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Contributing to the Evolution of Our Covenant

Contributing to the Evolution of Our Covenant

A Conversation with Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D.

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi leading worship services at camp

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D., is national director of recruitment and admissions and assistant professor of Jewish thought and ethics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). She was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1995 and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2009. She has co-authored two books, published numerous articles, and writes commentaries for Ten Minutes of Torah. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, Rabbi Ofer Sabath Beit-Halachmi, and their three children. Tell us a little bit about your Jewish upbringing.

Rabbi Sabath: My family celebrated most of the holidays, Shabbat, and we attended synagogue regularly. My parents, who identify as Reform Jews, have always felt very connected to their Jewish stories, often more in a cultural than religious sense.

“When I was about 7, we moved to Minneapolis from Boston and joined Temple Israel, where I was influenced not only by its senior rabbi, Max Shapiro, but also by the rabbis just ordained at HUC-JIR who served us as youth, in particular, Danny Zemel and Howard Jaffe. When I was about 12, my father went on a business trip to Amsterdam and visited the Anne Frank House. He brought me back a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank and said, “You know, she and I were born the same day in the same year. If I hadn’t been brought up in this country, look what could have happened to me.”

In the years that followed, I read Elie Wiesel’s Night, and his other books. A few years later, as the North American social action vice president of NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement, I was invited to participate in a Jewish Agency for Israel program for youth leaders from around the world that brought us together with Holocaust survivors and took us to the remnants of ghettos and several concentration camps in Poland. Only after leading NFTY-in-Israel groups visiting the former Soviet Union did I learn that members of my extended family were murdered at Babi Yar. I also visited NFTY regions around North America (a good preparation for my current role) and participated in the URJ New Jersey Urban Mitzvah Corps, working with inner-city, at-risk youth. Those experiences taught me to see Judaism and the Jewish people as being so much larger than my family or synagogue – as  a global community and a people of metahistorical significance. It was the beginning of a lifetime of striving to understand everything I could about our religion, our culture and our people. That program confirmed for me my passion – that I wanted to serve and contribute meaningfully to the flourishing of the Jewish people.

You made aliyah (moved to Israel) and lived in Israel for almost 15 years. How was that experience for you?

I was incredibly fulfilled in Israel. My husband, Ofer Sabath Beit-Halachmi, a fourth-generation Israeli, was the rabbi of a Reform synagogue outside Jerusalem. Together, we created and raised three Israeli-born, Hebrew-speaking children. I wrote my doctorate on covenant theology, focusing on the theological lexicon of Rabbi Professor Eugene B. Borowitz, z“l, and simultaneously worked full-time directing programs and teaching rabbinics, ethics, and leadership at the Shalom Hartman Institute, as well as teaching liturgy at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.

I was in the thick of all the dilemmas facing Israel and its relationship with world Jewry.  Several times a year I traveled back and forth to teach and speak and fundraise in the U.S. and felt then, as I do now, that I was living and contributing to the best of both centers of our bi-centric Jewish world – North America and Israel – and have been able to function as a positive bridge between the two.

In the first of your Ten Minutes of Torah commentaries, you call Deuteronomy the most radical book of the Torah.” How so? 

In Deuteronomy, we first get a clear sense of the human role in revelation. Yes, Torah comes from God, but before it reached Israel it was filtered and understood through the mind and heart of Moses, an imperfect human being. So, in many places within Deuteronomy, Moses explains and reinterprets what happened in the exodus from Egypt, what happened at Sinai, and why he wasn’t proceeding with the Israelites into the Promised Land.

What’s radical is that, Moses – within the Bible itself – models for all the ensuing generations an interpretive tradition. There are always multiple Divine and human perspectives. Thankfully, we have always been able to find new interpretations for new realities and apply new human lenses. Just like Moses did.

What are the essential elements of an effective Jewish communal leader?

Understanding Jewish leadership as a sacred privilege.
Being an expert and simultaneously a lifelong learner.
Building the trust of the community you serve through compassionate leadership;
Living an exemplary ethical life.
Being charismatic in one’s own way. Don’t be afraid of the passion of leadership; it’s part of what inspires a community.
Being willing to take risks.
Nurture your love of serving the Jewish people, in all our complexity.

For me, I think being a person of deep spiritual yearning and intellectual striving has kept me close to the texts and close to Jewish prayer and ethics. Coming from within the wisdom and challenge of our tradition helps me remain humble, helps me grow, and enables me to keep clearly in mind the vision of why we are here and who we can yet become.

Subscribe to Ten Minutes of Torah, daily emails that bring the Jewish world to you. From Torah commentaries written by scholars to recipes for baking challah, Ten Minutes of Torah explores the breadth and depth of Jewish life.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism’s editor-at-large. He is former editor of Reform Judaism magazine (1976-2014) and founding editor of Davka magazine (1970-1976), a West Coast Jewish quarterly. He holds an M.A. and honorary doctorate in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His books include Jagendorf’s Foundry: A Memoir of the Romanian Holocaust (HarperCollins, 1991) and Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (HarperCollins, 1998) with Arthur Hertzberg.

Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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