With a sly smile, Rabbi Linda Joseph recalled the first time she walked into an alcove at Har Sinai Congregation where portraits of her predecessors are proudly displayed.
“I thought to myself, `Hmm, I don’t look anything like them at all,’” she said.
A native of Melbourne, Australia, Rabbi Joseph is the first female senior spiritual leader of Har Sinai, the nation’s oldest continuously Reform congregation. She arrived at the Owings Mills temple of approximately 400 families in early August and officiated at her first Shabbat service there on Sept. 2.
Rabbi Joseph — who lives in Owings Mills and is engaged to Richard Landis, a retired attorney — has lived intermittently in the United States since 1990 and was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati in 1994. She has served in pulpits in Columbia, S.C., and Ashburn, Va., among others.
Rabbi Joseph recently spoke to JMORE.
So, do you get a lot of questions about your accent?
[Laughs] People are a little confused. They think I’m from England or South Africa or New Zealand, like it’s all the same. When I was in Florida, a congregant once told me about their enjoyable visits to Cape Town and Johannesburg. I said, `Wow, I’d love to go to South Africa someday,’ and they were just stunned.
How does it feel to be the first female senior rabbi of Har Sinai?
Well, it’s interesting. Women have been ordained now for more than 40 years and there have been a number of them, but we always get asked a lot about `firsts.’ I think of this less as being about gender than it is about what I bring to the congregation as a rabbi.
What do you feel you bring?
I bring years of working in different formats, which gives me a lot of experience and creativity in how I approach liturgy and education and programming and spirituality. I have a reputation for being creative in the things I do. I really enjoy thinking out of the box. We don’t grow if we don’t try new things. So I’m rooted in tradition but also have that creative element.
Your approach to Reform Judaism?
Reform Judaism is about knowledge and choices and knowing tradition, and making informed decisions out of all of that. We have to decide what makes tradition relevant to our lives and community. We want people connected to Jewish learning and ideas, and to help them create Jewish lives that are meaningful.
Is Reform today at a crossroads?
Judaism in general is at a crossroads. We live in a different era of Jewish practice and affiliation and understanding, even more than 30 years ago. Back then, you’d ask your rabbi if you had a question. Now, you can ask `Rabbi Google.’ We have a lot more information at our fingertips. There are now a plethora of real-time and virtual Jewish communities you can be part of. Judaism has become more democratic than ever before.
How do you reach millennials?
It’s all about meeting them where they’re at. I don’t think you reach out to them in the traditional ways. With millennials, you have to reach out to them at the wine bar or in a discussion online. They’re probably going to really connect back when they have children themselves and have a need. So you have to create meaningful points of connection at different points in their life. That generation knows if something is meaningful or not. They’re looking for something that’s values-laden and content-driven. You have to keep it interesting and fresh.
How is Jewish life similar and different here than in Australia?
What’s different is the degree of [Jewish] literacy. I could teach a class in Hebrew and Aramaic in Australia and people could follow it. Here, I would have to bring an English translation. At the same time, there’s more openness and creativity here than in Australia. So I’ve had to step up my game.
Is it daunting to come to a congregation with so much history?
It’s wonderful to come to a congregation with this kind of legacy. There’s a history and values that have been held up here for many generations. I’ve received a wonderful welcome. People have been open and helpful and made me feel part of the congregation.
Big plans for Har Sinai?
My experiences have taught me to sit back and listen and learn before trying to innovate. Change is not radical but incremental. It’s a process. Some people will embrace change and some are hesitant. But change doesn’t have to be linear. You move toward the goals that you want to achieve.
Your top priorities as a rabbi?
For me, learning text and prayer is paramount. Those are the things that are important to me. Social action is also important, but these are the things I’m most passionate about.
This upcoming year is Har Sinai’s 175th anniversary. What does that mean to you?
I just think it’s so amazing to think about how to celebrate this milestone and help people connect with the roots of their congregation. At the same time, we have to think about how we’re going to continue to be vibrant for the next 175 years. So it’s a time to reflect and look at the future. I’m just very excited to be here.
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