Rabbi needed a little nudge

August 20, 1997


Staff Writer

It was a United Church of Christ minister who persuaded Janice Garfunkel, the new rabbi at B'nai Abraham congregation in Hagerstown, to enter the seminary 16 years ago.

The two women were volunteering at a free clinic and counseling center in Dayton, Ohio, on a slow day when Garfunkel asked her co-worker what she was reading.

It was a book on theology and it launched a conversation about Garfunkel's indecision about whether to become a rabbi.

The minister "really convinced me that I should be a rabbi. She assuaged my concerns," Garfunkel said.

These days Garfunkel, 38, is unabashedly enthusiastic about her vocation.

"I like studying and I especially like studying about religion and Judaism. And I like teaching. I care deeply about Judaism and preserving and enriching it.


"And I like creating community. And I like counseling. So when I listed all those things, the only job I could think of was rabbi," she said.

On Aug. 4, Garfunkel took over as B'nai Abraham's rabbi, the first woman to hold that position in the congregation's 105-year history. She replaces Rabbi Charles Rabinowitz who left in May. The congregation consists of about 130 families.

Garfunkel does not seem at all daunted by the prospect of being the only rabbi of the only synagogue in Hagerstown.

"It seems like something that would be a lot of fun - being the only Jewish voice in town," she said.

Garfunkel brings a variety of experience in teaching and working with all ages, both in this country and in Israel, to her new job.

"Everybody was impressed with her personality, her education, her enthusiasm and her credentials," B'nai Abraham Congregation President Lewis C. Metzner said.

She was chosen by a selection committee of about 20 people who read resumes and conducted telephone interviews with candidates from all over the country over a seven-month period, Metzner said.

About five candidates were interviewed in person before Garfunkel was chosen, he said.

Garfunkel was born in Long Branch, N.J., and grew up in Dayton, where her family was active in their Reform congregation, she said.

It was at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where Garfunkel majored in history, that she first started thinking about becoming a rabbi, she said.

In the student body of 1,600 people, there were only about 150 Jewish students, Garfunkel said.

"I ended up being the coordinator of the Jewish student group and really enjoyed that experience. I didn't feel enough was being done ... so I had to do it myself," she said.

Garfunkel said she began to think, "how could I make a living out of this?"

The logical answer was to become a rabbi, but because she wasn't certain she took a year off after college to volunteer at the Dayton Free Clinic and Counseling Center. It was there she met the United Church of Christ minister who encouraged her, Garfunkel said.

Then it was off to the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, where she studied for five years at three of the seminary's four campuses - in Jerusalem, Cincinnati and New York City - for her master of arts degree in Hebrew letters and her ordination, she said.

During seminary she had several pulpits in small congregations, including ones in Joplin, Mo., and LaSalle, Ill., Garfunkel said.

Between her third and fourth years, Garfunkel took off a year to work for Ohio Congressman James Traficant Jr. and to do a part-time internship at Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C., she said.

She also worked for a time as assistant director of the Center for Jewish Life at Princeton University and in her fifth year she had a pulpit in Monessen, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, she said.

After ordination in 1988, Garfunkel spent a year as the assistant rabbi of a large congregation of more than 1,000 families in Worcester, Mass., supervising the religious school and working with the youth, young adults and singles, she said.

Then she worked in Israel for 2 1/2 years for Netzer Olami, an international Reform youth organization.

Garfunkel also conducted seminars on Jewish identity for Israeli high school students and coordinated a trip for an elder hostel, she said.

Upon returning to the United States, Garfunkel took over as interim campus rabbi at Princeton University for a year and then spent the last four years serving as director of the Jewish Studies Center, an adult education institute in Washington, D.C., she said.

But Garfunkel eventually decided that she wanted to get back into the congregational rabbinate.

She said she liked Hagerstown's location, with its proximity to Washington, D.C., where she still serves on the Board of Jewish Education and as treasurer of the Washington Board of Rabbis.

Garfunkel, who said she will move to Hagerstown, already has joined Washington County's efforts to mark the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam with plans to commemorate, at Friday night services on Sept. 12, the Jewish soldiers who fought there.

At B'nai Abraham her initial priorities will be adult education, working with the youth and increasing attendance at services, she said.

"I'd love to get people more excited by their Judaism," Garfunkel said. "I like people to learn new things."

The congregation is planning an installation service for Garfunkel on Nov. 21.

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