Sisters in the Hood

We Were Strangers


We hear about refugees so much we may be inured to their tragedy and pain. Meanwhile they’re hiding in your city, starving in Uganda, being murdered in Myanmar, prostrate with dehydration in Sudan.

I can personally recommend the Jewish way of repeating a few chosen words first thing every morning. After a period of focus something comes along and pushes me to change words. Currently I am using this: When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you and you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Lev. 19:33)

From Abraham to today as Jews we have almost constantly been running from oppression, death, starvation somewhere in the world. The Holiness Code, international law and the stories we have heard with our own ears require us to respond to today’s refugees. When mothers and their children  run from murderers and rapists without time to pack a bag is no time to be singing a song about bootstraps.

Refugees are people who choose between flight and death. They are not just looking for better opportunities when they beg for admittance to a reasonably calm country. Their children will be taken, they will be tortured or murdered if they return and usually their home and crops have turned to ash.

I look back on my own childhood and while we were poorer than any church mice, I never worried about armed men storming down the hill into our yard and it never occurred to me there could be tanks on our road. Few of us can imagine the agony the world’s 20 million refugees have suffered through. While 91% of the world’s children attend primary school, about 50% of refugee children do so; 10-15% attend secondary school. What kind of world are we building?

Pesach is a Holy Day that pushes us toward responsibility:

  • To volunteer with the Winnebago County Literacy Council, call your local library.
  • Volunteer at and contribute to local food pantries
  • Contribute to United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 1800 Massachusetts Av NW #500, Washington DC  20036 (UNHCR)
  • Contribute to Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 220 E 42 St, New York NY  10017 (The Joint)
  • Contribute to URJ Religious Action Center, 2027 Massachusetts Av NW 20036
  • Write to members of Congress and demand that we provide the asylum required by our 1980 Refugee Act.

We of all people must provide a haven to the persecuted, to religious minorities, to the other. The strength of America comes from open doors, extended hands, welcoming words, smiling faces and generous pockets.

- Barbara Kuhn

Get to Know Your Sisterhood Newsletter Editor: An Interview with Lisa Meng


Q: Let's start with your life at long have you been a member of Beth Israel?

Lisa: 2011 is when I finally joined; I started going to services in 2010 and LJL [Living a Jewish Life class] in early 2011.

Q:  You immediately started going to LJL? That seems atypical.  

Lisa: I don’t know what spurred it exactly.  The thinking was probably along the lines of 

“I’m Jewish; I should probably go find out what that means.”

Q: Did you find that in LJL class?  

Lisa: I actually found out a lot of stuff in LJL; it was really a source of a lot of personal growth.  

Q: Would you care to expand on that? 

Lisa:  Before I took the class, I never realized how much of a Christian culture we live in and how much anti-Judaism there is; what you hear about Judaism has a negative flavor.  One of the eye-opening things [about LJL class] was that it presented Judaism in a very different light, which was very healing to me, because I think I subconsciously carried around a lot of internalized negative cultural beliefs [about being Jewish]. It helped me integrate that part of myself and find peace with it. 

Q: You said the LJL class was eye-opening and that it presented Judaism in a positive, not a negative, light; would you have expected anything else?  

Lisa: I am not sure what I was expecting going into it.

Q: You spoke of healing a part of yourself…

Lisa: I was having a conversation with [former CBI Educator] Rabbi Lippe about this… the word shalom – one definition or interpretation, in addition to peace, is wholeness. Part of [coming to terms with my Jewishness] is [the sense of] becoming my whole self; it turned out to be true.

Q: Tell me a little about your Jewish background growing up, because it sounds like there is a part of you that needed to be healed. 

Lisa: How far back do you want to go?  

Q: How about, start at the part that needed healing.

Lisa: Let’s go back to the anti-religious sentiment that I grew up with.  

Q: Towards Judaism or any religion?  

Lisa: Towards all religions, actually. My father was raised Baptist, and had a lot of negative experiences from that. My mother was halachically Jewish, and grew up with a rabid atheist father and a mother who practiced Judaism on the sly; she was not strictly observant, but she had some religious beliefs that she kept from her spouse. My maternal Grandfather’s mother was born into a Jewish Orthodox family in New York City around the turn of century; she rebelled and married a Greek Orthodox man. As a result of that marriage, she was disowned by her family. So when she was about 56, she turned the gas on, put her head in the oven, and killed herself. So my grandfather, who was probably destined to be a bitter and angry man anyway, blamed religion for that [his mother’s suicide], and he became anti-religious as a result.  At that time, being ethnically Jewish was a lot more important than it is nowadays.  

