Here I am receiving my diploma from Dr. David Ellenson, President of HUC, and my hood from Rabbi Shirley Idelson, Dean of the New York school. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, is on the right.
It is reading week, and the end of the school year is just days away! The last week of class was marked by the two events pictured here: graduation and my senior sermon. Graduation is the ceremony at which I received my Master of Arts in Hebrew Literature, along with my rabbinical school classmates. My cantorial classmates received Master of Sacred Music degrees, and other classmates received Master of Arts in Religious Education degrees. This, of course, raises a question which I have yet to be able to answer: why, if ordination is not until the end of our 5th year of studies do we "graduate" in the 4th year?
The answer–as far as I know–is that the masters' degree is awarded after the completion of the required core curriculum for rabbinical students. In New York this used to be after the 3rd year of studies (as is the case at our LA campus). Some required courses, however, were moved into the 4th year of studies, so the master's degree is awarded at the conclusion of that year.
I was more excited for the ceremony than I expected to be. After all, ordination is still a year away. Somehow putting on the black robe, marching in with my classmates, and being called up to receive my diploma felt important. It was an accomplishment worth celebrating. As you can see from the picture, it was a joyous moment. I couldn't stop smiling!
Here I am answering questions and responding to comments about the sermon at the student and faculty discussion which follows every senior sermon
The next day I delivered my senior sermon which was scheduled–by coincidence–the day after graduation and the last day of classes. I was so happy to have my family with me: my husband, children, mother, mother-in-law, and two cousins (one of whom came to New York for the day from Baltimore!). Writing the senior sermon–which is required of all rabbinical students in their 4th year of studies–is a process which begins three months prior to when the sermon is given. Actually, it begins at the end of 3rd year, when each rabbinical student is asked to fill out a form indicating three faculty members she/he would like to have as a sermon adviser. Just after the end of 3rd year we are told who our adviser will be. Three months prior to when the sermon is given we meet with our adviser and begin writing the first of many drafts!
Dr. Eugene Borowitz, my adviser, provided feedback through several revisions of the sermon. Sandy Kazan, our Speech instructor, met with me three times: twice before I gave the sermon, and once after to look at the DVD (each sermon is recorded). This process–along with the required homiletics class I took this semester–has made me much more aware of what goes into writing and delivering a good sermon.
The senior sermon is given at a Thursday morning worship service in the beautiful HUC chapel. After services, the community gathers over lunch to comment on the sermon, in a discussion led by the darshan. Both students and faculty respond to the issues raised in the sermon, and have a chance to question the darshan about the process of writing and delivering the sermon.
This summer I will begin work on my thesis and enjoy some time with my family and friends. It's hard to believe that there is only one year left of school! I hope that my blog has been helpful to those of you who are considering rabbinical school, especially as a second career.
Posted by Stephanie at 2:11 PM
Here I am, leading T'filat HaDerech, which The Tribe gathers to say at the beginning of the riding season
May it be Your will, our God and God of our ancestors,
This prayer is called T'filat Haderech, literally "the prayer of the way." It is said upon setting out on a journey. Dr. Eli Schleifer, cantorial professor at HUC in Jerusalem, said this prayer with those of us who were preparing to leave Israel during our Sukkot break during our first year of school. I had never seen the prayer before, and was touched both by Cantor Schleifer's concern for our safety and well-being during our travels, as well as by the language of the prayer itself.
That You lead us in peace and help us reach our destination
Safely, joyfully and peacefully.
May You protect us on our leaving and on our return,
And rescue us from any harm,
And may You bless the work of our hands,
And may our deeds merit honor for You.
Praise to You, Adonai, Protector of Israel.
(From Mishkan T'filah)
Recently I was asked to lead T'filat Haderech for the Tribe motorcycle club (Ha Shevet), which is the Washington, D.C. area affiliate of the Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance. My husband, Henry, is a founding member and treasurer of the club. Of course, as a rabbinical student, many experiences that I have are "new," but this was one of the most unusual! The Tribe provides its members with an opportunity to share their love of riding with other Jews. One of the important things I have learned in rabbinical school is that---although the synagogue plays a vital role in the American Jewish community---there is a rich Jewish life which exists outside synagogue walls.
