Conservative Movement Leader Discovered Joy of Judaism As Adult

Had anyone told Judy Yudof when she was growing up in Philadelphia that she would one day become president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, she would have been surprised.

After all, Yudof did not attend synagogue as a child — and she did not have a Bat Mitzvah.

Yudof, 56, who was installed this week at the group’s convention here, is the first woman to hold such a lofty post in a large American Jewish denomination.

The smaller Jewish Reconstructionist Federation has had a female president, but neither the synagogue arms nor rabbinic associations of Conservative, Reform or Orthodoxy have had one.

Rabbi Janet Marder will become the first female president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis next year.

Yudof’s secular upbringing included only a few holiday visits to the women’s section of her grandparents’ Orthodox congregation, where “no one ever explained anything” to her.

Yudof turned to Judaism as an adult in the early 1970s.

She and her husband, Mark, a law professor, had moved to Austin, Texas, which had a relatively small Jewish population and none of the Jewish neighborhoods she was accustomed to on the East Coast.

The two had attended High Holiday services at the local Conservative synagogue, Congregation Agudath Achim, but did not become members until their son, Seth, was born, with health problems from which he later recovered.

“There we were, two scared kids in the hospital and the rabbi appeared, at a time when we needed an adult to lean on,” Yudof recalled.

Soon after, the Yudofs were invited to join and decided “if we join, we go” to services regularly.

Eventually Yudof joined the board and became an adult Bat Mitzvah.

The Yudofs now live in St. Paul, Minn., where they are members of Beth El Synagogue, and Mark is president of the University of Minnesota.

Although she worked as a computer programmer while her husband was in law school — she jokes that her husband enjoyed being a “kept man” — Yudof has subsequently limited her work to volunteer activities, both in the Jewish and secular community.

In addition to her leadership in the United Synagogue, Yudof is past president of an Austin nonprofit organization that develops long-term housing for the mentally ill.

As the United Synagogue’s president — the group’s highest volunteer post — Yudof hopes to make the group more focused around its newly adopted mission and vision statements, the first time United Synagogue has had such statements.

She hopes to strengthen relations among the Conservative movement’s various institutions, such as the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Rabbinical Assembly.

“I don’t think we have to have sole ownership of something for it to be worthwhile,” she said. “We all have mutual objectives that might be better met if we worked on them together.”

There are 760 Conservative synagogues in North America and an estimated 320,000 member households.

Yudof also hopes the group can encourage higher levels of observance and Jewish learning among its rank and file, the majority of whom do not keep strictly kosher or observe Shabbat.

“People who belong to a synagogue should not just be belonging for social reasons — they should be getting much more out of their involvement.”

Yudof said she is drawn to the Conservative movement because “we observe halachah,” or Jewish law, “but are tolerant” of people who are not yet fully committed to religious observance.

She also praised the movement’s outlook on the Torah as “a living, breathing document, kind of like the Constitution.”

“Just as the Supreme Court reinterprets the Constitution, our rabbis reinterpret Torah when we contemplate ethical, moral and medical dilemmas that never could have been conceived of in biblical times.”

Yudof downplayed the significance of being a trailblazer for women, describing herself as “a leader who’s also a woman, not a leader because I’m a woman.”

With the movement’s decisions in the 1980s to ordain women rabbis and allow egalitarian worship services, the “barriers are pretty much gone,” Yudof said.

The majority of Conservative synagogues allow women to lead services and count them in a minyan, but some do not. Both egalitarian and worship services that separated men and women took place at the Washington convention.

Women rabbis are still the minority, however, particularly in large pulpit positions.

“If I’m able to be a role model for young women and if it sends a positive message, that’s wonderful,” Yudof said. “That’s not why I chose to do this, but it’s a very nice byproduct.”

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