Q: What do you mean?

Lisa: My mother grew up in New York in the 1940s and 50s in a neighborhood that was 90% Jewish. She went to Jewish summer camp every year as a child. Her parents met at a Jewish resort. [In those days], It was easy to identify as Jewish culturally, even if not practicing. And even if not practicing, it was very taboo to marry out. I think a lot of that was due to anti-Semitism.  

Q: Let’s move forward to your Jewish upbringing and Jewish experiences growing up - or lack thereof…

Lisa: So…[very long pause] let me think about this. There basically wasn’t any…[another very long pause]…I think the closest my parents came [to giving us any religious exposure] was taking us to a Unitarian fellowship when we were kids, but they weren’t very into that…but as far as Jewish experiences, very few; and a lot were things that you would associate with the cultural, yahrtzeit candles, occasional use of Yiddish, cryptic references to religious beliefs. When the topic of hell came up, mom would say “we don’t believe in that.” For the longest time, I had no idea who she meant by “we”.  And the only family prayer I remember ever being exposed to was at holiday meals, when mom would say Ha’Motzi in Hebrew and then English before we ate. That was pretty much the extent of it.

Q: Did you know you had Jewish heritage?

Lisa: Of course; my mother was proud of her Jewish heritage and considered herself Jewish.  

Q: In what way did she demonstrate that pride?  

Lisa: That’s a good question…she certainly didn’t hide that aspect of herself. I don’t know how to describe it.

Q: So would it be fair to say you essentially grew up with no religious home life?  

Lisa: Yes.

Q: So you came to CBI in 2010, when you were past…young adulthood.  

Lisa: I was 44 the first time I set foot in a synagogue.  

Q: The first time you set foot in any synagogue? that was CBI at age 44?

Lisa: yes.  

Q: Going to a synagogue for the first time after 44 years is a dramatic shift in life. Was there some specific impetus that led to this, or a series of events that led to you walking into Beth Israel for the first time?

Lisa: There were several things. One was [long-term boyfriend] Kevin’s [unexpected] death [in a cycling accident in 2009]. For me, his death felt like it left a big hole in the Universe; for the longest time after he died, it was inconceivable to me how the sun could come up every day without him being there to see it. And I realized that I couldn’t live in a world where the life of someone who’d been so special to me had had no meaning. So not long after he died, I resolved to…maybe not believe, all at once…but to keep the door open to the presence of the Divine in my life. Because I realized that by not doing so, the only person I was hurting was myself.

Also, [another factor was that] my mother was doing a lot of genealogical research; that’s her hobby these days. And she was going through Yad Vashem records, and she found a relative who was an Auschwitz survivor who currently lives in Toronto. My mother found pages of testimony this relative had written for Yad Vashem about the deaths of her parents. They were Hungarian, and had been gassed at Auschwitz. My maternal Grandmother had immigrated [to the United States from Hungary] with her family in 1912, and almost none of the family left behind in Europe survived.  One of the survivors, who is named Hedy, is my mom’s second cousin. I remember looking at the page of testimony that Hedy had written and being profoundly moved. I think that’s a big part of why I was finally motivated to come to terms with the Jewish part of my self.

Q: So since 2010, when you first set foot in a synagogue, how have you evolved Jewishly? 

Lisa: As part of the LJL class, I went to [former CBI Assistant] Rabbi Olshein at the end of the class and said, “I want to convert”.  She told me, “you’re halachically Jewish; you don’t need to convert.”  I still felt like I wanted to make some kind of commitment to being religiously Jewish.  So I took Hebrew classes and Melton, and I started adult b’nai mitzvah class the next year, in 2013.

Q: When was your bat mitzvah? 

Lisa: June 7, 2014; the Torah portion was Behaalotecha. It was good; it had Moses in it and one of those great arguments with God.

Q: How have your religious beliefs and practices evolved?  

Lisa: At some point I decided I wanted to incorporate some level of Shabbat observance and some level of kashrut in my life; that was a challenge.  

Q: Previously there was none of either, right? 

Lisa: Correct; and observance of holidays … fasting on Yom Kippur, following dietary restrictions on Passover.  

Q: You had never been to a Passover Seder before? 

