The new spiritual leader at Chattanooga's B'nai Zion Congregation says most people who think of a rabbi conjure up a man, probably on the older side, and quite possibly with a beard.

Rabbi Susan Tendler checks off none of those boxes.

The Woodbridge, Va., native starts Wednesday as the new rabbi for the Brainerd congregation. She is the first woman to serve as rabbi at any of Chattanooga's three Jewish congregations.

"Many times, I've been the first to do whatever it is, to open doors," Tendler said. "I'm proud to be the first. I'm happy to be here."

She comes to Chattanooga from Congregation

Beth El in Norfolk, Va., where she was rabbi for education and programming, then senior rabbi.

Michael Dzik, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga and chairman of the B'nai Zion rabbi search committee, said the hiring is "a big deal."

"What we were looking for was the right rabbi," he said. "We feel like we've made an informed, educational decision. We knew what we were looking for."

Dzik said the search committee considered recent graduates of rabbinical school and experienced rabbis.

"She was the best fit for us," he said. "There was something about her that was special."

Tendler, who had also served as an assistant rabbi at Beth David Synagogue in Greensboro, N.C., and completed a two-year fellowship at the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, said she was "ready to do something a little bit different, something a little bit more challenging."

Tendler is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where she majored in religious studies with a focus on Islam and a minor in Judaism.

En route to the rabbinate, she studied for a semester at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and a year and a half in Israel before rabbinical school. She then spent five years (including a year in Israel) studying through the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Israel, she said, is a place her soul "craves" to be.

Irv Ginsburg, president of B'nai Zion, said he appreciates that Tendler is both young and experienced.

"In meeting with her," he said, "we have heard so many exciting ideas that we haven't even thought about. She'll have an exciting orientation to the congregation."

Ginsburg said Tendler also brings experience with older congregants and younger families, two populations any house of worship wants to cultivate.

"That's an important attribute," he said.

Dzik said Tendler seemed to be the right fit from the first.

"From the moment we met her," he said, "she seemed warm and caring and had a good heart. It was one of those intangible things. She felt like family already, and I think it was mutual."

While Tendler was ready for a new challenge, she said her longtime friends, B'nai Zion director of congregational learning Jason Cathcart, and his wife, Vicki, made it seem there was no other place to be than Chattanooga.

"They way they speak about this community ... is intriguing," she said, referring both to the city's Jewish community and to the wider community. "It has a reputation as a true community that's both inviting and hospitable. The question really became, 'Who wouldn't want to be moving to Chattanooga?'"

Tendler and her husband, Ross Sadoff, a certified financial planner, have two children, Hannah Sofia, 2, and Daniella Simcha, 6 months.

"We feel like this can be something long-term, that it can be a mutual success for the congregation and for her," Dzik said.