Alum Spotlight: Rabbi Talia Avnon-Benveniste

Rabbi Talia Avnon-Benveniste ’08 (she/her)
Director of the Israel Rabbinical Program HUC/Jerusalem

Please tell us about your Jewish journey.

Growing up, only the boys in my class celebrated their bar mitzvahs – the girls only attended the ceremonies as guests. I felt the desire to learn Torah and celebrate Jewish life. I felt I also needed to have my own ceremony but I could not figure out a way to make it happen. I approached my father who was, and still is, the most impressive Jewish educator that I know. His answer was that he also did not know how to celebrate a girl’s bat mitzvah. He took a day off from work, which was highly unusual, and we travelled from the kibbutz, which was in the northern part of Israel, on a tiring journey to Tel Aviv. We reached a museum that is now called ANU, but at that time was called Beit Hatfutsot Museum (The Diaspora Museum). My father recounted my Jewish family history and that was his way of granting me the sublime Jewish gift, which led me to choose my path as a Jewish professional later on. I remember myself at 12 years old, dressed with my fine clothes at this museum, feeling that I carry secret beliefs, and that I have the right to express these beliefs. As I left the museum that day, I knew that something had happened to me – I received the gift of the responsibility of carrying my own Jewish story.

What is your favorite memory from your time as a student at HUC?

The most precious gift I received as a student was the understanding that in the classroom, there are outstanding teachers and outstanding students, and that the Torah is delivered to us with awareness in the most sensitive and spiritual way. The students, myself included, were made to feel that we were links in a chain that started at Mount Sinai and continues to this day. I remember feeling that the people with me on this journey of becoming a rabbi are exceptional people. That is something I feel today when I look now at the same teachers I had, and I work with them and with my students. The students are extraordinary people and they will be outstanding rabbis.

What is most meaningful about your current role?

Becoming a rabbi is a very delicate, spiritual, individual process. It takes a whole village to train someone towards ordination as a rabbi. I am privileged to witness this process and to lead it with my colleagues and students. I think about what else HUC, such a strong institution, can continue to bring to Jewish communities worldwide. How can we use the assets of HUC to make sure that the Reform Movement evolves not only in the States and Israel, but all over the world?

What do you wish people knew about the Israel Rabbinical Program (IRP)?

The IRP is for students, whether born in Israel or who immigrated here from all over the Jewish world, carrying their own heritage and narratives. Together we shape the paths of the Reform Movement in Israel. Not many have walked this path before us and we pave the roads for us to lead. We offer ways for Israeli society to seek out Judaism that is unfamiliar and new.

I think every student who opts to come to the IRP chooses to be a leader in the most exceptional way, knowing that their choice will sometimes bring unfamiliar situations, which may not be friendly or welcoming. I think people who choose the IRP are brave people. They are very intellectual, smart, and sensitive, and bring all their assets to lead Israeli society.

Please tell us about the role of women rabbis in Israeli society, their challenges and opportunities. 

I think being a Reform rabbi in Israel is one challenge, but being a woman Reform Rabbi doubles the challenge. We are maybe a generation or two behind what the feminist movement has achieved in the United States – the acknowledgement of a woman’s capability to lead in any aspect of life, including medicine, law, and education. Leadership by Jewish women scholars is somewhere we are still trying to make our voices heard. I think for the families of women who choose to be congregational rabbis it needs to be a joint decision.

This year we are celebrating 50 years of women in the rabbinate. What is the significance of this anniversary to you?

We have very inspirational women rabbis that are calling us to continue their revolution. Having this legacy of women rabbis in HUC and the Reform Movement helps us change the world and see how the world is in this transformative chapter. Ancient traditions are no longer ruling the individual minds and knowing that great women have made this choice before us helps us make this choice for ourselves and for our daughters.

How would you describe HUC in one word?

It is three words – “envisioning the future.” We are taking responsibility for the future of the Jewish world. That is how I understand the role of HUC in present times and in future decades.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Reading and writing are what I do when I have the time. My greatest pleasure in this world is books and words.