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“I always think that she got under my skin without even knowing it,” says Rabbi Susan Talve ’74, ’14h, founder of the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, Missouri, about the bronze relief of the Rev. Olympia Brown, Class of 1863, that Talve passed each day as she entered Atwood Hall for her classes at St. Lawrence.
“Olympia Brown was one of the first women ordained as anything in America, and I remember looking at that bronze relief wondering who that person was,” says Talve, who, similar to Brown, was among the first female rabbis to be ordained in the United States in 1981. The connections to Brown go beyond their shared alma mater into their lifelong work in advocacy and social justice.
“She was pretty amazing,” says Talve. “She was ordained at St. Lawrence because no church would have her, and she had to fight for it—being a working mother—and demand the respect of being a preacher and a minister at a time when women were not accepted.” The truth is that even some at St. Lawrence were resistant to enrolling a woman in the Theological School, but because of its Universalist principles, could not refuse her right to pursue ministerial training. Brown went on to be a fierce advocate for women’s rights and one of the only original suffrage leaders to live to vote after the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Olympia Brown is one of the examples of how critical the founding principles of St. Lawrence have been to transcending the restrictions of the times and incubating changes in the social landscape of America over the past 170 years. For Susan Talve, the influence of Brown’s legacy would be revealed as her own career unfolded, and she remembers how she had a special affinity to that bronze tribute outside of Atwood Hall chapel.
“I loved that space,” says Talve, who grew up in New York City. “It felt very holy to me, and I didn’t always feel comfortable in Gunnison chapel because, even though it was wonderful and I loved the Christian community and the Catholic community, I was always looking for my space.”
“I started my studies in pre-med because I wanted to heal the broken heart of the world, but those required humanities classes at St. Lawrence got my attention and changed my path,” says Talve. While at St. Lawrence, she ended up dropping her pre-med aspirations in favor of world religions courses; started the first Jewish group on campus; became politically active in civil rights, anti-war protests, and women’s rights; and applied for grants to bring speakers such as Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug to campus. Rabbinical studies was not even on the radar, and when confronted with the idea of becoming a rabbi, Talve laughs and remembers saying, “No, the last thing I want to do is be a token in a patriarchal profession.”
It was the academic work and study-away courses, however, with professor such as Daniel O’Connor and Calvin Keene, where, as Talve told the audience of St. Lawrence graduates and families at the 2014 Commencement, “I learned that I could link the call of the prophets to present-day activism…that serious learning could provide a grounding for social activism and the pursuit of justice….With every class, I deepened in my Jewish identity, encouraged by my teacher and his rigorous demands. St. Lawrence gave me a safe place to have unsafe, radical ideas that have kept me standing on the shoulders of my teachers and hopefully become shoulders to challenge the next generation to do even better.”
Fast forward 35 years and Talve’s resume of social activism through her rabbinical work has remained unwavering from her undergraduate days. Her congregation persistently confronts the institutional racism that has plagued St. Louis for decades, and Talve has committed herself to combatting police brutality in Ferguson and other St. Louis neighborhoods as a priority.
“I remain on the front line of our local Black Lives Matter movement because this is my family,” says Talve. “We have an integrated synagogue, and if my sister’s kids are not safe on the streets, nobody’s kids are safe on the street.”
Talve also considers the global perspective which she feels is also rooted to her St. Lawrence experiences studying abroad in Israel, Italy, and Greece as an undergraduate. Her work includes partnering with other clergy to advocate for safety of Guatemalan asylum seekers and against human rights abuses of the Rohingya fleeing Burma.
“My main focus is local,” says Talve, “because this is my home and these are my children on the streets of our city. But sometimes, you have to step outside and bring the world home because the world is smaller and smaller, and I learned that at St. Lawrence.
“I had no idea that I would ever become a rabbi,” says Talve. “It wasn’t a paradigm I grew up with.” What she did grow up with, however, was the willingness to take risks, and with the passing of her youngest child in January 2018, Talve’s resolve has only been strengthened by her daughter’s lessons to live in and use the bodies we have while we have them.
“We were given these bodies in this life, and you’ve got to put your body on the front line if you really want to make a difference,” says Talve. “You have to show up and you have to stand in the breach, and you have to listen. She taught me that again and again. When I think about the work that I’ve been able to do, even though my heart is broken, I think that continuing to work on behalf of the people on the margins and make sure they have a place at the table and bring them to the middle of the circle is something she did, and I hope I always have the energy, the ability, and the creativity to do it.”
Olympia Brown would be proud.
Top image: Erected in 1955, Atwood Hall served as the second Theological School building for the Theological School at St. Lawrence University. Located in the Atwood Hall chapel is the Edson R. Miles Memorial Reredos, with symbols from many different faiths and cultures incorporated into the design including the Chinese symbol depicting “double joy,” the Sanskrit “OM” symbolizing Hinduism’s divine principle, the seven-branched menorah of Judaism, and the Lotus flower associated with the Buddhist doctrine expressing the human spirit, to name a few.