Lisa: No, I had not. I have a couple of siblings [who are practicing Jews]; my brother Ian moved to Rhode Island to go to Brown University when he was 18, and met and married a woman who was raised Conservative. So their family is being raised Jewish.  And my youngest sister had kind of a similar situation. She went to the University of Rochester in New York, and met and married someone who was Reform. So when I finally decided to set foot in a synagogue, I called my younger sister and asked her what to do. She said, “Just show up at a service, and if someone asks if you are Jewish, say ‘just the food’ and it will be no big deal.”

Q: You first went to a synagogue at age 44; so for 20 years you have had siblings who are practicing Jews and you never talked about it?  

Lisa: we talked about it, but they were far away, [all living on the East Coast,] so I never spent holidays with them. For most of my adulthood, all of my holidays were spent visiting my non-religious parents and Catholic in-laws on the West Coast. Ex-in-laws, actually, since I divorced my lapsed-Catholic, very anti-religious ex-husband in 2001.

Q: What do you see as your Jewish future?  

Lisa: I’ve been trying to shape that for a while now…and nothing is set in stone.  Do you want my fantasy Jewish future? 

Q: Yes.  

Lisa: I want to be able to walk to shul [for services] every Friday night [and] every Saturday morning, and turn off the cell phone and not turn it on [again] until Saturday night; I want to have a real Shabbat. I’ve been experimenting with trying to find meaningful Jewish practice for a while…it comes down to wanting to be more fully observant of Shabbat and Kashrut. I kind of have this goal of reading the Torah portion every week and doing that for at least one full cycle. I’d like to do mikveh on Erev Yom Kippur. I just find a lot of meaning in that.  

Q: Have you ever been to a mikveh? 

Lisa: Nope. I talked to Rabbi Epstein about that.  

Q: What did she say? 

Lisa: She was fully supportive. I told her that I wanted to do it to mark menopause - to mark that life transition - and she was really supportive.  She said, “You know you can go to Chabad and do Mikveh, but the ritual part of it you will have to do on your own.”  She said she would help me put something together for the ritual part.  

Q: Let’s talk about your current involvement at CBI; you have been very involved with CBI sisterhood; how did that particular role arise? 

Lisa: It was right after that stupid election last year; I had been a Sisterhood member off and on, but didn’t feel like [it was] something that…I don’t know how to put it…

Q: Let me ask it this way.  What’s meaningful for you now about Sisterhood?  

Lisa: A lot of women were pissed off and upset by that election. CBI Sisterhood put out a note [an article in the Sisterhood newsletter] that they were going to be attending the Women’s March last January.  I read that and I said, “I am so there!  Sisterhood is doing something I really believe in.”

Before that, my perception was that Sisterhood was doing stuff that I didn’t feel was having a significant impact in the world; that benefitted only our group [CBI members], and only particular subsets within our group [children’s camp scholarships, for example].  It just didn’t feel meaningful putting my energy into that at the time. I was looking for something that affected the [greater] community, and had a meaning and purpose I could get behind. On top of that, at the time, I had a sense of feeling very alone and a sense of wanting to join forces or find comfort in the company of people who felt the same way – which is exactly what happened, because I met several members of Sisterhood who I found a sense of solidarity with – a sense of like purpose.  

The NPR radio show, dinner party download, always closes their celebrity interviews with the same standard questions.  We are closing with the same questions.

Q: What question are you tired of being asked?

Lisa: This is not something that’s been asked of me a lot, but asked enough to be annoying… “What makes you think you’re Jewish?” especially when I was asked that by someone [who was] raised Jewish and had two Jewish parents, and hadn’t set foot in a synagogue in 20 years, while I was going through studying to become a bat mitzvah.  I mean, how Jewish are you if you were raised Jewish but don’t have your son circumcised, or you marry a non-Jew and raise your child in that religion, or you do not observe holidays or have any kind of Jewish observance on a personal level?

In contrast to that, I have enormous respect for people like [CBI members] Gretchen [Johnson] and Shari [Nichols], who were not raised Jewish, but live it every day.

Q: Tell us something we don’t know. And this can be either a personal thing that you haven’t shared with others before or it could be an interesting piece of trivia about the world.

Lisa: I have no unique knowledge.

Q: That’s not an acceptable answer.  

Lisa: Okay. I once rode my bike from Vancouver, British Columbia to San Francisco on a solo trip.

Q: you are into Harleys?

Lisa: No. It was human powered…a bicycle.  I am into bicycle touring; it’s a really nerdy hobby.  

Q: So let’s close with some more personal things about you, since we talked quite a bit about your Jewish life.  Do you want to share anything about work? other hobbies? your hot sex life?

Lisa: Here’s something…I swore I’d never get married again.

Q:  So you are divorced? 

