Kesher Israel Congregation members celebrated many firsts when they hired Rabbi Shelley Goldman in February.
The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College graduate is the synagogue’s first Reconstructionist rabbi, its first woman rabbi and its first queer rabbi.
The congregation in West Chester began as an Orthodox organization and primarily hired Conservative rabbis after the ’80s as community needs changed. Goldman said the congregation now identifies as progressive and Conservative.
“They were really looking for somebody who was excited and open about some things that are harder to find in the Conservative movement, particularly around playing instruments on Shabbat and the rabbi happily performing intermarriages,” Goldman said. “So those are things that are part of what I’m excited to bring to the community. I’m proud of them for choosing me, and I’m excited for the road ahead.”
Goldman was ordained in 2016. After graduation, she received an appointment as assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, which serves 650 families and was one of the four founding congregations of the Reconstructionist movement.
She worked there for three years before serving as the interim rabbi and spiritual consultant for Dor Hadash, Pittsburgh’s only Reconstructionist congregation.
It was a different position from her previous job. While Beth-El Zedeck was large and maintained dual affiliation with the Reconstructionist and Conservative movements, Dor Hadash was a small Reconstructionist hub that had operated without a full-time rabbi since the ’60s.
It was also one of three congregations that met in the Tree of Life building in Squirrel Hill, where a mass shooting in October 2018 took the lives of 11 people — including one member of Dor Hadash.
She thought the congregation was lovely and felt honored to work with it, but knew the position was temporary. She saw Kesher Israel had a full-time position open and applied.
The congregation was looking for a new rabbi because Goldman’s predecessor, Rabbi Lawrence Troster, died of prostate cancer on May 24, 2019. His legacy of leadership, social justice and environmental activism left big shoes to fill.
David Hyman and Peg Brown served as co-chairs of the Rabbinic Search Committee, and they knew what they were looking for in a leader.
“We really, really, really placed an emphasis on the fact that [Kesher Israel] is a very diverse community,” Brown said.
The synagogue has members from all over Chester County with various religious backgrounds, including younger families, interfaith couples and seniors who are heavily engaged in religious activities. Brown and Hyman assembled a group of members who represented the community’s demographics to identify their needs, put together a job description and started looking through resumes.
Hyman said Goldman’s background as a community organizer set her apart during the interview process. She had a career in the field before she started rabbinical school.
At one point, she worked in the youth department of the The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City, which she described as a combination of being a camp counselor and an organizer.
She took young LGBTQ activists to Albany to advocate for issues that impacted their community, including marriage equality, the inclusion of gender identity in nondiscrimination laws and anti-bullying policies in schools.
To Goldman, Judaism and social justice are inextricably linked. She identifies as “queer” because the term has political connotations of making the world better.
“I really approach the rabbinate from that lens,” she said. “I understand the rabbi as a community organizer, a community leader.”
Her demeanor and strong singing voice also stood out to the search committee.
“Absolutely, she hit the ball out of the park with an extremely kind, warm personality,” Hyman said.
Her first interview was July 2019 and she brought her family to visit the synagogue for an interview weekend in December. She signed her contract in February and moved in June.
She now lives in West Chester with her partner, Kieran Kiley, along with their son, niece and dog. Goldman and Kiley recently celebrated their seventh wedding anniversary.
Goldman started her new job on July 1 and is focusing on getting to know the congregation via Zoom events and preparing for the High Holidays. She said it is intimidating to start a new job in such unusual circumstances, but feels her past experiences as an organizer and leader have prepared her for the challenge.
“My goal has always been to meet as many people within the congregation as possible and meet important stakeholders within the community as well,” she said. “So in terms of coronavirus, I had to figure out how I would do that online.”
Brown said Goldman is doing a phenomenal job leading virtual services and planning socially distanced activities like hiking and kite flying.
“She’s not letting COVID deter her from trying to build the community,” she said.