, aka “Reb Deb,” has been hard at work bringing renovations to Berith Sholom (the congregation currently resides in the state’s oldest building in continuous use as a synagogue), and she’s been brushing up on her technical knowledge to keep members connected with hybrid services during the coronavirus pandemic. 

At the time of our conversation, the delta and omicron variants of COVID-19 were on the rise ahead of the holiday season — so you’ll notice that I kept my mask on as we met in person. But Gordon was eager to share the ways her congregation has come together during these pandemic times. She says female rabbis aren’t uncommon nowadays, especially in progressive, Reform congregations like hers. But she found herself on the path toward becoming a rabbi before that was the case, at a young age. She says she got into it for the community. 

Congregation Berith Sholom in Troy, New York. (Facebook: Congregation Berith Sholom)

What made you want to become a rabbi?

It started out that when I was at a Jewish summer camp. I was just a little bit more interested in the ritual part of things. And, you know, celebrating Shabbat, Sabbath, or any other of the Jewish pieces. I mean, we were 12, maybe, [and people were saying], “Are you going to be a rabbi when you grow up?” And the funny thing is that, aside from Regina Jonas, who was ordained in the 1930s, in Berlin, and didn’t survive the war, the first woman was ordained a rabbi in 1972. So this would have been like ’74/’75. None of us had probably ever met a woman rabbi. The funny thing is that it never occurred to us that I couldn’t be a rabbi.

As I got into college, I discovered that one of my skills, just because of the home I was raised in, was leading services with a lot of music, integrating music and words, and nurturing the community that way. And I had to decide, actually, cantor or rabbi? And while music was my first way in, what I decided was, “Rabbis talk, cantors sing.” Which is super simplified, [but] I had things to say. Over time, it turns out that I have all kinds of skills that nurture community.

What’s an example of a song that you particularly like?

Well, besides the fact that there are 100 million of them. So here’s one that I reintroduced on Friday night. I don’t know why it came back into my head after several years of not being around, but it’s the last line of the book of Psalms. At the end, there’s “Hallelujah,” so you say “jah” at the end. That’s a name for God. That’s like a breath, right? You’re supposed to actually pronounce that “jah,” sound at the end. So it goes:

[Gordon singing Halelu]

But what’s really magical about [that song]? That tune was created by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who is Pakistani, I think. But someone, possibly Jewish contemporary Jewish songwriter Craig Taubman, brought together this Sufi chant, and these words — because the original words were “Allahu,” so invoking God, by the name of Allah, which is a cognate, to the Hebrew “Eloah,” and just means God. So besides the power of the music, and the words themselves, is this connection. Intercultural connection.

You said that you had things to say, and that you wanted to help nurture this community. What are some of those messages that you were hoping to get out there?

Well, I can’t tell you what my messages were when I was 24, because I don’t particularly remember. But at the core of my life, as well as my rabbinate, is a two-word phrase from Genesis chapter one, where it talks about humanity being created in God’s image. Now, I am not taking that in any literal, physical way. And the whole stories of the Torah, to me, they are our sacred stories — but that’s not a comment on their historicity. It doesn’t matter to me if they happened that way or not. What matters to me is that these are the stories that nurture our community. And this idea that every human being is created of infinite worth, and infinite possibility. That’s, to me, the basis for the radical assertion of justice. I am not personally much of an activist, politics is not my thing. Community organizing, [well], I’m an introvert, there’s only so much that I can do with people before I have to recharge by myself. But I can use the stories and the teachings of a 3,000-or-more year tradition to leverage community action, individual action, to bring hope. It’s a lot of what I’ve been doing the last two years: helping people stay connected to each other, providing perspective, reminding people that we are hoping to be post-pandemic at some point. And that our pre-pandemic, like normal life, was post the last pandemic. So of course, this one’s going to come to an end at some point.

Describe for me what your services are like here, especially during COVID.

Well, during COVID, as you can see, we have chairs spaced apart, we’ve been requiring masks, and mostly people are attending online. But it’s important to me that we do it over Zoom, so that it remains interactive. And the singing, the loss of singing has been one of the hardest things — but let me tell you about the high holiday services. So the first year, they were entirely virtual. Our choir director, Dan Foster, is also a tech wizard. He wasn’t sitting at a keyboard [during those services], he was at two different Mac computers. And I was up front, but we leaned into the medium, right? And over the summer, he brought choir members in one at a time and made some of those “Brady Bunch” or “Hollywood Squares” [music videos], depending on your generation. He made music videos of some of the most beautiful pieces.

