Stacks of unpacked books are scattered about her office and framed artwork leans against one bare wall, where it is likely to remain for a while. With the High Holy Days at hand and a new congregation to settle into, Rabbi Rosalind Gold has to contend with more than decorating.
Since her arrival last month at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, which had been without a rabbi for a year, Gold has been busy catching up on a year's backlog of business, expanding the religious education program and planning for the High Holy Days.
Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown Monday, and marks the start of the Jewish new year 5742, is bound to be special for members of the Reston synagogue. It will be the congregation's first High Holy Days since moving into its long-awaited synagogue and the first with its new rabbi.
"There's a real sense of beginning here now," said Gold, "and people get caught up in that." For Gold, 32 and unmarried, there's a sense of beginning as well. Her new position is her first as chief rabbi in a congregation, a position held by only eight other women in this country.
Gold, a warm and witty conversationalist, said her status as one of approximately 35 women rabbis in the nation, doesn't faze her until she's invited to speak on women's issues or "somebody says to me you're the first lady rabbi I've ever met."
"I'm a woman and I'm comfortable with that, and I'm a rabbi and I'm comfortable with that," she said.
Although Gold said a survey taken by her congregation before beginning its search for a new rabbi showed "a significant number" did not want a woman rabbi, "that doesn't matter now."
"There are people who I think still aren't comfortable with it . . . and there are always the families who say, 'I'm going to leave if we get a woman,' " said Gold, "but so far no one has left."
Gold, who previously served as an assistant rabbi at a Rochester, N.Y., congregation, said that one of the 1,350 families did leave when she arrived there and two members of the Rochester board of rabbis dropped out when she was invited to join the professional group.
"I can't say those things aren't hurtful, because they are," said Gold. "It's being prejudged before ever having a chance to prove myself."
"But," adds Gold with a chuckle, "I get great pleasure out of watching those kind of people come around and change their minds and have to admit they were wrong.
"My ideal is not to have someone look at me and not see a woman," said Gold, "because that's what I am. But I don't want that to be a problem for them.
"I would worry as much about someone who says, 'Yes, we want a woman,' " because "then they're not really accepting me for what I am and what I can give to a congregation, either."
Gold's selection by the Northern Virginia synagogue came after a vigorous search that included inviting the finalists to spend a weekend leading services.
The selection committee chose Gold "because she's very, very warm," according to Stuart Patz, president of the congregation. "She's just simply taken hold here. We have very high attendance at Friday night services and all of our functions and I think that's because of Rabbi Gold."
Patz said "a surprising number" of families have joined the 180-family congregation, since Gold's arrival "simply because she's a woman." Many of those families are headed by women, said Patz. "Maybe they feel they can identify better with a woman."
Gold said she did not decide to become a rabbi until halfway through rabbinical school, where "I was studying simply to learn more about my religion."
Once she made a decision, "there was a lot of skepticism" on the part of friends and family. "I think my parents were concerned at first, they knew it was not going to be an easy road."
For the first two years, Gold was the only woman in her classes at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. "Some of the students asked, 'Do you really want to be a rabbi?' but they accepted me."
Gold feels her leadership style is perhaps different from most rabbis in that "my services are very informal. I enjoy laughing with my congregation as well as being serious with them."
This year Gold has added her own touches to Tuesday morning's Rosh Hashanah service, by deciding to take the entire congregation to nearby Lake Anne for a closing ritual and lakeside prayer service.
They then will return to the synagogue for apples dipped in honey and round challeh bread, foods symbolizing the sweetness hoped for in the new year and the cyclical aspect of life.
At Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even those Jews who are not active the rest of the year, often come to services, filling synagogues to overflowing. In fact, Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation expects such a large crowd, 400 to 500, they will hold several of their biggest holy day services in a nearby Catholic church, as they have done in years past.
On Tuesday, Jewish children are excused from public school classes and many Jewish adults take off from work. Following services, many hold large family gatherings with traditional meals that, in addition to the challeh and honeyed apples, include such symbolic foods as tsimmes (carrots and sweets), honey cake, taiglach (a walnut confection), fish, fruit and nuts.
According to Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashanah, God opens the book of life where each person's name is inscribed. For the next 10 days, the "Days of Awe," the faithful make amends for the previous year's sins and are directed to ask forgiveness from their neighbor before asking God's forgiveness. On the 10th day, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, each person's fate is decided for the next year, according to tradition, and the book of life is closed until next year.
Members of Reform Jewish congregations, like Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, observe Rosh Hashanah for one day;Orthodox and Conservative Jews for two days.
Once the High Holy Days are past, Gold wants to devote more energy to religious education, the youth group, and building up the congregation "not just in terms of numbers but in terms of communication -- people really being a community and not just belonging to the same organization."
Like the unpacked books, Gold's future plans are put aside for now. Polishing Monday's sermon and organizing a choir for the High Holy Days are preeminent. In a sense, Gold said, the upcoming holy day services will be her debut here, "so I have to make sure it's good."