Maine Rabbi's Injury Forges Remarkable Partnership Between 2 Branches of Faith

Inspirational Orthodox Rabbi Allows Woman To Lead Prayers

Remarkable Bond: Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld opened the doors of his Orthodox shul to Rabbi Alice Goldfinger, despite traditional reservations about women leading prayers.
abigail jones
Remarkable Bond: Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld opened the doors of his Orthodox shul to Rabbi Alice Goldfinger, despite traditional reservations about women leading prayers.

By Abigail Jones

Published April 15, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
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The nine-mile drive to Shaarey Tphiloh from Goldfinger’s home is too far for her to make on her own, so we rode together — past Portland’s tree-lined streets and New England-style homes. Herzfeld greeted us at the synagogue, with open arms and fresh pita made by a local Iraqi refugee. Then he led us inside to talk.

“I tried to imagine what it would be like for me to be a female Reform rabbi. I thought, what if I were her and she was me? I would want him to ask me to lead services,” said Herzfeld, 34, who joined Shaarey Tphiloh, Maine’s oldest synagogue, five years ago. He spoke effortlessly, almost motionlessly, his red hair and pale skin standing out against stained-glass windows behind him. Goldfinger sat nearby, listening to the man who helped guide her spiritual ship of state.

“Women’s issues in Orthodox Judaism are controversial,” he said bluntly, “but it was important to do this for her — for our synagogue to know that we have a rabbi coming and we will respect her, and realize that she continues to be a religious leader even if she doesn’t have the position of rabbi of a large synagogue.”

Goldfinger stared at him with a mix of amazement and deep gratitude.

“I never would have expected you to do that, and the fact that you did —” She paused, sniffling. “You are a bottomless well of empathy.”

Portland is home to a small, close-knit Jewish community where rabbis from the area’s one Reform, one Conservative, one Modern Orthodox, one nondenominational and one Chabad synagogue often work together. That’s exactly what happened on a Friday evening in November 2011, when Herzfeld and Goldfinger stood side by side in Shaarey Tphiloh’s cavernous sanctuary. Seats on both sides of the mechitzah, which separates the men from the women, filled with at least 100 people, far more than the handful or two the synagogue typically draws on Friday nights. With her children standing nearby, Goldfinger led parts of the Kabbalat Shabbat service welcoming the Sabbath, as congregants sang along, helping when her memory failed.

“When she sang, you just got drawn into it and you could feel the spirituality,” said Fran Schneit, a friend and former congregant of Goldfinger.

Since falling, Goldfinger has retained clear memories of life before her accident but has been unable to form short-term memories. Her experience at Shaarey Tphiloh broke the mold.

“It was beautiful. Beautiful enough that I remember that it was beautiful,” she said. “And I remember one other thing. This man came up to me afterwards, an older gentleman, and said: ‘That was great. We should do that more often!’”

Despite the potential for controversy — women are not permitted to lead services in the Orthodox tradition — Herzfeld experienced little backlash. (Although Kabbalat Shabbat is not customarily led by women, Orthodox Halacha has been interpreted to permit it.)

“When I invite[d] her to lead services, it [meant] some people [would] question me,” Herzfeld admitted. “They might say I’m not doing a good job preserving tradition, but it’s more important to stand up for someone who needs you to stand up for them.”


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