Area’s first female rabbi to replace B’Nai Israel’s longest serving leader

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History makers: After more than three  decades, Rabbi Robert Waxman has retired from B'Nai Israel as the synagogue's longest serving leader. Rabbi Julie Kozlow replaces Waxman, becoming the first female rabbi in southeastern N.C. Photo by Hilary Snow.
History makers: After more than three decades, Rabbi Robert Waxman has retired from B’Nai Israel as the synagogue’s longest serving leader. Rabbi Julie Kozlow replaces Waxman, becoming the first female rabbi in southeastern North Carolina. Photo by Hilary Snow.

Julie Kozlow doesn’t want to be described as a female rabbi.

She prefers a “rabbi who happens to be a woman.”

It’s an important distinction for Kozlow, who feels motivated by the same love of God, of Israel, of the Torah as her male counterparts.

Still, she acknowledges her presence as the new head of B’Nai Israel Synagogue in Wilmington is, of course, noticeable.

It’s also historic.

Taking over leadership from Rabbi Robert Waxman, Kozlow, who started work Wednesday, has become the first female rabbi in southeastern North Carolina.

In another history-maker, Waxman has retired from B’Nai after 34 years, making him the longest serving rabbi at the 117-year-old synagogue–and at any one synagogue in the state.

“It cannot not be noticed,” Kozlow said of her gender. “All of these rights have been hard fought for the women…and for the men who stand by us.”

Waxman is one those men. During his tenure at B’Nai, he worked to make the synagogue, which follows a conservative approach to Judaism, more contemporary, in general, with the implementation of Friday night worship and music into services, among other changes.

“The cornerstone of conservative Judaism is tradition and change…It’s a balancing act to had tradition and yet change,” he noted.

But he also helped give women in the church more voice, more equal footing. It wasn’t easy, but Waxman led his congregation to allowing girls to celebrate bat mitzvahs, at the same time as the boys’ bar mitzvahs and to counting women among the minyan–the quorum needed in for traditional Jewish worship.

“This wouldn’t have been possible 34 years ago,” he said of B’Nai’s selection of Kozlow as rabbi. “It wasn’t really until five years ago that we really got it all done.”

Considering this is still fairly new territory, Kozlow sees her place in B’Nai as an honor.

“It’s not easy to be an agent of change. And rabbis who are women face challenges that males don’t. But what an incredible privilege it is to be a part of this…and laying the groundwork for our children’s children’s children so that one day, this won’t be a big deal and they won’t even know why it ever was…We’re laying one more brick in the pathway,” she said.

It’s a pathway that Kozlow knows she should be on. Unlike Waxman–who considers his decision to become a rabbi not so much a calling as “meaningful work”–Kozlow felt compelled, after motherhood, to pursue an “absolute calling.” She became a rabbi just nine years ago, at the age of 50, in Los Angeles, before serving as rabbi of a synagogue in Greenville, South Carolina.

“I had no choice; it was the only thing I could do. I’ve always known there was something bigger, that life is meaningful. I felt called to that pursuit of higher life,” she said.

Though they differ in how they got there, Kozlow and Waxman agree, as rabbis, in the importance of melding tradition practice and progressive thinking.

“Tradition without a vision and a sense of the future…will atrophy. That’s the challenge facing all religious institutions today–how to keep the essence alive and still be relevant,” Kozlow said. “I’m a dreamer. I’ve got creative ideas. It takes time for change but I will just walk slowly and try and honor the community and the history.”

She does plan to follow in the tradition, grounded in Waxman’s leadership, of community involvement. He was active in, among other initiatives, the area’s Ministerial Alliance, Martin Luther King Day observances and the annual commemoration of the 1898 race riots in Wilmington.

“Judaism is not just in this building; Judaism is being part of the community,” he said. “There are activities that take place within this building but there are also outreach opportunities, where a Jewish voice is important.”

In his retirement, Waxman plans to stay involved in his community through volunteering with WHQR and Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity. Last month, the B’Nai congregation honored Waxman with a retirement celebration in which he was awarded the status of Rabbi Emeritus.

The synagogue will celebrate Kozlow’s official installation as rabbi during the weekend of August 21.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or hilary.s@hometownwilmington.com.