[Berith Sholom Choir singing V’Shamru by Elliot Z. Levine]

And we hired a congregant who’s a videographer, whose work had been affected by COVID, to put together a nature montage. With the choir singing in the background, [we had] that quiet time with beautiful images on the screen, and people writing things in the chat, and adding names for healing in the chat, and names of people they were remembering for the memorial prayer in the chat. In terms of bringing people together, it’s allowed us to remain a community.

Aside from COVID, one thing I’ve been asking people is: what are some of the opportunities and obstacles facing your religion as a whole right now, or your congregation?

You know, it’s not how I look at the world. I see people, and in particular, young people, looking for meaning. And if you as a religious community can be real, and meet people where they are and with what they need, then people want to be there. Then you’re offering something, then they become you, right? And this is something that this congregation has been really good at. I mean, when I arrived, it was already a welcoming congregation. There were gay and lesbian members, which in 1997, was not nearly so common as it is today. Today, there are a lot of young, trans folks who are either interested in becoming Jewish, or who were raised Jewish and really don’t know if there’s a place for them in the community. And I guess we have a reputation out there, because that’s a lot of the young people that I see.

The challenge is to be our best selves. The challenge is to have faith. But this is not faith in God, this is faith in humanity, in the future, in the reality that the principles and ethics and values that we prize are worth sticking to, even when it seems like it’s going to be not to your advantage. There’s a reason that they are ethics and morals and values, and you find out what they really are when it’s tough. I’ll give you a quick example. This year is the Jewish Shmita year — it’s the seventh year in a seven-year agricultural society in which land was left fallow, debts were remitted, and indentured servants came to the end of their indenture. This is all laid out in Deuteronomy. I think only the land and maybe the debt part is still followed among some Jews in Israel — and I should say Israel-Palestine, because that’s important to me. So we studied about it last year, and the congregant who organized that study decided she wanted to organize a loan to the community loan fund this fall, which would then be immediately forgiven. In other words, it was a donation, rather than an investment loan, which is what they usually do. And you could approach that, from a synagogue leadership perspective, two ways. You could say, “Oh, my God, if we’re asking people to donate money somewhere else, that’s going to take money away from us.” Or you could say, “Encouraging generosity, encouraging people to live their values, will encourage people to value the synagogue as well.” Which was the response of our leadership, and we ended up making an over $3,000 donation. So that’s, that’s an example of [why] I can’t answer your question about problems, because challenges are opportunities. I’m not an eternal optimist in the sense that I believe everything’s going to turn out all right. But I am a person with hope. And it’s not just based on feelings, it’s based on, hello, Jews have been here for over 3,000 years — whatever it is, we’ve seen it before. And there may be personal suffering, and people may die. I mean, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and we are, I hope, still in the middle of a reckoning with systemic racism. It’s not that everything’s OK. But we will get through this.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. Is there anything that I’m missing that you’d like me to know?

Well, you wanted to know about specifically being a female religious leader. I think as a lesbian, I navigate the world a little different than straight women. My assumptions about what my relationship is going to be — to both men and women and non binary people — is different than many heterosexual women. I think that sometimes my congregation has looked at me with expectations they might not have had of a male rabbi, in terms of bending over backwards to be understanding and compassionate. I’m not entirely sure, because I don’t tend to lead by setting boundaries, and tend to lead collaboratively. But it’s not that men don’t do that, so it’s hard for me to say this is because I’m female, even though I feel it. But I think that on the occasions where I’ve deviated from that, it’s probably come as something of a shock.

For people who are interested in participating in a service over Zoom or in person, what are the details? What should they know?

They should know that this is a warm and welcoming and friendly congregation. The service is a combination of Hebrew and English. If you’re going to be in person, we ask that you register ahead of time. Anybody’s welcome on Zoom. But also know if you’re coming from a really short Protestant service — Friday night services are usually an hour and a quarter. High holiday services are two and a half, Yom Kippur mornings, probably three, Rosh Hashana morning may also be three. You know, I try to keep it moving. I try and make it something that speaks to people and touches them. But you’re not talking about being in and out in 45 minutes for a Jewish service, at least not here.

