With “Wonder Woman” a knockout hit in theaters, stories of strong women have been circulating more than ever, but Rabbi Carolyn Braun can claim that distinction quite literally.
On March 11, the 60-year-old spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Portland, Maine, competed in her state’s first-ever all-women’s sanctioned powerlifting competition at the Dyna Maxx Training Systems gym in Westbrook, lifting a combined total of almost 600 pounds over three events.
It was another precedent-setting moment for the state’s first female Conservative rabbi.
Braun, who truly lives up to her name, has been lifting spirits at her synagogue for over 20 years. Now, she can add the squat, bench press, and deadlift to her repertoire.
“The hardest lift is the squat for me,” Braun, one of 18 participants in the historic meet, said in a Skype interview. “I had worked on it, and achieved my goals. It was pretty intense and very cool. I was thrilled. I put my mind on it.”
She said that on the bench press, she “had not actually achieved what I wanted to,” but “it was not bad.”
The deadlift proved to be the biggest thorn in her side. She missed her final attempt, which would have been 248 pounds. The crowd of 75 was “screaming at me” in support, she recalled.
“I’m 4’9, maybe 4’10,” she said. “When you do it, it’s so fun, so quick. It’s not like running or swimming, bicycling, other sports.”
Braun described her mindset on the deadlift as “a no-mind state. You try to just block [things out], press down at your heels, stick your hips out, [focus on] form. Try not to think how heavy the thing is.”
While 248 pounds might have been too heavy to deadlift that day, she said, “It’s something to work towards. You pick a goal, something you’re working towards.”
‘It’s something to work towards. You pick a goal, something you’re working towards’
Braun has achieved her share of milestones over the decades, in the synagogue and at the gym.
Not only was she the first female in Maine to receive Conservative ordination, she was a member of the first class at the Jewish Theological Seminary in which women were admitted.
In recent years, she has taken her weightlifting hobby to the competitive level. At Dyna Maxx, she works out with owner and trainer Matt Israelson. There she steps out from the temple on Shabbat morning to pump iron, taking her kiddush and hamotzi to go.
Usually, she is the oldest person competing, she said, although this was not the case on March 11. She described her fellow participants in the all-female meet as “wonderful,” and the atmosphere as encouraging.
Fitness has long been a part of Braun’s life. She used to run — although she calls it a “dumb idea” that led to bad knees. She said she first began lifting weights for health reasons.
Almost two decades ago, she started working out with Israelson, who was a member of six US powerlifting teams and a two-time world champion.
In the beginning, “we just did general fitness, strength training,” Israelson said.
In more recent years, Braun transitioned to powerlifting. “I said, ‘Why don’t you try this? You’re pretty strong,’” Israelson recalled.
She began trying it, but did not initially want to compete. However, Israelson said, that gradually changed, and she started competing “in earnest.” And when he announced the women’s-only meet, he recalled, “She was all for it.”
For Braun, the competition is internal. “You’re not really competing,” she said. “It’s more with yourself. What’s so great about the sport is everybody’s real supportive.” That includes Israelson, whom she calls “a coach and friend.”
She compared her rapport with her trainer to that with her hair stylist. “You’re a guy, I don’t know if haircuts [for men are similar],” she told this reporter. “But with women, with our hair dresser, we’re always sitting there an hour, talking about this, that and the other thing. It’s similar with weight lifting, at least for me. He’s a really funny guy, really talented… he’s great, really, really encouraging.”
And, she said, “He has a lot of women clients because he kind of believes in people.”
She trains at Dyna Maxx four times a week. Israelson said she’s getting even better.
“Her bench press was her strong lift for a while,” he said. “I think she’s become pretty balanced. She’s pretty good on all three. I think she’s still on her way up.”
Israelson, whose father is Jewish, said that Braun is the only rabbi he has worked with as a trainer.
Determined to be a Conservative rabbi
As Braun’s spiritual career path shows, she has the courage to be unique in other ways as well.
‘I knew when I was 10 years old that I wanted to be a rabbi’
Braun grew up in California in a family she described as “non-religious.” But, she said, “I knew when I was 10 years old that I wanted to be a rabbi.”
She graduated from college in 1979 but could not immediately pursue a rabbinical career, as JTS did not admit Conservative female candidates at the time. For her, what was important was “not just being a rabbi, [but] a Conservative rabbi,” she said.
After working for the Hillel Foundation at MIT for two years and studying in Israel for one, she got a chance to realize her dream in 1984, when JTS voted to admit women to its rabbinical school.
Through the seminary, she worked with cancer patients as a chaplain at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital. It was “really intense,” she said. She also worked as a chaplain in the federal prison system, where she met “very interesting people” — including the late Mafia boss John Gotti, whom she described as a “very nice guy” — and handed out rosaries to female inmates who wanted them.
“They’d say, ‘Thank you, Sister. Can you explain [what this is]?’” Braun recalled. “I’d say, ‘I have no idea. I’m studying to be a rabbi.’ They’d say, ‘Oh, a rabbi, how interesting.’”
“I did a lot for interfaith knowledge,” she laughed.
After graduating from JTS in 1988, she assisted with a different kind of interfaith outreach: a kosher-halal kitchen at Mount Holyoke College, where she was the western Massachusetts women’s school’s first rabbi and its first full-time Jewish chaplain.
‘I kind of became the director of the Muslim Student Union as well as the Jewish Student Union. It was great’
“I kind of became the director of the Muslim Student Union as well as the Jewish Student Union,” she said. “It was great.”
Muslim and Jewish students shared meals and listened to weekly speakers.
“They were really great women, and so interesting,” Braun said of the students. “[Muslim] women did not want to go to Arabic school any more than ours want to go to Hebrew school. We would study Koran and Torah together. It was terrific.”
After six years at Mount Holyoke, Braun felt ready to transition to a synagogue.
“I had worked in prisons, hospitals, Hillel, college campuses,” she said. “I had met good people.” Now, it was time to “put everything together.”
From campus to congregation
In 1995, Braun achieved another milestone when she was hired by Temple Beth El, which became the largest Conservative synagogue in the US with a female leader.
Braun has helped with efforts toward inclusion at Beth El and beyond. In 2007, the temple pioneered an amendment in which members of interfaith families were recognized as equal members of the synagogue.
“I tease [that] I assume everyone is Jewish till proven otherwise,” she said.
She also assisted with a statewide call for same-sex marriage in 2009.
“We’ve always had gay, lesbian, LGBTQ [people], all people who feel [like] outsiders,” she said, adding that recognizing “other people who feel outside” is “something important to me.”
‘Our job is sort of like Isaiah. Help the oppressed, clothe the needy, that kind of thing’
One of her current projects is helping asylum seekers.
“There are a lot of asylees in Portland,” she said. “We’re helping them to navigate the system. We do a lot of immigrant work. Our job is sort of like Isaiah, ‘help the oppressed, clothe the needy,’ that kind of thing.”
The past few months have been bittersweet for Braun.
After taking a sabbatical in November, during which time she received an honorary doctorate of divinity from JTS, she returned to Beth El in March. Just one month later, her father died.
“[He came] to my very first [powerlifting meet], two years ago,” she said. “He loved it. It was huge… He thought it was pretty cool.”
In recent weeks, Braun has been back in the gym. A video posted on May 13, two months after the all-women’s meet, shows her lifting 300 pounds.
“Why powerlifting?” she asked. “Why not bike riding, something very individual, no competition? Somebody told me that anything can happen at any time, 9,000 things. In powerlifting, you have to be very centered, very balanced. Somebody’s helping you do that… It balances my life incredibly.”