By Ben Steelman
Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.
“I don’t call myself a female rabbi,” said Julie Kozlow. “I’m a rabbi who happens to be a woman.”
In Southeastern North Carolina, however, Kozlow is a pioneer. Since taking over the pulpit at Wilmington’s B’nai Israel synagogue — succeeding Rabbi Robert Waxman, who retired in June — she’s the first and only woman to hold a rabbinate in this area.
The Conservative movement in Judaism, to which B’nai Israel belongs, did not begin ordaining women until 1985.
Amy Schneiderman broke the barrier in North Carolina, when she became a student rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Weldon, a Reform congregation. (She was greeted “politely but hesitantly,” noted author Leonard Rogoff in his book “Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina.”)
In 1993, Lucy H.K. Dinner joined Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, becoming the first woman to serve as a full-time, senior rabbi in the state.
In Wilmington, however, Rabbi Kozlow’s reception has been anything but hesitant.
“Rabbi Kozlow has brought an energetic and highly spiritual presence to our synagogue,” said Carl Samet, vice president of the congregation, who noted an uptick in attendance at services. After her installation Aug. 21, B’nai Israel members hoisted her in a chair above their shoulders and paraded her around the B’nai Israel fellowship hall.
“Women do bring a maternal perspective into the pulpit,” Kozlow said. “We have a whole different set of experiences, raising children.”
A Detroit native, Kozlow said she felt called to the rabbinate the day her first child was born.
“I had one of the ephiphinal moments when you feel something you’ve never felt before,” she said. “I suddenly knew that nothing is random. I knew the world was weighted with meaning. This was not just some touchy-feely moment. I felt there was something powerful in the universe and I wanted to be a part of it.
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While others of her generation sought the meaning of the universe, Kozlow felt drawn to her Jewish heritage. Her new vocation had to wait, though, while she raised three children, now 32, 30 and 27. “My only complaint to God,” she said, grinning, “is why do I have to live so far from my children?”
For nearly a decade, she taught Judaic studies in synagogues, day schools and camps.
In the meantime, a marriage of 17 years came to an end. “Life never turns out the way you thought it would,” Kozlow said. “It comes out the way it’s supposed to.”
She set out on a long trek of training, graduating magna cum laude in 2000 with a degree in Judaic studies from American Jewish University. Then it was off to California to earn two master’s degrees from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and from the Academy for Jewish Religion. “It was the whole student thing,” she said,”holding down four jobs at a time.” She was ordained in 2007, at the age of 50, from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles.
After working with synagogues in California, New Orleans and Mexico City, she spent seven years as rabbi with Beth Israel, a Conservative Jewish congregation in Greenville, S.C.
Kozlow said she’s fallen in love with B’nai Israel, with the way light filters through its stained glass and with its people.
She’s already revised its adult education program, launching what she playfully calls her “one-room shul house,” which brings different ages together. (“Shul” comes from the Yiddish for “school.”)
“I thought instead of learning Jewish, we should gather to do Jewish,” she said, “pray together and change the world.”
Kozlow’s shul house curriculum focuses on what she calls the 3 T’s: Torah, or scripture; “Tikkun olam,” the Hebrew phrase which means “to repair the world,” referring to humanity’s shared responsibility to heal and transform society; and Tefillah, which translates as “prayer” but which also means an opening of the heart and a fulfilling of an obligation to God.
Away from the synagogue, Kozlow has been overseeing the completion of a new house on the outskirts of Leland. She loves walking on the beach and has been looking for opportunities to try out her kayak.
“I’m an ocean person,” she said. “I feel like I can breathe when I’m near water.