A Rabbi and a Single Mom

The national convention of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ, commonly referred to as the Reform movement) opens today at Ganei Yehoshua in Tel Aviv and will focus on "The Jewish Family." Rabbi Ada Zavidov will begin with a prayer. Zavidov's Jewish family includes herself and her 5-year old daughter, conceived through sperm donation.

Zavidov, age 47, is the rabbi of Israel's oldest Reform congregation, Kehillat Harel, in the center of Jerusalem. She is the new chair of the rabbinic council of the IMPJ, the most senior post among Reform rabbis in Israel. She is not its only single parent. About two months ago, Rabbi Galia Sadan of Kehillat Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv also became one. (Zavidov prefers the Hebrew title "Rav," which is identical to that of male rabbis, while Sadan prefers the feminine version of the term, "Raba.")

Q. What kind of message are you sending?

"This is the precise message: I want to tell all of the daughters of Israel, all of the women who, from the age of 30, experience extreme pressure to find a spouse while their biological clock is ticking, that I know because I was there. And I know the pressure. Don't give up on motherhood. I emphasize, do it in a responsible way, only if you have financial backup, that is a profession, assistance, a support system. Don't bring children into the world in a state of disarray.

"This is a message to my sisters, the women who go from blind date to blind date, in search of 'who will be my partner, who will be the father of my children?' They are truly my sisters, because I was so there. It's a message to seize the moment and not give in to desperation.

"You can find happiness even if you do not find Mr. Right. Motherhood is the greatest happiness. Look what an adorable daughter I have. There is no one - no one - like her. As far as that is concerned, I think the sperm bank is a wonderful thing, a fantastic invention. I got such a successful child. Of course, I take all the credit."

There are those who say that bringing a fatherless child into the world is irresponsible.

"I think that it is unethical to oppose permitting women to realize their ability to be mothers just because they are unmarried. There is no one on earth with the right to judge or criticize the desire to fulfill this basic, human need to become a mother. The opponents are typically parents who have experienced this joy themselves. How can they prevent others from having that experience?

"We know there are people lying on psychologists' couches that grew up in completely conventional families with a father, a mother and a cat," she says. "A child needs love, acceptance and respect and to feel wanted. And single-parent families often have the most wanted and loved children in the world. There are many advantages to motherhood at a mature age. We are wiser."

Do you also recommend that women refuse to compromise in their choice of spouse?

"I couldn't compromise. It was all or nothing. The love of my life never came along. If other women want to compromise, they should compromise. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't.

"But you know what a happy person I am now. I am happy - a happy person. My professional dream came true, as well, to be the rabbi of Kehillat Harel, the congregation that led me to the Progressive Movement. I am the first female rabbi here after a succession of male rabbis and also the first female rabbi to lead a congregation in Jerusalem."

Your statements appear to support the warnings of mothers - that if you don't find a spouse quickly, you will miss the boat.

"I have married many couples beyond the age of 30. Thus, everyone can relax. On the other hand, do not be complacent at the age of 25. That is also true."

The 17th IMPJ Convention opening today will be the largest IMPJ conference ever. Some 1,500 people will participate. Zavidov will open the conference with a prayer which states, "Lord, Our God, help us, in our communities, to foster, in practical terms, openness to the variety of families that make up your world: single-sex families, single-parent families, families with children, and families without children.... Open our hearts that we may internalize the knowledge that it is not the elements of the family unit that determine its character but the quality of relationships in the family....A happy child is raised by two parents, a mother and a father, or one parent, or two fathers, or two mothers. Strong, growth-producing, faithful, and respectful relations between partners may be relations between a man and a woman, or two men, or two women.... During this conference devoted to the family, in particular, may we have the wisdom to include and embrace those among us who, for any reason, do not live within a family structure. They belong to the family of our community."

In an interview with Zavidov seven years ago, she told me that when she was ordained as a rabbi, she said, "I hope to be married someday. Clearly, the entire matter of family life, monogamy, and a relationship of sanctity and mutual respect is very important to me and a priority of the first order." She became pregnant a year and a half later when she was the rabbi of Kehillat Tzur Hadassah. "At a certain age, when Mr. Right didn't come, it was a now-or-never situation," she says.

How did the congregation respond when their rabbi became pregnant without a partner?

"As soon as the members of the congregation knew, I received all the support, encouragement and help possible. I also received the full support of the rabbinic council. After the birth, I held a Simhat Bat ceremony attended by male and female rabbis. The Reform movement truly includes families of all types. We did not invent the single-sex or single-parent family. They are facts of life. My movement faces facts of life with open eyes and says, 'I embrace everyone.' From my experience, I can attest that it is a real embrace. It is a wonderful thing."

And when you arrived at Kehillat Harel? There are people there who are much older.

"It seems to me that not only was it not a problem, it actually helped me in the process of acceptance. There is natural sympathy for mothers. In general, Israeli society loves motherhood."

You didn't get negative reactions?

"To my face? No."