T'filat Haderech seems a particularly appropriate prayer as the end of the school year approaches, and along with it, Pesach. This year, for the first time, I will be leading a congregational Seder on the second night of Passover at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, my student pulpit. These Seders provide a way for synagogue members to celebrate Passover with each other, and for those who may not have been able to attend a Seder on the first night of the holiday to do so.
The logo of The Tribe, the DC area branch of the Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance
In addition to getting ready for my April visit to the student pulpit, I am preparing for the end of the semester. Most of my classes this year have been electives, which-for the most part---do not have exams. This means that I probably took the last final exam of my rabbinical school career at the end of last semester. I can't say that I will miss exams. Instead, most elective classes require a final paper. Many professors allow students to choose from a variety of topics for final papers. This is a wonderful way to explore areas in which we are interested and to develop knowledge in new areas.
My final paper for the course on Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer, which I took last semester, is a good example. Our assignment for the paper was to analyze the text of one of the chapters of Pirkei, an 8th- 9th century midrashic work. We were also asked to compare the chapter to a similar narrative in the genre of Islamic literature called Hadith. I chose a chapter about Joseph's sojourn in Egypt, and found a parallel narrative in Hadith work Tales of the Prophets. One of the things I value most about my education at HUC is that we are learn how Judaism has developed in relation to the variety of cultures and peoples among whom Jews have lived since we emerged as a people. We did not develop in isolation, something which has strengthened us enormously as we have learned from the different cultures around us.
As we celebrate this Z'man Heirateinu (season of our freedom), I wish you a sweet and joyous Pesach, surrounded by family and friends.
Posted by Stephanie at 2:26 PM
My daughter Sara and I in her apartment in Evanstan, IL
They arrive wearing black---sometimes gray, maybe even brown---suits. They sit, uneasily, in the waiting area under the skylight on the fourth floor, where the HUC administrative offices are located. They appear in the library, where they will take the Hebrew competency exam. They are prospective students, applying for admission to the HUC rabbinical class which will leave for Israel in just a few months. This is the first group of prospective students since I have been at HUC who I will not get to know. When they return from their year in Israel, I will be done with school!
It's hard to believe that it has been four years since I was one of the dark-suited ones, and that in a few months it will be four years since I left for Israel. I can still remember the anxiety I felt on the day I had my admissions interview and took the Hebrew exam.
Spring is a time of renewal, of looking ahead to better weather, to Purim and Pesach, and to the last year of rabbinical school. This semester, for the first time since I began rabbinical school, my course load is such that I actually have time to reflect instead of filling every spare moment with work. This is primarily because my required courses, except for Speech and Homiletics, are over.
During the 4th and 5th years of the rabbinical program we take mostly elective courses. There are still requirements: students must take one elective in each of seven areas, and a significant percentage of elective credits must be in Hebrew text-based courses. But the freedom to choose, within those requirements, and to study in small groups with faculty, is a pleasure. This semester I am taking two Talmud-based courses. One is a chevruta (pair) study in which we are looking at the Talmudic concept of tikun olam, which is quite different from how we have come to think of it. Our professor, Dr. Michael Chernick, moves around the class, asking and answering questions, pointing us to commentaries on the Talmudic page, in order to help us make sense of the text.
One of the texts from the Babylonian Talmud I am studying this semester, along with my notes
My other Talmud-based class is "Twelve Tremendous Texts," which uses texts from the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, some of which touch on key issues which confront the Jewish world and Reform leadership today. These include issues regarding the individual and the community, truth telling, miracles and the rabbinic establishment, and defining leadership. This class, in which I am one of three students, is taught by Dr. Aaron Panken, a vice president of HUC and former dean of the New York school.
In addition to this semester's course work I am writing my senior sermon. This sermon is given during the 4th year of the rabbinical program during a Thursday morning service. Students typically begin working on the sermon three months prior to when it will be delivered, working one-on- one with a faculty advisor who has been assigned to them. I am fortunate to have Dr. Eugene Borowitz as my faculty advisor. Dr. Borowitz has been helping me to find my "voice" in the verse from Kedoshim on which I have chosen to focus.
A few weeks ago I was able to take a weekend in order to visit my daughter, Sara, who is a graduate student at Northwestern University in Evanston. Sara is in the third year of a PhD program in Human Development and Social Policy, and will begin working on her dissertation during the coming year.
