This article is reprinted with permission from the New Jersey Jewish News.
by Marilyn Silverstein
NJJN Bureau Chief/PMB
September 9, 2008
The scene is crystal clear in Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum’s memory. She was eight years old and had just finished reading a child’s biography of George Fox, founder of the society of Quakers.
“I remember leaning against the fridge and telling my mother, ‘I’m going to lead my people the way George Fox led his people,’” she recalled.
This summer, close to half a century later, that childhood dream became a reality as Kirshbaum took her place as religious leader and educational director of Princeton’s only Reconstructionist congregation, String of Pearls.
The product of what she calls “a devoutly nonreligious upbringing,” the 57-year-old Kirshbaum journeyed toward her first pulpit the long way around. A native of Philadelphia, where she was raised in the secular Jewish tradition of the folkshul, she has led lives as a teacher of classic Greek and Latin, a mother, a cellist, a dairy farmer in the Missouri Ozarks, and a religious-school principal.
Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., this past June, Kirshbaum holds a bachelor’s degree in ancient Greek from Swarthmore College and a master’s degree in Latin literature from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in Baltimore.
She taught classics off and on for 22 years at the Kimberton Waldorf School in Pennsylvania, studied cello for two years with a member of the Amadeus Quartet near London, co-owned a Missouri dairy farm for six years, and lived in Baltimore for 21 years, teaching the classics at her alma mater and helping to found the Bolton Street Synagogue there.
Along the way, Kirshbaum had three sons — Ben, now a physician at New York University; Matt, a graduate student in architecture at Yale University; and David, a senior forestry major at the University of Vermont. The night before her ordination, she married Louis Friedler, a professor of mathematics at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa. The couple resides in Swarthmore.
Throughout her life, the thread that has woven everything together has been her love of the religious life, according to Kirshbaum.
“To put it simplistically, I must have the religious gene in my family,” she said as she sat in her Princeton Township office. “I could never get enough contact with people who had religiously informed lives. I think this is just part of who I was from birth and before.
“But I put it off and put it off, and it became the classic dream that festered but wouldn’t go away,” she said. “Then, when my middle son left for college, I got the beginning of a taste of the empty nest and I thought: Now or never.”
At the age of 51, Kirshbaum applied to RRC and began a six-year journey toward becoming a rabbi.
“For the first time, I really felt shot out of a cannon,” she said. “I was on a very, very clear trajectory. A certain diffuseness that had characterized my life was gone.
“Those six years — it was like a continual Shabbat,” she said. “To be in my 50s and just stop everything — it was so sweet.”
To the sweetness of those years, Kirshbaum added the spice of a diverse work experience. While at RRC, she served as an assistant at the college’s Academic Coalition for Jewish Ethics; held student pulpits in Baltimore and Detroit; studied chaplaincy at Johns Hopkins Hospital; worked with Jewish students at Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford colleges; traveled to Ghana with the American Jewish World Service; and served as a rabbinic intern with CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York, and with Greenfaith, a New Brunswick-based interfaith environmental advocacy and educational group.
While at the seminary, Kirshbaum won a number of awards, including the international Whizin Prize of RRC’s Center for Jewish Ethics, the Driesen Prize in Science and Judaism, and the Bartnoff Prize for Spiritually Motivated Social Action.
Challenges of diversity
When she arrived at the moment of ordination, Kirshbaum said, “it was a dream come true. It was also really bittersweet — leaving the nest and having to do the hard and important work of taking the access points to Jewish wisdom and making them truly accessible to other Jews.”
That is the work Kirshbaum has taken up at String of Pearls, a 52-family congregation that describes itself on its website, www.stringofpearlsweb.org, as “a proudly diverse and inclusive Jewish congregation welcoming young and old, singles and families, Jews by birth and by choice, non-Jewish partners in interfaith couples, gay and straight, the spiritually settled and the spiritually restless, in short, all who are willing to commit to the integration of community, worship, study, and acts of loving-kindness (gemilut hasadim) and repair of the world (tikun olam).”
The congregation meets for Shabbat, holiday, and family services at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton and runs a cooperative religious school on Monday afternoons at the Princeton Day School.
“I fell in love with these people,” Kirshbaum said. They are “very committed to community-based Judaism. I really see a nice, equal weighting of the three traditional pillars of Torah, avoda (worship) and gemilut hasadim here.”
As she meets with each congregational family, she is finding the classic case of “two Jews and three opinions,” the rabbi said.
“I find that just delicious and very, very healthy — that kind of diversity,” she said. “I think people appreciate the informality and the fact that we don’t have a building and we have to draw our identity from other places. I think that is all to the good.”
But the diversity of String of Pearls also poses a challenge. “We have to find a way to integrate not just non-Jewish partners, but the children, who will tell you with absolute seriousness that they are ‘half and half,’” she said. “We have to really make those children feel not just welcome, but valuable members of the Jewish people without Judaism dissolving into a kind of wisdom tradition only.”
Kirshbaum brings to such challenges “the excitement, optimism, and energy of being fresh out of school,” she said. “I think of the congregants as my study partners, my spiritual partners, my partners in trying to create more justice in the world.”
As she begins her journey at String of Pearls, Kirshbaum said she thinks every day about how rare it is to get to live out a lifelong dream.
“I’m aware of what a privilege it is to start all over again,” she said. “As my oldest son said to me at my wedding on the night before my ordination, ‘So, Mom, now you have a marriage. Tomorrow you’ll have a career. What’s next?’