Aria Caligiuri '23

Tell us about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC-JIR.
I was born into an interfaith family, with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. Growing up, they didn’t really push either religion and let me and my sister choose. Since we were born to a Jewish mother, we ended up picking Judaism, but we didn’t become a bat mitzvah or go to camp. We didn’t have any of those really notable, formative experiences that many young Jews had.

For much of my life, I have been outside of the Jewish community, even though I was born Jewish. In college (we both attended undergrad at UC Davis), my sister introduced me to some of the members of the local Jewish community. It was my first year; I didn’t know anyone and I had just moved into a new dorm. I really wanted to come out as transgender at the time, but it didn’t feel safe because my father’s beliefs. College gave me a safe space where I could explore not only my gender and sexuality, but also my religious and spiritual mindset. I could explore my Jewish heritage and be able to reunite with it.

I went on Birthright with my sister and we had our bat mitzvah ceremonies at the same time while in Israel. I fell in love with the Jewish tradition, taking Hebrew classes, going to shul regularly, and attending Torah studies. Soon enough I was teaching Sunday school. Over time I became more and more involved with the local Jewish community. One of my friends said that I should become a rabbi. And I was like, “Wait a minute, me? You think I should become a rabbi?” And I thought about it and prayed on it, and I realized that being a rabbi was actually something I do want to do because I can really serve God, not just serve God, but also serve my community and to be there for others.

From there I applied to HUC-JIR, the only rabbinical school to which I had applied. My first year in Israel that was interrupted by COVID, and then COVID put us online for about another year and a half. We’ve been off and on, but now we’re finally reopened. Hopefully that will be the last of the closures because I really do miss my professors and my classmates, and all these people who have a deep respect and love for Torah, community, and Judaism. It is an honor to be able to make myself in that image and learn from some of the greatest Jewish thinkers of our time.

This year is the 50th anniversary of women in the rabbinate. What does this anniversary mean to you?
It means a lot to me, especially as a transgender woman. A lot of people assume that I’m the first transgender rabbi-to-be ever, which is not true. There have been others before me. The 50th anniversary shows how much progress we’ve made, from a time where the input of women and female voices and queer people was devalued for a long time, even in Reform Judaism. Now, finally, things have started to shift. I couldn’t be happier being able to be part of an institution that values progress, equality, equity, and justice.

This month is Jewish Disability, Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month. What does this mean to you and how can the Jewish community be more inclusive?
This month means a lot to me because I am on the autism spectrum. I was diagnosed when I was very young by a pediatrician, but my family had never really proceeded with any early intervention because they didn’t want me to be differentiated from the other kids. Of course, with my neurological developmental condition, I was going to be differentiated no matter what. Over time I’ve learned to live with many things that have caused me difficulty due to my autism, such as my sensory issues, my emotional and communication-related issues, and my struggle to make eye contact and read body language and social cues. By setting aside this month, the Jewish community is raising awareness of what’s going on inside the community and lifting up disabled voices.

Describe HUC-JIR in one word.
Passion. Everybody is here because we have a passion to learn, a passion to teach, and a passion to help others. And whatever our theology is individually, we’re guided by passion.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I really like being outdoors. I like camping, hiking, trap and skeet shooting, bike riding, and swimming. I’m really into visual art. I like music. I like to play guitar and ukulele, as well as other instruments. I also really like Legos and playing video games.