I am looking forward to my student pulpit visits this spring at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation (NVHC) in Reston, Virginia. In April I will lead a second-night Seder and in May I will help coordinate the congregation's programming in honor of Israel's 60th year of independence. In early April I will represent NVHC at a "Trialogue," an on-going interfaith initiative in which NVHC is engaged as a partner with an Islamic center and a Catholic church. I will be speaking, as will representatives from the Islamic center and the church, on Abraham in our faith traditions. This is a wonderful opportunity for me to be involved in interfaith work, which I hope will be an important part of my rabbinate.
Posted by Stephanie at 1:49 PM
Here I am with Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk and Cantor Irena Altshul after Shabbat services at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation
I am beginning to realize that in the not too distant future I will be joining a different profession, that I will be checking a new "box" on those forms which ask for my occupation. For twenty three years I checked the box that said "health care," "mental health" or "other" on forms which asked for my occupation. A year from May---God willing---I'll be checking the box that says "clergy."
This occupational category, of course , includes more than just rabbis and cantors. I will become part of a community of people of all faiths who have decided to dedicate their professional lives to serving God. Although we come from different religious backgrounds we have much in common.
I first became aware of the importance of this community of clergy in the summer of 2006, when I served as a chaplain at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. My experience at Sibley---learning how to be a hospital chaplain---is part of the training in many seminaries of all faiths. The program is called Clinical Pastoral Education, and provides on the job, supervised chaplaincy training to seminary students. In my group of six at Sibley we had students training to be Methodist and United Church of Christ ministers, Episcopal priests, and one who was already ordained as a Seventh Day Adventist minister. I was the only Jewish student.
Of the six chaplains five were second career students, so we formed an especially close bond. We remain in touch with each other, although geographic distance is beginning to separate us. There have been many unanticipated "gifts" since I have been in rabbinical school. The gift of wonderful colleagues of other faiths was not one that I would have foreseen.
Reverend Steven Masters, Reverend Vicki Kemper, Reverend Jan Cope and me at the recent ordination of Vicki Kemper
In the past year two of my colleagues from chaplaincy training have been ordained. In June I attended the ceremony at the National Cathedral in which Jan Cope was ordained a Deacon in the Episcopal Church. Just a few weeks ago I attended the service in which Vicki Kemper was ordained a minister in the United Church of Christ. Both Jan and Vicki are serving pulpits: Jan in Washington, D.C., and Vicki in Amherst, Massachusetts. Another colleague, the Reverend Steven Masters, is the Pastor of the Axton Charge, serving three small Methodist churches in southwestern Virginia.
At both Jan and Vicki's ordination ceremonies I had the experience of receiving a blessing from them. As I stood in line with those waiting to receive communion or a blessing from my newly ordained friends, I was filled with joy and excitement for them. To have a friend who is clergy give you a blessing is a touching and moving experience. Both Jan and Vicki blessed me with the Priestly Benediction from Numbers 6: 24-26:
"May God bless you and keep you.
At Jan's ordination I had not thought to bring Kleenex with me when I walked up to
receive her blessing. By the time Vicki's ordination occurred, I learned from my mistake! I bowed my head and Vicki began the words of the benediction, prefacing them with my name. I don't remember which one of us began to cry first, but after the first words of the blessing the rest went unsaid, as we were both crying.
May God's light shine upon you, and may God be gracious to you.
May you feel God's Presence within you always, and may you find
I receive support, wisdom, and encouragement from the clergy at my student pulpit, Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation (NVHC) in Reston, Virginia. I am supervised by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, who was ordained by HUC in 2001. Rabbi Nosanchuk offers the perspective of someone who studied in the same program as mine and with many of the same professors. From Rabbi Nosanchuk I am learning the fine points of being a congregational rabbi and receiving guidance about the rabbi's role in the myriad of situations with which rabbis are confronted. I learn from observing Rabbi Nosanchuk as he leads services and interacts with congregants and staff members. Cantor Irena Altshul has helped my understanding of my role as a shliach tzibur (worship leader) and has welcomed me graciously to the NVHC bimah.
Belonging to a community of clergy has become an important part of my experience during my years in rabbinical school and is helping me build a group of supportive colleagues to whom I can turn both now and in the future.
