Corrected April 14, 2022, 10:30 a.m.
Rabbi Deborah Megdal was on what she calls a “life of the mind path” before she learned to “integrate the mind and heart” and be a “rabbi of the heart.”
Last summer, Megdal brought her approach to Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, where she became the Conservative synagogue’s associate rabbi.
Megdal says that pastoral care is a core piece of her rabbinic work. It made her see that serving a community is the way to combine the mind and the heart.
She’s scored a number of firsts at Beth El. She is the congregation’s first woman rabbi and first lesbian rabbi.
“Coming into a shul where I am their first female clergy member and their first lesbian clergy member, that really authentic core value of inclusivity is really at the center of, not only my relationship with the community, but that’s a core value of the community as a whole,” Megdal says.
“Rabbi Megdal is phenomenal,” says Senior Rabbi Greg Harris. “She has brought passion and care to the congregation. She is sensitive and loves to connect with people. She has really fit right in with the congregation.”
Growing up in Northridge, Calif., Megdal’s parents were officers of their synagogue. She earned a J.D. degree at Yale Law School, but after clerking for a federal judge and working in a law firm for less than a year, she changed course and began her studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Her time at the law firm “didn’t feel right,” she says. “It was intellectually engaging, but it didn’t feel right.”
She credits her supervisor as a hospice chaplain, Rabbi Mychal Springer, for teaching her how to leave her “life of the mind” path. Springer will be on hand when Beth El formally installs Megdal in May.
She says the congregation calls the event, a brit kehillah, a “covenant of the community” that asks for approval from both rabbi and congregation.
Typical of rabbis hired during the pandemic, Megdal’s interview process took place on Zoom. It was only after she was hired that she came to meet her new congregation face to face. She says everything she thought about the community through the screens matched how she felt in person. She said the inclusion and energy that the community had for each other was a big selling point for her.
“It’s really a gift for a rabbi to be able to bring all the energy I have to the community, and to have it reflected back with engagement many times over,” Megdal says.
As a rabbi, she says she still loves law and integrates it into her congregational work.
“We’re a very legal tradition,” Megdal says. “So I want to bring our legal tradition to people in a way that is exciting.”
Before she came to Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, Megdal was a rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, an LGBT synagogue. When she and her partner moved to the Washington area, the inclusivity of the Beth El community stood out to her.
Megdal says she finds that the younger members of the community are open about their sexual orientation and gender identity.
“If I walk in as a woman and as a lesbian, and I’m the rabbi teaching them that day, I hope they see in a very real and tangible way that who they are is beautiful and that they can celebrate it,” Megdal says. “Because I celebrate my own identity. I’m proud of who I am as a woman and as a lesbian. And so they’ll know for sure that I’m proud and excited about who they are.”
The incorrect spelling of Rabbi Mychal Springer has been corrected. An earlier version of this story said that Megdal’s time in the “law field” didn’t feel right. That has been corrected to “law firm.” The quotation has also been edited to make it clearer.