By Susan Josephs
Last year, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld wrote an essay about religious intolerance against non-Orthodox Jews in Israel in which she imagined herself praying at the Western Wall and getting arrested in front of her two sons for wearing a prayer shawl. “This is a great example of where being a woman really shapes my point of view and how my perspective as a woman informs my role in Jewish communal leadership,” she observes.
Since becoming the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in 2009—the first woman to hold the post—Schonfeld has consciously embraced a holistic approach to leadership. This includes “expressing the concerns that I have as a mother of young children. The gender issue remains complicated and there’s no point in trying to deny it, but at the end of the day, it’s about staying committed to your higher purpose,” she observes.
With a fierce commitment to both Jewish tradition and innovation, the 46-year-old rabbi is on a mission to ensure that the Conservative movement remains a vital force of 21st-century Judaism. She has traveled the country to speak with 500 of her movement’s 1,600 rabbis about the challenges of their work, overseen the publication of new prayer books that combine traditional text with challenging modern commentary, and is launching social networks for Rabbinical Assembly members and Conservative Jews around the world to push the message of Conservative rabbis out through the Jewish world and beyond.
Ultimately, “the Conservative movement is not its institutions; it’s a vast web of people inspired by powerful ideas who want to have an impact on the world,” says Schonfeld, who appeared this year on Newsweek’s annual Top 50 Rabbis list. “But I also believe strongly in the ongoing value of large, networked institutions. It’s about figuring out how these institutions can be most effective in building a 21st-century religious movement.”
Raised in Riverdale, N.Y., Schonfeld grew up in a culturally Jewish and entrepreneurial home. Her father worked in real estate and both parents “taught me that if you don’t get out there, nothing is going to happen. They both had a sense of tirelessness and optimism, which were extremely important lessons for me to have internalized,” she says.
At Yale University, Schonfeld majored in history and discovered a passion for theater, which had a major impact on her future career choice. After college, she taught playwriting in New York City public schools under the auspices of the New York Shakespeare Festival, where she learned how to “value and enrich other people’s cultural experiences. We were called ‘cultural workers,’ because we used community norms to deepen kids’ awareness of their own talents and responsibilities. I realized that a rabbi is a ‘cultural worker’ who can transform lives and have a major impact on larger society by building Jewish knowledge and community.”
Crediting a close friend’s mother with urging her to attend rabbinical school, Schonfeld received her ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1997 and served as rabbi of the New York City–based Society for the Advancement of Judaism. At this synagogue dually affiliated with the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, she pioneered a number of influential programs, including “Touchstones,” a program designed to use participants’ passions and talents as vehicles to deepen Jewish learning. In 2001, she became the Rabbinical Assembly’s director of rabbinic development, which included her spearheading a groundbreaking study on women’s advancement in the rabbinate.
Though Schonfeld misses “the focus and intensity on the Jewish life cycle” that pulpit work entails, she’s glad she can still tell her sons, ages 5 and 8, “that Mommy is working for the Jewish people. They understand that when I’m away from home, that I’m doing it for their future,” she says. “I want them to grow up in a world that has many vibrant expressions of Judaism.”