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Meet the science rabbi

Rabbi Dr. Jill Hackell chosen for the Alda Center faculty award

Rabbi Dr. Jill Hackell
Rabbi Dr. Jill Hackell

Bill Nye may be the science guy, but Jill Hackell is the science rabbi.

Yes. Yes. The term science rabbi sounds like an oxymoron. But not to Rabbi Dr. Jill Hackell, who is also a physician, or to the leadership of the Academy of Jewish Religion, where she studied for her rabbinate

Next Thursday, June 16, she will receive the school’s P’nei Torah Faculty Award at a ceremony co-sponsored by the Alda Center for Communicating Science. Actor Alan Alda, the center’s founder, also will be honored at the ceremony.

Hackell, 71, is the spiritual leader of the West Clarkstown Jewish Center in New City. She is being feted for her work teaching bioethics and other science courses at AJR and elsewhere.

Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, AJR’s CEO and academic dean, noted the connection between the two disciplines. “We feel strongly it’s not only easy but valuable to combine Jewish life and Jewish thought and science, Science is just data. Religion gives meaning to science.”

That confirmed what Rabbi Hackell said earlier: “When I teach bioethics, I look at Jewish texts that couldn’t have anticipated technological advances we have today. But the values embedded in these texts make sense of the complicated scientific world we have today.”

Asked for an example, she said: “They show us how to deal with end-of-life issues. When do we keep people on a ventilator and when do we let them pass in peace?

“There is a story in the Talmud about a very famous rabbi who was very weak. His students and his handmaiden were all praying to let him stay alive. But when the handmaiden saw how much he was suffering, she realized it was better to let him go.

“Stories like that can help people find their way when making very difficult decisions.

“People ask me how can you be a scientist and believe in religion. The more I learn, the more I know about science, the more miraculous the world is. The way things work. The development of a human baby. So I think it makes you more aware of the wonder around us.”

Rabbi Hackell’s journey to the pulpit and beyond began in a two-family home in Brooklyn. She lived upstairs with her parents and her sister, while her maternal grandparents lived on the first floor. “It’s funny,” she said. “My grandfather was a big macher in the Conservative synagogue around the corner, but we were mostly holiday Jews.”

Still, unusually for girls at the time, Jill attended Hebrew school. But bat mitzvahs were allowed only on Friday nights and limited to reading the haftarah normally read on Shabbat morning. That wasn’t enough for Jill. When a nearby synagogue started a program for girls, Jill insisted she be allowed to attend.

But her first love was science.

“I really wanted to be a molecular biologist,” she said. “I loved learning about chemistry and molecular biology, but when I got to college I didn’t like the lab work. It was too much like cooking.”

An adviser suggested she apply to medical school instead. She became a pediatrician and practiced briefly until she had a family. “I didn’t want to be on call when I had little ones,” she said. She thought she’d return to practicing medicine, but her job doing lab research for the company that eventually, as the result of mergers, would become Pfizer, grew. “I was working on vaccines for children.” In fact, some of her team back then helped create the covid-19 vaccines.

In 2007, Dr. Hackell retired as a senior director of clinical research. Next, she applied to AJR. Mid-life crisis? No, she said. “I’ve always been interested in Judaism. I loved it when I was a little kid. The rabbi where I did my studies was like a grandfather and mentor to me. And when I was in college at Tufts we had a nice Jewish community, led by Arthur Green, and that was the beginning of Renewal Judaism.

“They came to Tufts and did holiday services for us and taught experimental classes that you could take between semesters — Jewish philosophy, Jewish mysticism. They had so much more to them than what I learned as a kid.

“That interest stayed with me throughout adulthood. At my synagogue in Nyack” — she was a member of Congregation Sons of Israel — “they offered a lot of adult education opportunities. So when I retired, I figured it was time to learn more broadly.

“I didn’t think about it. I didn’t know that I wanted to be a rabbi. I didn’t know if I wanted to have a pulpit. I knew I wanted to learn as much about Judaism as I could.”

Her two kids were not surprised. “They saw I was very active in the synagogue. Every time I dropped them off for Hebrew school, I’d stay in the building to take whatever course was being offered.”

The Academy for Jewish Religion turned out to be the perfect seminary for her, “for many reasons,” Rabbi Hackell said. “It’s pluralistic. It attracts Jews of all denominations. It trains Jews to be a rabbi for any place that needs a rabbi. It has always been at the forefront of investigating new things, most recently realizing how important it is to train clergy to know something about science.”

The entire process of becoming a rabbi took six and a half years, including three spent as a student rabbi for a small congregation in the “rural Pennsylvania bible belt, surrounded by churches,” she said. “I had a small congregation who wanted to stay Jewish in this environment.

“It was just me, and I really loved it. It turns out I love teaching and trying to get people excited about the whole breadth of Judaism.”

As luck would have it, her graduation coincided with the retirement of Rabbi Aryeh Meir, who now lives in Teaneck; she was hired to replace him.

The job is a lot of work. There are no student rabbis to assist her. But she still manages to fit teaching into her schedule, at AJR and at Dominion College in Orangeburg, where she teaches bioethics to Ph.D. nursing students.

“Judaism and science go together,” AJR’s president, Dr. Prouser, said. “That’s the work we’ve been doing in collaboration with the Alda Center and why we are honoring Alan Alda. And why we are honoring Rabbi Hackell.”

The ceremony will be streamed starting at 7 p.m.; the link is at AJR’s website, ajr.edu.

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