From the time she was a little girl, Eryn London knew that she wanted to be something in the Jewish world, the world that provided her with oxygen and meaning.
She also knew that she had to be a leader. Actually, it was not so much that she had to be a leader but that no matter what, she always ended up in that position; just as cream and heat rise to the top, so did she, invariably and inevitably. (Please note, readers, that this is not how she tells her story; her modest retelling hides that truth but like cream, like heat, eventually it surfaces.)
Ms. London, 31, who grew up in Randolph and whose parents now live in Fair Lawn, is part of the modern Orthodox world, so her path to Jewish leadership was not as clearly lit as it would have been had she been a man.
Last month, at Congregation Kehilat Jeshurun, the proudly modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Ms. London — now, at least provisionally, Rabba London (she’s not yet decided on her title) — was ordained, along with five other women, by Yeshivat Maharat. The school, founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabba Sara Hurwitz, both of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, was founded in 2009 and has ordained 19 women so far. It carefully walks the line between the Orthodox understanding of halacha — Jewish law — and the leadership roles available to women living resolutely under that law.
It is unsurprisingly controversial, and its graduates need a certain amount of koach — of strength — to persevere.
It turned out to be a place to which Rabba London was well-suited.
First, though, there is the story of how she got there.
When she graduated from Kushner Academy and then the Kushner High School in Livingston, Rabba London, like most of her classmates, went to Israel for her gap year. She joined a now-shuttered program that mainly took Israeli women who had just graduated high school, chose to do community service by day rather than join the IDF, and then study at night.
Rabba London’s community service was as a certified medical clown.
That’s a job that’s common in Israel now, but was new when she was there, about 14 years ago.
She worked in a children’s ward in Tel Hashomer Hospital as she earned certification, and then she moved to the geriatrics area in Shaare Zedek. All that work was in Hebrew, in which she was fluent.
Certified medical clowns add touches of life, color, and hope to patients; they are not the stereotypical scary or sad figures but instead approachable, silly but never stupid characters who never approach patients with needles or prods or pills but instead with warmth and openness. They can disarm and relax patients, taking them down from the state of high alert hospitals can induce.
The training, which now has become fairly expensive, was not costly when she learned how to become a medical clown, Rabba London said. She learned how to make balloon animals, “but I also learned how to exit and enter a room, how to figure out what was going on, both with the patient and with the family, to figure out what the emotions are, what’s going on in that room.” She also learned “how to ask permission — sometimes someone doesn’t want you there.”
As a medical clown, “I would basically go onto the floor and knock on doors,” Rabba London said. “I’d be wearing a costume. I’d be dressed as a clown, but I never put on a full face of makeup, because sometimes people are afraid of clowns.” It’s the face that does it. So “I would wear lots of rainbow things, rainbow shirts over other rainbow shirts over a rainbow skirt, with rainbow bows in my hair, and lots of scrunchies. And rainbow socks.
“I’d also have a red nose on a string.” She put it on if it seemed as if it would make the patient happy; she wouldn’t if she sensed that it wouldn’t.
When she took the training, it was expected that medical clowns would pick a population to work with. “Now you work in all units, but then, when it was so new, all the training was with children,” Rabba London said. “I was one of the first three clowns not to work with children.” She chose to work with geriatric patients instead. Why? “I have always loved working with the older adult population,” she said.
When she’d walk into a hospital room, “sometimes the patient would want me to be a silly little clown, and I would sing and dance. Sometimes the entire family would be there, and I would teach them to make balloon animals. And sometimes I would hear about someone who hadn’t had a visitor all day, and I’d go in there and sit down and just be someone who was visiting, and I’d still be dressed as a clown but I wouldn’t wear my nose, and we’d have a normal conversation.
“Talking to people and listening to them was as much part of my job as making balloon animals and making people laugh,” Rabba London said.
Once the year was over, she came back to the United States; she went to Goucher College in Baltimore, majoring in theater and taking on a double minor in psychology and Judaic studies.
“I was always an active member of the Jewish community,” Rabba London said. “Goucher is a very small school. There were about 1,400 students, and about 30 percent were Jewish, and there were probably four of us who identified as Orthodox. So there wasn’t much of an Orthodox community, but I was very involved in the Jewish community. I was on the Hillel board for all four years and I was its president for a year and a half. I ran a lot of things through Hillel, a beit midrash and parasha study and Talmud study.
“I was very active. I made the things that I wanted to happen happen, and people just came.”
Among those things that she just made happen was intergenerational theater at the assisted living facility and nursing home next to the college.
Rabba London always had been interested in theater, she said, “but I was keeping Shabbat, which meant that acting was very difficult.” School productions tended to be on Friday nights. “So I thought, ‘what can I do?’ and I had this crazy idea, and the people there said ‘Go for it!’” The idea was to have Goucher students and assisted living residents work together on theater. “Goucher was very supportive,” Rabbi London said. “We put on a play about the similarities of living on a college campus and an assisted living facility, and the next year we did a play about growing up. I wrote those. The next year, we put on Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town.’
