Raised by a pastor, now rabbi of a synagogue

When our ancestors stood together at Mount Sinai to accept the Torah, the sages stated that they were joined by the souls of all future Jews, both those yet to be born Jewish, and all who would someday become Jewish through conversion. So next month when we celebrate Shavuot we should share some of the amazing stories of the many non-Jews who have joined us. This is one of them:

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 in a split-level, single-family home a few miles from Lancaster. She played the flute, acted in high school plays and every Sunday, attended Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, where her father, the Rev. B. Penrose Hoover, was a pastor.

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

In 2011, 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.

Rabbi Hoover is perhaps a first. Though there are many rabbis in New York City who were not born Jewish, there are probably none who can say their father is a Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 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?”

Bishop Hoover found, 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 Reform Judaism’s Central Synagogue in Midtown Manhattan. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh in 1993, she moved in with a Jewish man she had met during college.

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. “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.

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 week long discussion on the magazine’s Web site about her religious trajectory. The discussion generated intense debate among readers, and she often received scathing criticism. One reader called the article “sad” and “disturbing.”

Another called the magazine “disgraceful” for presenting Rabbi Hoover as a positive role model.


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 and the odds were against her, but 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.”

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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