Faculty Spotlight: Ruhama Weiss, Ph.D.

Ruhama Weiss, Ph.D. (she/her)
Director, Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling


Ruhama WeissPlease tell me about your Jewish journey.
I was born and raised in an Orthodox family and community, something between Modern Orthodox and Zionist Orthodox (as we call it in Israel), and ultra-Orthodox. My father was born in Israel but raised in an ultra-Orthodox community in Borough Park, NY, and my mother always lived in Israel in an Orthodox Zionist family. You can’t find Orthodox Zionists anymore in Israel, because they became very extreme, but they were not like that in the beginning.

I attended an Orthodox girls school, and at the age of 16 or 17 I started asking questions about God and who they used to tell me God is. Many questions I had were about feminism, because in those days it was impossible to bridge feminism and Orthodoxy. Feminism showed me the way out of Orthodoxy, but I enjoyed my Jewish community and studying Jewish texts, and I didn’t want to leave that behind. I wanted to start a Orthodox yeshiva for girls, which in Israel didn’t exist, and I became very involved in the opening of two Israeli Orthodox yeshivas. I wanted the girls to study exactly like the boys, but at that time I didn’t have the theoretical knowledge to explain why. Then I went to Hebrew University and studied Talmud and Jewish philosophy. I went to the Shechter Institute and with a few friends opened the Israeli rabbinical program of the Conservative Movement. From there I came to HUC, and I love being part of the Reform Movement in Israel, being part of the community, and taking part in the revolution. I know that, for American Jews, being Reform is not revolutionary, but in Israel it’s totally different. We are part of the revolution and it is exciting.

Please tell me about your work with the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling.
We started this program at the beginning of 2000, which was also the beginning of the second Intifada in Israel. It was horrifying and terrifying to live in Israel — especially in Jerusalem. Buses were bombed all the time. I was a young mother, and it was almost impossible to live and breathe freely. The second Intifada showed us that war was here to stay, because leaders from both sides were not willing to make peace. We knew that we would have to cope with it for many more years, and we have had to learn how.

We received a grant to do spiritual care but we didn’t know what that meant; we didn’t have anything like that in Israel. The chief rabbinate is supposed to be responsible for all spiritual life and care in Israel, but that is not the case. Since I was teaching Talmud and am also a poet and do art and creative writing, I was already doing bibliotherapy, but I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. We started asking what spirituality and spiritual care means to us, especially in the middle of a political and life-risking conflict.

We had to find our way, find our own definition of spirituality, and build our tools. We created a  spiritual questionnaire that we use to find the spiritual language to deal with conflicts. We understand that we are not going to solve anything and we do not want to argue about who is right and wrong. Rather, we wish to understand the decisions that we make, the situations we are in, and our ability or inability to function and make decisions in those situations. The name of our bibliotherapy program is Sugiyot Chaim, which means life texts, or life issues. Most of our students are not clergy, but teachers, group facilitators, or psychotherapists, and we work together to find out how to use Jewish texts from the Bible, mainly Talmud, to work through spiritual conflicts or dilemmas and to develop and grow spiritually. The one-year program is very intense, both emotionally and intellectually.

Please describe why Sugiyot Chaim is so important.
We decided to open Sugiyot Chaim when we understood that we weren’t using the full potential of the secular, liberal beit midrash. We use both the group and the text to help each person find a spiritual language, to understand their life from a spiritual perspective, to use the unique language of Jewish texts in order to express themselves, and to use their own stories as a unique interpretation to Jewish texts. It’s basically to help participants do what generations of Jews did when they didn’t have the option to go to a psychologist to ask for help: they went to the beit midrash to ask for help in their own community. We want to encourage people to go to therapy, but we don’t think therapy is the only answer to our needs. We think that having a community and using ancient texts can help us discover what is really important in one’s life, and find our own spiritual voice.

Tell us about your experience at HUC in Jerusalem, and about life in Israel.
It’s very difficult and challenging, but also so interesting. Living in Israel gives you the opportunity to practice your compassion in a place that is so full of hatred and terror. You have to remember to keep the image of God in yourself at all times. This is most important when it’s difficult to do so, when you’re afraid or you hate someone, when you want to find someone to blame for what’s happening. Understanding the world and being compassionate is very difficult, and living in Israel and especially in Jerusalem challenges my beliefs all the time. I think that God is testing us every single minute, in every single decision that we make.

Today I left my bank to move to another bank which posted a sign showing a Palestinian woman managing one of their offices. Immediately I decided to move to that bank. I spent my morning sitting in offices in Eastern Jerusalem with only Arab workers, trying to explain what a Jewish woman is doing in their bank. I was the only one who didn’t speak Arabic. I moved banks just because they were brave enough to, firstly, put up a poster of a woman (in Jerusalem, a lot of ultra-Orthodox people destroy posters of women). Secondly, I moved because she had an Arab name and was from Eastern Jerusalem. This is a daily thing we do in Jerusalem; you don’t just go to the supermarket or the bank, every step is ideological. In Jerusalem, you don’t have the privilege to think about whether you want to be political or not, you are political in every breath you’re taking.

What are you working on now?
We are recruiting our bar mitzvah cohort of Sugiyot Chaim. I’m teaching spiritual care to our rabbinical students and doing many hours of one-on-ones with our students and staff who want spiritual care meetings. I’m also writing my second novel.

What do you like to do in your free time?
I like to meditate, cook, bake, eat what I cook and bake, and write poetry.