Lisa: Yeah.

Q: Do you have any children?

Lisa: Nope. I’ve been divorced since 2001; so a long time.

Q: And you are never getting married again…

Lisa: That [marriage] was such a miserable experience. I swore I would never do it again. I’ve met so many women who feel the same way.

Q: Well, we will see if you ever get talked out of that.

Lisa: It would take a pretty special person to do that; I can say I am more open to that possibility now than I ever have been before – since getting divorced.

Q: Good luck in your non-marriage future, both personally and professionally, as well as your continuing Jewish evolution. Thank you for taking the time to sit down with your readers and share about yourself in this interview.

- Matt Levitt

An Interview with Gretchen Johnson

Gretchen at Central Market South

Gretchen at Central Market South

L: I’m going to just start at the beginning. Are you originally from Texas?

G: Yes, I am. I was born in Dallas, and my family moved to Austin when I was a toddler. So I grew up here and I went to Austin High School and then I also went to U.T.

L: Oh wow…so a lifetime Austinite…that’s really cool.

G: Yeah. I moved to the Rio Grande Valley for a little over 12 years when I was in Teach for America, and then I came back again to Austin maybe about 6 years ago.

L: That’s neat. So is your whole family still here?

G: My mother and father are not still married but they both still live in Austin, and then my sister is living in Dallas right now.

L: So what year were you born? You’re 48?

G: 1969.

L: How old were you when you moved to Austin?

G: I think about 2 or 3, maybe.

L: And you have a sister?

G: Yes, I have a brother and a sister, but my brother died when he was 27. He was 2.5 years younger than me, and he died of leukemia. 

L: I’m so sorry to hear that. That’s awful. So your sister…is she older than you?

G: My sister is younger. She just turned 40. She just completed her psychiatry residency and she has a daughter who’s 5. So I have a niece.

L: So that’s your only niece?

G: Uh huh.

L: Do you get to see them in Dallas much?

G: Whenever I get a chance. It’s hard because I usually have to work on weekends and usually weekends are the only time she’s not working, you know? So it’s a little hard to coordinate as I would like, but a few times a year I do.

L: Are you going to see them for Thanksgiving?

G: Yes. They’re coming to town.

L: Cool. So when you were a kid, what did you most want to be when you grew up? Were you one of those people who knew from the time you were little what you wanted to do, or were you kind of searching around for a while, or were you in-between?

G: Well I probably searched around for a while, but I think that some of the things that I wanted to be I ended up doing. I think I wanted to write, starting from a pretty young age, and also I thought that I might become a teacher and I did teach for 12 years.

L: So do you still write?

G: I do. I’m not really published, but I’ve done NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) 5 times. But other than that, I mostly wrote things for when I was teaching, and I’ve done a D’var Torah a couple of times.

L: Were you a huge nerd in high school? Were you just one of those people who always had a book with you? What were you like as a kid?

G: Yes, I read very, very much…I started reading when I was probably about 4 and I just read all the time. When I was halfway through kindergarten, my father made a rule that he would not buy me any books that had less than 100 pages, because I’d finish them before we got out of the bookstore. 

L: (laughs) So you were a fast reader, too!

G: Yeah. So I was reading novels like the Wizard of Oz and things like that while I was in kindergarten. And especially during the time that I was converting, I started just inhaling books on Jewish themes. I think I read about 200 books on Jewish themes in the two years that I was studying for conversion. I only admitted to 50 at my beit din, because, I don’t know, I thought that sounded less…

L: Braggy? Which is so funny because you’re not a braggy person at all. But possibly more believable to say maybe 50.

Ok. So you weren’t raised Jewish. But were you raised in any religious tradition?

G: Yes. My parents converted to a lot of Christian denominations when I was a child…so I was baptized Presbyterian…actually all 4 of my grandparents I believe were Presbyterian. And so I was baptized Presbyterian, and then when I was in grade school, my parents were going to an Episcopal church near where we lived, and then when I was 10, my family converted to Catholicism. And at the Catholic church, there was a youth group leader who was more towards the evangelical side, pentecostal side, you know? I’m not sure how much the priest knew about what was going on there…but I definitely got exposed to that as well. 

By the time I was 16, I decided that Christianity wasn’t quite working for me, and I didn’t go to church any more. And my best friend at that time…well my best friend all through middle school and high school was Jewish. But when I told her that I didn’t want to go to church anymore, that I’d had enough, she said “Well I don’t think you should try to be Jewish, because you pretty much have to be born Jewish…it’s almost impossible to covert.”

