Los Angeles Part One: The Rabbanit-Transcript
This is the episode transcript. You can listen to the episode here.
(Intro): Welcome to American Rabbi Project. The podcast about American Judaism from the perspective of rabbis around the country. I’m Justin Regan.
(Justin Regan) It’s been about a year since I moved across the country to Baltimore, Maryland. I did it at the time so my long-distance girlfriend and I could start our lives together. Now she is my very near-distanced fiancee (you know her as show contributor Beth Vanderstoep). This major life step came with a myriad of adjustments. I had never lived with a serious romantic partner before, I had never lived on the East Coast, and I had never lived a Jewish life that was so observant. If you were to ask my fiancee what her denomination is she would go on a long winded rant about Conservative Judaism and how it’s different in Canada… long story short she’s Orthodox. So, now I find myself in that world. We keep a kosher household and attend services at an Orthodox synagogue downtown. To some people that might not seem like much, but it’s a long way from my childhood where I grew up in what can be described as a textbook culturally Jewish household. This included a deep pride in my Jewish identity but also some negative opinions towards Orthodoxy.
(Regan) In many cases in the secular world, Orthodox Jews can be a bit of an anachronistic boogieman. Perceived as following rigid traditions, backwards beliefs and occasionally whisking away a secular young adult to shave their head or grow their sideburns to join the ranks.
(Regan) We live in a world of caricatures. And just like in so many other cases, a lot of these stereotypes recede once you actually meet the people you’ve heard so much about. This includes my college Rabbi, Dovie Shapiro, whom I interviewed in this show’s pilot. He’s a chassid who oversees a vibrant inter-denominational student community. He doesn’t care how you get to his house on Shabbat, he’s just happy you’re there. Shapiro showed me that halakhic practices do not have to be rigid but a source of great joy and dedication. And there is my fiancée, who showed me that traditions don’t have to be oppressive, but could be empowering.
(Regan) When you build a life with an Orthodox person there is still plenty of give and take. We keep a kosher household but I’ll still scarf down the occasional treify treat in the backyard, [half beat] or the grocery store parking lot…or outside taco bell… We walk to synagogue every shabbat, but Saturday is also for Minecraft. It’s a lifestyle that was once very alien to me and has since gotten rather comfortable. The community is great and the heavier observance of the calendar and traditions is a stabilizing force in a year of pandemic and the anxiety of beginning a family.
(Regan) I don’t feel like the subject of a “he went Orthodox” horror story. Instead I feel like I’ve become a resident of a world that is much more rich and complex than people give it credit. You don’t have to live here to find that out. Just be willing to meet someone new.
Los Angeles Part One: The Rabbanit
(Regan) One of the things I love about this podcast is that I get to speak with rabbis from the far-flung reaches of this country. But regardless of how remote the ravs are, be it Maine, Utah, or West Virginia something most of them have in common is their connection to key cities like New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles. They either grew up, studied, or interned, in some urban community. From the four corners of the world, the exiles have gathered themselves to places like Pico-Robertson in L.A. and the stories that go with that are endless. I myself grew up near Los Angeles, but due to factors like the pandemic and moving east, I found myself interviewing my hometown rabbis via Zoom. Like every other audio journalist in existence these days, the pandemic took away the sounds of me knocking on someone’s door and replaced it with adorable interrupting pets.
[SFX] Barking sounds
(Regan) That’s the bark of Judy. Her human is Alissa Thomas-Newborn.
(Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn) Hey my name is Alissa Thomas-Newborn and I am the Rabbanit at B’nai David-Judea congregation in Los Angeles. I also am a board certified chaplain.
(Regan) Rabbanit is not a title most Jews here every day (it’s the first time this word has been on the podcast). In this context, it roughly translates as the feminine way of saying Rabbi. It’s a unique title that reflects the unique situation Thomas-Newborn is in. B’nai David-Judea is an Orthodox congregation.
(Thomas-Newborn) The job of the rabbanit at B’nai David-Judea is a clergy position. So I’m part of the spiritual leadership. Rav Yosef Kanefsky is the head rabbi. And I have the privilege of working with him. He is such an inspiration-source of kindness, support, wisdom, vision, and humility. So I’m very, very blessed that I get to work with someone who is invested in me and always treated me as a partner. My job is that of anyone else who’s clergy. I provide pastoral care, spiritual care. I teach classes, like parsha, different classes that I teach and lead Jewish support groups for synagogue. I give sermons. Attend daily minyan and give D’var Torah.
(Regan) She also runs the young-professional prayer group, officiates life cycle events and is a scholar on hahakha and Torah. Just like a rabbi. That’s because Thomas-Newborn is one of the first in a new wave of Orthodox women receiving formal rabbinical training. While women have been ordained as Rabbis for at least the last few decades in other Jewish denominations, Orthodoxy traditionally forbids it. But for many people in Thomas-Newborn’s position, this training and ordination is not about overturning tradition, but building a greater space for women within the halakhic parameters of gender roles. Hence titles like “clergy” and “Rabbanit”, as opposed to “Rabbi”.