“My professors were very jazzed about it,” she continued. “They supported me and pushed me and came to our performances, at 10 on Sunday mornings.”
After she graduated, Eryn London moved to London, England, for a master’s degree in applied drama at Goldsmith’s College, part of the University of London.
“I lived in a Hillel House in Golders Green,” one of London’s densely Jewish neighborhoods, she said. “I wrote a dissertation on the use of ritual in community building, and I looked at Judaism and community-based drama.” As always, Rabba London became deeply involved in the local Jewish community.
After returning from London, master’s in hand, Rabba London came back to the United States and then made aliyah in 2010; among many other activities, she taught theater for Young Judea; she taught theater and directed productions in nursing homes; she worked for Nesiyah, she studied in Pardes. “And then I started at the smicha program at Midreshet Lindenbaum,” she said.
Midreshet Lindenbaum is the women’s school at Yeshivat Hamivtar, the school in Jerusalem founded by Rabbi Chaim Brovender. The school has been unusual in its work educating young Orthodox women for religious leadership in Israel.
After a few years, Rabba London transferred to Yeshivat Maharat as a distance student. Maharat and Lindenbaum offer similar but distinct programs, she said, and much as she loved Lindenbaum, she was drawn to Maharat’s emphasis on pastoral work and its record in placing its graduates in jobs.
For a year, Rabba London “worked every day from 8 to 12, came home for lunch, then used the beit midrash at Pardes, and then had an hour-and-a-half shiur with Maharat online. I was really grateful that I could be around my friends and my community, lead my community, and be a part of all those things I was doing.”
In May of 2016, Rabba London returned to New York to study. “It was supposed to be the year when I did my first unit of chaplaincy at Columbia Presbyterian,” she said. “But I saw a job ad that a community in Canberra” — as in Australia — “was looking for a scholar in residence.” Needless to say, she applied for it. “I finished my chaplaincy internship on a Friday and flew to Australia on that Sunday. That was in August 2016, and I lived in Canberra until I moved to America in December.” In June, she graduated, and plans to spend next year in a chaplain residency program at New York Presbyterian.
Now, the question of what title to use is real. Yeshivat Maharat graduated five women this year, and each is free to choose her own title — rabbi, rabba, rabbanit, or even the never-popular maharat. “I’m still figuring out which one to use,” Rabba London said. “I think it will be either Rabba or Rabbi, depending on the situation. I will use the title rabbi at the hospital, and I will introduce myself with that title if I have to use a title. That’s because everyone understands it.”
“On the other hand, in some circles it’s very controversial. And if I go back to Israel, I will go by rabba, because rabbi is not a Hebrew word.”
So why did Rabba London choose the path she took? “It just made sense,” she said. “It’s something that people have been either joking with me about or asking me seriously about for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, I said, ‘Guys, that can’t happen.’ But my friends said, ‘Don’t worry. You’ll figure a way out.’
“And when I was writing my dissertation in London, I was sitting and thinking about what I had been doing and had done — community building and leadership and teaching Torah and pastoral care. I put them all together, and put them into one job, and that’s what a rabbi does.”
Her parents, Henry and Fran, have been “very supportive, and I am lucky to have them,” she continued. Her path “isn’t always the easiest path to choose, and knowing that my parents are going to be there for me means that I am very lucky.”
She also has three siblings, she added; her brother Uri lives in Baltimore, her brother Torrey is in Israel, and her sister, Gabee, lives in Teaneck.
And why did she decide to stay in the Orthodox world? “I am aware that there are communities that won’t accept me, and that’s okay,” she said. “There are some people I will never win that argument with. I am not trying to work in those communities, and I am not trying to push my agenda on anyone else.
“So why do I stay? Because I am Orthodox.
“People ask me why I didn’t go to JTS or to Schechter” — that’s the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York or the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, the two flagship Conservative/Masorti rabbinical seminaries. “Those are amazing institutions, and I have many friends from both of them. One of my best friends is a rabbi from HUC,” the Reform movement’s rabbinical school. “I have a lot of love and respect for those institutions, but because of the way I practice and because of my values, those aren’t the right institutions for me. But the people who come from them are my friends, and I love working with them.”
The halacha — the Jewish law — that rules against women as rabbis isn’t clear, she continued. “We live in a time when women are able to learn at a high level, to know the text at a high level. There is no problem with my teaching or answering questions or running a community.
“I have run services from the other side of the mechitza. I can’t be shlichat tzibur” — the community’s representative in prayer — “but that’s okay. I have given sermons.” Sometimes she’s spoken from the women’s section, sometimes from the bimah at the end of services, sometimes from the bimah in the middle. Each shul is different, she says, and she’s okay with all of them.
Rabba London will figure out her next move when it’s time; her history shows that a combined sense of adventure and community will direct her. “There are so many things I want to do,” she said. “I want to go back to Israel. Right now, my dream job is to be the rabbi of a shul; I have to figure out how to make both those things” — being a pulpit rabbi while female in Israel — “happen. I just have to figure out how to make it work.”
Given her track record, clearly Eryn London will make it work.