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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 4)

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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.