When Rabbi Miri Gold was growing up in the Conservative Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Detroit, it never occurred to her that she would become a rabbi, much less the central figure in a landmark Israeli decision to recognize Reform and Conservative community leaders as rabbis and to fund their salaries.
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"At the time, women and girls were not even allowed to have an aliyah l'torah," (reciting the blessings accompanying the reading of the Torah scroll during the synagogue service), she recalls. Years later, when Gold was 21 and had finished college, she returned to the rabbi and asked him "Now can I have a bat mitzvah?"
"He said no."
In 1977, Gold was a member of a group of North Americans who immigrated to the newly formed Kibbutz Gezer. "It was very important to me that the kibbutz express some of the roots and values that we brought with us, a liberal Judaism that included a kosher kitchen and holidays that incorporated religious traditions."
The congregation that would become Gold's Kehilat Birkat Shalom began holding prayers in a 1950s-era one-room schoolhouse that doubled as a weight-lifting gym. When the congregation's founder, Levi Weiman-Kelman, now a Jerusalem rabbi, left the kibbutz, Gold began leading High Holiday services and training Gezer's youths for bar and bat mitzvahs.
After reading the Torah at her daughter's bat mitzvah in 1993, celebrants told her that she should study for the rabbinate. She entered the Reform Movement's Hebrew Union College program the next year, in 1999 becoming the movement's third woman rabbi to be ordained in Israel.
Gold has led the congregation's efforts to reach out to immigrants, in particular newcomers from South America, as well as holding interfaith programs, and conducting study sessions of Jewish texts for inmates at Ramle prison with her husband, educator David Leichman.
It has been nearly seven years since the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism tapped Gold as the test case to win recognition for Reform and Conservative rabbis. "I was just the poster girl," she laughs.
Whenever the battle seemed a lost cause, she says, she would remember working with others in the 1980s for the release of a Jewish activist incarcerated in the Soviet gulag.
"I didn't really believe they would let him out," she recalls, "but we never stopped working for his release."