Women of faith

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How three groundbreaking spiritual leaders view their roles in the community


  • "We are listening to where the soul aches,” says The Rev. Jewelnel Davis, Columbia University chaplain. Photo: Christopher Moore

  • The Rev. Audette Fulbright, associate minister at All Souls Church on Lexington Avenue, says that "seeing women in positions of leadership matters." Photo: Christopher Moore

  • "I'm really blessed to live at a time when I can serve in this role," says Rabbi Felicia L. Sol of B'nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side. Photo: Christopher Moore

They became the role models they didn't have.

And they did it years before our #MeToo age, with its dramatic shifts in gender politics and women's empowerment. A year after arguably the world's most famous woman in politics did not break a glass ceiling, these women — in the realm of religion — do it every day.

These Manhattan-based women of faith, at different stages in their New York careers, play different spiritual and professional roles — one at a university, one at a church, one at a synagogue. From different traditions, these women share traits too, like a talent for busting barriers with grace and good humor.

Now they're ready to mark the holidays of 2017 and the New Year with their services. And their own service, too.

Jewelnel Davis: 'The win is in the diversity'

The Rev. Jewelnel Davis says that part of her work is to walk tenderly through difficult emotions.

“This is going to sound sad, and I'm not sad about it,” she says in her basement office at St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia University. “Chaplains are the keepers of secrets and the keepers of the dead. A lot of the time we are listening to where the soul aches.”

Davis has been listening for 22 years at Columbia, where she is also an associate provost. She likes the challenge and the idea of always being “in learning mode,” she says. “I think one is always humble. One is always aware that there is less that you know than you think you know.”

She talks with appreciation about the diversity at Columbia, including a Catholic ministry with links to the neighboring Corpus Christi Church, a vital Hillel presence and a “very active Muslim population.” Davis purposely does not conduct her own weekly services, as some university chaplains do, not wanting to zero in on one faith tradition. Instead, she oversees a rich array of programming, representing a broad swath of beliefs — as well as agnostics and atheists.

But she did arrive with a specific sense of mission. She wanted the university to interact more with nearby areas, including Morningside Heights but also reaching out to Washington Heights and Harlem.

“We have been able to rebuild and shore up relationships with the communities,” she says, adding that the mission only became more crucial in the aftermath of the university's high-profile development to the north.

The idea of becoming a university chaplain came from Davis's mentor, Jacob Neusner, an academic scholar on Judaism. At a pivotal crossroads, Davis wondered what was next in her career. Neusner asked Davis if she had ever considered becoming a university chaplain. “I said: Do you know any black people who are university chaplains? Do you know any women who are university chaplains?” Davis remembers. “And he said, 'I don't know any and it doesn't mean you can't be the first.'”

After a long tenure at Bard College upstate, Neusner died last year. But he left Davis with powerful memories of their conversations.

“I really liked Jack Neusner's style of teaching and his fundamental belief that religion had to make the link between faith and the life of the mind,” Davis says. She grew up in the Baptist faith, but her work with Neusner underlines her passion for crossing religious traditions. “The win is in the diversity,” she says.

Today she estimates that about 40 percent of her job is in one-on-one counseling sessions. But she's also been a high-profile presence during difficult moments, like the death of a student, or at times of turbulence, as when 25 students met in her nearby apartment for a post-election session last year. She's never found her academic setting to be claustrophobic — just the opposite. “There's never been a time when it felt like I was in a small, gated environment,” she says.

“It has challenged me. It has never disappointed me,” she says. “Every dawn brings new opportunities.”

On Oct. 8, she turned 60. “There are so many new things to learn,” she says, looking content. “It's going to be a great decade.”

Audette Fulbright: “You fall in love with a church”

The Rev. Audette Fulbright, the recently installed associate minister at All Souls Church on Lexington Avenue, sent her own photograph to Hillary Clinton.

In the picture, Fulbright was signing her contract to become the first woman to be called to serve All Souls, and the 12th minister named in the church's 198-year history. After her official installation, Fulbright thought about the woman who did not get the nation's top executive job last year.

“I sent it to Hillary because I was thinking of her that day,” recalls Fulbright, 49. Indeed Fulbright reached out to the defeated Democrat to show that even in the aftermath of a high-profile woman's failure to advance to a top job, other women are still making gains.

In the ministry for 18 years, Fulbright was officially called this spring, moving her husband, Rob Fulson, and her younger daughter, Ani, from Wyoming to Riverside Drive for a new life. Her older daughter, Ember, lives in Virginia with her husband, Seth Berkley.

