Rabbi Garfunkel leaving local congregation after six years

July 14, 2003|by MARLO BARNHART

As she prepares to leave Congregation B'nai Abraham after six years as its rabbi, Janice Garfunkel said she is finding that endings can be quite difficult.

"When I came here, I quoted a Jewish saying in my first newsletter that all beginnings are hard," Garfunkel said as she began the task of packing up and moving on with her life in a direction as yet unknown.

It seems leaving is tough, too.

Looking back, Garfunkel, now 44, said she is a very different woman from the one who came to Hagerstown as a "single" and is leaving with two daughters born during her tenure at the synagogue.


"I knew I wanted to be a mother long before I came to Hagerstown," Garfunkel said.

A random glance at an advertisement in a magazine led to her first odyssey to Israel in 1998. The advertisement mentioned surrogate motherhood opportunities in Israel but also noted that the cost of in vitro fertilization in that country was much lower than in the United States, Garfunkel said. Even with the cost of renting an Israeli apartment for a month during the procedure, it still was less expensive.

"Within 24 hours of seeing that article, I had contacted the doctor in Israel," Garfunkel said.

She was then and still is single. That first hurdle was overcome, but Garfunkel knew she had to tell the president of the synagogue about her plans. And then there was the congregation.

When then-president David Handler found out why Garfunkel wanted to meet with him, he told her he thought she was going to say she was leaving the congregation.

"As to my plans to have a baby, he said, 'Is that all?'" Garfunkel recalled.

A letter to the congregation was next as she explained to the members her decision to become a single mother. "The members were almost unanimously supportive," Garfunkel said. "One person quit the congregation but that was it."

That support continued through Garfunkel's decision to again go to Israel last year for another in vitro procedure, which led to the birth of her second daughter in April.

Aliza is now 4 years old and is enjoying the company of her baby sister, Elianna.

The local congregation includes about 100 families who are active, Garfunkel said, and a similar number who don't attend services.

Garfunkel said her status as a parent has given her a wider understanding of the problems and joys of that role and therefore a better avenue for sharing the concerns of her congregation.

As far as she knows, her decision to pursue motherhood - twice - is quite extraordinary for a single rabbi.

But then Garfunkel has been on the cutting edge nearly from the start of her ministry in Hagerstown. Her stint at B'nai Abraham was her first full-time solo pulpit. She came to Hagerstown from Washington, D.C., where she served as director of the Jewish Scholar Center.

For now, she is planning an extended maternity leave to spend time with her daughters.

"I plan to explore a number of possibilities, including working on behalf of promoting Israel in the U.S.," Garfunkel said. That goal touches the core of her philosophy of repairing the world or leaving it better than we found it.

In the fall of 1999, Garfunkel reacted to incidents of vandalism at the East Baltimore Street synagogue by saying more work needs to be done to break down prejudices.

"I guess this small voice of hatred comes as a reminder to us that we in the Jewish community and in the general community in Hagerstown still have a lot of work to do to teach the message of tolerance, peace and love," Garfunkel said in September 1999.

Her efforts to promote interfaith understanding among all religious groups in recent years caught the attention of many of other faiths. The Rev. Don Stevenson, pastor of Christ's Reformed Church, addressed the subject of Garfunkel's leaving in a letter to the editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

In his letter, Stevenson cited her "sharp mind, keen intellect and passion for truth," as well as her unswerving dedication to interfaith dialogue in the community.

The Herald-Mail Articles