At Washington Hebrew Congregation, Rabbi Shankman breaks the ‘stained-glass ceiling’


Rabbi Susan Shankman was installed as Washington Hebrew Congregation’s seventh senior rabbi and the first woman to hold that title at a May 12 Shabbat service.

Rabbi Susan Shankman (standing) is joined by (from left) Associate Rabbi Eliana Fischel, Rabbi Aaron Miller, Senior Cantor Susan Bortnick and Assistant Cantor Suzanne Hamstra. (Photos by Lacey Ann Johnson)

“We look forward to the joy, energy and passion [Shankman] and her extraordinary team bring to this bimah and into our homes,” David Berz, a past WHC president, said at the installation.

Shankman, who has been a rabbi at the Reform synagogue for 20 years, was lauded by the movement’s leaders. Other speakers included Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center and the vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Pesner said that Shankman’s convictions are representative of the wider Reform community.

“[Her] election, which is rooted in [her] overwhelming merit … is also an affirmation of [the Reform] movement’s commitment to being an equitable and inclusive community,” he said. “She’s broken the stained-glass ceiling.”

Jake Tapper, a CNN correspondent and host of “The Lead with Jake Tapper,” has known Shankman since both attended Dartmouth College.

“Sue has always been someone who brought a deep sense of morality and ethics, along with the biggest heart and biggest laugh you could ever encounter,” Tapper said. He read off words of encouragement written by other members of what he called their Dartmouth “Jew Crew.”

Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, said in a recorded message that Shankman served on the conference’s central board and continues to be involved in the organization.

“[She] was a wonderful board member, and continues to be involved with our work around admissions. I value [her] partnership and friendship so greatly,” Person said.

Shankman said her decision to pursue rabbinical studies was inspired by her late grandfather Rabbi Jacob K. Shankman, who served as the rabbi at Temple Israel of New Rochelle, N.Y.

At her installation, Shankman discussed the impact her grandfather had on her life and the meaning she took away from the stories he told about his time as a rabbi. She is also married to a rabbi, Michael Namath, with whom she has three children.

She said much of her work at Washington Hebrew Congregation has been influenced by her commitment to inclusion and diversity, values she will continue to focus on as senior rabbi.

“When we ensure we are a caring, compassionate and inclusive community in which everyone feels seen, heard and valued, we create sparks of holiness that draw God’s presence to dwell among us,” Shankman said.

Washington Hebrew Congregation notes inclusion and progressiveness among its core tenets, aiming to provide a welcoming community and place of worship for all of its congregants and to encourage them to participate in social justice and mutual aid.

In a vision outline she shared with the synagogue’s lay leadership and staff, Shankman reaffirmed her commitment to diversity and inclusion, creating meaningful connections at the congregation and committing to the pursuit of Jewish knowledge. She added that she wants to re-establish the congregation as the Washington region’s premier center for Jewish life,

In addition to her synagogue work, Shankman is a board member for Jewish Women International and sits on its National Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse.

Shankman told the congregation that she did not want her installation to just be an event honoring her as a person and her work as a rabbi, but about the synagogue’s progress and the congregants she works with.

“Tonight is not about my achievements or longevity,” she said. “I promise to lead this sacred community into a dynamic, inclusive and vibrant next chapter, and together we will experience the divine each and every day.”

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