By Ruth Thomas…

JoEllen Duckor and Temple Sinai are trail blazers in the Progressive movement, according to the immediate past-president of the Union of Progressive Judaism, Roger Mendleson.

He was commenting on JoEllen’s recent retirement from the role of mashpiah or spiritual advisor at Temple Sinai after 15 years.

“JoEllen filled the role of spiritual advisor with warmth and deep Jewish knowledge as evidenced by her private ordination as rabbi.

“She will be seen as a pioneer as it is likely that others will follow her in the mashpiah role. “

The idea of being a mashpiah first came to Rabbi JoEllen Duckor in 2004. She had grown up in New York, surrounded by a totally Jewish life, and came to New Zealand after marrying author Lloyd Jones.

She quickly realised her three children weren’t going to know much about their heritage unless she did something herself and started studying Judaism.

In 1986 she joined Temple Sinai and taught at the Beit Midrash, did a religious studies degree and also taught at Wellington’s Moriah College. Going to retreats, and also studying on-line and through Skype, she went deeper into Judaism.

In 1990 she applied to a rabbinical school but was not accepted because she was still married to a non-Jew.

On returning to New Zealand, she did more and more for Temple Sinai and put a proposal to the board to be the mashpiah.

“I had trained first as a spiritual director with Spiritual Growth Ministries, a Christian spiritual directors’ formation course in New Zealand,” she says.

“A few years after completing that programme sometime in 2004 I attended a Jewish spiritual directors’ retreat at Elat Chayyim, in upstate New York.

“There I discovered the word “mashpiah” as a term for a Jewish spiritual director and proposed the role to the Temple Sinai board in 2005.”

The board agreed and first she worked for 10 hours a week, and then 15 hours. “I was very happy in that position,” she said.

Two years ago she was on a retreat with Rabbi Jeff Roth who suggested she again consider the idea of becoming a rabbi, this time through a private rabbinic ordination.

By then she had another partner, professional clown Rick Sahar who is Jewish. Her three children are grown and adults.

To become a rabbi, she would need to convene a rabbinic court consisting of three rabbis to examine her and to report on whether she had the attributes required.

JoEllen found four rabbis, including a woman, who would support her, despite their personal reservations about private ordination. In December 2017 she became Rabbi JoEllen Duckor.

She continued as Temple Sinai’s mashpiah taking services, helping children to become bar and bat mitzvah, counselling newcomers – being the face of the congregation. Then, last year she took a sabbatical and decided it was time to look beyond.

“I will be 65 next year. I am physically well, my children are independent, my mother in New York is doing well and I have no grandchildren,” she says.

“Temple Sinai is still my temple. I will still do services but it will not be my job. It is time to do something different.”

She says there have been many highlights.

She describes her first time chanting from a Torah scroll, the feeling of loving connection at the end of Yom Kippur when the congregation has been praying and fasting together all day, the precious time of going on a journey to bar and bat  mitzvah, working with a warm, welcoming group of people where everyone pitches in to teach the children and run the services.

“I have learnt so much and had a wonderful time.”

After giving six months’ notice, in October JoEllen was farewelled in a small ceremony. She immediately set off to visit her 87-year-old mother who is in good health and spirits and lives in New York.

She will return in May and will do a two-year course with the Awakened Heart Project, the aim of which is to promote and refine Jewish contemplative techniques while also creating opportunities for intensive Jewish meditation practice.

The term “mashpiah” is virtually unheard of in Progressive synagogues. If you try searching the term “mashpia” on the internet, you discover that the title is  for a rabbi or rebbetzin who serves as a spiritual mentor in a Chabad yeshiva, in a girls’ seminary belonging to the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic movement, or in a Chabad community.

Search a little more and you will learn that throughout Jewish history, mentors such as the mashpiachaver, or mashgiach, provided spiritual guidance appropriate for the time they were living in.

Today a Jewish spiritual director helps people to connect experiences of the holy to Jewish vocabulary and tradition, explore Jewish pathways that sustain the inner life, and inspire participation in the spiritual community.

In Australasia, Roger Mendelson says there is no one else with a similar role although Ruth Gross at Kedem in Melbourne could well handle the role.

He says the Moetzah, the Progressive rabbinic council, are looking at criteria so that the Progressive movement can formalise the role and other congregations can be encouraged to follow.

“There is no one else fulfilling the same role in Progressive Judaism although I hopes more will follow JoEllen’s lead. I would love us to more formally adopt the mashpiah model as there is a shortage of rabbis and they are beyond the budget of many congregations.”