Posted by Stephanie at 9:50 AM
My husband, Henry, and our son, Joe, in San Francisco on New Year's Eve day
Classes have just resumed after a three and a half week much-needed break.
It's hard to believe that there is only a year and a half left of school. Four years ago when I was accepted into the rabbinical program at HUC and began the preparations for moving to Israel, my fourth and fifth years of studies seemed far away.
Because school and my pulpit command so much time and attention, my weekends at home in DC are precious, as are vacations. During the weekends I am able to spend time with my husband, Henry, as well as with my friends. Having Shabbat at home is especially important to me. As you can see in the photo, our dog, Stella, enjoys Shabbat as well--- although in her case this has to do with the fact that she gets challah after the Motzi. She knows the Shabbat blessings in the proper order, and often does not get up from her perch on the couch until she actually hears the words of the Motzi!
During winter break I had the special treat of having my children Sara and Joe at home for a week. In late December Henry and I went to visit Joe in San Francisco, where he works as a writer. Now there are only two students in our family, since Joe graduated from college in June. Sara is a PhD student at Northwestern University.
This semester I will continue to teach Introduction to Judaism--- one of the most rewarding experiences I have had during my time at HUC. This class, sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), is offered all over the country for people who are considering or are in the process of conversion. Students taking the class may be in a relationship with or engaged to someone who is Jewish and want to have a Jewish home, whether or not they will convert to Judaism. The course is 20 weeks long and covers such topics as: Jewish history, Jewish views of God, Jewish liturgy, life cycle events, Zionism, modern Israel, the Holocaust, Jewish beliefs, mitzvot, and Jewish holidays. The New York Council of the URJ, under whose auspices I teach the course, has added introductory Hebrew to the curriculum as well.
Stella, my Labrador, enjoys Shabbat...and gets ready to eat challah
Introduction to Judaism teachers are asked to cover the topics listed above, and we create our own lesson plans for each class. This is the third year I have taught the course, and I have added ideas from the lesson plans of my fellow teachers as well as making modifications to my original plans based on what has worked and what has not worked in the classroom.
Most rabbis spend a good deal of time teaching, so rabbinical students have a required course on education during our second year of school. HUC also trains Jewish educators--- which you know if you've been reading the other blogs---at its New York and LA campuses. Education courses are open to rabbinical students as well. Last semester I took an education course called "Teaching Bible to Adult Learners," which provided me with lots of ideas for how I can improve my teaching. The final project for that class was a detailed lesson plan for a three-session course on a theme or issue in Hebrew Bible.
One of the many pleasant surprises that I have had during my time at HUC is that I truly love teaching! Through the Introduction to Judaism class and the teaching I am doing at my pulpit I have discovered that I thoroughly enjoy sharing my love for Judaism with others. My professors at HUC provide inspiration for me as I perfect my skills as a teacher, through their passion for what they teach as well as in their support and encouragement of me as a future rabbi.
Posted by Stephanie at 8:53 AM
Here I am with my study group in the library, hard at work preparing for our Codes final.
OK...it's that time of the semester. The time when there seems to be much more to do than there is time in which to do it. The time when I look back longingly on the days when I worked, came home from work, visited with my family, cooked dinner, ate dinner, played with the dog, read the paper, read a book and talked with friends on the phone. Although the end of the semester always involves papers and final exams, this year is the first year that I've had a student pulpit, and that has dramatically altered my work load.
The third year of rabbinical school has a reputation as being the most demanding, with courses in Talmud, Modern Jewish Literature, Liturgy, Medieval Jewish Philosophy, Modern Jewish Philosophy, Bible, and Jewish History. Rabbinical students are required to have a student pulpit at a congregation affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism. The requirement can be fulfilled by either one year of a twice monthly pulpit or two years of a monthly pulpit; both options can be fulfilled only during the academic year. So, I decided that I would wait to begin my pulpit requirement until this---my fourth---year.
This seemed like a good decision last year, as I watched my classmates–most of whom began their student pulpits in our third year---drag themselves to class on the Monday mornings after they had returned from their student pulpits. Many of the pulpits are in areas which are underserved by Jewish professionals and are at congregations which cannot afford a full time rabbi. Students often travel for much of Friday by plane, train, and car in order to get to their pulpits in time for Shabbat. They stay through mid-day on Sunday and then head back to New York.
