In March, Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) announced that Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch was selected to be its next executive director beginning July 5. Rabbi Hirsch will begin this new role following the retirement of the current executive director, Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, who served the organization for over eleven years.
Hirsch currently serves as rabbi of Temple Anshe Amunim, a Reform synagogue in Pittsfield, where she has worked for five years. Previously, Hirsch was the rabbi and a director at URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington for three years. She is the founding co-chair of RAC Massachusetts, a statewide synagogue-based community organizing project of Reform Judaism, and she serves on the National Council of Jewish Women’s Rabbinic Advisory Council. She was a key leader in the 2020 campaign to pass the ROE Act, safeguarding reproductive rights in Massachusetts.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), responded to the news: “The URJ is thrilled that Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch will lead WRJ on the next phase of its journey of transformation. Rabbi Hirsch has been shaped by our Reform Movement and will now bring her passion, brilliance, and imagination to WRJ.”
WRJ is the woman’s affiliate of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the central body of Reform Judaism in North America. Founded in 1913, WRJ is a global organization with hundreds of affiliated women’s groups (“sisterhoods”) in North America and around the world, embracing tens of thousands of women.
Hirsch was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and, in recognition of her academic and leadership achievements, she was honored as a Wexner Graduate Fellow, a Tisch Fellow, and a WRJ Scholar during rabbinical school. She completed her undergraduate education at Brown University with a degree in Environmental Studies. Rabbi Hirsch will continue to be based in Western Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband, Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch of Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington, and their two children.
Hirsch writes frequently on social justice, spiritual practice, and trends in Jewish life, with recent chapters included in The Social Justice Torah Commentary (CCAR Press, 2021) and Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah (CCAR Press 2023).
The BJV Interview: Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
In March, we spoke with Rabbi Hirsch about her new position and the years she spent as a congregational rabbi in the Berkshires. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
How did you get in the pipeline for this job?
Well, I'm a proud product of the Reform Movement. I grew up outside of Boston. My family was active in our synagogue and I attended Camp Eisner as a camper and then as a summer staff member, participating in the Reform Movements youth movement in NFTY. I attended high school in Israel, a semester program through the Reform Movement, and I was active in our Reform Movement group on campus as an undergrad. And then after college, I I worked as a legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism's, Washington, DC office. And then I attended Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, spending one year in Israel and four years in New York. Those are all core institutions of the Reform Movement. So I've been engaged throughout my life, and as I learned more about the role of the WRJ, I learned that the common denominator among all those institutions is that they were all either founded, supported, or both by the WRJ.
Had you been involved with the WRJ directly over the years?
There are about 300 Sisterhoods, which is often the name used for a local WRJ chapter. Some have undergone change over time as Rosh Chodesh groups, a women's group that observes the cycle of the new Jewish months. That's what happened at Anshe Amunim. And when I was a Hebrew rabbinical student, I received a generous scholarship from WRJ.
Talk a little about your local activism durning your time in the Berkshires? What did you learn in those experience that you're going to take with you to the national job?
The connection between Judaism and social justice has always been at my core, a driving piece of why I do my social justice work and why I'm connected to Judaism. Environmental justice and climate change are among those issues for me. When I became a parent, I became more acutely and personally aware of some of the challenges that are faced by women and people who can become pregnant. So I got engaged with a paid family medical leave campaign several years back in Massachusetts. And when the ROE Act campaign was coming up, I knew it was something that I personally wanted to be involved in, understanding the position that many of the people seeking out abortion access and care find themselves in. As a person who has been through two thankfully healthy pregnancies, I started talking with members of the Anshe Amunim Social Justice Social Action Committee who said, “We've been here before. We've fought this fight, and we don't want to go back.” This was before, of course, the fall of Roe v. Wade – we saw the need to safeguard what was going on in Massachusetts. We had a lobby visit to talk about the legislation with Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier that Anshe hosted, and we were invited by the coalition to be the host site in Western Massachusetts for a public town hall. This was pre pandemic. More than 150 or so people from the faith communities attended, not just from the Jewish community, but from our Christian friends and partners, advocates who came at it from different angles, and by people who wanted to learn to raise awareness about this issue. We were so proud to be a house of faith that was hosting it; it was important to our values to do that.
I also brought a few members of the Anshe community to a lobby day [at the state legislature] in Boston and I was honored to give some opening remarks to draw the connection between Torah and text and what we were doing there that day. We then went around with those Temple members and every member of the Berkshire delegation said, “Wow, we can't believe you're here. We never see folks coming out for this.” And we thought, oh, maybe reproductive rights isn't the issue that people come out for. And they said, “No, no one ever comes to lobby in our offices in Boston all the way from the Berkshires. We meet you in the district. But we're so amazed and impressed that you're here.” I think for me, it's been incredible to see how valuable it is to show up as folks from the Berkshires, Western Massachusetts, to be a part of those important statewide issues.
