After taking the helm at Temple Sholom of Chicago in July, Rabbi Shoshanah Conover became the synagogue's first female senior rabbi. In fact, she is the first woman ever to hold that title in Chicago proper.
While Conover recognizes the significance of her position, she credits those who came before her for paving the way for female Jewish leaders like herself. "I owe a debt of gratitude to all women in every movement of Judaism who have been dedicated to learning and teaching Jewish text and taking on leadership in synagogue life," she said. "They have opened doorways that could lead to a moment like this."
Conover's appointment at Temple Sholom is a testament to her innovative leadership, extensive knowledge of Judaism, and commitment to the community. Conover previously held the role of assistant rabbi at the congregation for 13 years, and she said she found a great female role model there, as well. "Our Cantor Emerita, Aviva Katzman, was the first female cantor in the city of Chicago," Conover said. "Her spiritual leadership has been an inspiration to me."
The rabbi's love of the Jewish people and Jewish texts, combined with a strong interest in social justice, led her to rabbinical school after earning her B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "At a certain point, I thought 'I want to have keys that would access the wisdom of our people in really deep ways,' and I knew that rabbinical school would help me to do that," she said.
As a rabbinic student, Conover's strong character and conscience made a lasting impression, and those qualities continue to make her a beloved Jewish leader. "She stood out as a woman of outstanding potential, gifted academically and pastorally, that unique combination of heart, mind, and soul that all rabbis ought to personify, but that Rabbi Conover really does," said Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman of Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion.
Moving forward, Conover will bring that same passion and wisdom to her role as Temple Sholom's senior rabbi. She remains involved with teaching, learning, and justice, areas of focus during her tenure as assistant rabbi, while she undertakes the larger responsibility of leading the congregation. "I want to make sure that Temple Sholom as an entire temple is continuing to be involved in the work of justice and that we continue to be a really strong, intimate community," she said.
"Rabbi Conover brings a wealth of experience as a tireless advocate for social justice," said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who serves as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism where Conover was a founding rabbinic leader. "She has been an essential founding rabbinic leader of RAC-IL, a key voice for racial justice and criminal justice reform, and advocate for the most vulnerable in society."
In the year ahead, Conover will draw creative inspiration from Temple Sholom's theme, "a time to embrace," to bring the community together despite the challenging circumstances of the pandemic. "In this time of refraining from embracing, we are trying to make sure that people still feel the embrace of Temple Sholom, even when we are not physically together in the same building that we're used to," she said. Conover champions Temple Sholom's variety of new and established programs, including discussion and meditation groups, community service, and advocacy work.
Conover says she is grateful to work in and raise her two sons in the Temple Sholom community. She loves the synagogue's diverse and close-knit congregation, which adds vibrancy to the community.
"We have such a special Jewish community where we work so closely together," she said. "We make sure people are seen for how they want to be seen in this world and really make people feel like they are welcome and that they are appreciated and celebrated in the totality of who they are."
Leslie Hill Hirschfeld is a freelance writer living in the northern suburbs of Chicago.