From WRJ to the Rabbinate
by Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman
If it weren’t for the Women of Reform Judaism, I wouldn’t be writing this piece today as a rabbi. Growing up in a Chicago suburb in the 60′s, every house on our block was Jewish, as was 70% of our high school. Schools were closed on the High Holidays. I don’t think I had non–Jewish friends until I was on the cheerleading squad in high school! In the shadow of the Holocaust, the environment was way more about being a regular American than sharing the particularities or gems of Jewish tradition. Yes, we had seders and everyone got new clothes for High Holy Days, yet I thought there was more depth in the books that I voraciously read for my English literature classes than in Judaism. I was not alone in being thoroughly Jewish, and completely ignorant of what that really could mean.
Fast forward several advanced degrees and a move to Washington state with a young family and a profound desire to make friends and build community. It was with that sole intention that I walked into my first Sisterhood meeting at Temple B’nai Torah in Bellevue. Little did I know that I was crossing a threshold that would forever change my life.
Our Sisterhood was a place where everyone’s level of Jewish observance was accepted AND people were never shamed about what they didn’t know. Slowly I began to learn. Baking challah and hamentaschen, the blessings of Shabbat – all these were Sisterhood “programs” that became part of the fabric of our family life.
As I grew into Sisterhood and started attending regional and national biennials, I became exposed to a beauty in Judaism that had been invisible to me. I can’t emphasize this enough: it was ONLY because the entry was warm and accepting that I felt it was ok to ask questions and to expose how much I didn’t know. I purchased my first tallit at a convention and my sisterhood friends gathered around to bless me as I put it on. These women became my Hebrew tutors and role models, eventually leading to my adult bat mitzvah and eventually chairing the national WRJ Torah study initiative.
Through Sisterhood, I was introduced to Rabbis Drs. Tamara Eskanazi, Dvora Weisberg and Rachel Adler who later would become my beloved teachers at HUC. They set my mind and heart on fire.
When I realized that ‘Doing Jewish’ and ‘Teaching Jewish’ was all I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I made the bold decision to apply to HUC at age 47. It was a family decision as it meant that, like Abraham and Sarah, we all would move from the known into the unknown. It all started with Sisterhood. One meeting. One gesture of kindness. One kind word: “Come sit down, be with us. You are welcome just as you are.”
Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman is a community rabbi living and teaching Jewish spirituality and mindfulness groups in Los Angeles. She was ordained in 2009 from HUC and is a graduate of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Mindfulness program. She officiates at weddings and funerals, and has a vision of bringing Judaism alive through gardening, meditation, cooking and building relationships. She can be reached at email@example.com
From the Rabbinate to WRJ
Rabbi Connie Golden
When I decided to apply to HUC-JIR in 1978, at age 35, I had no idea how I could possibly pay for my education. My parents were deceased, and while a relative had offered to help me pay, it was very important to me that I manage somehow to make my way into the rabbinate myself. After I was accepted at HUC, I heard about the WRJ YES Fund, and immediately felt bonded to this wonderful organization that would make it possible for my dream of becoming a rabbi to come true.
After ordination, I was determined to do everything I could to pay back WRJ for their generous gift. How ironic, then, that I had practically no time during my working years as a congregational rabbi to involve myself with any of my Temples’ Sisterhoods! I wanted so much to give back, to play my part in the relationship I felt was so important to my career, but…
I was sure I could do it in my retirement, and to a great extent I have. I am very active in my outstanding Sisterhood at Ohef Sholom Temple in Norfolk, VA. As a rabbi with time, I’m able to help out more than I ever could. Our superb Rabbi Roslyn Mandelberg, who is devoted to WRJ, wishes she had the time I do! But even though I’m always available for any kind of ritual program planning or distinctly Jewish-content learning events, and Sisterhood members and leadership all thank me for what I do, I’m really the one who’s been made happy. Working in our monthly Soup Kitchen is a delight, helping out in the Gift Shop is great, programs are interesting and fun to attend, and I’ve made so many good friends!
The truth is, WRJ has done much more for me in my retirement than ever before! What an exciting and beautiful surprise it has been for me, a rather determined non-feminist, to find my place in a new Temple to be centered among a group of fantastic women. Intelligent, fun-loving, deeply committed Jewishly, involved in other arms of Temple life and community life as well, the women of our Sisterhood – be they young at-home moms, working moms, career women, or retired volunteers – are a tight group of people who care about and are there for each other in a unique way.
My retirement days are full of volunteer work in the Norfolk community, attendance at lectures and museums and concerts, reading, needlepoint, and transcribing Braille. Yet when I think about my life these days, I realize that what is most consistent, significant, and fulfilling in it overall, is my involvement in Sisterhood. So thank you, WRJ, for making a dream come true – twice in my life!
Rabbi Connie Golden, HUC-JIR NY 1984, served congregations in the South and then in Abington, PA. She retired early, in 2001, and has remained busy with volunteer work, such as transcribing books into braille (including Gates of Prayer for Shabbat and Weekdays 1994) . A native of the Boston area, Connie lives in Norfolk, VA, and is doing volunteer research on the first Jewish family to have lived there.
NFTS/WRJ is the largest cumulative donor to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In the early 1920′s NFTS raised $345,000 to build the Sisterhood Dorm at HUC in Cincinnati; in today’s dollars that would be $4.5 million. Annually through the YES Fund, WRJ gives $70,000-100,000 for student scholarships and prizes at the four campuses of HUC-JIR. Scholarship funds were collected from sisterhoods beginning in the first year of NFTS/WRJ’s existence. Over the course of our hundred years, in today’s dollars that would amount to $7,000,000-10,000,000!
The WRJ Ten Minutes of Torah series is sponsored by the Blumstein Family Fund. Co-sponsored by Sandi and Michael Firsel, Temple Chai Sisterhood.