(Thomas-Newborn) The men would be the ones to lead davening. But in our community women are able to give D’var Torah are able to give sermons. So I would get up on the beamna and speak from a neutral area. The rabbi and I would speak from the same location. I myself would not be leading mincha let’s say I wouldn’t count towards a minyan. But the truth is in our community that’s not really part of being a clergy member anyway. Being that the services are often lay-lead. I’s not an essential part of the job structure. Whenever there is a space to include women within the halakhic framework we seek that out. That’s true with everything we do, we want to be as inclusive as possible, and also balance what you referenced at the beginning of that tension of being part of the tradition and also aware of and responding to the needs in modernity.
(Regan) Thomas-Newborn’s position is certainly a novel one, but she’s also, in a sense, part of the family business. Her mother is a reform Rabbi and Cantor. The crystalizing moment that brought Thomas-Newborn down her path to the clergy was one of tragedy.
(Thomas-Newborn) When I was fifteen in my community there were several deaths. Also my father got very sick and was hospitalized, and thank G-d he’s okay. I found myself at funerals and hospitals and watching the rabbis in our community, how they were responding to these extremely painful and scary moments. And I just remember feeling this calling of ‘that’s who I’m supposed to be’. I’m supposed to be the person that is there and supports people in those dark moments. Just to be a source of presence and love. To be a source of divinity when I can. I felt that then when myself was having a very hard time. It just became clear of this is what I need to do in order to serve G-d and G-d’s people.
(Regan) For Thomas-Newborn this included doing so through Orthodoxy. A path that opened up thanks in part to Yeshiva Maharat, the first Yeshiva to provide rabbinical training and ordination to Orthodox women. Maharat encourages graduates to choose their own titles and some have taken the designation of Rabbi. Others choose Rabba, Maharat, or Rabbanit.
(Thomas-Newborn) I was one of the first graduating classes. When I enrolled, we didn’t know what our title would be. We didn’t know if we would get jobs. It was-this is path clearly for us and we have to figure out how to chart it in a way that we can live within our relationship with Hashem with G-d and also be able to serve a community. Really I’m incredibly blessed because I was able to get this job in Los Angeles, this amazing schul, with this fantastic rabbi. My husband is incredibly supportive and always has been. There are many, many women before me who wanted to get the education I have and serve in the position I have, and there wasn’t a seminary for that yet. So Thank G-d there’s all these seminaries that are popping up and it’s becoming something much more common.
(Regan) The Yeshiva is still only in its 12th year, and has just over 40 graduates. But as time passes, more and more Orthodox women are finding their places in the Clergy. More organizations and synagogues are hiring women clergy and advocacy groups like the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, also known as JOFA, have provided grants to schuls that hire women clergy. Several run their own Orthodox congregations, including one recent promotion in Israel. This has not come without pushback and accusations of things going too far. The Rabbinical Council of America, one of the most prominent Orthodox organizations in the country, has condemned the movement and has prohibited member synagogues from hiring them.
(Thomas-Newborn) I’ve been at B’nai David for 6 years. And when I started I definitely had people within the schul and outside of the schul who were waiting to see if I was legit. Curious and excited but also suspicious and wondering what my motives were. Several people were like ‘I’m just concerned, are you here to destroy orthodoxy?’ Understanding that was never my goal. And people getting to know me instead of headlines or different things they’ve been heard or told about women in this kind of role. At this point it’s very normal. There’s communities where having a women in any role of leadership is not going to be the right fit. It’s just not how the community functions or what the community wants. It depends on what the community is desiring, what’s a good fit, the person who is coming into it. I know my that colleagues are in this because they want to serve G-d and they are excited about teaching and learning Torah and being committed to the community. They’re in this because they love Judaism and halakha and G-d and it’s not about overturning something.
(Regan) Regardless of how Thomas-Newborn and her colleagues are perceived, there are radical changes afoot for Jews of all types. Specifically from the tragedy and reshuffling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Synagogues had to scramble to redefine their role in a virtual world and debate how much communication technology should be allowed on holidays. Orthodox institutions like B’nai David don’t allow any virtual services on holidays.
(Thomas-Newborn) One of the things I like about Modern Orthodoxy is it’s always the balance you’re describing of maintaining halakhic religious practices and also existing in modernity. It really challenges us to think creatively and what we can do to make someone else feel loved and special and seen when we can’t embrace them and we can’t physically show up to their home. I think things like cooking with your family on zoom before with the recipes you always make. I know a lot of people did this before Pesach, before Shavuot they came together and they give d’vrea Torah they share Torah ideas with each other before the holiday. Some people wrote letters to their family members that could be read at the table when the holiday started. Things to make ourselves feel loved.
