Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Judaism

Jews Account For Less Than 1 Percent Of Our Region’s Population But Have A Remarkably Strong Presence In The Community

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Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg, Ohef Sholom, Norfolk, Judaism
Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg

Reform Judaism, the most liberal of the three branches, has a slightly longer history of accepting women as equals. In fact, a well-known Reform temple in Norfolk, Ohef Sholom, is led by a woman—Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg.

Born in Los Angeles, Mandelberg had “a very strong Jewish identity while growing up,” she told me as we talked one day in her office.

“My father was from Transylvania and was a Holocaust survivor. My mother’s family was from Czechoslovakia and Latvia. Her grandparents emigrated to what was then Palestine in the late 1930s because they sensed the tide was turning. So they were really pioneers in the founding of the state of Israel.”

In spite of this sense of Jewish identity, Mandelberg said, there were “gaps” in her knowledge. Moreover, it never occurred to her that she might become a Rabbi because women were not allowed to do so.

“I’d never even seen a woman Rabbi before, so it never entered my mind that it was a possibility.”

That changed when she joined a Reform congregation after college—one that was led by a woman.

“Every time she opened her mouth,” Mandelberg said, “I felt like she was speaking directly to me. One day I was sitting in services listening to her and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that could be me.’”

Mandelberg explored the idea with her Rabbi over lunch one day, and the Rabbi urged her to reflect on why she wanted to become one as opposed to, say, a teacher or a social worker.

“I loved the idea of learning and teaching,” she said, “but I also felt like I wanted to be able to show people how Judaism could enhance the joy and meaning in their lives and also help them through difficult times. So that would involve the counseling and the lifecycle officiating as well.”

After making her decision, she began her studies, spending one year in Israel and four years in New York. She was ordained in 1996 and served for a time in Westchester County, just north of the city, then for nine years in Baltimore. She has been at Ohef Sholom since 2004, and by all accounts from people who know her she is beloved for her warmth and openness. 

“I like that Judaism places a huge emphasis on ethics on how you treat your fellows,” she said. “To me that’s really the most important thing in life—treating people with dignity and compassion and kindness. That’s how I strive to live, and that’s how I strive to lead—from a place of compassion and love and respect and kindness. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes assert truths that might be uncomfortable for people. But they all stem from a place of recognizing the dignity and really the divinity in every human being. We’re all created in the image of God.”

When I asked Mandelberg whether she ever doubts the existence of God she said she does not. In spite of all the horrors in the world, she sees the good as evidence of God’s work. “I see all the miracles—every birth, every positive thing.”

Nevertheless, she doesn’t worry too much that some Jews harbor more doubt about God’s existence.

“The belief to me is less important than how you behave,” she said. But while Reform Judaism is more modern than the Conservative and certainly the Orthodox branches, she also sees tremendous value in ritual.

“We just talked with a group of teenagers about this the other day,” she said, “and gave them a list of reasons why rituals are important: “they punctuate time and make it meaningful; they elevate the ordinary into the extraordinary; they put a frame around life’s important moments; they highlight our values; they give us an opportunity for reflection on and reenactment of our history; they help us make memories, and they focus our lives on our destiny.”

Mandelberg acknowledged that it does require effort to avoid making rituals robotic, but she said that she avoids this by performing every one—whether it’s a wedding, a funeral or what have you—“as if it were the first. Everybody’s story is different, and what it means to them is different. It’s the same with worship. When I go to lead prayer I need time to set an intention for me and for the congregation. The words may be the same, but depending on where I am or the community is, they have slightly different meanings.”

Barry Einhorn told me something very similar.

“I feel like I have a very personal relationship with God through Judaism,” he said. “The prayers set me up for a conversation with God that’s as real as my conversation with you right now. If I have a problem, and I can’t find the solution, I very often find one by talking to God. That’s from a spiritual point of view. There’s also something about being part of the Tribe, so to speak. There’s a common experience. Somebody who’s not Jewish does not really have the same appreciation for being a minority that we have. It also helps me to be a more understanding person in relation to other minorities, which is one reason Lois and I became very active in the Civil Rights movement. We’ve made many friends in the African-American community as a result.”

