Looking to the Future
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to watch the ordination of our next rabbi educator, Rabbi Liora Alban, from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In normal times, an ordination service takes place in a beautiful synagogue sanctuary, full of family and friends, but this service took place virtually, on Zoom. The service began with this story, told by Rabbi Dvora Weisberg, director of the rabbinic program: There was a time during the second century CE when the Roman authorities declared anyone who received ordination would be executed, and in addition, the place where the ordination took place would be destroyed. Faced with this threat, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Bava took his students to an unknown area and ordained them.
“The rabbi took this step,” she shared, “aware of the danger to himself and the students, because the Jewish people needed rabbis and the need was greater at the time when the spiritual and physical well-being of the Jewish community was threatened. Today,” Rabbi Weisberg concluded, “as we face new threats, we need Rabbis.” This year’s ordination could not be postponed, because even though we don’t face the same level of threats that our Jewish ancestors did nearly two thousand years ago, we are living in a difficult time that challenges us in many new ways.
COVID-19 has changed our daily lives and forced us to confront notions of safety, health and security in ways we could not have imagined a year ago. And during an era when little looks the same and so much looks and feels different, it is both grounding and inspiring to look toward our sources of strength and hope—to our rabbis but also to our Jewish community as a whole. We at PTS are blessed that in this moment of uncertainty, we have the great opportunity to look toward our future as we will soon welcome both Rabbi Alban and our new Cantor, Anna Zhar.
Along with the uncertainty the pandemic has brought, it also has had the effect of providing some moments of clarity, reminding us of what truly matters. All religions do this well, and our Jewish tradition is so valuable now, not so much because of its answers to questions of faith, but because it urges us to build our life foundation on values and principles that are life-affirming and ennobling. Our tradition calls on us, in ways both subtle and direct, to pursue a life of holiness, to live a life dedicated to goals that are outward-facing, to lift up the lives of those on the fringes, and to always consider how our words and actions affect others. And this is why the teachers of our religious tradition are so important, and why they need to be ordained and welcomed, even when we cannot come together for what is normally a communal service.
Shelter in place has made life seem quite transitional. No longer do I drive to the synagogue every day to serve the community with my synagogue colleagues by my side. Rather, I sit in various rooms throughout my home to add spice to a day full of one Zoom event after another. Even worship services and lifecycle events now take place over Zoom. Adding to the palpable sense of difference is the knowledge that three people with whom I have shared many hours in recent years will be transitioning and leaving our synagogue. Madeleine Steckley, who has been a wonderful director of youth engagement, will be going to graduate school (Hebrew Union College) and teaching at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School. Cantor Alexandra Fox, who has brought so much beauty, breadth and soul to Jewish music at Temple Sholom, will be continuing her career in Chicago. And Rabbi Molly Plotnik, a supremely gifted and creative educator who has taken our youth and adult education program to great heights, will take her plentiful skills to her home congregation in Seattle. Goodbyes are naturally difficult, and these three souls will be very much missed. We wish them well and look forward to seeing the blessings they create in the future.
The arrival of two new clergy happily focuses our attention on the bright future of PTS. Rabbi Alban, a native of Southern California, brings her deep levels of creativity, spirituality and love of teaching, and Cantor Zhar, coming from New York with her family to share her rich musical talents and love of Jewish music, as well as an accessible love of living Jewishly.
We are blessed to share our lives with talented and committed Jewish professionals, so please join me in sharing words of appreciation for Madeleine, Cantor Fox and Rabbi Molly, as well as a hearty welcome to Rabbi Alban and Cantor Zhar. May we continue to go from strength to strength.