(Regan) Since this interview was conducted, the world has started to reopen. More and more synagogues of all denominations are meeting again in person and maybe even serving out the occasional bowl of post-COVID chollent. But the events of the last year continue to aggravate Jewish spaces. How much do legacy institutions matter? An Orthodox lifestyle nearly requires synagogue attendance. But no one is immune from the debate.
(Thomas-Newborn) So for me the reason to be a part of schul and why these synagogues matter so much is they are our family, they’re there for us, we’re there for each other. We have a spiritual, moral responsibility to be there for each other and in many different moments. And it’s both within our community and outside our community. What kind of chassid work are we doing to make the Los Angeles community better and more sensitive to the homeless, those with mental health issues? How can we make ourselves and our world better? I think the schul is the touchpoint for people of all different ages to connect as a family. How often does a young professional get a chance to be close to a boomer whose not their parent? Or spend time with little kids that our not their own?
(Regan) For Thomas-Newborn the question of ‘how does this matter to me’ is a central question Jews struggle with when dealing with topics like the synagogue, Israel, and their dichotomy of being both Jewish and American.
(Thomas-Newborn) I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we are in a culture where trying to personalize something to ourselves is really a high value. I can go on Facebook and see only advertisements that applies to my stage in life. Everything is tailored to me in a very personal way which is fantastic a lot of the time. But I think that part of our obligation as being both Americans and Jews is seeing ourselves in a greater narrative and asking tough questions about how we can stay connected. Looking at our history and realizing we also have a responsibility to the future. And it takes a lot of education there’s a lot of misinformation and antisemitism and anti-Israel information out there. It’s a time when people are asking really hard questions like ‘why should this matter to me?’ Rabbis, spiritual leaders are required to step up and respond to those questions. Each individual American Jew has to find questions that resonates with him or her. Part of the religious identity is to help us see beyond ourselves and see G-d outside of ourselves as others and see a sense of morality. But religion is also there to personalize too. So it takes us out of ourselves, but the beautiful thing about religion is it takes you within yourself too.
(Regan) Thomas-Newborn says as a millennial she grew up during an easy time to be Jewish in America, except for an instance during one Chanukah growing up where the family menorah in the front window was shot at with a bb gun. She loves this country where she says she can practice her religion as an equal. But like many other diaspora Jews, she also feels close to Israel and struggles with balancing these two worlds.
(Thomas-Newborn) I’m very connected to Israel. I love Israel. For me being Jewish requires that I’m a Zionist, that I feel connected to the land. And it’s part of our story as a people. It’s where our story ends and begins. And it’s a place filled with holiness that I love to go to and feel grateful exists. And I think every Orthodox Jew, but I think it’s the case in many of the denominations as well, you’ll find individuals who ask that question of ‘why not make alliyah? Why not move to Israel?’ Because we love Israel and support Israel, there’s a lot of guilt for not making alliyah for many of us. I think if we choose stay in America there needs to be a kiddush Hashem. There needs to be a positivity and a reminder of Godliness. We need to interact with people who are different than us, we need to treat them well. There’s a lot riding on that. But on top of that, that means that we have to build those relationships. So organizations like AIPAC work to build positive relationships in a bipartisan way.
(Regan) Some Jews build outside relationships that are so positive they get romantic. While inter-religious marriage rates in Orthodox spaces are much lower that the rest of the American Jewish community, it’s still a fact of life for B’nai David.
(Thomas-Newborn) It’s really hard because we often-to meet someone and fall in love with them and feel like they meet your soul or inspire you to be the best soul that you can be. No one wants to come in between that. Just by virtue of being an Orthodox Jew, we don’t support interfaith marriage. I would never officiate an interfaith marriage. That being said though I see in members of our community who have children who grow up Orthodox and end up marrying someone who isn’t Jewish. I see the real struggle and pain of wanting to love your child and significant other to the fullest and having this huge rift and not knowing how to square that. My mom is a Reform rabbi and cantor. I know people in her community who are interfaith married or have kids who are and I think-I guess what I would say is on the one hand I totally get it, on the other hand so much of my belief and practice is surrounded by; we are a Jewish family because we are committed to these values and they are the foundation of who we are. And if I did not share those values with my signifiant other than my marriage and my family would not be what I want it to be. It gets in the question of what our values are and what our goals are and how the Jewish people will continue. I don’t think there are many people in this world who want to get married just because they want the Jewish people to continue. That’s not usually the reason why people get married. I don’t have an answer. I’ve also worked with people who’ve converted and it’s a very intense and rich process as well.