Julie Seltzer is part of the STAM Scribes. (Provided by Julie Seltzer)

Our next guest says she worships through inward reflection and quiet work. Julie Seltzer, from Beacon, New York, is part of the “Stam Scribes,” a collective of progressive, Jewish scribes from around the world. The Stam Scribes are some of just a few women to claim the title “soferet” worldwide. With a quill and ink, they patiently and artfully transcribe the various religious texts needed for holy rituals and prayers. 

While Seltzer says she grew closer to her Jewish faith and learned Hebrew at a young age, she came to the craft almost unexpectedly. 

What made you want to become a scribe?

In terms of what got me interested in the scribal arts, I was living and working at a Jewish retreat center when my mother was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. And it was a few months before she died, that this idea seemingly out of nowhere popped in my head, that I wanted to learn the art of sacred Hebrew calligraphy. I always loved Hebrew. And I was already involved in Jewish practice, I even chanted from the Torah on the Sabbath — the Torah being one of the objects that is handwritten by a scribe. But I really had never given much thought to who wrote them, and what that process was even like. At that time, facing mortality in a way that was very close to me, I think I was drawn to a practice that was about transmission from one generation to the next. It’s also a practice that demands a certain quiet that I think I was craving at that moment in time. So I just decided to start learning. I found what I could find on the internet and took it from there.

Can you tell me a little bit about why scribes are important? I think it’s fascinating, and learning about this, I was surprised that you can’t just go and pick up a printed copy of something.

Right, exactly. A lot of people don’t realize that the Torah is written by hand, along with some other sacred objects. Of course, the Torah is also printed, and we learn from printed copies, but the handwritten copy is what is chanted from as part of the ritual of reading the Torah out loud in a synagogue space. I’m technically what’s called a soferet STAM. STAM is an acronym that stands for the objects that we’re trained to write: a sefer Torah, that is the scroll of the Torah; tefillin, which are religious objects, these small boxes that are wrapped around the head and the arm, and inside the boxes are small handwritten scrolls, sections from the Torah; and also a mezuzah, which is parts of the Torah that comprise most of a Jewish prayer called the Shema. And those are placed in small boxes, and on the doorposts. You may have seen a small rectangular box on the door of a Jewish home. The other thing that’s written by hand, by a scribe, is the book of Esther, which is read on the holiday of Purim.

You mentioned that you learned a lot of how to do it online. But what was that process? Like? How long does it take to master this craft?

I was really a beginner, I had never even done any calligraphy in my life. Pretty early on, about a couple months in, I found a teacher by the name of Jen, and I started to learn with Jen weekly. What we did was we both learned the technicalities of the practice, that is, the calligraphy, because it’s traditional to write with a reed or a feather with liquid ink. And the other aspect is I had to learn all of the rules for how this is done. Because it’s not just the calligraphy, it’s a whole series of traditions about how one goes about it. So for example, the scribe sets an intention, before they even start writing, that they’re writing for the sake of the sanctity of that object. They’re not writing for any other reason, and their attention is focused on the writing.

This is for radio, so unfortunately we can’t watch as you write, but help me visualize the process a little bit. How long does a typical piece take?

Sure, so it really depends what you’re writing. The mezusah, that will take a day or half a day to complete. But a Torah will take much longer. The Torah has over 300,000 letters in it. It takes at least a year, it takes me a year and a half. To be honest, maybe I’m just a slower writer than others, but between the writing and the proof reading — these days, there’s even a computer program that checks a Torah for mistakes, and then you can go back and fix any errors, because once it’s in use it can’t have any errors in it. If it has mistakes, then those mistakes need to be fixed within a certain amount of time.

You’re doing it in ink, right? So if you make a mistake, do you have to go start from the beginning?

There’s no delete button, and white out would would not look so good, so the way that mistakes are corrected is that the ink, once it’s dry, is scraped off. And then you can rewrite the letter. You would never be in a situation where you have to start the whole thing over. The very worst case scenario would be that you would have to write one of the sheets over. The Torah is written on separate sheets of parchment of animal skin, and the sheets are stitched together. So in one of the classic layouts, there are 62 sheets that are sewn together. So if I made a major error in one of those sheets, I would have to rewrite the sheet. So a major error would be something like I skipped a line and didn’t realize it, and you can’t scratch off an entire column because it would look terrible. And we also take forever, so you would really have to write that section over — but most mistakes can be fixed. Something that’s interesting, a tradition that we have, is if there’s a letter, but it might look a little too much like another letter, you ask a child. And if the child correctly identifies the letter, then the letter is good, it’s fine. They make the determination.

