Orthodox shul elects female president

(From left) Dr. Morey Gardner (outgoing President), Rabbi Hyim Shafner, and Phyllis Shapiro (new President-elect), at Bais Abraham Congregation, just after the general meeting to elect the new board and executive board of Bais Abraham on Dec. 19.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

In what is thought to be a first for an Orthodox shul in the St. Louis area, Bais Abraham Congregation has made history by electing a woman as its president.

Phyllis Shapiro, who turns 65 this month, was approved by the membership of the shul on Sunday. She replaces previous president Morey Gardner and will serve a two-year term.

Shapiro said that it was an honor to be chosen for the job calling it “exciting” though she downplayed the significance of being the first woman selected for the position.

“It’s kind of a non-issue really,” she said. “It’s more of a natural progression that I ended up being asked.”

Bais Abraham’s Rabbi Hyim Shafner concurred, saying gender hadn’t been a factor in the choice.

“We weren’t looking specifically for a woman,” he said. “We just wanted the best person for the job. I’m very excited. I think Phyllis will be terrific. She’s been a strong leader in the congregation for years.”

Shapiro, a career law clerk at the federal courthouse downtown, has attended at Bais Abraham for about 25 years and has held leadership positions in the shul before. A longtime member of the synagogue’s board, she chaired the last three annual fundraisers and has also served as program chair. She and husband Jack, a mathematics professor at Washington University, have three grown children, all of whom grew up at Bais Abraham and are graduates of H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy and Block Yeshiva High School.

“Jack and I raised our kids at the shul. It feels like the right time and the right place,” she said. “We’ve seen the shul go through many changes. Yet in many critical ways it’s the same.”

The New York City native said she hopes Bais Abraham can do more partnerships with Hillel at Washington University and feels that one of the biggest challenges will be continuing to grow the membership.

“We have to get our message out as a very warm, traditional halachic community open for diverse people,” she said. “It’s a place where everyone feels welcome.”

The University City resident praised her recent predecessors as strong presidents and said she will use them as role models.

“We’ve got a great rabbi and there’s a lot of consensus at the shul,” she said. “There’s not a lot of controversy. I anticipate smooth leadership, people working together, praying together, learning together.”

She said she has received messages of congratulation from all over the area.

“The response has been amazing,” she said. “Really, I’m getting calls from all sectors of the community saying that they are excited for me. I didn’t quite expect it because in this day and age, it’s not such a big deal for a woman to be a leader but it’s been very exciting in that way.”

Congregants seemed upbeat about Shapiro’s selection.

“Phyllis is a tremendous asset,” said Simone Picker, who’s known the new president since 2001. “She’s a huge part of the shul and she really does a lot of work for the shul so it made sense for her to take the role as president. We’re very excited and look forward to her making the shul even better than it is.”

Josh Friedman, 20, called Shapiro “a microcosm of Bais Abe.”

“I’ve known her since I first had memories,” he said. “On an interpersonal level, she’s brilliant, very logical and rational and I think she has the drive to be a visionary and also take other people’s opinions into consideration.”

He said the move expressed the congregation’s forward-thinking ethos.

“It represents who we are as a progressive Orthodox Jewish community,” he said.

Outgoing president Gardner said Shapiro’s ascension was no surprise given the nature of Bais Abraham.

“For this synagogue, it’s eminently appropriate,” he said. “It’s something that we’ve expected and, in a sense, planned for for a number of years.”

He described her as committed to and educated on Orthodoxy as well as knowledgeable about the needs of the congregation.

“Phyllis is, I believe, the ideal first woman to take this role,” he said. “To apply the criteria that you’d apply to any president of a synagogue, she fulfills all of it.”

Rabbi Shafner said there are other female presidents in Orthodox shuls around the country and clear precedent for females in such positions in both Jewish history and law.

“Women have leadership roles in the rest of the world,” he said. “To not have that voice within Jewish life is a loss.”

Shafner has been a part of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a liberal alternative to the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), Orthodoxy’s major American rabbinic organization. In July, the group released a statement that encouraged an enlarged role for women in communal leadership though it did not endorse ordination of females.

The RCA restated its opposition to female ordination in April but affirmed the value of women teaching Torah and pushed for them to take “halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities.”

For her part, Shapiro said she doesn’t see her assumption of the presidency as having any larger message in it.

“I don’t think it does,” she said. “I just hope I do a good job.”