Offner continues her trailblazing ways

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 13, 2008 - 4:56 PM

A Minneapolis rabbi is about to make history -- again. And she's going to ignore that fact, again.

Rabbi Stacy Offner

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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When Rabbi Stacy Offner leaves Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis in two weeks to become vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, she will become the highest-ranking female Jewish clergy in North America.

"Hmmm," she said when a visitor mentioned this fact. "I guess you're right, but I've never thought of it in those terms."

Offner, 52, has spent her career -- if not her entire life -- not thinking of things the way other people do. It goes back to when she decided as a youngster that she was going to be a rabbi. The fact that there were no female rabbis at the time never entered into her planning.

"It didn't occur to me not to think that I could become a rabbi," she said. "And by the time I could [because she was old enough], I could."

Asked if there was anything that she had ever thought she could not do, she shook her head. That attitude is part of the reason she is becoming the first female vice president of the New York-based organization, which represents 900 congregations with a total of 1.5 million members in the United States and Canada. It's also the reason this is not her first "first." Consider that Offner also was:

• The first female rabbi in Minnesota.

• The nation's first openly lesbian rabbi to serve a mainstream congregation.

• The first rabbi elected chaplain of the Minnesota Senate.

• The first woman to serve on the national rabbinical pension board.

She downplays her image as a trailblazer, saying that she was using doors that those who went before her worked hard to open.

"A lot of those firsts were just a result of where I was standing in line," she said. "I never set out to be a first anything."

When she got the call from the Union for Reform Judaism offering her a vice presidency -- "a job that had not been on my radar at all," she said -- she hesitated. It would mean leaving the congregation she had spent 20 years building from the gound up.

Starting in 1988 as eight families using a meeting room in the St. Paul Jewish Community Center, today Shir Tikvah consists of nearly 400 households that worship in a synagogue a few blocks south of Lake Harriet. A borrowed Torah has been replaced by three that the synagogue owns.

The congregation is "as healthy and strong and vibrant as it can be, which makes this the best time to leave," Offner said.

She knows that there have been other faith communities that have faltered after the founding clergy left, but she doesn't expect that to happen at Shir Tikvah.

"I think of a congregation in terms of the members, not the clergy," she said. "I'm not worried about this congregation. When they heard I was leaving, they said, 'We're going to make you proud of us.'"

Offner grew up in Great Neck, N.Y., and attended rabbinical school in New York City. So, in a way, moving into an office in Manhattan will be a homecoming. But she looks at the move as more uprooting than might be expected.

"I consider myself a Minnesotan," said Offner, who arrived freshly ordained in 1984 to become an assistant rabbi at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul. "I love Minnesota. And I know that in New York, they're going to be teasing me about my [Minnesota] accent."

Warning: Twins fans might want to skip this paragraph. She retains one vestige of her New York heritage. She's a Mets fan. In fact, she already has a Johan Santana Mets jersey and is itching for the chance to wear it to a game.

Same job, bigger focus

When asked why the Union for Reform Judaism sought her out, she said, "I have some idea and no idea. In a way, I'll be doing exactly what I'm doing now on a different scale. My role now is to help Jewish individuals be better, stronger and more committed Jews. My new role will be to help Jewish congregations become better, stronger and more committed congregations."

The job offer came from the president of the organization, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who said that Offner quickly rose to the top of his wish list.

"I asked around, going to people I trust" for recommendations, he said. "When one name appears on a lot of lists, you pay attention."

He said he's confident he made the right choice. "Stacy is someone who understands congregations and how they work," he said. "She built a congregation from scratch, developing relationships, developing programs and developing a holy community. That kind of background makes her uniquely qualified."

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, senior rabbi at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, said the fact that Offner "was handpicked for her new position says a great deal about the respect she has gained on the national scene. She's a natural leader. She has a gift that makes other people be extremely calm in her presence. Yet, she's also very intelligent, very deep. When she speaks, you listen."

Her departure from the Twin Cities will create a loss that extends beyond her synagogue and even her fellow Jews, Zimmerman said.

"It's a huge loss for the Twin Cities," she said. "She has given so much to the city, from all the boards she's served on to being chaplain of the Senate. [Her influence] goes beyond the Jewish community."

The members of Shir Tikvah are giving Offner a warm sendoff, and she has been moved by the outpouring of sentiment.

"Most of the time, people don't say those things until you're dead," she said.

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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