Did you sense negativity?

"Perhaps, sometimes some embarrassment regarding the question of whether there is or is not a father, also regarding the fact that I used the services of a sperm bank. I was completely transparent."

What do you tell your daughter when she asks where her father is?

"She has yet to ask. It is really interesting. Everyone said that she would ask. She is very happy and mischievous. She is my entire emotional world."

Pure rabbinic relations

While Zavidov has married several dozen couples in her seven years as a rabbi, "Rabbi Meir Azari, of Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv, marries more couples," she says. "In Jerusalem, liberal weddings are less common and women, in general, preside over fewer weddings because a significant number of couples are still unprepared to be married by a woman. The couples who come to me are very feminist couples in which the woman also says to the man, 'You are consecrated unto me.'"

Do you not experience pangs of envy when you marry others?

"That is very difficult for me to answer. If I say no, who will believe me? If I felt envy, I would not be able to do it. I truly maintain a professional separation and perform the task with a whole heart. In fact, what really causes me to feel envious is the fact that when I had my bat mitzvah, I did not have the empowering, uplifting experience of reading from the Torah. I had no bat mitzvah at all.

"I grew up in Tel Aviv in the '60s and the option of girls going up to the Torah did not even exist. It was impossible to imagine such a thing. Who knows? Perhaps I may yet stand under the huppah [wedding canopy], but I will never be 12 again."

Aren't women in the congregation afraid of you because you are single?

"Oof! You are really going too far. A woman rabbi! Oy va voy! Heaven forbid we should cross those boundaries. It is forbidden by the rabbinic ethical code to engage in relations with members of the congregation. Our relations are purely rabbinic. That is fundamental. It is based on the rabbinic, ethical code of the Reform movement in North America, which the local Progressive Rabbinic Council has adopted."

My grandfather died in front of my eyes

Rabbi Ada Zavidov's earliest memory was, at age two, seeing her grandfather slump over, motionless in a chair. She remembers the feeling that something horrible had happened. Her grandfather, Aba Ahimeir, had a heart attack while playing with his granddaughter. Ahimeir, one of the leaders of the Revisionist Movement during the British Mandate period, founded the radical Brit Habirionim group. He stood trial for incitement to murder Haim Arlozoroff and was acquitted. Her mother, Ze'eva, named after Ze'ev Jabotinsky, entered the room to see Ada in her playpen staring wide-eyed at her grandfather, who was apparently already dead.

"I remember my mother crying and screaming. I remember being left with the neighbors, and they gave me a big doll or teddy bear. And that is my earliest memory: My grandfather dying while he was playing with me.

"When I was 14 and a half," she continues, "I had the very same experience with my own father who died in front of me in Paris. He also died of a heart attack. My father was 47. He was the deputy director of the Afro-Asian Institute, which provided Israeli assistance to Third World nations. He had a heart attack a month before he was supposed to present his doctoral thesis to the Sorbonne. I remember taking my Bible, and when they entered to resuscitate him, I said, 'God, let Daddy live, let Daddy live.' But it didn't help.

"I see God's hand," she says, "in the fact that my father died on the last day of Passover, and my daughter was born on the second day of Passover. As far as I am concerned, there is a great deal of comfort in this because, until she was born, Passover was a very sad holiday for my small family."

Zavidov's prayer shawl bears the inscription, "I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord." (Psalms 118:17) This may also be seen as an example of the peace that she has made with the tragedies that befell her.

If this is divine intervention, then it was expressed twice in the deaths of people who were close to you. One might expect that you would approach God with complaints.

"And how I approached! But one can actually ask very difficult questions from a place of faith. What does God want from me? What did I do? What was my crime? Does God hate me? Over the years, I understood that very difficult things often happen to us and we cannot understand their meaning. Perhaps, we will never understand. I believe that the classic answer is that of Job - to make peace with the fact that man cannot understand everything. I now understand that the hardship that I experienced in my youth made me who I am, but I will not begin to praise myself now.

"I did not bring my own experience of bat mitzvah or marriage to the rabbinate," Zavidov says. "But, unfortunately, I did bring a great deal of experience of grief, death and being orphaned. I consider helping others in crisis to be an enormous mission. After my father died, we had a very hard time. We returned to Israel to bury him and were unable to properly observe the shiva mourning period. I learned the importance of mourning ritual in our tradition. There is a lot of wisdom in these rites that help people process grief."

Do you believe in Providence?

"I really do believe in Providence but I am the exception in my movement. This does not mean that my life is all wine and roses, but I believe that there is justice and a judge and a Master of the Universe. I am a fusion of classic faith and a Reform approach to Halakha [Jewish religious law]."

It appears that the only thing that prevented you from becoming Orthodox was that you are a feminist.

"That is also a factor but not the only factor. I am not prepared to see them toss me aside in the women's section of the synagogue and also not prepared to have someone tell me what to do - to drive on Shabbat, not to drive on Shabbat, to keep kosher, not to keep kosher."