Brandeis may have the most alumni at HUC, but Michigan is well represented. Here I am with fellow rabbinical students and Wolverines Adam Rosenwasser and Andrew Goodman and cantorial student Josh Breitzer. Missing are rabbinical students Andrew Gordon and Tom Gardner. GO BLUE!!!
I am fortunate in that my student pulpit is at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston, Virginia, which is a twenty minute drive from my home in Bethesda, Maryland. Yes, I am a commuter student. I live in Bethesda, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and commute to HUC's New York campus. During the academic year I take the train to New York on Sunday nights and return home on Thursday evenings.
So, in addition to studying for exams and writing final papers I am preparing for my December weekend at the pulpit. This involves writing a sermon for the Friday night service, preparing and leading the Friday night service, teaching Torah study on Shabbat morning, leading the Shabbat morning service, reading Torah at the Shabbat service and meeting with three students who are preparing for their b'nei mitzvah. On the same weekend at the pulpit I will teach a class called "Entering the Mishkan," which will use the new prayer book of the Reform movement, Mishkan Tefilah, as the core of an adult education course which will focus on the main sections of the liturgy. This month's class will cover the Shema and the prayers which surround it.
The beauty of this is that I am actually getting to do what rabbis do! I am finding out what it is like to do quite a bit of teaching (I like it!), to write and give sermons, to work with other members of the synagogue staff to plan and carry out programs and---most importantly---to share my passion for Judaism with others. I am able to use what I am learning in school. During my October weekend at the pulpit, for example, I was able to use a paper on God and evil in Jewish tradition which I had written for my Modern Jewish Philosophy class to create a family education program for 7th graders and their families on God, evil, and the Holocaust. Another positive aspect of having a pulpit during the academic year is that I am able to get feedback not only from my rabbinic supervisor at the pulpit, but from my classmates in the group supervision course in which we are all required to participate.
The down side? You guessed it...all of my regular work still must get done! I have become a pro at squeezing work into every spare minute, and this includes the six plus hours I spend on Amtrak each week. Not a minute is wasted (OK, one or two). The down side? Less time to spend with family and friends, all of whom have been amazingly understanding, and who look forward---as do I---to a life after school!
Posted by Stephanie at 9:50 AM
I'm an opportunist, and I'll be the first to admit it. One of the advantages of being a second-career student is that one is eligible for a variety of discounts. There is AARP, for example, as well as the Student Advantage card. There are also discounts available just for showing one's student ID. Because of the burgeoning baby-boomer population, however, the AARP discount is not what it used to be. Although the AARP mysteriously finds you just before your 50th birthday to congratulate you on this "milestone" and to welcome you to the ranks of "active seniors," many AARP discounts are not available until you turn 62 or even 65. Fortunately, in my case, the Student Advantage card is filling the gap.
The various ID cards pictured here symbolize how my life feels these days: hectic, full, stimulating, and sometimes confusing. At school I am a fourth year rabbinical student, in class for almost 17 hours each week. This does not include at least two hours a week of group text study and preparation time, nor does it include the hours spent outside of class on required work for each class. As the other picture which accompanies this entry shows, students do have time for "lunch," but this is often a hurried 30 minutes on the lower level of the HUC building...a space without windows!
At my pulpit I am "Student Rabbi Bernstein." The summer before last, working in a hospital, I was "Chaplain." Of course I am still wife, mother and friend. Add to this the confusion resulting from a career change and you begin to get the picture. In my first career I was a clinical social worker, doing psychotherapy for 23 years. It's only recently that I've started to feel like I am becoming a rabbi.
4th year rabbinical students enjoying lunch in the student "lounge"
I had my first overt brush with Occupational Identity Confusion (O.I.C. ---I've coined a diagnosis for second-career students) the summer I worked as a chaplain. One day I visited with a patient on my unit who was a retired social worker. When I went to the next room to visit another patient I introduced myself as the unit social worker, rather than the unit chaplain! That summer was the first time I had an inkling of what my new career would be like. When I walked into a patient's room and introduced myself as the chaplain my role was clear. I was there to talk with patients who so desired about how their faith tradition was helping them cope–or not–with a difficult situation. I was there to pray with them. I was there to give patients and their families permission to bring G-d's presence---in whatever way they understood that---into the hospital room. Although my skills as a social worker were valuable, they were not sufficient. None of my patients had ever talked with me about G-d.
