Today’s news:

Rabbi becomes first female to lead Conservative synagogue

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin became the first female to head a Conservative synagogue in Queens Sunday, a move even those most skeptical of change have embraced, congregants at the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Fresh Meadows said.

“There were people who were uncomfortable with the idea, who had never had a female rabbi before,” said Jamaica resident Isabel Zemmel, vice president of the ICCJ congregation. “But people have come to see her as a person, being able to do things for them that a rabbi needs to do — being with them when they’re sick or have had a loss, speaking at services and leading classes.”

Fellow congregant Ellen Charno, also of Fresh Meadows, agreed and said Fryer Bodzin becoming the synagogue’s rabbi is a milestone in an area that has been late to embrace females at the pulpit.

“It should have come sooner,” Charno said. “We’re very blessed to have Rabbi Fryer Bodzin.”

Fryer Bodzin, who lives in Fresh Meadows, began her duties in August as a rabbi at the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism, but was officially installed as the rabbi by the temple board Sunday.

The 265-member ICCJ was formed five years ago when the Israel Center of Hillcrest Manor, the Electchester Jewish Center and the Conservative Synagogue of Jamaica Estates merged following concerns about finances and dwindling congregation populations.

The new rabbi said while she does not like to emphasize her gender, she did say being a woman may change the way she communicates with her congregants.

“I try really hard not to play the gender game,” Fryer Bodzin said. “I see myself as a rabbi, not a female rabbi, but I realize my approach may be different than my male counterparts.”

The rabbi said she puts a strong emphasis on one-on-one relationships and has been told she spends more time in the ICCJ building than her predecessors.

Last Thursday, she had just one free hour — though that was quickly filled after she agreed to be interviewed by TimesLedger Newspapers — and spent time talking to women in the “Knit and Schmooze” group and teaching an adult education course. She pops daily into the Ohr Chadash religious school at the ICCJ to spend time with the children in an attempt to draw younger families to the synagogue, which has a large elderly population.

“My definition of young has changed since I got here,” Fryer Bodzin joked. “It used to be young was under 30. Now it’s under 50.”

While the number of Bukharian and Orthodox Jews has remained strong in the area, many Conservative Jewish families have moved out of northeastern Queens, Zemmel said. According to a 2002 demographic study by the UJA-Federation of New York, 25,000 Jews left northeast Queens between 1991 and 2002.

While the rabbi conceded it can be difficult for younger families to afford the high real estate prices in the area, she said she is funneling her efforts toward creating programming that attracts those families and teenagers to the ICCJ.

For example, the ICCJ has forged a new partnership with the Hollis Hills Jewish Center and the Hillcrest Jewish Center to form J-Hi-TEQ, a group for teenagers that focuses on social action, Fryer Bodzin said.

Zemmel said the committee that searched for a rabbi was in part looking for someone who could bring in younger individuals.

“Before we went to hire a rabbi, we had a town meeting and asked the congregation what they were looking for, and high on a lot of people’s lists was teaching and the ability to get through to the children and the youth,” Zemmel said. “Since she’s been here she has shown that to be a great interest of hers.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

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