Fierce grace

Fierce grace

Local head of Rabbis Without Borders makes it onto 36 most inspirational list

Rabbis Rebecca and Steven Sirbu in his study at Temple Emeth

Black fire on white fire.

That’s the Torah. Whether you believe it to be dictated to Moshe by God at Sinai, put together later by divinely inspired scribes, or completely human-made, a product of its time and place, you know it to be unchanging, open perhaps to interpretation, but certainly not to editing or revision.

That’s the Torah with a capital T.

Then there is the torah, with a lower-case t. That’s the perhaps divinely inspired wisdom, refracted through a purely and therefore unique lens, that lies often dormant within each of us.

Rabbis are educated in the Torah, but it often takes another kind of learning to allow their own inner torah out.

That kind of learning is what Rabbis Without Borders specializes in.

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu of Teaneck is the director of Rabbis Without Borders, a program run by Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Last week, the Forward named her as one of America’s 36 most inspirational rabbis.

Rebecca Sirbu’s own torah is “using Judaism to help people with the struggles in their lives,” she said. At Rabbis Without Borders, she can do it directly, by working with the rabbis in the program, and indirectly, as the rabbis she works with spread both her torah and their own.

Sirbu is warm and engaging; as she tells her story, she laughs frequently, often at herself. To listen to her is to understand how she can cross, redefine, and transcend boundaries – and that, of course, makes it natural for her to help others accomplish the same feat.

Rebecca Wolitz was born in Manhattan, but moved to San Antonio when she was 3. In 1980, when she was 8, her parents moved to Austin, where she grew up. Her parents both are academics – her father, Dr. Seth Wolitz, is the Gale Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Texas, and her mother, Dr. Louise Wolitz, was an assistant professor of economics there. Hers was one of the few Jewish families there.

“Our house had a strong Jewish identity,” she said. For example, “we kept kosher – we had to drive down to Houston, four hours away, for meat – but my father said that it was for anthropological reasons. ‘This is Jewish food. This is how Jews eat.’ We ate everything out of the house.” So their home-based Judaism was strong – their out-of-the-house identity, not so much.

When she was in seventh grade, Sirbu’s father won a Fulbright grant that sent the family to Jerusalem for a year. Rebecca did not enjoy it. “It was very intense and very difficult,” she said. Her parents enrolled her – “dumped her,” she said – in a big public school that was not the school of choice for most American families. At first, she spoke no Hebrew; an ulpan and a year in school took care of that, but it was “an incredibly horrible year,” she said.

When the family got back home to Texas, her parents tried to keep up her Hebrew, but she rebelled – she had spent a miserable year in Israel, and, beside, she was a teenager.

Because her parents were academics, they cared deeply about education, and decided that given the paucity of choices, the best high school available was St. Stephen’s Episcopal. “As it turned out, it was a good experience,” Sirbu said. It had been the first school in Austin to integrate voluntarily. There weren’t many Jews there – but there weren’t many Jews in public school, either, so that was pretty much a wash.

Although she had no strong rabbinic role models, one of the priests at St. Stephen’s came to model great clerical leadership for her; she also gained a solid understanding of the mainstream liberal Protestant world. “I’m very comfortable in that world; a lot of Jews are not,” she said.

Sirbu came east for college. At Vassar, in Poughkeepsie, she majored in history and minored in Jewish studies, writing her undergraduate thesis on Lilith magazine and Jewish feminism. She took Hebrew again. (“Freshman year, there were several Israeli students there, and an American friend of mine told a joke in Hebrew,” she said. “I laughed. He whipped around and said, ‘Why didn’t I know that you speak Hebrew?’ I said ‘I don’t know.'”) The summer after her freshman year she spent in Israel, and went back again for junior year. She came to terms with her middle-school demons, realized that she loved Judaism, loved working with people, loved the idea of combining those passions, and began to entertain the notion of becoming a rabbi.

“I remember passing the idea past my parents, and they laughed,” she said. “My father laughed because he didn’t believe in women rabbis, and my mother laughed because she comes from a secular, socialist background. Her family were Bundists. Both of them thought it was very funny.”

Nonetheless, during her senior year at Vassar, she applied to the Jewish Theological Seminary and was accepted.

JTS asks students whom it has accepted to rabbinical school but whose background is not strong enough to allow them to begin the program immediately to spend a year in its mechinah, or preparatory program. Her Hebrew was excellent, but her background in Talmud was not. Although there is a mechinah program in New York, she did not realize that she could go there, so in 1994 she set off to the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at what was then a Seminary adjunct, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

She was shocked at the sexism that she found there.

“At my first class there, somebody raises his hand and asks the professor, who was in his 60s, how long the paper has to be. ‘Long enough to be a woman’s skirt,’ he said. ‘Long enough to cover the subject and short enough to be interesting.’

“I was in a state of shock, and so was the one other woman in the class. None of the guys said anything. That set the tone for the year.”

“I almost left, but I didn’t. I decided that I couldn’t give up on the idea of being a rabbi,” she said.

Back in New York, things improved. She discovered chaplaincy work, and loved it. “I always had an interest in peer counseling,” she said.

She worked in hospitals. “It’s hard, hard work, but very meaningful to sit with someone in the hospital and be present with them, and to at least some extent bring them comfort, words from God, and prayer.