L: She said that?

G: Yeah well that was more than 30 years ago, you know.

L: Did you have an interest though, at that point?

G: Yeah I think so.

L: So are you parents currently practicing Catholics?

G: No. My mom I think mostly goes to an Episcopal church now, and my father became a Buddhist. 

L: How did they feel about you converting?

G: They were very supportive, you know? My mom bought me this star of David (see picture of Gretchen with Magen David necklace) as a conversion present. She also bought my tallit for me. And they’ve both been to the synagogue several times. My dad has come to the Purim celebrations twice. And they were there a few weeks ago when I chanted Torah for the first time.

L: That’s really great that they’re supportive. 

G: Yeah.

L: So what do you do about Christmas?

G: Well…ok…so originally…when I was going through the conversion process, like when I knew for sure that I was definitely going to convert, I actually waited until after Christmas to tell the Rabbi.

L: I see…

G: Because I figured…I wanted to have Christmas one more time. I mean I know that I still go to Christmas, but I knew that it wasn’t going to be the same. I knew it wasn’t going to be my holiday. Not that I had any belief in the religious stuff, you know. 

But I think that when I was going through conversion that the thing that oddly I was most worried about was thinking oh, darn, that’s hundreds of Christmas carols that I could never sing again. Because singing and music was something that I really enjoyed, you know. But now I realize that there’s more singing in Judaism, because you sing during the entire service every week, so I feel a lot better about it now. But that was a concern at the time…that I thought I was going to miss Christmas carols.

L: So you were able to replace one with the other, and so the transition hasn’t been so bad because of that.

G: Right.

L: That’s good. So have you thought about learning trope?

G: I did take a trope class, and I chanted Torah a few weeks ago with no tape or anything like that.

L: So when you chanted Torah, was there a program that you went through to prepare for that?

G: That was mostly the trope class that we took with Ellen…I think it was a 10 week course…and then at the end of it kind of like for our graduation we each of us chanted a few verses of Torah.

L: Wow…that’s really cool.

G: Yeah. And right now I’m in the adult b’nei mitzvah class. In May, I guess officially that’s going to be my bat mitzvah service.

L: So what’s the date? I just want to make sure I don’t miss it.

G: I think it’s May 13th. After the Sisterhood Shabbat on May 12th.

L: So…what is it that drew you to Judaism?

G: Partly, it’s kind of mysterious. From early childhood maybe, I was drawn to it…like if I came across a book that had Jewish characters in it, I was just really fascinated. 

And then the other thing is that, out of the people that I made friends with at school, most of them as it turned out were Jewish. And I didn’t know it. Many of them were not very religious. And they didn't really talk about it. and so I did not know that they were Jewish until years after we became friends. But I went through an experience throughout middle school and high school where, one by one, I learned that a high percentage of the people who I hung out with were Jewish. 

L: Do you think there was something about them…maybe…the culture?

G: Probably. With my best friend, I would go over to her house and talk to her parents…they were really smart, interesting, educated people. They were college professors, actually. And so it was really interesting the discussions they would get into. I think I sort of like the view of morality…instead of everything being about whether you’re going to be rewarded or punished in the afterlife, basically it was just more of a focus on doing the right thing because it’s the right thing. And that made a lot more of an impression on me because you would still do the right thing, whether or not you believed all of the stuff.

L: Uh huh…it’s more ethics-based.

G: Yeah. And also, I think when I was probably in my early teens, they had a Passover Seder at the Catholic church that I was going to. And I went to that a couple of year in a row. And I thought that that was just the coolest thing, and it was near Easter time and I was like “Can’t we just do this instead of the Easter thing?”

L: What are the things you like most about being Jewish?

G: I like it that you’re always learning things. There’s so much more focus on education, you know. I like that it’s not as strongly belief-based as some religions, and so you have a lot more intellectual freedom. Really there’s nothing that you can’t discuss.

L: It’s not dogmatic.

G: Mm hm. 

L: Well. At least not Reform (Judaism).

G. Yeah. And I also like it being a little more action-based than belief-based.

L: What about things that you don’t like? Are there any things that have turned out to be problematic?

G: If there were any issues that I think that at first…you know that I didn’t necessarily agree with…the first one that came up during my conversion process was about forgiveness. I read this book “The Sunflower”…and basically they had a lot of Jews and Christians and people of other religions responding to the question of whether you should forgive serious crimes. 

