When I was twelve, my parents joined fledgling Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton. Within the intimate setting of my religious school class (taught by the rabbi), I felt free to test my leadership skills. Within a year I was leading junior congregation services, singing in the choir, and writing sermons. The thought occurred that perhaps I could be a rabbi.
I continued to grow Jewish-ly and wrote creative services throughout high school. Soviet Jewry, Jewish Identity, and Peace were common themes in the 1960s, and there was no shortage of songs and poems to be interspersed among the liturgical selections of the Union Prayer Book.
I started working in the religious school as the secretary, was hired as a Hebrew teacher, and then in college was teaching seven days a week in various Orange County synagogues. Again the thought of the rabbinate came. But it wasn’t the right time.
College allowed me to explore interfaith issues as a religious studies major at CSUF, and then I pursued a Master’s Degree at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) in Los Angeles. A career as director of education fell into my lap, and so I was set. However, Rabbi Haim Asa (z’l) very subtly nudged me along the way, and the seeds of becoming a rabbi started to germinate with him as a powerful mentor.
After forty years (a well-documented number in our tradition) of synagogue careers including madricha, teacher, educator, administrator, and outreach director, it was time to touch my personal Promised Land. I retired from synagogue life in May 2019 and was introduced to the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, (JSLI) in New York. JSLI is a trans-denominational online school led by Rabbi Steven Blane, who also founded a new denomination within Judaism called “Jewish Universalism,” which embraces the diversity of the Jewish world without judgment, conditions or requirements and asserts that all paths to the divine are equally holy.
I began my formal studies in September 2019 (realizing that I had been studying for decades in preparation for this culminating year), and was ordained on June 20, 2020. The coursework was rigorous, including readings from all denominations within Jewish tradition. Weekly divrei Torah (sermons) were shared in classes held online. An adult education class was created in the winter, entitled “Ess Ess, Mein Kindt” relating to Jewish food and the holidays/life cycle. And a final research paper called “Mo’adim Uzmanim” (Times & Seasons) was a creation of thirteen monthly thematic programs focused on holidays or special events that can be used within a Jewish organization.
Weekly classes were held online as my classmates and I attended from our homes in Maryland, New York, Wisconsin, Arizona, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, California and Calgary (Canada). We are a diverse group, but quickly became family. While most of us have never met face to face, the plan was to celebrate our ordination at a retreat center in Upstate New York. And then COVID-19 created the need for Plan B. Details were altered to create a “Virtual Ordination.” As they say, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” And so we all did.
While the first-time physical hugs we longed to share, and the rabbi’s pronouncement of our s’micha with his hands on our heads would have been magnificent, an online ceremony enabled us to share the milestone with our entire extended family and friends. Through modern technology, hundreds attended our ordination. It was a day that I will remember for the rest of my life. Most importantly, though, I am proud to be able to fulfill a dream that began more than 50 years ago as a child in a fledgling congregation. And I look forward to sharing the fruits of my labor with my Jewish community and beyond as I hopefully go from strength to strength.
RABBI MIRIAM VAN RAALTE is a contributing writer to JLife Magazine.