(Regan) Thomas-Newborn is also heavily involved with clergy work involving mental health care. She’s a certified chaplain who’s worked in hospitals like Cedar-Sinai Los Angles, Columbia University Medical Center, and Bellevue in New York City. Her involvement is a personal one.
(Thomas-Newborn) One of my family members has a serious mental illness and I grew up living with this every day chaos and at times turmoil and at times immense forgiveness and love. And that chaos is something that shaped me as a person. I know in myself there are very great things about me that come out of that. I saw mental health issues very up front and personal. I wanted to face how I deal with psychiatric illness and how I empathize and how I make sense of it in my own world. And one of the things about chaplaincy training is it’s about learning how to support and care and hold the person you are with but also recognizing your own baggage that comes up and not let it interfere with those you are serving. I really had to face a lot of my own journey. And I found that I loved it. I loved being- connecting with people who are going through mental health crises and being with them and supporting them in that darkness and getting that with them. For me it was like entering into a temple, when I went into the psych ward. It’s like a place of crying out to G-d to help and to bring light into the darkest of caves.
(Regan) COVID has caused many people to see more and more aspects of our society in a new light. This includes mental illness where it seems like everyone was struggling more than ever due to the isolation and fear. Thomas-Newborn says we all have a role to play in helping people through these struggles.
(Thomas-Newborn) Genuinely asking questions and de-stigmatizing the anxiety and depression themselves, and being able to hold someone and know the resources you can turn to to get the help. We’re not all therapists or psychiatrists that can respond in the emergency moment. But we’re all people who have hearts and ears and souls and can listen to each other and love each other. I think when we are not able to be physically together and hug each other, calling in and checking in frequently to ask the tough questions. We’ve all had these tough situations where you can tell something is wrong but you are afraid to ask. If you ask will you make it worse or point it out? But when you love someone you have to ask these questions. Start with being willing and brave and loving and humble to ask and notice when someone’s in pain and be there without trying to fix it. Cause sometimes we want to put a band aid on it, but that’s not always what helps most. Instead being willing to listen and genuinely ask what support would be helpful.
(Regan) Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn has built a career on service. This has been done in what some people might consider an unlikely, uncomfortable, or even hostile space for women. She says she has many times been asked questions like ‘how can you be okay covering your hair and not counting towards minyan?’ and ‘Do you feel like an equal?’ Thomas-Newborn says it’s important to realize how diverse Orthodoxy is.
(Thomas-Newborn) The first thing I would say is I think every Orthodox woman has to, especially in the 21st century, a lot of soul searching, and reflection, and possibly really battles with it all the time. Because I hear this from members of our community certainly and from beyond of how to make sense of it. G-d did create us all equally and we have different roles, different practices. But not feeling that resentment or struggle is something every Orthodox woman has to make peace with or figure out how to answer in an authentic way. And for every woman it’s going to be a different answer. Another thing I’m going to say is the whole idea of modesty and feeling like you have to cover yourself up. One thing I encounter often with teenage girls talking about their relationship to their bodies and how not to associate shame to snias and modesty. But instead to think about how we relate to ourselves and not just our bodies but our souls. How do we see ourselves in this world and walk through this world with confidence and with self-love? Forget orthodoxy and forget orthodox women, that’s just a really hard thing to do in life right now. I think I have found the Jewish approach to really valuing our souls seeing our souls as bodies a vessel that G-d gave us that’s holly, that’s on loan. Ultimately our bodies belong to G-d. And we have to take care of them which is the food we put in our bodies, and our exercise and how we think, and our mental health, everything we put into how we care for ourselves, is also how we thank G-d for all He has given us and how we serve G-d. Modesty as a concept for me personally, I love it for a way of thinking how I can care for myself and certainly not a way of covering up myself but sort of uncovering my soul.
(Regan) In all my travels and interviews for this project there are certain buzz words that keep showing up. Some are obvious like “freedom”, “choice”, and “opportunity”. Others make a surprising appearance, like how on multiple occasions when I asked rabbis about their thoughts on the future they jokingly mentioned their lack of a crystal ball. Another buzz word is “modernity”. America is not just billed as a free and limitless society, but it’s often coupled with the 21st century, which is hyped as a technological, informational, and ideological revolution. And in this world, everyone looks for modernity in their own way. Seems like that word is no more of a monolith than anything else in Judaism.
(Regan) American Rabbi Project Los Angeles Part One: The Rabbanit is written and produced by me Justin Regan. Derek Povah helps with the web stuff. Thanks to Yerachmiel Krones, Beth Vanderstoep, and my parents for the assistance. If you’re interested in donating to my podcast, or having me speak at your next social event, please go to my website rabbiproject.com. I’m also at facebook.com/rabbiproject, twitter with @rabbiproject and Instagram as “American Rabbi Project”. And until next time, shalom and safe driving.