When I tell East Coast Jews that I’m from New Mexico, the first question out of their mouths is invariably, “Are there Jews in New Mexico?” Once I’ve quashed the temptation to shoot back, “What do YOU think?” I go on to explain. Yes, there are Jews in New Mexico. Yes, there is a synagogue in Los Alamos, where I grew up. No, it isn’t Reform — it is unaffiliated, a small community’s one-size-fits-all congregation, which, when I lived there, tended toward “traditional egalitarian” (a phrase I had never heard before moving to the East Coast).
Now that I’ve lived “back East” for a decade, I’ve been reflecting on some amazing facets of Jewish life in New Mexico. There’s the character of small Jewish communities on the “periphery”: the internal diversity, the absence of a formally incorporated Jewish non-profit infrastructure, the robust participation of individual Jews in civil society and ecumenical organizations — interfaith work without an interfaith consciousness.
There’s the particular history of New Mexico’s community of anusim (also known as crypto-Jews, hidden Jews, conversos, or, pejoratively, as marranos), families of Hispanic descent with Jewish roots dating to before the Spanish Inquisition. And then there’s a phenomenon that is quite unexpected: New Mexico has proved quite the breeding ground for some of the American Jewish community’s most innovative, dynamic female leadership.
This is the topic of a 2013 dissertation out of the University of New Mexico department of anthropology: “Storied Lives in a Living Tradition: Women Rabbis and Jewish Community in 21st Century New Mexico,” by Dr. Miria Kano. Kano conducted extensive interviews with five of New Mexico’s women rabbis: Shefa Gold, Lynn Gottlieb, Min Kantrowitz, Malka Drucker and Deborah Brin. Kano relates the incredible personal and professional journeys of each woman, interspersing anecdotes with meditations on the nature of narrative, the evolving role of women in the rabbinate, and the geographic and cultural context of their work in New Mexico.
“What they have in common is that they’re all trailblazers,” Kano told me. “By virtue of who they are, each one of them reveals a different angle of the living tradition. Through their leadership, they have created spaces in Judaism that didn’t exist before.” She described each of the five: “Lynn is passionate activist, committed at every level of her being. Shefa is a mystic, who reveals things that are felt, not seen — she allows people to become vulnerable to transformation. Min is a brilliant academic, a teacher who can make knowledge accessible to community. Malka brings tradition to life in a contemporary way, so that it can be a resource for those she serves. Deborah is a stable, caring, loving counselor — the bedrock of her community.”
Having had the good fortune to study closely with two of these rabbis, and being at least cursorily acquainted with the work of the other three, I can testify to the truth of Kano’s claims. Indeed, the women rabbis of New Mexico are an extraordinarily creative, iconoclastic and accomplished bunch. But the question that I was most curious about is one to which Kano did not dedicate much ink — namely, what is it about New Mexico that provides such a rich enviroment for this crop of exceptional women rabbis?