Having a student pulpit provides a glimpse of what I hope awaits me a year from this May, after I am ordained. When I began rabbinical school I wondered what I could possibly have to say to a sanctuary full of people, but now I find that I enjoy both writing and giving sermons. Although I wasn't sure how I would feel about leading worship services because I had no experience doing so, I have begun to find this a satisfying experience as well.
During a class I was teaching during my first weekend at the student pulpit I was aware that the new bimah shoes I had bought (practical but not dowdy looking!) were quite comfortable. I realized that it was not only the shoes that were comfortable---I felt comfortable in what I was doing. In my former line of work we refer to behavior or feelings which reflect who we truly are as being ego- syntonic. Although being a psychotherapist was satisfying work which allowed me help people struggling with a variety of problems, it didn't speak to my Jewish soul.
I am often asked what it's like to go to school with people who are young enough to be my children. Although we come from different generations, we share something important. In the words of one of my younger classmates, we are all Jewish nerds. I am with my own kind...what could be better?
Posted by Stephanie at 9:05 AM
"I've Got You Under my Skin"
My mother, Rosalind, and I in Jerusalem, July 2007
I'm standing in front of a passport control officer in Tel Aviv, bleary-eyed after the flight from Newark. She wants to know why I have a student visa--- a remnant of my first year at HUC--- in my passport. My mother, on her first trip to Israel, is standing next to me. I have warned her about not joking with the El Al security personnel in Newark and about not being too chatty with the passport control agents at Ben Gurion. I am about to disregard my own advice. The dialogue proceeds as follows:
My interaction with the stern El Al security agent in Newark was no less surprising to my mother. He asked about the student visa. I told him that I was studying at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. He smiled broadly and replied that his father-in-law had been a professor there for many years. I had studied with his father-in-law during my year in Israel! I asked about my teacher's health and about Leon (the wonderful family dog which–sadly--- had died). The "interview" ended with the agent giving me his father-in-law's home phone number in Israel.
|Passport control agent:||"Why do you have a student visa in your passport?"
|Me: (in Hebrew)||"I studied for a year in Jerusalem."
|Agent: (in Hebrew)||"What were you studying?"
|Me: (here we go)||"I'm studying to be a Rav Reformit. (Reform Rabbi)
|Agent: (looking shocked):||"Lo, Rav Reformit. Rabbanit! (a rabbi's wife)
|Me: (taking a stand):||"Lo Rabbanit, Rav Reformit!!"
These encounters reminded me of the Talmudic passage (Eruvin, 13b) in which a Bat Kol (voice from heaven) responds to a dispute between the Houses of Shammai and Hillel over how a law should be decided: "Both these and these are the words of the living God, but the law is in accordance with the rulings of the House of Hillel." Both these and these are modern Israel: shock that a woman can be a rabbi as well as the valiant presence of the Reform movement in an environment which is far from hospitable. Both these and these...my young Israeli friends who wish they could be married by a Reform rabbi in Israel, but who endured a series of meetings---the groom with a rabbi and the bride with a rebbestin--- in which they were lectured about the appropriate roles for husband and wife so that their marriage could be sanctioned by the Rabbanut, the government agency which governs religious life in Israel. How can such disparate world views be reconciled? It is clear from the Talmud that whatever the outcome, it must not fracture Am Yisrael. Because of the year I spent in Israel these kinds of issues---and many others--- have left the realm of dispassionate reflection and taken up residence in my kishkas.
Sima, my Hebrew teacher, and I in Jerusalem, July 2007
In Israel I learned about myself from the people who came into my life there. Sima, the teacher with whom I logged the most classroom hours, taught me more than Hebrew. She showed me that one of my personality traits could be getting in my way as a student. In a class where we discussed verbs with four-letter roots (thankfully a minority in a language of mostly three-letter roots), I was looking for a complicated grammatical point where none existed. (In my defense, the class was conducted entirely in Hebrew, so I probably missed the subtleties.) When I spoke to Sima later about my confusion and frustration, she noted that I sometimes make things more complicated than they need to be. (Not a surprise to those who know me well!) She suggested a phrase which–knowing my prior career as a psychotherapist---she could use in the future when she saw this tendency rearing its complicated head: "Stephanie, lifamim segar rak segar!" (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar).
