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Six summers ago, Rabbi Tracee Rosen came to Utah in a red Toyota convertible with the love her life. Later this year, she and her partner will drive away in a silver Honda hatchback with the light of their lives -- the one chattering away in a car seat.
In between, the spiritual leader of Salt Lake City's Congregation Kol Ami battled breast cancer, ministered to troubled families, unleashed captivating sermons and organized new services.
She became a visible representative of the faith, often joining other religious leaders on issues such as gun control, health care and community divides. Never shying away from controversy, she defended gay rights, even marching in the city's annual Pride Parade, and built bridges to the Muslim community. She taught the ways of Judaism to hundreds of potential converts. She opened the synagogue to various groups, acknowledging the diverse ways people experience their Judaism. She embraced rather than condemned interfaith couples.
"She's had more opportunities here to get to know individuals, to do more visitations and to learn how to do more small-town clergy work, which didn't come up in a [Los Angeles] congregation of 1,500 plus," says Rosen's partner, Keren Goldberg. "She's certainly become completely comfortable on the pulpit ... and in the interfaith world here, where she was a big fish in a little pond."
This fall, the economic downturn forced the congregation to make across-the-board cuts, and Rosen could not afford a reduced salary. She stepped down as Kol Ami's rabbi Dec. 31, but will remain for six months on a sabbatical, reading, writing and finding another position.
She is, however, leaving much richer than she arrived. About 16 months ago, Rosen and Goldberg, a stay-at-home mom, adopted Meital (Tali, rhymes with Molly) Rosen-Goldberg.
"The greatest blessing of our time here was finding Tali, which means 'the one ordained for us,' " Rosen says with emotion. "She has been the light of our lives."
A pioneer in the pulpit, Rosen will take more than a little Utah with her as she travels into an unknown future.
Battling the boys
Even as a child, Rosen questioned male dominance.
Though she was proficient in the Hebrew alphabet and grammar as well as Bible stories and Jewish culture, only the boys at her Orthodox day school in Denver were allowed to study Judaic scripture and laws. The girls focused on home economics.
She became the first girl at the school to have a bat mitzvah, a coming-of-age ritual that parallels the boys' more common bar mitzvah. At a public high school in Englewood, Colo., Rosen participated in B'nai B'rith Girls and, after graduating in 1978, spent a year in Israel, studying Jewish history and culture.
But it took more than a decade of wending her way through a secular college and the banking industry before she found her calling.
A co-worker at Bank One in Columbus, Ohio, was taking a class in comparative religions and asked Rosen, the resident Jew, for help researching the topic of women rabbis. That coincided with Rosen's return to more active involvement at the synagogue, which was looking for an assistant to help manage its membership growth.
As she watched the parade of applicants, all young, male students, she found herself thinking, "I could read the Torah. I could do that chanting. I could say those prayers."
And, for the first time, Rosen said aloud the words she scarcely had dared to think: "I could be a rabbi."
So, in 1996, she enrolled at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and then completed a three-year apprenticeship at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, one of the largest and most prestigious synagogues in the Conservative movement. The well-established, 1,500-member congregation gave Rosen her first taste of the preaching, teaching and managing required of any Jewish leader.
Yet it was at Kol Ami, a small, blended congregation in the heart of Mormondom, where Rosen's rabbinic mettle would be tested.
Making a 'big tent' bigger
Within a year of her appointment in Salt Lake City, Rosen faced two daunting challenges: how to unify the congregation's 370 families -- part Reform, part Conservative -- into a tolerant, cohesive whole and how to survive a life-threatening illness.
She attacked both problems with a mix of empathy, laserlike focus and good humor.
For the cancer, she endured the requisite surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, as well trying hypnotherapy, acupuncture, diet and exercise. Many members of the congregation stepped up to take on some of her duties during her recovery. Now she has been cancer-free for five years.
When she was able, Rosen pondered how to create more metaphoric "entry ramps" for people to find their way into the Jewish community.
In an early sermon, she described Kol Ami's east-side sanctuary, which features multiple doors, as symbolizing a "big tent." She urged members to reach out to all newcomers, Jew and non-Jew alike, and especially to interfaith families who make up as much as 40 percent of the congregation.
On the opening night of Rosh Hashana 2006, Rosen told a packed house that non-Jewish spouses or those in the process of converting were "friends of Israel and the Jewish people."
Then she invited the non-Jewish partners up to the bema, or platform, to be recognized and honored for their dedication, sacrifice and contributions to the community's collective life. At first, those singled out weren't sure what was happening. Slowly, one by one, they filed to the front. Eventually, the whole bema was filled.
"It was intense, progressive, totally out of the box. There was not a dry eye in the house," recalls Beth Levine. "And it was transformative for the congregation."
Now the congregation has established newer, more specialized ways to worship.
Rosen and the congregational leaders have healed a long-standing rift with Reconstructionists, for example, who broke off from Kol Ami and were meeting on their own for more than a decade. Recently, Kol Ami invited them to use the synagogue once a month.