“I found the work incredibly meaningful, and it gave me the strength to continue with rabbinical school.”

She also interned with Rabbi Simcha Weintraub at the New York/National Jewish Healing Center.

The summer before her last year of rabbinical school, Rebecca Wolitz married Steven Sirbu, who was a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. (It was not only an interdenominational, but an uptown-downtown union. They met, through friends, at McSorley’s, a bar in the Village, near HUC.) Steven Sirbu is the rabbi of Temple Emeth in Teaneck.

The Sirbus have a daughter, Talia, who is almost 8 and a student at the Solomon Schechter school. The family belongs both to Temple Emeth and to Temple Beth Sholom, also in Teaneck. “It’s never been an issue” that he is a Reform rabbi and she is a Conservative one, she said. “In the Reform movement, more people go to Friday night services, so I go there on Friday night and on Shabbes morning I go to Beth Sholom.

“I get to know a lot of people in Teaneck, because we get to be a part of both communities.”

After Sirbu was ordained, she spent a year as a chaplain at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in Manhattan, and then she went to the JCC in West Orange, where she created the health and healing center. (A Jewish healing center, she said, is a place that “offers Jewish resources for people struggling with life’s challenges – illness, bereavement, divorce, and other spiritually challenging situations.” It was a burgeoning movement until the economic crisis of 2008 forced most of them closed.)

She had found her niche. “I quickly put together a program that consisted of a spiritual support group co-led by a social worker and a rabbi for things like chronic illness and bereavement,” she said. “Until we got staff, that rabbi was me. After 9/11, we added stress reduction, meditation, and drumming. I had a nurse on staff who was based at the healing center, but worked in seven different congregations across MetroWest” – that’s the catchment area for the Jewish federation that covers Essex and Union counties. That congregational nurse idea was taken from a model of home nursing common in the Christian world, she added.

“We also worked with bikkur cholim committees in each of the synagogues,” she said. “I consulted with the rabbis in all of the synagogues. I was told that because I was the first rabbi hired by the JCC, the community was a little nervous about the JCC-synagogue turf issue, so I made a point to meet with all of them. I introduced myself and said that I was there to support you.

“My being a young woman was a benefit, because I was not threatening,” she said.

The center grew quickly, particularly after September 11. “Within two years, the JCC asked me to take over all the adult Judaic education program,” Sirbu said. “I became the director of the Center for Jewish Life.

“It was great,” she said. “I got to be experimental.” Not only did she offer the then-exotic drumming and meditation, she added Torah yoga classes and taught Jewish mysticism. She convinced local shuls to work together in a program called Rimon, which allowed them to offer classes to the larger community. “It had a big catalogue, and people could get a diverse education,” she said.

She was there for eight years and just beginning to feel that maybe she had accomplished all that she could there when she heard about Rabbis Without Borders. It was 2008.

“I applied, and Irwin Kula interviewed me, and we had that click moment, and a month later I had the job,” Sirbu said. (Rabbi Irwin Kula is the president of Clal.)

“There was a moment when Irwin asked me what I thought the biggest religious movement in America today was. The Obama campaign was just getting started, and I said ‘the Obama campaign,’ because they were using so much religious language. There was a moment of silence on the phone, and then Irwin said, ‘I said exactly the same thing yesterday.'”

Clal gave Sirbu a full year “to envision the program,” Sirbu said; the fundraising already had been done. and to get them more into the public square, about getting Jewish wisdom into the public square.

“I’m very good at specifics, so I came up with the idea of doing a fellowship program. We would take about 20 fellows a year and introduce them to trends going on in America today. They come into New York four times a year for two days at a time.

“The key is that we try to gather as diverse a group of fellows as possible They span the entire denominational spectrum, from Orthodox through transdenominational. You name it, we’ve had it.

“Only about 50 percent of them now are in the pulpit. Others are in educational settings – day schools, universities, Hillels – in the chaplaincy, or in the community doing independent rabbinates and projects.

“We help them to be entrepreneurial. We see that there always will be synagogues, and they have to be strong centers of Jewish life. We need strong creative rabbis. And there also are places where rabbis can make a strong contribution in the general community.

“We encourage rabbis to push the psychological borders of their rabbinates. If you think you just serve your congregation, think beyond it. We have rabbis now who hold classes in their local meditation center. We have a rabbi who taught a class in a cooking school; some of the people who took it were not Jewish, and this was their first opportunity to learn about Judaism. There is a rabbi in Santa Fe who for many years has been running a beit midrash. It used to be only a Jewish group, but now he has another session, open to everyone. It is not an interfaith group, but a group where everyone can study Jewish texts.

“What we try to do is help change people’s perspectives, just a little bit,” she said. “Not to be so concerned about communal borders. When your perspective is more open, you will be surprised at the reach you have. You never know who you will touch.

“We teach the rabbis to be as open as they can be, and to go from that place.

“We look at trends in America today – the sociology of how people form their religious identity. We look at technology, and how we use it to reach people. It is amazing that a rabbi can sit in his or her office and reach people across the world. This is a way to disseminate Jewish wisdom, but the question is who is your audience.

“We look at the intersection of politics and religion. And we look at how we create meaning. Judaism has so much.

“I work with each of the rabbis individually, to help them identify what is the real passion in their rabbinate, and then we make a plan.

“We chose rabbis who are creative, and we want their creative juices to flow.”

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