Spirituality has always played an integral role in Debra Orenstein’s approach to the rabbinate.
“It’s been part of both the calling and the timing of my rabbinate that I chose a spiritual orientation and, equally true, that it chose me,” said Orenstein, the rabbi at Cong. B’nai Israel in Emerson.
“I entered rabbinical school at a time of change not just for women, but for the culture of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Rabbi Neil Gillman was beginning to teach theology in a much more personal way. Some other professors and classmates were also focusing on spiritual autobiography, chasidic stories and niggunim [wordless melodies used in prayer], Jewish meditation, and creative liturgy.”
Orenstein traces her interest in a spiritual approach to prayer to her early childhood. At the age of 4, she learned blessings to present as a “gift” to her great-grandfather, which she says gave her a deep sense of connection. Four years later, she already knew she wanted to be a rabbi.
|Rabbi Debra Orenstein|
A graduate of the Solomon Schechter day schools and a member of the first class that included female rabbinic students at JTS in the mid-1980s, she received a traditional education in a Conservative setting. She supplemented her rabbinical training by exploring different modalities of prayer and Torah learning, including meditation, chasidic stories, and the use of ancient texts to create new rituals.
Her interest in going beyond the classroom led Orenstein and another rabbinical student to begin doing social service work and to sponsor learning that wasn’t in the curriculum, including organizing a lecture on spirituality that drew 70 people, nearly five times the audience that other lectures at the seminary attracted.
One memorable experience that Orenstein went on to have, during her rabbinate, was a five-day silent meditation retreat for rabbis from around the country and across all the different movements. She still vividly remembers her mother laughing about it. “As the daughter, granddaughter, wife, and mother of rabbis, she could hardly believe that rabbis would get together for five days to not talk,” said Orenstein. “I took her point, but there was a lot of deep learning and connection in that prolonged silence.”
B’nai Israel’s openness to different approaches to prayer was an important factor in Orenstein’s decision to accept the position there last year after a 10-year tenure as the rabbi at Makom Ohr Shalom in Los Angeles. She said she was fortunate to be able to co-officiate High Holiday services in L.A. with Rabbi Zalman Schacter Shalomi, the father of the Jewish Renewal movement who brought tens of thousands of unaffiliated Jews back to Judaism.
“One of the things I like and admire about CBI is it’s a synagogue with an adventurous spirit,” said Orenstein, who grew up in South Orange. “They’re willing to try new things, take a creative approach, and use new structures in support of traditional values, texts, and rituals.”
Orenstein mixes traditional methods to prayer with innovative approaches. Last year she led a healing service during the break on Yom Kippur, interspersing silence, meditation, chanting, and even a laying on of hands. In early February, she organized a drumming circle for Shabbat, an activity she plans to hold regularly. In another break with modern practice, when she chants a Torah portion, she occasionally chants the English translation along with the Hebrew, as well as offering commentary, in the traditional trope, as a way of imparting a deeper sense of the meaning of the passage to her congregants.
“Though it feels new to most people, the way I read Torah is actually based on the way that Ezra and the Levites read Torah publicly, as described in the Book of Nehemiah,” said Orenstein, who has a love and passion for Jewish history. “The goal was to ’cause the people to understand,’ and the result was that the people became emotionally bonded to the text.”
She also encourages laity participation during services.
“Sometimes if I do a Torah teaching on a Friday night, I will invite people to discuss what I’ve said with the people sitting around them,” said Orenstein. “Usually, I will raise a specific question. The idea of incorporating spiritual conversation into the synagogue service in this way was something new to people. There’s a standing tradition of having a communal Torah discussion on Shabbat morning with an interchange of ideas. But taking a sermon and figuring out how it might apply in your life [is another way of] engaging in spiritual conversation.”
Orenstein was virtually destined to become a rabbi, having hailed from six generations of Jewish religious leaders and with a solid grounding in Jewish texts. But though she was reading Torah in junior congregation and teaching Bible class as a fourth-grader, her gender precluded her from pursuing the rabbinical path within the Conservative movement until the Jewish Theological Seminary opened its doors to women in 1984.
“My entering the rabbinate was the perfect fulfillment of all my family’s values, and at the same time it was perceived as a rebellion,” said Orenstein. “My family was very traditional. There was no support for women taking an equal role in the service, let alone taking a role in religious leadership…. When, at age 8, I told my mother I was going to be a rabbi, her answer was, ‘That’s impossible.’ She went on to say that girls didn’t become rabbis. But it was already too late to deter me. I saw myself as part of a legacy and tradition. I joke that it was almost like the family business.”
Orenstein entered the doctoral program at JTS with the hope that women would soon be permitted to enroll in its rabbinical school. After she was ordained, she taught full-time for several years at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, continuing on a part-time basis until 2010.
During her time at JTS, Orenstein acted with a theater troupe that performed at homeless shelters. She later appeared in a cameo role in “Her Best Move,” a film made by her husband, Craig Weisz, and performed in a play in Los Angeles shortly before relocating to New Jersey. Her varied career has also included stints in counseling and political advocacy, and she is the author or editor of five books, including the acclaimed “Lifecycles” series (Jewish Lights Publishing) that explores aspects of Jewish women’s lives.