Rabbi Mandelberg mentioned the emphasis on social justice as well. Indeed, while Reform and Conservative services differ to some degree, I detected few if any differences in religious and social outlook between the two branches, at least as they were represented by Ohef Shalom and Temple Israel. 

Rabbi Sender Haber, Judaism
Rabbi Sender Haber

Orthodox Judaism is another matter, as I learned while talking with Rabbi Sender Haber, the leader of B’nai Israel in the Ghent section of Norfolk.

For one thing, women there, as in other Orthodox synagogues, sit in a separate side section of the sanctuary during services, just as women do in the mosques I visited while researching my article on Islam for this series. And needless to say, there are no female Rabbis. And yet, when I visited those mosques I learned that the women wholly embrace this convention. The same is true of women of Orthodox Jewish synagogues.

There’s no sense that women are inferior, Rabbi Haber told me. The convention is rooted partly in the idea that women sitting with men is a distraction. (Again, the same rationale was given to me by Muslims with whom I spoke.)

The tradition is not from the Bible, Haber told me. “It’s more Rabbinic. But people far wiser than us said that’s how we’re going to pray. It’s worked. It’s nice to have a thousand-year tradition of that.”

As for the prohibition on women becoming Rabbis, Haber said he sees the issue as a “red herring.”

“My wife counsels, answers questions about Jewish law and teaches. She’ll do just about anything that a Rabbi would do except lead the congregation in prayer.”

Haber, age 39, has been Orthodox his entire life. His father—also a Rabbi—is from Buffalo, N.Y., but had moved for a time to Jerusalem, and that’s where Haber was born. The family moved back when he was a young child, then relocated to Australia when Haber was 12. After attending school there, he moved back to the States to study, then to Israel for two years, before moving back to America permanently and settling in New Jersey.

He and his wife eventually moved to Norfolk because they liked the idea of living in a smaller community, and five years ago he became the Rabbi of B’nai Israel.

“It’s a great community,” he said, “and it’s a growing community. Just about everybody who’s a part of it wants to grow, in some way, in their relationship with God. I find that extremely inspiring.” The congregation, he added, now has about 250 members. 

Unlike many Conservative and certainly Reform Jews, members of the Orthodox believe in strict adherence to customs like keeping a kosher household and not driving on the Sabbath. The latter custom explains why so many Orthodox Jews live in Ghent—because it is so easy to get around on foot.

Rabbi Haber also differs from Panitz and Mandelberg in that he does read the Bible literally.

“God created the world and continues today. The fact that we’re meeting here today is something that God is on top of. So, basically what we believe is that The Torah is the word of God, and it’s true. We believe that Moses literally parted the sea, and we believe that God gave the Torah to him on Mount Sinai.”

He also believes in the story of Adam and Eve. And yet, he said, one has to be careful not to read the Torah superficially. Orthodox Jews, he said, read it through the lens of Rabbinic interpretations passed down through the ages.

“That is where we’re different from evangelicals or creationists,” he said. “You can’t just open up a Bible and say, OK, that’s what it says—you need to look at all the interpretations.”

As for the Theory of Evolution, he added, “there are really two approaches. One is to figure out how the theory could fit into the Bible. There have been books written trying to reconcile evolution with the creation story. Personally, I think someone could come along tomorrow with a new theory [that would displace the Theory of Evolution.] As for me, I’m confident to be able to say, look, God created the world. I don’t have to understand everything. The creation story is considered to be the most difficult part of the Bible, and I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand it.”

Haber gave a similar answer when I asked him whether he thinks people of other religions will go to heaven.

“I think God will sort that out,” he said.

Because Orthodox Judaism takes such a strict approach, there is a clear divide between it and the other two branches.

“There’s definitely friction between the denominations,” Rabbi Haber said. “But I’m very fortunate that I grew up in a home where I learned that I can be friends with people and respect them, while completely disagreeing with them. Thank God there’s a lot of that around here—a lot of mutual respect.”

The mutual respect appears to extend to the non-Jewish community. Everyone I talked with during the course of my research told me that they rarely if ever encounter expressions of anti-Semitism. I hear anti-Semitic comments on occasion, but not to the degree that I did while growing up in New York, ironically. This speaks especially well for our region, since expressions of anti-Semitism are reportedly on the rise in various other pockets of the country.

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