Israel is the place where I began my formal journey to become a rabbi. It is the place where I faced, for the first time, what it means to be a Reform Jew in a Jewish world which includes---and some would say is being increasingly dominated by---Jews who do not look like me, think like me, or believe what I do about Judaism (and some of whom question my authenticity as a Jew let alone as a future rabbi). Israel forces me to confront who I am as a Jew, as a woman, as a human being. Israel is under my skin.
Posted by Stephanie at 2:20 PM
Kutz Camp, NFTY National Leadership Institute, circa. 1968. I am in the second row from the top wearing a 'Duluth East' tee shirt.
I'm going to address what another second career rabbinical student calls "The Question" at the start of this entry, so you won't have to scroll all the way down if you don't feel like reading the rest. "The Question" is: "Why would a relatively sane person in her 50's with a perfectly rewarding professional and personal life decide to go to rabbinical school?" A clue can be found in the two pictures below. One is a picture of me (circa. 1968 and known as Stephanie Laskin) and fellow NFTY regional officers at Kutz Camp, National Leadership Institute in Warwick, New York. The other picture was taken in August, 2007 at the Kallah which begins our academic year at HUC in New York at---you guessed it---Kutz Camp.
My path to HUC was not very different from that of many of my classmates...it just took me longer to get here. I grew up in Duluth, Minnesota in a family that was active in our small Reform congregation, Temple Emanuel. My father was Brotherhood president, and my mother sang in the choir. I became active in youth group and my rabbi, Sheldon Gordon, of blessed memory, noticed and encouraged my interest in Judaism. He arranged a scholarship so that I could attend camp at Olin-Sang (before it was Olin-Sang Ruby Institute), a UAHC (now URJ) camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Before I left for camp, Rabbi Shelly told me that he wanted me to have a wonderful time, and that he hoped that when I grew up I would be a leader in my synagogue.
Of course, this is a conversation which many of you who are reading this blog have already had with a Jewish professional, and it ended with "and I hope you will consider becoming a rabbi." In the early 1960's, however, the idea that women might one day become rabbis was a distant dream. What did women with strong Jewish identities do with their love of Judaism? They became active in their synagogues, perhaps in Sisterhood. They married rabbis, a role my mother---recognizing my strong ties to Judaism---saw me filling easily. Although I could envision myself becoming active in synagogue life, I could not imagine myself as a rebbitzin. I had nothing against rebbitzins. I simply knew it was not for me.
Here I am with classmates at HUC-New York's annual beginning of the year Kallah at
My life went in another direction professionally---I became a clinical social worker, eventually opening a private practice. I became active in my synagogue---Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C. --- serving as a board member, officer, and finally as president. In the late 1990's I was asked to participate in a study of women's occupational choice conducted by a graduate student at my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Michigan. The survey I was asked to complete concluded with the following question: "If you had to do things over again, what profession would you choose?" The answer popped out, much to my surprise. "I would have been a rabbi."
Was this just an interesting newly discovered fact about myself, or the beginning of a radical change in my life? With the encouragement of my wonderful husband, Henry, I began to explore what would be necessary for me to apply to HUC. At first I told very few people about my hope of becoming a rabbi. It was a private dream. I think I was afraid that sharing it might make it vanish. I was also afraid of failure...what if I applied and my application was rejected? My own rabbis, Fred Reiner and Mindy Portnoy, provided sound advice. With their support I began a program of study which included classes in modern and biblical Hebrew, Hebrew Bible, and Jewish history. I taught 6th grade Hebrew at my synagogue's religious school, despite the concerns of my children, Sara and Joe, that 6th graders were not always kind to their teachers!
So, here I am, about to begin my 4th year of rabbinical school. I am excited about my first monthly student pulpit at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston, Virginia. I will also be teaching Introduction to Judaism through the New York Region of the URJ, this is the third year I have had the privilege of teaching this wonderful 20 session class for those who want to learn more about Judaism. Courses? Yes, a full complement of courses, from "God: a Biography" to "Jewish Mysticism." I look forward to sharing my observations about what promises to be another full and rewarding year.
Posted by Stephanie at 9:59 AM