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At 63, Rabbi Starts New Position
In 1985, when the ordination of the first woman rabbi by the Conservative movement coincided with the Bat Mitzvah of Fredi Cooper's eldest daughter, the Wyndmoor resident believed it was a sign.
One of her daughters was going to become a rabbi.
In fact, it was Cooper who, at age 46 -- following a career in educational psychology -- entered the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote.
Now, 11 years after her ordination, the 63-year-old has assumed the presidency of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. Cooper said she thinks she may be the oldest rabbi to hold the post since the organization was created in 1974, but stressed that the movement and its leadership has long included clergy members who began their careers in another field.
"It's amazing to me that, at age 63, I'm starting this new thing," said Cooper, who teaches practical rabbinics at RRC.
Cooper's election to the post comes at a time of change in Reconstructionist Judaism -- really in all the non-Orthodox denominations.
The Reconstructionist College and the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation -- which is made up of congregations from around the country -- have just agreed to merge into one in the hopes of better serving their communities.
The RRA is deeply involved in the RRC/JRF merger process, but will remain a separate organization, in part because its focus is different, said Cooper.
Rather than directly serving the broader public, it concentrates on being a rabbinical resource for spiritual and professional development, she said.
During a recent interview, Cooper seemed far more eager to discuss her own personal story than get into the nitty-gritty of what she plans to do during her two-year term, asserting that she's still getting her feet wet in the volunteer position.
She credited her decision to apply to rabbinical school to the encouragement of her children, as well as Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Melrose Park, where she was a regular Torah reader. (As it turns out, neither daughter entered the rabbinate.)
Though she spent years with the Conservative movement, she said that her thinking eventually grew more in line with the more liberal Reconstructionists.
Cooper also pointed out that she considers cooking a major part of her rabbinate and Jewish identity. She offers cooking classes at Germantown Jewish Centre, where she is a member, and recently started baking challahs for the synagogue's Kesher Committee, which delivers food packages to families that are either in mourning or celebrating a birth.
She has also played a key role in the Jewish Family and Children's Service Para-Chaplaincy Program, in which volunteers deliver challah to the hospitalized.
When it comes to her new post, Cooper said her emphasis is going to be about improving communication. Hoping to find out what rabbis are looking for in the RRA, Cooper said that members of the board are currently contacting every rabbi within the organization to solicit thoughts and ideas.
Broadly speaking, she said that she'll be working to implement the strategic plan adopted by the organization just a little more than two years ago. Highlights include a call for the association to better serve nonpulpit rabbis, offer more expansive career counseling and devote greater attention to rabbis who are near the end of their careers or already retired.
Said Cooper: "Retirement is a time of life where you might want to redefine who you are."