Although one might think that an outspoken, funky woman rabbi might be marginalized within the mainstream Jewish community, San Francisco-based Rabbi Leah Novick moves among its various elements with ease. With a past including teaching “Women in Politics” at UC Berkeley, working as Director of the Berkeley Jewish Community Center, leading a women’s spirituality group, freelancing as a rabbi in rural communities, founding the national disarmament group SANE, and serving as vice president of the National Women’s Political Caucus, Rabbi Novick is able to foster, on a grass roots level, the exchange of ideas among the disparate elements of the San Francisco Jewish community. In addition, Novick’s involvement with goddess-oriented spirituality allows her to act as a bridge between the mainstream Jewish community and Jews who have turned to other traditions.
Much of Rabbi Novick’s recent work has been with Jews in rural communities whom she describes as “experiencing spiritual awakenings but lacking Jewish resources and connections to the Jewish establishment.” She has found that many of these Jews are alienated from Judaism but are hungry for spirituality in their lives. Novick offers workshops on Torah as “the Tree of Life,” celebrations for the New Moon, and rituals which connect Judaism with the environment. Her earth-centered approach is welcomed by rural Jews who live in close connection to the land and are aware of ecological changes in their daily lives, from water crises to air pollution. Rabbi Novick says that she is able, in a Jewish context, “to provide the spirit people are longing for,” and thereby help rural Jews create the foundation for a grassroots Jewish renewal movement.
In her interactions with more traditional and conservative elements of the Jewish community,’ Novick tells of bringing “grandmother energy” to her work as a woman rabbi. She is often surprised at how conservative groups are drawn to what she calls “the female style,” even if they do not accept her practice of making gender-neutral changes in the liturgy. Novick points out that more traditional Jews are aware of and often open to learning about the work she is doing, just as she is familiar with their work. In the San Francisco area, where the Jewish community is less segmented and stratified than other urban centers, Rabbi Leah Novick is able to serve as a mediator, educator, spiritual leader, and example of grassroots organizing for Jewish women across the country. “I can call the local Chabad rabbi and ask him for a favor,” boasts Novick. “And he can do the same with me.”