Toronto officially welcomed two Conservative rabbis into its community at the beginning of the month: Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin at Beth Tzedec and Rabbi Becca Walker at Beth David.
Their respective synagogues hired them for their unique skill-sets, as each one was chosen to fill a very specific role. For Rabbi Fryer Bodzin, that means stewarding the creation of the Beth Tzedec Centre for Spiritual Well-Being, the shul’s new initiative to provide its congregants with spiritual experiences through a Jewish lens, on top of all the usual rabbinical duties. For Rabbi Walker, whose official title is “engagement rabbi,” that means making more people feel excited about their involvement with the shul.
The two women are also the first full-time female Conservative pulpit rabbis in Toronto (Rabbi Jennifer Gorman has been working as a rabbi at Beth Tzedec, but not in a full-time capacity). Both Rabbi Fryer Bodzin and Rabbi Walker are aware of the fact that they’re making history, but neither one wants to make a big deal about it.
“It’s not like I’m coming in to be the woman rabbi of Beth David. I’m just another rabbi, and so most of the stuff I do is not focused around me being a woman,” said Rabbi Walker. “I just am a woman doing all these things.”
Rabbi Fryer Bodzin added that, “They wanted the best candidate, someone that could do this and someone that has experience.… I was that best candidate. They wanted someone that had the spiritual direction, or the social work background, as well.”
Rabbi Fryer Bodzin, a Toronto native, most recently spent 10 years as the senior rabbi at the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in New York. Before that, she spent three years as the rabbi-in-residence at Chicagoland Jewish High School in Deerfield, Ill. Prior to earning her rabbinic MA from American Jewish University, she received a master of social work from Yeshiva University and a BA in Jewish studies from York University.
For Boston native Rabbi Walker, who also received her rabbinic ordination from American Jewish University, it’s her background working for Hillel at Michigan State University and Hillel Campus Alliance Michigan for three years that prepared her for her new job.
“College students aren’t necessarily being drawn in by the typical shul programs, and so at Hillel, we got to be creative and figure out, OK, what’s exciting about Judaism and how do I connect the college students to Judaism when … their parents aren’t forcing them to go to things?” she said. “I was attracted to the job here because I think a lot of the same principles apply.”
So far, Rabbi Walker is enjoying her time in Toronto, although she admits that after less than two full weeks on the job, she still has a lot to learn. But she said the people she’s met have been open and willing to share. Her priority at the moment is building relationships and meeting people from the shul.
“I hope that someday, when I leave, who knows when that will be, that people will say she made this place a more welcoming place, with more opportunities for young families and 20s and 30s and youth,” said Rabbi Walker.
Rabbi Fryer Bodzin has the next generation in mind, as well. She said that she’s working with Rabbi Steven Wernick to ensure that Beth Tzedec will be the synagogue that their grandchildren will want to be a part of. But she also appreciates living in the same city as her parents for the first time in 23 years.
“This past Shabbat, for the first time ever, my parents came to my home for Shabbat dinner and nobody needed a passport. We said a Shehecheyanu around the table and we had tears in our eyes,” she said.