Gayle Pomerantz always thought that she would become a lawyer. But when she got into law school, she felt a different calling.
So she went to Jerusalem.
Three decades later, Pomerantz is preparing to make history.
On Nov. 9, Pomerantz will be installed as the first female senior rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom, a Liberal Reform congregation where she’s served as junior rabbi for more than two decades.
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Rabbi Pomerantz will be the spiritual leader of more than 4,000 members at the Reform Miami Beach synagogue when she officially replaces the retired Rabbi Gary Glickstein.
“I feel overjoyed,” she said last week. “And I am really proud of our synagogue for being at the vanguard and making this choice.”
Pomerantz was a natural fit, said volunteer temple President Jeff Graff.
Three years ago, the synagogue embarked on a nationwide search for a new senior rabbi, only the third in the synagogue’s history. Graff was one the people on the 20-person rabbinical search committee.
“From the beginning, the things that were the most important to her was strengthening and deepening relations,” said Graff, who joined Temple Beth Sholom in 2002.
When synagogues look for a new rabbi, it’s a formal process, he said. There’s a ton of paperwork, applications are only open certain times of the year, and applicants have to go through a series of interviews. The process takes two years, he said.
“Rabbi Pomerantz kept separating herself from the pack all along,” he said. “You can just tell she was caring and compassionate.”
That compassion came through last weekend after 11 people were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Pomerantz led a Sunday service at the temple to remember and mourn the victims. “This time it was us, but we can’t tolerate hate in our country here, or anywhere,” she said.
Graff said that Pomerantz has always focused on strengthening and unifying the Jewish community.
Pomerantz is among a growing number of female rabbis. According to the Central Conference of American Rabbis 2016 report, 772 women are ordained rabbis in the United States, since the first one, Sally Priesand, in 1972.
Graff said the environment at Temple Beth Sholom was so open and welcoming that having a female rabbi was “very normal.”
Pomerantz is partnering with Cantor Lisa Segal to form one of the few female cantor-rabbi teams. They met at camp together as teens, and now, they’ll share the pulpit for services at the domed temple at 4144 Chase Ave.
The 57-year-old Pomerantz says her gender has not been an issue with her congregants through the years. But at the beginning, it was an issue with her.
“Being a rabbi was such a foreign concept to me,” she said. “I resisted it because I didn’t have any [female] models.”
Her friends and family suggested she study to be a leader in the faith, but the idea didn’t click for her immediately.
She grew up in the Westchester neighborhood of West Miami-Dade in a Reform Jewish household. Reform Jews generally observe with fewer restrictions than the more traditional Orthodox or Conservative branches of the religion.
She spent nine summers as a teenager at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Coleman in Georgia. She spent her junior year of high school in Israel studying the history of the country.
Pomerantz went on to major in Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. Then she was accepted at Boston University where she wanted to become a public defender.
That’s when she took a detour.
“I thought I was certain about becoming a lawyer,” she said. But her fond memories of being in Israel during high school replayed in her mind. She signed up with the Ministry of Justice to volunteer in Jerusalem for a year.
Coincidentally, she bumped into a classmate in the holy city who was in her first year of rabbinical school. Pomerantz asked if she could sit in for a class.
“This is what I should be doing,” said Pomerantz after visiting the class. “It just felt like I should be there.”
She cut her volunteering short to go back to the United States to apply for rabbinical school. Pomerantz was accepted into the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institution of Religion in New York City, and was ordained in 1989.
During her time at Hebrew Union College, she delivered a guest sermon at Central Synagogue, a historic temple in Manhattan with more than 2,000 member families.
“I was able to envision myself on a team there,” Pomerantz said. “I knew I wanted to be apart of a large congregation.”
As a junior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in San Francisco, she felt that way again.
She moved back to Florida in 1994 with her husband and young daughter, and joined Miami Beach’s Temple Beth Sholom. Although she held the title of junior rabbi, it was more like jack-of-all-trades rabbi.
Pomerantz trained and taught synagogue staff; started The Tribe, a program for young adults; and led Mitzvah Day, consisting of 40 simultaneous community service projects around the Miami area.
Beyond the synagogue, Pomerantz is a social activist. The Miami Beach mother of three has led advocacy initiatives on gun violence prevention, economic justice rallies and raising awareness about racism through criminal justice reform.
“As Jews we know what it is like to be marginalized,“ Pomerantz said. She has managed to seamlessly blend activism with Judaism using the temple to develop her efforts.
In 2014, she led a campaign to combat injustices against tomato pickers in Immokalee. Hundreds of tomato pickers and supporters were protesting against Publix and other supermarket chains for not increasing tomato costs so wages could increase.
Pomerantz said the campaign was called “Tomato on the Seder Plate,” after the sacred dish that holds ceremonial foods for Passover. Temple members collected money to donate, then went to meet with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to understand what they needed.
The rabbi brought that mission back to her own temple, focusing on offering a living wage to the people who worked there.
In 2015, Pomerantz’s social activism also played out in Georgia when she marched alongside the NAACP for 10 miles from Athens to Augusta during the Journey for Justice walk that supported civil rights. She also went to Washington, D.C., during the Million Mom March to advocate for stricter gun laws.
“Gayle is committed to social justice activism as an essential part of living a Jewish life,” said Nancy Ratzan, a public policy advocate who was president of Beth Sholom in 2002.
Ratzan was elated to see a female rabbi when she joined the congregation because she said Jewish women need someone who has the “sensibility, perspective and unique thought that only a woman would have.”
Ratzan said Pomerantz has also helped her personally — mending a relationship with her sister, being there for a new mother, even flying back from Italy to officiate her wedding.
“She has a rare blend of being strong, confident and concise,” Ratzan said. “And at the same time balancing humility, attentiveness and wisdom, which has given her an incredible perspective to lead Temple Beth Sholom.”