Rabbi Lynnda Targan didn’t get into rabbinical school on her first try.
“When I tried to find out why not, I was told the admissions committee didn’t ‘image’ me as a rabbi,” she said.
Targan, 72, was later accepted and ordained at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, New York, in 2003, but continued to hear versions of this comment throughout her career. She turned these experiences into the title of her book, “Funny, You Don’t Look Like a Rabbi: A Memoir of Unorthodox Transformation,” which came out in April from White River Press.
The memoir narrates her path to the rabbinate, which involved entering rabbinical school at age 50 after a career as a communications professional. As a young girl, she was inspired by Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first female rabbi ordained in the Conservative movement, when she heard her speak at Temple Sinai in Dresher.
“She was a scholar, she was very poised, very charming and very Jewishly educated, and for a fleeting moment I thought, ‘Wow, that would be really something,” she said.
She didn’t see it as a possibility for herself at the time. After her parents’ divorce, her family didn’t have the money to send her to Hebrew school or Jewish summer camps.
She pursued Jewish education in her adulthood, taking Hebrew lessons at Gratz College and traveling to Israel. She began to seriously consider becoming a rabbi during a talk with her husband, Larry Targan, about what would happen if he died.
She maintained she would never remarry, but he said she would either find a rabbi to be with or become one herself. The idea stuck with her, and she decided to pursue her dream.
Even though her kids were grown and out of the house, embarking on this career path wasn’t easy. Since she had no formal Jewish education growing up, Targan earned master’s degrees in Jewish liberal studies and Jewish communal studies from Gratz College to set the foundation for rabbinical school. Even when she was accepted, she worried about how she would measure up.
“I didn’t really have much of a background until I got to rabbinical school, so I felt kind of insecure about going and studying with people who were much more informed than I was,” she said.
She started rabbinical school sick after her doctor found a tumor in her salivary gland, but it didn’t slow her down; she took five to seven classes a semester and commuted to school in New York from Philadelphia.
Even during intensive study and commuting, it was important to her to make time for her family and friends. After all, she couldn’t support her community without also supporting the people she loved. Her two adult children saw how hard she worked and were on board.
“They already thought I was a nerd, so this just went along with the rest of it,” she said. “They were always supportive.”
Other people expressed concern that she was starting rabbinical school at an older age.
“A lot of people said to me, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to rabbinical school at 50? Well, you’ll probably be 55 or close to 55 when you’ll be ordained!’ And here I am,” she said.
For Targan, it was well worth the effort.
“If I had listened to people and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ll be 55,’ I wouldn’t have been able to be a rabbi for the past 17 and a half years. So I’ve had the honor to be a rabbi beyond everyone’s expectations,” she said.
She began her community rabbinic career conducting outreach to interfaith couples and converts to Judaism at the 92nd Street Y and teaching graduate courses in the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School at Gratz College.
These days, her rabbinate consists mainly of public speaking (on Zoom) and officiating lifecycle events. She co-founded the Women’s Midrash Institute, which provides a setting for participants to study Jewish texts in the context of feminist inquiry. She is also the facilitator of a Mussar group that she has met with weekly for almost three years. The participants discuss how to be the best version of themselves in keeping with the traditions of the Jewish spiritual practice that gives concrete instructions on how to live a meaningful and ethical life.
Targan is active in several local and national Jewish organizations. She is a member of the executive board of Women of Vision, a division of Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Women’s Philanthropy, and a member of the New York Board of Rabbis and the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. She is also a member of the National Council of Jewish Women.
Before she became a rabbi, Targan was a journalist (she had her own column in the Jewish Exponent for several years), a writer and owner of her public relations business, LT Communications. Writing continues to be an important part of her spiritual life in the form of services, poetry, meditations and her memoir.
One of Targan’s main messages in her book is to encourage people to follow their dreams, no matter what stage of life they happen to be in.
“If you have something that you want to do, go for it. Listen to the voice that you have inside of you, or what we say is the ‘still small voice’ that we hear about in the Book of Kings.” she said.
“And this is a very good time to listen to that voice because we’re in house, maybe, we’re working virtually, maybe, and we maybe have
more time to be contemplative, meditative and consider what our next steps will be,” she continued.
She also doesn’t want people to judge themselves or others too harshly.
“Just because you like fashion doesn’t mean that you’re not smart, that you can’t be a scholar,” she said. “Not looking like a rabbi is saying to people, ‘Don’t put me in a box, don’t judge me by what’s on the outside, because it’s what’s inside that matters.”