Free Speech and Religion

A Profile in Pluralism: Rabbi Shoshanah Conover

October 27, 2021  • Religion & Society Program & Amrit Dhillon

A year ago, Rabbi Shoshanah Conover became Temple Sholom of Chicago’s first female senior rabbi. While she’s proud of the accomplishment, she didn’t come to the Windy City for that opportunity.

“I wanted to work at Temple Sholom specifically because it’s just a really special place where people want to do good, and they want to do that good within community,” she said.

So, when she was hired as an associate rabbi more than 13 years ago, she didn’t hesitate.

The primary focus of Rabbi Conover’s work, and one of the reasons she finds Temple Sholom so special, is relationships.

“We don’t do programs for program’s sake. We do programs to build relationships, to transform ourselves, to transform the world,” she said.

Those relationships are critical to the work Temple Sholom is doing around social justice and inclusion. Work that has deep roots within the congregation.

“Our synagogue has been very involved in racial justice work, but racial justice and making sure that people in our community who are people of color feel embraced, are not the same thing.  They are also not mutually exclusive,” Rabbi Conover said.

While the Temple has focused programs on embracing Jews of color, they also make it a priority to recognize other groups who may often be overlooked or marginalized. Particularly those with disabilities and those who identify as LGBTQ.

Temple Sholom has done interesting programming to raise awareness and understanding for all these groups. Sometimes it’s as simple as having a conversation and hearing from marginalized voices or creating an affinity group for Jews of color. Other times it’s something bigger, like four years ago when the temple merged with an LGBTQ congregation, Or Chadash (literally, A New Light) which helped to enlighten existing congregants of Temple Sholom by building the synagogue’s consciousness through deepening relationships. This year especially, with everything the country has been experiencing, these efforts have been a big piece of the Temple’s ongoing work.

“We’ve really been doing a lot of learning and breathing, and also shifting based on how we’re all growing together,” she said. “And that’s been amazing”

The overarching question for Rabbi Conover is always, “how do we make sure that we’re all one community of people where we’re looking out for each other, and actually making this a place where everyone feels embraced and where everybody’s doing the embracing… but it’s not just that we want to make sure that we’re doing feels like a big hug, but to make sure everyone feels worthy of being hugged.”

While the “community” Rabbi Conover most often talks about is the Temple Sholom congregation, they are also cognizant of their role and responsibility in the greater Chicago community, and often look outside the synagogue. In fact, Rabbi Conover said one of the reasons she was hired was because she is a community organizer, working on workers’ rights, environmental justice, and healthcare. The synagogue felt her skillset would strengthen its initiatives.

In addition to opening the Temple on high holidays and being willing to share traditions, there are often social service or community service projects throughout the year. Sometimes it’s advocacy around a public policy, other times it’s simply sharing. For Purim, a spring holiday where there’s a tradition of giving gifts, the Temple created bags of goodies for people to come by and take. While congregants visited the temple, they were asked to bring some items for a local food pantry. As Rabbi Conover said, blending service and tradition is what the Temple is.

“What’s wonderful is that we’ve done so much organizing outside of the synagogue around issues ─they are always led by people who are most affected─ and then we look at how we can amplify those voices, be it policy or other initiatives,” she shared. “But it’s also given me a wonderful opportunity to say ‘hey, guys, do you think we should look at our synagogue and see what we’re doing within these walls?’”

And to do that, it comes back to relationships. But building those is not always as easy as it sounds. Rabbi Conover reflected a little on Chicago’s rich organizing history, referencing Saul Alinsky, (whom she sees as a flawed leader) a Chicago-based community activist who is well known for his 1970’s book, Rules for Radicals.

“I think that Alinsky’s assumption was that once you have a congregation, you already have organized people around common purpose. And I think he was wrong,” she said.

In fact, when Rabbi Conover arrived, she had more than 100 one-on-ones with members of Temple Sholom. What she found out was, for most the Temple wasn’t their primary community, and they didn’t necessarily feel like they had common social purpose with each other.

She reflects that, for better and mostly for worse, while Alinsky was forming the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council and continuing his work in Chicago, the self-interest was apparent and that’s what they organized around.  She doesn’t think that’s the case for many people.

So, what did she propose? A listening campaign.  And well, that too didn’t immediately build common purpose.

“You’re trying to figure out what everybody wants to do. And it’s very arbitrary because people are all over the place and almost nobody felt like this was their primary place to make social impact,” she reflected.

But, Rabbi Conover, and those who were invested in this vision, kept at it. Eventually, it started to work. Why?

“Because we actually built the relationships and people recognized that the Temple has a responsibility to make sure the compassion inside our synagogue community is reflected in a more compassionate society,” she said.

The key to that, besides listening and keeping at it? Well, in Rabbi Conover’s words, “schmoozing*.”

“We put schmoozing time in before any program because we know that we all love that, and that it’s always relationship-centered,” she said. “Our programs also often include some experiential learning and a bit of either praying or a spiritual moment—yet schmoozing is key.”

“When you think about a religious community, you have that common point of interest,” Rabbi Conover continued. “But we’ve got to find other ways to really connect and build.”

And that applies outside the Temple too.

“I think there’s a lot at stake right now, when you’re looking at systemic racism and at other systems that have been used in oppression,” she said. “We have to talk across difference and say, look, we care about the same issues now. We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to go at them in a way that’s new, in a way that we can learn from each other.”

That view is based on how Rabbi Conover defines pluralism.

“To me, [pluralism] means that we come from a place of mutual respect and deep curiosity to just try to understand each other better. Both naming the differences, because those are amazing, and then also finding where those places of common purpose are where we could say, ‘okay, you know what, let’s do something together,’” she said. “We have to figure out how you have dialogue across difference and be in deep relationship where your whole thing is not about trying to figure out a compromise, but how you are able to really follow somebody’s mindset and their life story in a way where you then garner deeper respect for them. Then you can’t dehumanize them, you can’t dismiss them. And, most importantly, you can work alongside them to make real, lasting change for the good.”

All this work, inside and outside Temple Sholom, is guided by one thing for Rabbi Conover: changing the world for the better and doing that with faith in the lead.

The first step might just be to start with some schmoozing.

* Schmooze: from Yiddish שמועסן shmuesn ‘to converse, chat’ (verbal stem is שמועס shmues), originally from Hebrew שמועות ‘things that are heard; ‘friendly, informal conversation or an instance of this.

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