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This was one of the only times Herzfeld had ever heard a woman lead services.
“It’s irregular and out of my comfort zone,” he said, looking at Goldfinger. “But it was important to let her know that I was with her in her struggle to be strong and… that I was going out of my comfort zone —”
“And that’s when he said, ‘One of us had to be uncomfortable; why should it have to be me?” Goldfinger interrupted, referring to a quote she included in her moving nomination of Herzfeld for the Forward’s America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis series, which appeared in March. (Herzfeld was selected as one of 36 rabbis inspiring Jews across the country.)
After I told this story to Rabbi Avi Weiss, dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York, where Herzfeld studied (he also has degrees from Yeshiva and Columbia universities), Weiss was silent for five long seconds.
“As you speak, I am filled with pride and tears. You have given me one of my proudest moments,” he said. “Judaism is not just a system of the head, but a system of the heart. It’s a balance, and Akiva gets it.”
Goldfinger does, too.
She grew up in a Reform Jewish family on Long Island and in Manhattan, not far from Herzfeld’s Orthodox upbringing on Staten Island. She was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and later joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations as associate director of the Pacific Southwest Council. But before all that, she was a 15-year-old girl watching her family’s rabbi comfort her dying mother.
“He could not cure her cancer, but he sure did heal her pain,” she said. “I really did feel like I wanted to repay a debt of gratitude, to him and to the whole concept of a rabbi: someone who shows up even when the body and mind are doing embarrassing things — things that remind us of our own frailty and how close we all live to the edge.”