Serving now alongside Senior Minister Galen Guengerich, Fulbright took a higher-level position than the assistant minister job that others have held at the church.

She had other career options after being a minister in Wyoming for several years, but Fulbright chose both the congregation and this town. “You fall in love with a church,” she says.

Fulbright knows that part of her job is to push people into the future. “It's a cliché, but you have to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” she says. She believes in being specific, putting tangible ideas into people's heads rather than speaking too generally.

She speaks enthusiastically about the faith she promotes. She says that when she visits a fellow Unitarian Universalist in the hospital, she actually has to ask about the person's religion — whether he or she prays or believes in God or the extent or reach of faith.

“We have to all start from ground zero,” she says — and then adds, “I love that it's harder.”

Part of the excitement of her new gig: living in the city. She likes the idea of the religious and ethnic diversity, and the range of “faith connections” possible here. “I wanted to raise my daughter here. I wanted her to be a citizen of the world and not just a citizen of a small town,” she says, before interrupting herself and explaining that she didn't want to be “patronizing” about small towns. She remembers her own in South Carolina.

She grew up without a specific faith, then tried a lot of them.

“I have been everything along the way,” she says. She's happy where she landed, but argues her fellow UUs have actually been too wary of proselytizing.

“We've been in the closet too much,” she says. “We've hidden a living faith from people which has the power to change and save lives.”

Within her religion, Fulbright says, more women are serving in ministry than men. But that has not been true at All Souls, where the senior ministers have all been white men. Until now.

“Seeing women in positions of leadership matters,” she says. “So that's one thing.”

Another thing: working with senior minister Guengerich. She says she was inspired by her conversations with him.

She's excited about “what ministry looks like when we work together. It will be different from two men.”

Felicia L. Sol: So much more than 'sweetie'

Rabbi Felicia L. Sol did not grow up thinking she would become a rabbi.

Actually, her brother was encouraged by the rabbi at their family's synagogue to follow the religious route — but the young man grew up to be a poet and get a Ph.D. in literature.

Sol herself is the one who became a rabbi. She arrived at B'nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side in 1996 in a Jewish education role.

“I came in for the interview and I got the job,” she says with a smile, sitting at a table in her office on West 89th Street, “and I never left.” She's grown and changed roles over time, becoming a rabbi there in 2001.

Sol, 46, grew up first in East Brunswick, N.J., and then, at age 7, her family moved to New Fairfield, Connecticut, a small town near Danbury. “Of the five Jews in my grade, we were the most involved,” she remembers. Back then, while she always had that strong sense of Jewish identity, she thought of the rabbinate as a male-dominated job — because it was.

“No one ever told me you couldn't be a rabbi as a woman,” she says, but then adds that she simply didn't have a model. “When you don't see anyone who looks like you in that space, it's hard to imagine yourself in that role,” she says.

Now she's the role model she didn't see back then.

“The rabbinate has changed because women are in it,” she says. “Judaism is a patriarchal tradition. Women like me are both in love with that tradition and trying to dismantle the patriarchy from the inside.”

Sometimes that can be challenging, she readily admits. For instance, don't bother calling this rabbi “sweetie,” “kiddo” or “honey.” Although some congregants do.

“They would never call a male rabbi those names,” Sol says. “At age 30, it might have been age-related. At 46, enough already.”

She adds: “It tends to be women who do that, which is interesting.” She thinks the familiarity might be partly because she's grown up over the years at B'nai Jeshurun. She sees the role of rabbi as multi-faceted, including: teacher, pastor, holder of Jewish wisdom, community leader, justice-seeker. She oversees the synagogue's senior program directors.

Still, she underscores her gratitude for where she is. “I'm really blessed to live at a time when I can serve in this role,” she says.

She has an educational background to match her many missions. She has a BA in developmental psychology and education from Tufts University, a masters in Jewish Education from a school at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York; and her masters of Hebrew letters (1996) and her rabbinic ordination (1999), also from HUC-JIR.

Sol's a mom to a seven-year-old son, Aiden, and a five-year-old daughter, Sivan. Her life as a single mother who never married brought about an appearance in a documentary, “All of the Above: Single, Clergy, Mother.” As a writer, she contributed an essay to the book “Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay.”

Her parents are still in the small town in Connecticut, and Sol visits. “I still bring my two kids back to the July 4 parade,” she says.

What do her own parents think about having a daughter who's a rabbi?

Sol grins. “They think it's awesome,” she says.

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