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First US female rabbi retires from Deerfield temple but not from spiritual pursuits

There were no female rabbis when Karyn Kedar was a kid, and that didn’t matter.

“I wanted to be a rabbi when I was 8 years old,” says Kedar, 65, who recently retired after 19 years as senior rabbi at B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield. Sally Priesand became the first ordained female rabbi in the United States in 1972, 50 years ago.

“In my 8-year-old mind, gender was not relevant,” Kedar says of the position of rabbi. “It didn’t seem like a man thing or a woman thing.”

Kedar says her profession is more than a job. “Your job is what you get paid to do,” she says. “But your work is what God has given you to do.”

Walking through the Deerfield temple, built in her vision after the congregation moved from Glenview under her leadership, Kedar points to spaces created to promote love, beauty and kindness.

“This is our contemplation room. This is where people come to think,” she says from the center of a round room where a simple wood bench hugs a curved glass wall.


The chapel features 36 lights in the ceiling, a reference to the ancient Jewish legend that 36 righteous people always roam the Earth, and the lights are situated in the same constellation that stars can be seen above Jerusalem on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism.

The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge grow in a courtyard, which can be seen through the windows from The Village Center, which is based on stories from Kedar’s mother-in-law about Syrian women gathering around a well. The space also has collection bins where people can leave goods to feed and clothe the needy.

The Sanctuary boasts 613 seats, one for each of the mitzvot or commandments, and an ark made by a member from wood harvested from one of his trees. Kedar asked him to intentionally leave some minor imperfections in the wood, noting that people all have imperfections, too.

“We are only limited by our imagination,” Kedar says of the synagogue. “In some way, we kind of built a poem.”

Kedar, a certified spiritual director and teacher of mindfulness, has written five books with stories, prayers and poems. She’s an inspirational speaker, teacher and counselor whose interests go beyond her Jewish faith. Her de ella website features a quote – “Do not feel lonely. The entire universe is inside you.” — from the 13th-century Persian poet known as Rumi.

Her latest book, “Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice,” features poems such as this one called “Love.”

Whatever the question,

sees it




And often


and always

sees it.

Growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, as Karen Schwartz, she changed the spelling of her first name to Karyn because she liked writing the “y.” Her mother de ella, who recently turned 92 and lives in Lincolnshire, was Lenore until she changed her name to Lynore. Kedar had a younger brother, Neil, who died in 2002, and her father, Norman Schwartz, died in 2016 after a career as a lawyer and president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. Kedar and her husband de ella, Ezra, whom she met in Israel, created their name of Kedar by combining some of the meanings behind their birth names. They are parents to Talia and her husband, Moti Shaked; Shiri and her husband, Omri Bar; and son, Ilan Kedar.

After majoring in English at Towson University, Kedar was initially rejected at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. She got a master’s degree in biblical studies at Baltimore Hebrew University, and then she was accepted at Hebrew Union College, where she was ordained as a rabbi in 1985. As the first female rabbi in Jerusalem, Kedar can tell stories of discrimination, and even death threats, but she prefers to focus on the present.

“If you’re denied to go here, you simply take a left turn and your path evolves,” Kedar says. “Life has a way of working out if you choose to see it that way.”

Instead of retiring, Kedar prefers to call it “shifting.” She’ll use the same faith, courage and wisdom to continue working on matters of the spirit, Kedar says.

“I’m in sales,” Kedar says. “I sell the invisible — the meaning and purpose of people’s lives.”


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