Raised by a Pastor, and Now Leading a Synagogue

Before Heidi Hoover became a rabbi in Brooklyn, she was a pastor’s daughter in Pennsylvania.

Growing up in the 1980s, she lived a fairly conventional life. She was raised in a split-level, single-family home a few miles from Lancaster. She played the flute and acted in high school plays. And every Sunday, she attended Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, where her father, the Rev. B. Penrose Hoover, was a pastor.

In 2007, Mr. Hoover became a bishop in his denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, overseeing about 250 congregations.

A few weeks ago, his daughter, 40, was ordained at a rabbinical school in the Bronx and became the rabbi at Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek, a century-old synagogue in Brooklyn with a congregation of about 100 families.

She had been a rabbinical intern at the temple since 2006, and took over for the previous rabbi, William Kloner, after he was injured last year in an accident.

It was a long journey for Rabbi Hoover, who was initially drawn to Judaism through social and educational gatherings, but soon found herself absorbed in its highly personal, intellectually satisfying traditions, she said recently.

At times, that journey was fraught with anxiety.

In the mid-1990s, she spoke with a Lutheran pastor about her developing relationship with Michael T. Rose, a Jewish man she eventually married. Mr. Rose wanted their children to be Jewish, and she was struggling with the issue and looking for guidance.

She had been hoping the pastor would offer some guidance on what God might think about her situation. But the pastor offered little. Instead, Rabbi Hoover recalled, he said, “I don’t know what God thinks.” The moment, she said, highlighted how frustrated she had become by religion.

“I was very angry,” she said. “I was like: ‘What’s God’s deal? How could God want two people who love each other to be kept apart?’ ”

During a recent Saturday service, Rabbi Hoover appeared to be thriving. She beamed while leading the temple in song. In a discussion group in the synagogue basement before the service, she confidently waded into topics as diverse as homosexuality and slavery in Judaism.

Rabbi Hoover is perhaps a first. Though there are several rabbis in New York City who were not born Jewish, there are probably few, if any, who can say their father is a member of the Christian clergy, said Rabbi Jeff Hoffman, a professor at the Academy for Jewish Religion, where Rabbi Hoover attended rabbinical school.

In a recent interview, Bishop Hoover, 64, said he did not agree with his daughter’s decision. “She would no longer be a Christian,” he said. “She would be a Jew. That’s a difficult thing for families to deal with.”

But, he said, “we tried to raise our children to be critical thinkers, to make independent decisions and to accept responsibility for their actions.”

“How can I object to that?” he added.

Bishop Hoover found, in fact, that the highly charged conversations he had with his daughter about her conversion developed into a theological back-and-forth, with the bishop often turning to Rabbi Hoover for insights on Jewish Scripture.

“We have a regular, ongoing interfaith dialogue in our family,” he said.

Rabbi Hoover’s introduction to Judaism began at Central Synagogue in Midtown Manhattan. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh, with a degree in English in 1993, she moved in with Mr. Rose, whom she had met during college. Mr. Rose had returned to New York City, where he was raised.

Mr. Rose, now 41, grew up attending Central Synagogue and was helping run an outreach program for young professionals there. Rabbi Hoover, though Lutheran, quickly fell in with the group and began attending services on Friday nights and group dinners afterward.

She was the “token Christian,” Mr. Rose said, “but not in a negative way — in a part-of-the-team kind of way.”

Henry Goldschmidt, a longtime friend of Mr. Rose who met Rabbi Hoover during this period, recalled, “That one of the best Jews I knew was a Lutheran was fascinating to me.”

In 1997, when Rabbi Hoover’s mother had a recurrence of breast cancer, her impulse was to say a Jewish prayer of healing.

“I thought, ‘That doesn’t make any sense,” ’ Rabbi Hoover recalled. “She wasn’t Jewish. I wasn’t Jewish. If that’s where I turn to in a moment of real crisis, that means something.”

The following year, in the kitchen of her parents’ home, Rabbi Hoover told her mother and father that she was planning to convert; by 1999, she was Jewish.

“There were tears on a number of occasions,” Bishop Hoover said.

In 2008, The Lutheran, the magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, published an article about the unusual relationship between the bishop and Rabbi Hoover, who by then had realized that her career in technology consulting was less than satisfying and, in 2002, had enrolled in rabbinical school.

After the article was published, Rabbi Hoover hosted a weeklong discussion on the magazine’s Web site about her religious trajectory. The discussion generated intense debate among readers, and she was often at the receiving end of scathing criticism.

One reader called the article “sad” and “disturbing.” Another called the magazine “disgraceful” for presenting Rabbi Hoover as a positive role model.

Dr. Steven C. Garner, a longtime congregant at Rabbi Hoover’s synagogue, said some members were skeptical that Rabbi Hoover could take over for the previous rabbi, who had been there more than 30 years.

But that had little to do with her previous life as a Christian and more to do with her age and experience, and with being able to mollify the synagogue’s more conservative factions, Dr. Garner said.

“It was a tough spot,” Dr. Garner said, adding that while the odds were against her, she unified the temple.

That she was once Lutheran, he said, only made her a better candidate for the job.

“The conversion actually enhanced her love of Judaism,” he said. “It was a plus.”

TAGS (Synagogue, Conversion)


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