In a world where job security has become something of a fantasy, where employers lay off workers by the thousands and employees repeatedly change jobs throughout their lives, some people find a way to stand the test of time, much like the institutions they serve.
This past Sunday, Oct. 27, Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville honored Rabbi Deborah Wechsler for her 20 years of service. The Conservative syangogue’s cavernous reception hall was adorned with green table cloths, green floral arrangements, and green balloons in keeping with the theme of a 20th “emerald” anniversary.
It was quite the event for Chizuk Amuno, which was founded in 1871. At 148 years old, it is one of the oldest congregations in the Baltimore area. Over the last 20 years, Wechsler, 49, has taught countless classes there and participated in conducting a myriad services. For some families, she’s borne witness to the “arc of the generations,” she said, officiating at the b’nai mitzvot of children and then going on to conduct their weddings and the baby namings of their own children. She’s had the chance to get to know her temple and its congregation intimately, as they have come to know her.
Early on at the party, a group of grade schoolers managed to slip away from the festivities to play Frisbee and other games. One of the speakers estimated as many as 450 attendees were present, dressed in everything from fashionable blazers to sports jerseys.
The beverage stations were flanked with photographic collages displaying highlights from Wechsler’s career (a few had her dressed as Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia), and the bar’s signature drink was listed as the “Debi-Tini.” The food included French fries, pigs in a blanket, Israeli salad, chicken wings and a nod to Wechsler’s New York roots with her favorite variety of cookie: black and white.
Inspired by Rabbis, Now a Rabbi Herself
Originally from Westchester County, New York, Wechsler came from a family of weekly synagogue-goers that strongly
identified with Judaism. She attended Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, and later Ramaz High School. After graduating from Brandeis University, she began working in Jewish communal life at the 92nd Street Y.
While there, she was supervised by two rabbis: David Woznica and Steve Moskowitz. “It was the first time I saw what the work of a rabbi was,” said Wechsler, “and it really appealed to me.” Years later, at her anniversary celebration, she and her father together recounted the moment she first told her parents about her choice to become a rabbi. The response of Wechsler’s mother: “Do you have to go to rabbinic school? Can’t you just marry a rabbi?”
But Wechsler proved steadfast in her determination, graduating from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America and later was contacted by Chizuk Amuno’s Rabbi Joel Zaiman about becoming the storied synagogue’s first female rabbi. Wechsler described the late Rabbi Zaiman, who passed away on July 31 of this year, as “very supportive, and even protective” of her as she began her two decades of service.
She went on to credit Rabbi Zaiman for the direction he gave her. “While I was not interested in being a pulpit rabbi, he saw something in me which I had not even seen in myself … I’m profoundly grateful for his influence on my rabbinate. It was a very difficult High Holidays without his physical presence; on Rosh Hashanah I gave the last sermon that we worked on together.”
When asked what she most enjoys about working as a rabbi, Wechsler replied that she loves teaching, particularly adults. “It is a great source of pride that hundreds of students a week come to Chizuk Amuno for Jewish education,” Wechsler stated. “Parents of children from newborns on up look to Chizzie for an authentic, substantive Jewish education that is presented with joy for learning and yiddishkeit (Judaism).”
She also said she enjoys sermons — “writing them, crafting them, giving them.”
“I most appreciate the opportunity to be invited into people’s lives at their most significant moments,” Wechsler stated. “I like the opportunity to be engaged in people’s lives and to continue to make a contribution to the larger Jewish community.”
When asked what it was like becoming the shul’s first female rabbi, she said that “Chizuk was very ready for a woman rabbi,” though acknowledging that, “there were certainly a few hiccups along the way, and even today I am assumed by some to be the rabbi’s secretary, rather than the rabbi.”
“I think that female clergy today face issues of stereotypical expectations of male clergy versus female clergy,” said Wechsler, “of pay gaps between the genders, of too few women in top Jewish communal leadership roles, and of deeply ingrained notions of masculinity and femininity.”
The achievement Wechsler said she is most proud of “is the relationships I’ve built with the community after having been here for 20 years,” noting it has allowed her to become close to multiple generations of entire families. “One of the gifts of longevity in a congregation is being able to see the arc of the generations.”
Wechsler went on to say that she is “also proud that we have created an incredibly robust gemilut hasadim program at the synagogue, which now involves hundreds of volunteers doing thousands of hours of community service at the synagogue, in Baltimore, and even internationally.”
Highlights from Rabbi Wechsler’s 20th anniversary celebration included temple President Sandra G. Moffet commending the rabbi’s service, the congregation serenading Wechsler with a “top-secret” congratulatory song set to the tune of the “The Brady Bunch” theme, and her son and daughter, Rubin, 11, and Rena, 13, listing out the five best and worst things about having a rabbi for a mom.
“In general I think she gives some of the best sermons and d’var torahs of anyone,” said congregant Michael Moranz, 75, of Pikesville. Meanwhile, Margery Kates of Owings Mills described Wechsler as “very available,” and having “an open door policy.” Lastly, her colleague, Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg, stated “[s]he is a master teacher and her greatest accomplishment has been the amount of lives she has touched. Whether through teaching, officiating at lifecycle events, or inspiring congregants during services, Rabbi Wechsler has been a strong presence in our community for 20 years.”
Regarding her plans for the future, Wechsler said she has “very much wanted to write a book” and and hopes to do that in the years to come.” On a communal level, she is excited about the 150th anniversary of Chizuk Amuno and “the opportunity it provides for us to continue to embody the aspirations of our founders even as we dream about what’s next for Chizzie for the new generation.”