When Beth Shalom Synagogue began 75 years ago in Baton Rouge, women could not be rabbis in North America. When that status changed in 1972, Teri Appleby was at Stanford University with an eye toward law school.
It took a while, but Appleby joined the rabbinate, and she’s about to become the first female rabbi at Beth Shalom.
Appleby, 68, begins her one-year interim rabbi position on July 1, replacing Rabbi Natan Trief. It also will mark the first time that Baton Rouge will have two female rabbis. Batsheva Appel has been named interim rabbi at Congregation B’Nai Israel, which hired its first female rabbi, Corie Yutkin, in 2007.
Gender wasn’t a factor in selecting an interim rabbi, said Mark Posner, president of Beth Shalom.
“I just think we were looking for the person who best fit our needs,” Posner said.
“Teri Appleby is a very intelligent, calm, even-tempered kind of person,” said Karen Ceppos, a member of the Rabbinic Transition Committee, who belonged to a synagogue in Reno, Nevada, when Appleby was rabbi there from 2009 to 2012. “She cares very deeply about community relationships and having relationships in the larger community. She has done a lot of pastoral work, working with congregants or others who have illnesses or need counseling or pastoral kinds of work. So, she has a broad range of experience.”
That experience includes 6½ years as a public defender in Los Angeles. When her husband, John, got a job that took them to San Francisco, she put her career on hold to help raise their children and volunteered in community and synagogue activities.
“I just fell in love with Judaism as an adult, the wisdom and the richness of the ritual and the strength of community,” Appleby said. “We had a wonderful rabbi who was my role model and mentor. I was just taking all of the classes I could take and had leadership roles in the congregation. When it was time to go back to work, I wanted to work in the Jewish world. My rabbi said, ‘Knowing you, what you’re talking about is the rabbinate.’ I agreed.
“I love the teaching. I love the pastoral work, helping people through those tough times in life and helping those families through a death in the family. Those things are very meaningful and satisfying.”
Appleby became an assistant rabbi in Newport Beach, California, in 2007, and she has served in synagogues in Nevada; Ontario and Alberta, Canada; Tennessee; and, most recently, Nebraska.
Some of these posts also have been in an interim capacity. Her husband is semiretired, and his occupation as an environmental lawyer and consultant gave them the flexibility to relocate. Appleby said living in different sections of two countries has been educational, and her interim status has not prevented her from forming deep relationships with congregants.
“I really love the interim work,” she said. “What I have found is communities do not interact with me like, ‘You’re only here for a year, so I won’t get to know you.’ I have found that people let me into their lives and they’re a part of my life whether or not it’s education, it’s religious services, if it’s the pastoral work. If somebody’s in the hospital, they don’t care that you’re only there for a year.”