by Len Lear
Mt. Airy rabbi Linda Joy Holtzman, 61, who will speak about intermarriage this Thursday, June 19, 7 p.m., at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane in Mt. Airy, is a pioneer as a rabbi and as a lesbian. In 1979 the Mt. Airy native, who “came out in my 20s, shortly after I realized that I was a lesbian,” became one of the first women in the U.S. to serve as the presiding rabbi of a synagogue when she was hired by Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County, which was then located in Coatesville.
She had graduated in 1979 from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, yet was hired by Beth Israel despite their being a Conservative congregation. She thus became the first woman to serve as a rabbi for a Conservative congregation, as the Conservative movement did not then ordain women. In 1979 The New York Times published an article about her headlined “Only Female Presiding Rabbi in U.S. Begins Her Work in a Small Town.” In 1981 Holtzman became the first female rabbi ever to give a keynote speech for the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jews.
Because Rabbi Holtzman is a highly respected, courageous spiritual leader in our community, we put several questions to her last week about matters of interest to many area residents. Here are the questions and her answers:
•You are married to Betsy Conston, with whom you have raised two sons, Jordan and Zachary Holtzman-Conston. How long have you two been together, and when and where did you get married?
We have been together since 1981; we had a religious wedding in 1984; we had a civil wedding in Canada in 2003; now, for the first time, we are fully legally married in our own place of residence!
•Did you two and/or Jordan and Zachary ever face any bigotry or discrimination because of your relationship?
We have. By not being able to be legally married until now, I have not had the choice of a wide range of possible congregations to serve in past years. We both have (faced bias) in other subtle ways around having our relationship recognized and around having our parenthood of both of our sons acknowledged. I don’t think that Jordan and Zachary have faced much discrimination in their lives. We always sent them to schools and other places where we knew that our family would be supported.
•Why do you think the rate of intermarriage is so high in the U.S.?
Many reasons, but probably the greatest reason is that we live in a country that allows people of different religions, cultures and races to connect in many ways. If we get to know each other through work, social activities and many aspects of day-to-day life, we are bound to marry each other.
•I assume there are clergymen and women of all major religions who would not officiate at a marriage of two different religions. Why do you do it?
There are people who don’t officiate, but I do it because I believe that relationships between people of different religions can be healthy, solid and worthy of celebration. I think that our communities are strengthened by our forming and celebrating relationships with people of other communities.
•Would you still do it even if the couple told you they do not plan to raise their children Jewish?
I don’t generally base my decision about whether or not to do a wedding on people’s plans for their children. Often, they have no idea or will change their minds anyway. I’m more concerned about how couples process difference in their relationships. I often talk about how couples deal with disagreement. If they have a healthy process for doing so, I see no reason to assume that they will not deal with the question of child raising well. In my mind, it is not my role to officiate at weddings based on the possibility of children but on the likelihood of a good relationship being formed.
•How many intermarriages would you say you have officiated at since you were ordained?
I was ordained in 1979 and have officiated at many intermarriages. I’m not sure how many, but I do have a sense that the number of intermarriages that I’ve been asked to do has increased in recent years.
•You are the head of Tikkin Olam Chavurah. What is that?
The Tikkun Olam Chavurah is a progressive group of people who celebrate holidays and Shabbat together, have programs about social justice issues and support each other in doing social justice work with a Jewish spiritual base … We have rented a local church for the High Holidays and other programs and have used my house and other homes for other smaller programs. We hope to keep growing in the Mt. Airy area.
•You also founded the Reconstructionist Hevra Kadisha. What is that?
A Hevra Kadisha is a group that prepares bodies for burial according to traditional Jewish practices. Our Reconstructionist Hevra Kadisha does this in a more progressive way than the local Orthodox group does, being flexible about some customs and open to including family in the process.
•How long have you lived in Mt. Airy? What do you like/dislike about living in Mt. Airy?
I’ve lived here the better part of my life, and I love Mt. Airy. I love the beauty, the woods, the diversity, the full acceptance of LGBT folk, the village and the strong community and the great progressive Jewish community. I would like greater diversity, especially racial diversity. It’s possible to live in Mt. Airy and never socialize with people who are not your race. I also wish the schools were stronger, but I know that this is not just here but in all of Philadelphia.
•I know you feel strongly about the rights of immigrants, even those who are undocumented. What would you say to those people who feel that undocumented immigrants should not be offered a path to citizenship?
The U.S. is a land of immigrants, and that has always been our strength. It strengthens our country to support all of our immigrants. The U.S. has also supported systems in many parts of the world that have made it impossible for people to earn a decent living in their home countries. It is our obligation to take people who are affected by these systems into our country. The base of Jewish tradition is that we were slaves in the land of Egypt, so we know how it felt, and we are obligated to treat everyone in our land decently and respectfully. If the immigration system had been like it is now when my grandparents came here, they would not have been allowed in to the U.S. and would have been killed in Eastern Europe. How can we not support our current immigrants?
For more information about Rabbi Holtzman’s appearance Thursday at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, call 215-844-1870.