As Rabbi Barbara Penzner reviews her 28 years as senior solo rabbi of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah, a small, urban Reconstructionist congregation in West Roxbury, she told JewishBoston that she feels much gratitude for the community she and her congregation have built over the decades.
Penzner, a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, began to make her mark on the Boston Jewish community after she and her husband, Brian Rosman, arrived in 1987. At the time, there were fewer than 200 women in North America who had been ordained as rabbis. As a Reconstructionist, Penzner was a minority within a minority in Boston. Yet over the years she has become highly respected throughout Greater Boston for her intelligence, spiritual depth and activism for social justice. She is beloved by the congregation she revived in West Roxbury and helped shape into a diverse and welcoming community dedicated to tikkun olam (repairing the world).
Penzner’s first pulpit in the area was in Newton at Shir Hadash, a small Reconstructionist havurah that celebrated Shabbat and holidays together. After stints at two congregations in the area, Penzner was selected for the Jerusalem Fellows, a two-year program in Israel that cultivated Jewish educators from around the world. Concluding her time in Israel in 1995, she was tapped for the job of rabbi at Temple Hillel B’nai Torah (HBT) in West Roxbury and was hired a few months later, in time for the High Holidays. Initially part-time, the arrangement suited Penzner as she raised her family and worked for CJP in the Me’ah program. In 2001, she became HBT’s full-time rabbi, and in 2003, the congregation voted to join the Reconstructionist movement.
Growing up, Penzner’s family left New York and close family when they moved to Overland Park, Kansas, when Penzner was 3. Music was an integral part of her family, enhancing Shabbat and holiday observances. She received her Jewish education at Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City. Five summers as a camper at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin developed her love of prayer, Hebrew language and Israel. Her lifelong advocacy for justice is rooted in her family’s steadfast commitment to Judaism and progressive politics despite being an outlier in both ways. Active in her synagogue’s USY group, she gravitated to social action work, with a particular interest in the Soviet Jewry movement.
Prior to a summer trip to Israel with Camp Ramah, she traveled with a smaller group of campers on a two-week bus trip from Brussels to the Soviet Union and back, embarking on her first trip to the Soviet Union. Her interest in Soviet Jewry led to studying the Russian language and majoring in Russian studies at Bryn Mawr College. On her second trip to the Soviet Union as a rabbinical student in 1987, she and her husband, also a Soviet Jewry activist, visited refuseniks, and in 1995 she traveled to the former Soviet Union (FSU) with the Jerusalem Fellows to take part in the first Russian Jewish Educators Conference, held in St. Petersburg. Penzner recalled the excitement surrounding the resurgence of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. “It was a new era in Jewish life in the FSU,” said Penzner. “It was very inspiring.”
Penzner’s commitment to tikkun olam and social activism has been a major focus of her rabbinate. In 1996, HBT was the first Jewish congregation to join the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, and under Penzner’s leadership, the temple welcomed interfaith families, multiracial families, Jews of color and members of the LGBTQ community. Penzner cultivated HBT’s reputation as a social justice community while reviving an aging congregation.
During her time as HBT’s solo rabbi, Penzner participated with her congregants and family members in initiatives to better the lives of the underserved in Limestone, Maine, and New Orleans. Penzner founded the Tikkun Olam Family Work Project in 2005, bringing parents and teens from Greater Boston to northern Maine until 2014. In 2009, she and Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Newton, led a trip to New Orleans to assist in post-Hurricane Katrina repairs. The group spent a week making a difference by working on construction projects while camping out in a church basement. “During those years of rehabbing and building houses in New Orleans and Limestone, we slept in a lot of church basements and the experiences were unforgettable,” Penzner recalled.
In the summer of 2009, 98 housekeepers at the three Hyatt hotels in the Boston area were fired after being asked to train new workers to fill in on vacations and holidays. However, these substitutes were subcontractors of a company in Georgia expressly hired to take the places of permanent employees. Mostly women and immigrants, many of the housekeepers had worked at the hotels for over two decades. The housekeepers reached out to Local 26, which represents hospitality workers, for aid in seeking justice—they became known as the Hyatt 100.
As a leader in the New England Jewish Labor Committee, Penzner drafted a petition signed by over 200 Massachusetts clergy committing to boycott the three Hyatt Hotels. Penzner followed up by traveling to Hyatt corporate headquarters in Chicago twice to drive home the message that dismissing the housekeepers was immoral. She became widely known in the Jewish community as the go-to person regarding fair treatment of hotel workers. The Boston dispute was resolved in 2013, with 98 housekeepers splitting a million-dollar settlement that also required any new Hyatt hotels in Boston to be unionized. Penzner continued advocating for workers’ rights as co-chair of the New England Jewish Labor Committee and as leader of the annual Passover Labor Seder.
Penzner continued her social justice activism when Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CEO of T’ruah: A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, asked Penzner to join her in Immokalee, Florida, in 2011 for the first T’ruah cohort supporting the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Founded in 1993 as a work-based human rights organization, CIW fights against human trafficking and gender-based violence against migrant workers. CIW launched the Fair Food Program, a partnership among farmworkers, Florida tomato growers and participating retail buyers including Subway, Whole Foods, Walmart and many more fast food, retail and hospitality chains. In December 2011, T’ruah awarded her the Rabbinic Human Rights Hero award.
Penzner further extended her commitment to human rights when Ruth Messinger of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) invited her to apply for the AJWS Rabbinic Global Justice Fellowship. As one of 15 rabbis making a commitment to learn about and advocate for human rights across the world, the fellows traveled with AJWS to Guatemala in early 2019.
A life-altering event in Penzner’s personal and professional life has been her embrace of the mikveh as a feminist ritual. She traces her formal interest to 1983 as she prepared for her wedding. That same year, Penzner met writer Anita Diamant when she answered Diamant’s query in Moment Magazine soliciting stories about new and creative Jewish wedding rituals. Those stories became the basis of Diamant’s classic book on the subject, “The New Jewish Wedding.” Penzner reengaged with the ancient ritual of mikveh—traditionally a ritual purification bath following a woman’s period—in a way that did not stigmatize women as niddah (impure).
“Anita and I connected over the mikveh and the possibilities for Jews of all denominations,” she said. “We knew our mikveh would go beyond the idea of a woman’s premarital and monthly immersions. We wanted to be a place for same-sex immersions before their weddings. We began to dream of the possibilities of using the mikveh for events such as healing from illness, gratitude for a milestone birthday and creating rituals for b’nei and b’mitzvot.”
In 2001, Penzner and Diamant, the first president of Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh, invited three others to be original board members, or “Mikveh Mamas.”
“Barbara was an active, thoughtful, practical and rabbinic presence on the board—reminding us of the holiness of our mission,” said Diamant.
The clarion call of the rabbinate that Penzner answered when she was 22 years old remains strong and clear and will serve her well in new endeavors. In her final Yom Kippur sermon, she shared her reflections as she prepared to step down for the last time from HBT’s bima as its rabbi:
“It has been the greatest privilege of my life to be your rabbi. I am grateful every day for the many blessings of these past 28 years, entering into your homes and hearts, rejoicing with you in your celebrations, grieving with you in your sorrows, and, most amazingly, bearing witness to the many transformations that shape each of us through a lifetime. I am grateful for the unending opportunities to step outside of the mundane, to peek under the surface of the words, and to find the soul just underneath, continually drawn toward seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary.”
Temple Hillel B’nai Torah will celebrate Rabbi Barbara Penzner and her legacy on Saturday, June 3, with “An Evening of Light and Song.”