One Friday a month, the congregation plays host to a potluck supper before services, and one Saturday a month, the Conservative service is held in a small, side chapel while the Reform group meets in the sanctuary.
By making a place for so many divergent groups, Rosen and the Kol Ami board have created "a new paradigm for American Judaism," Levine says. "Other rabbis will face these challenges in the future. But to us, it's right here, right now."
Rosen has taken huge strides toward showing other congregations across the nation what is possible.
Advocating gay rights
Rosen met Goldberg at a Gay/Lesbian Outreach Synagogue during her time in Los Angeles.
At the time, the Conservative movement did not allow for gay clergy, so the two had a secret commitment ceremony after Rosen was ordained in 2002. A year later, the pair was a tad nervous at the thought of living in Utah, where domestic partners did not have joint property rights and unmarried couples who lived together could not adopt children.
Her sexuality as well as her Jewish sense of injustice propelled Rosen to argue eloquently against Amendment 3, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
The Torah teaches, "You shall have one law, for the stranger and for the citizen alike; for I am the Lord your God," she said at the time. "That is exactly what this amendment tries to do -- set up different classes of people."
Still, Utah voters overwhelmingly embraced the measure in 2004.
Although she didn't want her entire time to be dominated by gay issues, Rosen has taken bold steps in defending those rights.
About four years ago, she decided to ask that all Jewish couples who wanted her to marry them to be married first by the state. She then would perform a religious ceremony.
"It sounds weird in this country," she explains, "but in most other countries in South America and Europe, that's the norm."
Part of her motive, she acknowledges, is Utah's opposition to same-sex marriage.
"Frankly," she says, "I don't really wish to act as an agent of a state that won't recognize my own relationship."
Because of Utah's refusal to place children with gay couples, Rosen and Goldberg had to adopt Tali in California.
Then, in 2006, a ruling body of Judaism's Conservative movement approved the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis, as well as the blessing of same-sex unions.
"It's amazing," she said at the news, "one of the proudest days in my rabbinate."
Rosen's presence and very visible relationship have made Kol Ami more welcoming to gay and lesbian couples, she says. "People should be comfortable being who they are and in how they choose to express themselves."
Other than some Utah legislators -- and one educator who rescinded a speaking invitation when he learned she was a lesbian -- Utahns have been mostly supportive of her relationship with Goldberg.
"Every one of her doctors and mine have been wonderful, filling us in on what was happening and treating us like we are partners," Goldberg says. "People we met here seemed absolutely lovely."
The week they moved into their Holladay neighborhood, at least six neighbors -- all LDS -- brought gifts of welcome.
"That's never happened," she says, "in any other place we've lived."
Reaching out to other faiths
As the leader of Utah's largest congregation for the state's 6,000 Jews, Rosen became an important voice in interfaith dialogues.
Upon arrival, she had a face-to-face meeting with then-LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley. She regularly spoke on public panels and at interfaith prayer services. She offered invocations at the Legislature and benedictions at Holocaust Remembrance Days. She has been asked to comment on everything from Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" to Barack Obama's Cairo speech to Muslims.
A particularly tender assignment was a series of discussions held at the Khadeeja Islamic Center in West Valley City. Ever diplomatic, she responded thoughtfully to the hard questions put to her by Muslim and Jewish audience members.
"She was always very understanding of, should I say, the delicate nature of interfaith activities," says Imam Shuaib ud-Din, now of the Utah Islamic Center in Sandy. "She handled it beautifully.'
Rosen broke the common stereotype of a Jewish rabbi, ud-Din says. "I had to always remind myself that she was a rabbi."
Alexander Morrison, an emeritus LDS general authority who sits with Rosen on the Alliance for Unity board, praises her "well thought-out, sound opinions."
Her contributions on the alliance board were characterized "not just by civility but also by good thinking," Morrison says. "She's done well."
Kol Ami, too, has benefited from Rosen's rigorous thinking and preaching.
"She's given many memorable sermons and is a wonderful educator, particularly of adults," says Karen MacArthur, chairwoman of Kol Ami's governing board. "She is very much a scholar, so wonderful with the texts. She has raised all our understanding of Torah."
Rosen will spend her final months in Utah surrounded by her vast library, researching and writing about the Ten Commandments. She also plans to pen proposals for future commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples that would fit within the Conservative tradition. She may join Facebook and become a Twitter regular.
"It's time to update my technology skills and flesh out my ideas," she says somewhat wistfully. "And look for a community that's a great fit for my style, where I can partner with the congregation -- like I have here."
Born and raised near Denver.
Earned a bachelor's in Jewish studies and a master's in business administration from Washington University in St. Louis.
Ordained in the second graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
Became a student rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and Congregation Beth Jacob in Fresno, Calif.
Became one of three rabbis at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., among the largest and most progressive Conservative congregations in the nation.