I like that. I think that’s cool. What’s the hardest part when you’re doing these? Are there letters that are more difficult than others? Are there particular items that are tricky?

Yeah, there are definitely letters that are more complicated than others. For example, the letter shin has three different elements and [they’re] kind of curved, but also straight, so it it’s a little bit more difficult to make them than some basic letters, say a dalet, which has a roof and a leg. And in terms of overall projects, I don’t think there’s any one object that’s more difficult to write than another, except that mezuzahs and tefillin are often written in very, very small print, and that makes it challenging. They also happen to have an additional rule, the rule being that all the letters have to be written in order. So if you wrote the Mezuzah and then found an earlier mistake, you can’t actually correct it, because you will be writing that letter after all the letters that have already been written, which is not permitted. So you have to be paying extra close attention when you’re writing one of those objects.

Is it becoming more accepted for women to become scribes?

I wouldn’t say it’s common, but I would say it’s growing. We have, actually, a group of a women who work together, share resources, and are very much connected, especially in this digital age. And we’re all over the world. But we’re still a very small group. I mean, I personally know basically all of us, it would be unusual to hear that there is a woman that I didn’t know about somewhere in the world, though it has happened, and there is starting to be more and more women who are learning. But I have to say it’s still quite unusual. Scribes learn from another scribe, so you have a teacher, and in the past the most common scenario was a father teaching his son. There is a school in Jerusalem, but women are not actually allowed to go to the school. So in traditional circles, the writings that we create are not accepted, for the most part, as kosher in the Orthodox world. So it’s complicated. And in fact, Jen, the teacher that I first found — when I looked around for a teacher, everyone was giving me the same couple of names because there were barely any people willing to teach a woman, and there were barely any women who had learned and who were able to teach. In fact, Jen is the first woman that we know of to write a Torah roll. She finished her first Torah in 2007.

Do you have a favorite passage or story that you’d like to share with listeners?

Wow. They’re like babies, you can’t choose a favorite. But you know, in different moments of my life, I’ve been drawn to different sections of the Torah. When I was first starting out, I loved a section in Numbers. And the reason I loved it is because it repeated itself. It was like 12 paragraphs that essentially are the same exact thing, with slight differences in the names of the people. And I loved it, because I could practice and get better at it each time. Now, I might say, this part gets a little dry. But I tend to be drawn to the earlier, narrative stories — especially the story of Joseph, who is enslaved in Egypt, but then over the years is appointed second in command to the Pharaoh. I think I like the drama. My background is actually theater, I studied theater in college. And so I just love those intense, emotional moments. Joseph, his father thinks that he’s dead, and he finds out so many years later that he’s alive, and he gets to see his son. And for Joseph, he was betrayed by his brothers. I mean, he didn’t behave so well to them, but still they betrayed him, sold him. And that moment of forgiveness and reunification is really emotionally beautiful and poignant.

How would you say being a scribe has shaped your outlook or your understanding of your faith?

I think a lot of people are searching for something meaningful, and I think Judaism has a lot to offer in this realm. And there’s no neutral way to be in the world, right? We’re always experiencing it through a particular lens. And I think the Jewish lens — not that there’s one Jewish lens, but the way that I experience it — Judaism is marked by the weekly cycle and the yearly cycle of holidays. And for me, this really helps mark time in a way that the secular calendar doesn’t quite do it for me, and it helps provide some structure and meaning to my life. I hope that Judaism will evolve the way that language evolves, kind of naturally through its continued use, and everything that’s in use changes, right? The religion is not meant to be a museum piece, frozen in time. But these texts, these core texts, like the Torah, I do hope will stay intact. Because the Torah is like the shared conversation piece, right? Think of it kind of like a book club: you need to anchor the discussion, you need the thing that you’re all talking about. And I think this is much of what Judaism is and can be, a conversation, like a fascinating discussion across time and space.

That’s a wrap on this week’s episode of 51%. 51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. It’s produced by me, Jesse King. Our Executive Producer is Dr. Alan Chartock, and our theme is “Lolita” by the Albany-based artist Girl Blue. Thanks to Rabbi Deb Gordon and Julie Seltzer for taking the time to speak with me for this week’s episode. We’ll continue our series speaking to women religious leaders next week. Until then, I’m Jesse King for 51%