An Exclusive Interview with Schreiber Alum, Friend Of RBG, and Officiator Of Justice Ginsburg’s Funeral – Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt

Emily Milgrim, Editor In Chief

On Sept. 25, a week after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I had the honor of speaking with Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt: Schreiber class of ‘95 (then Lauren Thomas), a dear friend of Justice Ginsburg, and ultimately, the officiant of her funeral.   Her words and prayers were broadcast on national television and in national publications on Sept. 23 during Ginsburg’s funeral.   Rabbi Holtzblatt spoke again at the Capitol on Sept. 25 to eulogize Justice Ginsburg.   She recounted her journey from Schreiber to Washington, D.C., her path to becoming a rabbi, her friendship with RBG, and her role as officiator over the funeral of Justice Ginsburg’s in The Great Hall of The Supreme Court. 

“I focused more on her, her legacy, and her family, rather than a potential news fallout.   My job was to honor her.   I feel eternally grateful, even though we are heartbroken,” she said.

Rabbi Holtzblatt described fond memories of being a Schreiber Times photographer and photo editor, as well as the loving, tight-knit Schreiber community.   As a child, she came from an interfaith family and did not have a formal Jewish education.   However, she always had a connection to spirituality.   It was not until a rabbi from the Community Synagogue of Port Washington spoke for a Holocaust memorial at Schreiber that she thought of becoming a rabbi.   She was able to see herself in this Rabbi, a young woman with kids and a family.   Rabbi Holtzblatt went to Sarah Lawrence College where she fell in love with the study of Second Temple Judaism.   She studied abroad at Hebrew University in Israel while in college, graduated from Sarah Lawence, and then returned to the Holy Land to study at a yeshiva (an orthodox Jewish school) where she learned to love the Jewish calendar, the Talmud (books of post-biblical Jewish law), Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath), and more.   She worked as a religious school teacher upon return to New York, and continued her studies at a yeshiva to figure out how she wanted to expand her career horizons.   When she felt like she needed a broader Jewish experience, she applied to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the conservative movement rabbinical school.  

As a New Yorker, she first moved away for her husband, Ari, to attend Yale Law School and for her to work at the Yale Hillel (a Jewish campus organization).   After graduating from law school, Ari got a judicial clerkship in Washington, D.C., so they moved there to start their new life as a family with a young child.   It became very important to Rabbi Holtzblatt to accept a job that also allowed her to be an active parent.   Her first job at Adas Israel Congregation, a conservative Jewish synagogue in Washington, D.C., was as a lifelong learning teacher to adults, and, now, she is the Senior Rabbi at that synagogue. Since then, Rabbi Holtzblatt has been celebrated by the Forward as one of the 32 most inspiring rabbis in the country, named one of Jewish Women’s International’s (JWI) “Women to Watch,” and is a senior fellow of the Schusterman Fellowship, a leadership development program for individuals who are committed to growing their leadership in the Jewish community. 

It was at Adas Israel where she formed a connection with Justice Ginsburg and they became friends.   She recounted how they met through her husband when he clerked for Ginsburg in 2014, and how RBG’s roots from Poland and her love for Judaism, while she wasn’t observant, connected them spiritually.  

 “She was incredibly excited that her clerk’s wife was a Rabbi.   She was incredibly welcoming,” said Rabbi Holtzblatt.  

 At Adas Israel, Rabbi Holtzblatt saw Justice Ginsburg annually for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.   Later, Justice Ginsburg would ask Rabbi Holtzblatt to write a piece together about women in the Passover story, The Heroic and Visionary Women of Passover, which was published in 2015. 

“That piece solidified a relationship between us,” said  Rabbi Holtzblatt.  

As their relationship blossomed, “her hero,” Ginsburg, would call whenever visiting Israel, or when she had queries about the overlap between her Jewish life and profession.    As a female rabbi, Rabbi Holtzblatt found Ginsburg particularly inspiring because Ginsburg was born in the 1930’s and had a vision of what she could do with her life even though it wasn’t being supported by the outside world.   This is an “eternal lesson” for Rabbi Holtzblatt.   Rabbi Holtzblatt also discussed how she was forever grateful for Justice Ginsburg’s expansion of the 14th Amendment.  

“The difficulties in Ginburg’s life didn’t prevent her from rising and she didn’t despair—just as Judaism teaches,” said  Rabbi Holtzblatt.   

 Rabbi Holtzblatt learned that Ginsburg died at the same time everyone else did—only in her case it was while leading Rosh Hashanah services.   Shortly after, the Supreme Court notified Rabbi Holtzblatt that Ginsburg wished for her to preside over her funeral.   Living in D.C., and as the wife of a lawyer, she became a “news junkie,” naturally.   But, Rabbi Holtzblatt shut off all news this week and devoted her time to “being in the story of Justice Ginsburg.”  There were not many people in the room for the funeral itself, she recalled, due to both COVID-19 and national security.   This small group of attendees allowed her to speak to Ginsburg’s family, connect to the casket and Ginsburg’s soul.   Rabbi Holtzblatt was grateful that there was this barrier of security and COVID-19 precautions so she could be present in the moment.   It was Rabbi Holtzblatt’s honor of a lifetime to serve Ginsburg in this way. 

  Presiding over this funeral also represented the integration of being both American and a Jew for Rabbi Holtzblatt.   

“Sometimes this identity is hidden,” she said.  “But it was remarkable because she gave me the opportunity to bring Judaism to the Great Hall.   By asking me to serve in this way, that’s what she was asking for.   It was a watershed moment of the public integration of the American and Jewish stories,” said Rabbi Holtzblatt.