And that campaign was really the test case in many ways for us to show that we had interest in establishing the RAC Massachusetts. We engaged over half of the Reform Synagogues through my leadership and in close partnership with other leaders to participate meaningfully in that campaign, which really laid the groundwork for all that we're doing now, the synagogue-based community organizing to make a big difference in Massachusetts.
The first of the three parts of the WRJ mission statement is about the idea of sisterhood and community. You're obviously going to be expanding to a much wider scope of connection nationally. So for that aspect of Sisterhood, what is your vision?
I think that what Sisterhoods represent is a meaningful, deep, powerful, personal avenue for relationships and community and also to engage in leadership development. So for me, that starts with just getting to know people, getting to talk with people and meet as many people as possible and also to continue the strong support of our more than 300 Sisterhoods throughout North America so that they can thrive on an individual basis. This is a 110-year-old organization. It's amazing over the decades and years and iterations of Jewish life and waves of feminism, what WRJ, which was formerly called the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, has been through.
How about the WRJ’s second pillar, spiritual growth?
It's a pillar of WRJ that really resonates with me on a lot of levels – as a rabbi, spirituality and connecting with spiritual life is core for me personally and also something that is my everyday work and delight to help others connect, as well. When WRJ was founded, women were not only not able to be rabbis, but they also weren't really able to take on any kind of spiritual leadership role within a congregation or a community. So Sisterhoods at that time kind of provided an alternate avenue for engagement, for leadership and also for religious leadership. Once a year as an example, and many sisterhoods still do this, the WRJ would be given the pulpit by the, of course, male clergy and able to lead a “Sisterhood Shabbat.” Decades before women were able to be rabbis or cantors, these women were leading their congregation in prayer.
And now, I am a Reform woman rabbi who is taking the helm of this national organization that is defining what it means to connect and engage with spirituality today. One of the amazing more recent creations in the spiritual realm of WRJ is the Women's Torah Commentary. It is a green book homes that provides high level commentary, interpretation, essays and poetry on all of the parshiyot for the weekly Torah reading. It's meant to represent a way of hearing women's voices in the texts that we study every week. So I'm excited to see what it will mean now for us going forward and how we can continue to engage with spirituality and Torah and learning and also to set the tone and to develop new projects and initiatives that will uplift that pillar.
And then the third pillar, “mobilizing collective action”? What is your vision for that?
I think that we spoke a little bit about my coming in with experience with leading on reproductive rights and abortion access, and these are going to continue to be huge issues for us. As a national and North American organization, we know that the situation varies dramatically state to state. So while we're lucky here in Massachusetts and some of the other neighboring states that we have a relatively high level of access to abortion care; that that's not true in every state. So I'm going to be looking closely and carefully at how we can be working on this issue with WRJ, doing good and strong collaborative work with our partners at the Reform Movement and also the other partners that we engage with throughout the country who do this work.
Tell me a little bit about the RAC D.C. Day Of Action on May 10-11 and what your role is going to be in that?
There's a wonderful legacy of the RAC leading and partnering and being a voice on Capitol Hill. And for many years, conferences brought Reform Jews from around the country together to learn about issues and to lobby on them. So this is sort of the post-pandemic reboot of this conference, and it will be an intensive 36 hours of folks being together to learn about important issues and then doing some lobbying on the Hill. The Reform Movement nationally recently selected climate change as its national advocacy campaign for 2023. That's very exciting to me because my background is environmental studies. So I'm looking forward to seeing both the ways that our movement is going to be able to speak up for this crucial issue of our time and to ensure that we have a future and a home and a planet to give to our children and grandchildren. And I'm also very excited going forward to think about the ways that WRJ will be able to provide the unique and important feminist angle on climate change as we continue to advocate in collaboration and support of the broader Reform Movement effort.
Was becoming a congregational rabbi surprising to you when you first took on the Anshe Amunim position?
Leadership at congregations are at the core of the Reform Movement, so while I've been closely connected to the “movement,” I have done that through being part of congregations and communities. It’s been an incredible blessing to serve Anshe Amunim and to get to know members of the congregation, to walk with them, to be with them, to be creative with them, to imagine and think about what it means to be in a congregation that has seen over 150 years of presence and life and growth and existence in the central Berkshires. I have particularly loved getting to know so many of the wonderful leaders who have worked closely with me and are so dedicated to Temple and who have many generations of their families who have been a part of it, and also to those who are more newcomers to the Berkshires who have made it their home at any point in life. I wish them all strength to strength as we go forward.
What was your experience working with your colleagues and with Federation?
Through the pandemic in particular, we began to meet more regularly as clergy as convened by Federation and then continued to keep up strong connections, partnership, and communication. And I think that's a really great example of how, in difficult times and challenging times, we've come together and support each other and to be greater than the sum of our parts. Fortunately, I will still get to be here to be with all of them.