NEW YORK — Maybe, the rabbi mused, the universe is trying to get us to wake up.
“Mercury is in retrograde, there is going to be a full solar eclipse and it’s Rosh Hodesh Elul [the first of the Hebrew lunar month of Elul],” Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum said, a hint of a smile dancing across her face. After all, a rabbi referencing astrology, astronomy and the Jewish calendar in one go is about as rare as Monday’s solar eclipse.
Yet, there is seriousness beneath her lighthearted remark. She’s not really talking about the cosmos, she’s speaking about last weekend when torch-bearing neo-Nazis and the KKK came to Charlottesville, Virginia. On Saturday, white supremacist James Fields killed Heather Heyer, 32, and wounded 20 others by driving a car into a crowd of left-wing counter-protesters.
This Shabbat, Berenbaum, the newly installed rabbi and educational director at Temple Har Zion in Mount Holly, New Jersey, will deliver a sermon on race, healing and bigotry.
“I can’t afford to stay silent. It’s our responsibility to speak out. The prophets wouldn’t shy away from this and calling it out. I like the idea of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” she said. “Judaism is a religion of action and that is not a secret. It’s our spiritual heritage. You have to go outside the synagogue and make a difference.”
As as one of a handful of black female rabbis in the United States, Berenbaum said she feels duty bound to speak about race and religion. Yet, she quickly points out, that sense of responsibility comes more from a spiritual place than anywhere else.
‘I feel the urgency of the racial divide and I think I would feel this way if I wasn’t a dark skinned black’
“I feel the urgency of the racial divide and I think I would feel this way if I wasn’t a dark skinned black,” she said speaking via Skype from her book-lined study.
According to a 2014 Pew Forum survey, two percent of Jews in the US described themselves as black. The Institute for Jewish and Community Outreach in San Francisco found in 2003 that about 20% of the Jewish population in America is black, Asian, Latino or mixed race.
Just as Berenbaum, 34, feels she has no choice but to talk about race, she also feels compelled to speak about how Judaism chose her.
But don’t cue the majestic music just yet; her story doesn’t include a disembodied voice or a hand reaching down from the heavens. Her story is about how a little girl decided to take charge of her religious life.
Berenbaum grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston where she attended Catholic School. Her Southern Baptist parents were once regular churchgoers — seven days a week, volunteering on committees, Berenbaum said. But when they moved from New Jersey to Massachusetts they toned down their rigorous lifestyle.
‘When I was around 11 I started taking responsibility for my own religion’
“So I didn’t grow up in a religious household, but I grew up in a spiritual house. I grew up with an intense love for God and all things the sacred holds. Then when I was around 11 I started taking responsibility for my own religion,” she said.
For the then-sixth grader that meant no homework and no shopping on Saturdays. She also started writing sermons and celebrating the New Year in September. She delivered her first sermon to her parents on Christmas morning when she was 12.
“As a kid I remember learning how you worked all week and then took a day off. I thought, I’m at school Monday through Friday and I’m not waiting for Sunday for my Shabbat. I called it Sabbath then because I had none of that language,” she said.
It all came together at Tufts University. She double majored in clinical psychology and Judaic studies. She also became a fully practicing Jew, and converted through the Conservative movement in her sophomore year. Even so, she didn’t quite see the rabbinate in her future.
‘I thought, I’m at school Monday through Friday and I’m not waiting for Sunday for my Shabbat’
Instead she looked for entry-level jobs in clinical psychology. One application after another was rejected. Finally, the rabbi she was studying with suggested she teach at a Hebrew school. She found a job at Kesher Center for Jewish Learning and Culture. There she fell in love with the hands-on, immersive style — a style she plans to bring to Har Zion.
She started thinking about rabbinical school. The more she thought about it, the more it made sense. But unsure of which denomination to study with, she spent a lot of time reflecting before making a decision.
‘I’m just Jewish. I’m not particularly Conservative, or Reform. I’m not really Reconstructionist or Orthodox’
“I thought about what kind of Jew am I now and what kind of Jew do I want to be? I want to be a Jewish Jew. I’m just Jewish. I’m not particularly Conservative, or Reform. I’m not really Reconstructionist or Orthodox. I love the idea of being independent. It forces you to think about everything you do,” she said.
She chose to enroll at the trans-denominational Hebrew College in Boston. She received her rabbinic ordination and master’s degree in Jewish education in 2013.
Berenbaum relishes being unaffiliated with any movement. Still there’s nothing willy-nilly about her approach to Judaism. On the contrary, she is very deliberate in everything she does, she said. She also said she’s finding that this approach to Judaism appeals to an increasing number of American Jews.
“Maybe you want to light the candles, but you’re not home 18 minutes before sunset. Maybe you like a certain Reform prayer, but you want to follow the laws of kashrut,” she said. “When you do that you have to learn, you have to know something about why you are choosing what you are choosing. It forces a deeper connection with Jewish traditions because you have to consult a whole bunch of sources.”
While Temple Har Zion is traditionally Conservative, the 80 families in the congregation are also keen to include some Jewish Renewal prayers.
She wants to help kids and teens discover the joy in Judaism. She wants them to experience Judaism in the world, not just in Hebrew and religious school. She said she can see taking post-b’nei mitzvah kids on field trips to the supermarket to spur a conversation about kashrut, or experiencing life cycle events by attending a baby naming, a wedding or even visiting a funeral home.
As for the adults in the congregation, she said she is open to whatever they’re interested in. So far, some want to learn Hebrew and others Kabbalah.
Berenbaum also knows she can use the pulpit as a way to welcome those who feel marginalized in the Jewish community, whether they are interracial couples, mixed-race children, or members of the LGBTQ community.
She said her first job as rabbi at Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation in Milwaukee, provided a well of experience from which she can draw.
“As an educated black female rabbi I found that in some places I could really use my skin color to get in, to relate,” she said.
‘I found that in some places I could really use my skin color to get in, to relate’
For example, members of the synagogue often volunteered at a shelter. It was mostly white congregants serving a mostly black clientele. When people came through the line they looked at her and they were so happy to see her, she said.
“There is an element of feeling undignified in having to get food at a shelter. And then to see me, they felt that I got them,” she said.
It’s that connectedness and empathy that she wants to employ not only as a rabbi, but also as a mother to her eight-month-old daughter Gayla Bracha and wife to Joel who is studying to be a special education teacher.
“I hope we’ll have worked out all the racial stuff by the time she, a biracial child, is older. It’s my hope for the world,” Berenbaum said. “We have to be strong. We need to make this world as good as it possibly can be.”