Rabbi Chava Koster
Chava Koster announced to her family that she wanted to be a rabbi when she was 16 years old. The family's response was, “Impossible!”
This was in Amsterdam and there had never been a woman rabbi in The Netherlands. She said, “Watch me!”
A spirited child, Koster was raised in a post Holocaust family. Her family was hidden in Amsterdam during World War I and after the war it was difficult for many families to be Jewish. She actually didn't know she was a Jew until the age of 7 and then she asked so many questions that her great-grandfather taught her “how to be Jewish.” She became an ardent Jew, and as a teen, joined a Zionist, anti-German Youth group. Her great-grandfather, displeased with her anti-German sentiments, insisted she attend a camp in Germany with Jewish and non-Jewish students from both The Netherlands and Germany. It was an important learning experience.
Having heard about Sally Priesand, the first woman rabbi in America, who was ordained in 1972, Koster knew that her future lay in the United States. She received her “Doctoraal” degree in English Historical Linguistics at the University of Amsterdam in 1986 and came to the United States to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary. In 1993, she earned her Masters Degree in Jewish Studies and Jewish Education and went on to the Academy for Jewish Religion where she was ordained in 1997. Rabbi Koster is the first woman rabbi from the Netherlands.
As the spiritual leader of The Village Temple in downtown New York, Rabbi Koster believes that for a congregation to become a truly spiritual community, the emphasis must be on learning, spiritual growth and social action coupled with warmth and caring. Adherence to these fundamental principles will enable all members, regardless of their knowledge and observance, to be inspired to find even greater depths of meaning within Judaism. Thus, she is committed to opening the doors to members of the faith who are connected to Judaism less through religion and more through social action, art, literature and education. She firmly believes these are attributes of the Jewish religion. The Village Temple, committed to community action and Tikkun Olam (Repair of the World), runs a soup kitchen and works with a coalition of clergy from the downtown area offering outreach in planned parenthood and rights of immigrant workers. It also has a dynamic religious school and adult education program.
Rabbi Koster explains that there are currently three women rabbis in Europe, in France, Great Britain and Germany, but there still exists an enormous amount of opposition to it. “It's uncomfortable for people.” The first woman rabbi was ordained in 1938 in Germany as part of the reform (Progressive Judaism) movement, but after the Shoah, the movement ceased to exist, closing all opportunities for women rabbis or cantors. 'The reform movement was set back 100 years,” she says, “and to this day, hasn't recovered.”
Rabbi Koster is a representative to the United Nations International Clergy Committee and the American Jewish Committee. As past Director of Columbia University's Uriel Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture, she is a leading voice in the proliferation of Eastern European culture. She has been associated with the Dutch Committee for Interfaith Affairs and is a lifetime member of the Spiro Institute in London.
As representative to the UN International Clergy Committee, Rabbi Koster attended the World Summit of Religious Leaders in 2000, a gathering of - mostly male - representatives from Buddhism, Shintoism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and indigenous peoples. Disappointed at how few women were there, she and a handful of others created the Global Peace Initiative of Women Spiritual Leaders. Offering both spiritual and economic programs, the Peace Initiative has sent relief to Rwanda, computers to Afghanistan and is now placing its focus on the Middle East.
For the Jerusalem conference in 2004, women scholars from Palestine and Israel have been invited to meet, as well as grass roots peace groups from both countries. Rabbi Koster feels strongly that if people meet eye to eye, sit and talk, learn each others' stories--even when it is personally difficult-hating is not as easy. Though a great separation exists, at the end of the day people leave with a different feeling.
She believes that the Middle East situation must have global support from the United Nations and the European community to make progress. She would like to see representatives from both communities meet and talk with Israeli and Palestinian representatives. Further, she says it is essential that religious leaders be at the table as their presence would engender bridge building between countries.
Rabbi Koster has a strong negative view of the security wall being erected by Israel. In her view, it keeps the Israelis “in” and the Palestinians “out.” “It cuts through the hearts of villages and it cuts through the people.” Both sides are affected by terrorism politically and economically and they also share fear. Parents on both sides of the wall worry about the well-being and safety of their children when they're on the “other side.” “Walls don't work,” she states. “But the good news is eventually they all come down.”
Appearances on CUNY TV
Jewish Women in America
- Rabbi Chava Koster
March 10, 2004