Empowering Individuals to Take the Lead in their Jewish Lives

My parents never told me why I should be Jewish. Instead, they raised me with rich Jewish experiences that invited me to discover why I should be Jewish for myself. I grew up eating Happy Meals in the temple sukkah, writing post-cards to my Ethiopian-Israeli pen pal, being counted in the shiva minyan after my bat mitzvah, and baby-sitting my way through high school to subsidize a summer trip to Israel. My family was comfortable living our Jewish life through osmosis in the densely Jewish suburbs of Detroit. Then we moved to Seattle to be closer to my mom’s Polish Catholic family, where, for the first time, my parents felt the need to affiliate in order to feel Jewish. We leapt into synagogue life and the leadership of our shul became my extended Jewish family. I grew up around Shabbat tables filled with conversation about the issues facing our congregation and the global Jewish community and was asked to share my opinion. ‘Was our temple ready to hire a woman rabbi? Should our rabbi officiate at same-sex weddings, even though Washington State would not recognize them? How can the Peace Process in Israel-Palestine go on without Rabin?’

Na’aseh v’nishma—Do first, understand later.”* Although I did not study this text until I was an adult, I learned the concept early on. Engagement in Jewish life was integral in shaping my individual identity. Through my experiences of Jewish life, I learned the importance of community, compassion, and inclusion. Through my experiences of Jewish life, I learned to be a feminist, a Zionist, an advocate for peace, and a global citizen. L’dor v’dor, from generation to generation you might say. As a congregational rabbi, I have opportunities to translate the same message of Jewish empowerment that my parents and childhood community instilled in me.

Pastoral meetings are one such opportunity for empowerment. A congregant named Larry approached me with a dilemma: his parents were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and he wanted to give a blessing at the celebration, but did not know how. Larry and I spent time learning together, examining the nature of blessings in Judaism. In our tradition, blessings must accompany action; they are more than just expressions of gratitude. Larry’s studies led him to create a blessing that recalled his parents’ generosity of time and spirit, on behalf of their children, grandchildren, and Jewish community in 50 years of marriage.

Empowering others to take the lead in their Jewish lives is work that nourishes my soul. Recently, I helped a mother craft the words she would use to tell her twelve-year-old daughter that her estranged father had passed away. I supported a couple, one partner raised in an observant Conservative family, the other raised in China, who are working to establish their authentic Jewish home, while showing reverence to their parents and the traditions of their families. A decade long attendee at our congregation’s lay-led Torah study took advantage of a milestone birthday to share his take on Torah with his community; together, we studied the parasha in the weeks leading up to his turn to lead. My partnerships with congregants better allow for God’s presence to be palpable when I offer blessings at the graveside, under a chuppah, or at the beit midrash.

In the current American landscape, new types of institutions and communities are emerging to help meet the needs of American Jews. Like many Millennials, I have participated in independent minyanim and Jewish communities formed around issues of global justice and environmentalism. But I choose to make my home and serve in a congregational setting because I believe in the power of multigenerational community and have experienced creative innovation within the synagogue setting.

Throughout my life, I have found personal growth and comfort in a synagogue community. As an adult and as a rabbi, my synagogue is where my husband and I celebrated the birth of our daughter, Galit, and it is where I turned for support after the death of my father. Being rabbi for the Temple Beth Or community is an exciting opportunity for me to offer my established congregational leadership to a dynamic and hamish community while working in a part-time capacity. I am thrilled to join Temple Beth Or as your rabbi because Beth Or is a community that wants to partner with me to create rich opportunities for participation. “Na’aseh v’nishma—Do first, understand later.” Together we can create experiences that will build Jewish identities and strengthen synagogue community.

 – Rabbi Rachel Kort

* “Na’aseh v’nishma”–“We will do and we will hear/understand” (Exodus 24:7)