The Christian position was yes, that you should forgive, because that’s what you do…It’s one of the most important commandments, I guess, that Christians are supposed to follow. And the Jews are saying, no, no…you shouldn’t forgive. So, I…I don't know, I wasn't too sure about that, because I felt like, in the first place, if you just hold on to your grudge and you don’t forgive people, you’re just going to be holding on to your resentment and that’s not going to do you any good. And in the second place, how is that going to motivate people to reform. But since then I’ve actually realized that there is a more diverse range of positions within Judaism than was necessarily apparent from the book.

L: I think I got a really different take-away from that [book] when I read it…because it’s true, you can see the dividing line right down the middle when you read the Jewish responses and you read the Christian ones…and Jews believe that a lot of the responsibility for being forgiven is on the person who transgressed. And to me, that makes more sense. It’s good to forgive…but the person has to prove that they’ve changed. That they’re no longer going to be committing whatever it was that caused them to injure others in the first place. So that was my take-away from it. 

G: Yeah. And I think I have a more nuanced understanding of that than I had at the time, but when I read the book, I was kind of shocked by it. I tried and tried to write a book report on that book…I just never …every time I wrote it I was just like…I don’t want to turn this in. 

Also, [out of] everything that I told my mother about when I was going through the conversion process …that was the only thing that she did not respond positively to.

L: Before you became Jewish, did you have any experiences with prejudice and discrimination? I mean on a personal level.

G: Yeah. So I am bisexual, and I originally came out when I was a junior or senior in high school [and] I realized that I was in love with a woman. This was like late ‘80s, early ‘90s…I went through the whole coming out process and was participating in the gay rights movement at the time.

L: So do you feel that gave you any insight into anti-semitism at all? Like did you feel more comfortable with that aspect of becoming Jewish?

G: Yeah, I think that I didn’t have any hesitation converting because of concerns about anti-semitism…and I think that I initially wrote in one of my assignments for class that Rabbi Rose was reading…by the way, I have no intention to be a closeted Jew.

L: That’s awesome.

G: So yeah I definitely um…it’s not something that I would try to hide from. You know in some cases, it’s kind of interesting because you know if you were born Jewish, maybe you want to be a little more discreet about it, whereas I’m like, what? You know, is there like anybody who doesn’t already know? 

L: How do you feel about the Jewish community in Austin? Do you feel like they’ve accepted you? Have you had any problems feeling integrated into Jewish life?

G: I felt pretty comfortable at CBI from the first …I made friends pretty readily…and so I think it’s great. I really feel like CBI is my family. Occasionally there’s certain issues that I don’t completely agree with, or different things that I want to change or add, but I feel like I can do that.

L: Is that with respect to Sisterhood, or with the Congregation in general?

G: Well, both. I went through the leadership development a couple of times, you know…also with Sisterhood I’ve had the opportunity to do some things that I’m not sure I would have gotten the opportunity to do as quickly if it had not been for Sisterhood. I’m on the board now, I’ve had the opportunity to lead a service because of the Sisterhood Shabbat…I don’t think that the mainstream of the synagogue would have asked me to do that as quickly as the Sisterhood did.

L: So let’s move on to non-jewy things. Ok, so you’re a big reader. Are there any other hobbies? Oh, you knit!

G: Yes. I do knit.

L: Ok...let’s see. So you read everything.

G: Yes.

L: What are your favorite books?

G: I read a lot of science fiction.

L: Who’s your favorite science fiction author?

G: I’ve been really into N. K. Jemisin recently. The Broken Earth trilogy. It’s an intense read. It’s not a light read. But that was really awesome. She already won the Hugo award for both of the first two books in the trilogy. And I have always been a big fan of Ursula LeGuin for the longest time. Octavia Butler. Samuel Delaney. Like back in my high school years.

L: Anything else?

G: Let’s see..what do I do during the free time that I don’t have…

L: That’s right, because you work a lot.

G: Yeah (laughs) I don’t know…I’m trying to think…like apart from the reading and the writing when I get the chance…and then I’m in a bunch of different activities at CBI.

L: You are! You’re involved in just about everything.

G: Yeah. And I’m involved with the Refugee Services of Texas. Oh yeah I go to IACT things too. Like the Red Bench.

L: When you’re not at work or synagogue, where are you most likely to be found?

G: You know…probably at home. Because …actually I’m an introvert. But I work in sales. And then I’m constantly doing group activities at CBI. So I feel like I’m pretty much just maxing out my introvert limit on a regular basis.

L: Oh I gotcha…

G: (Laughs) so I’m just …there’s not that many hours in-between, anyway. My schedule’s pretty crazy. I’m very frequently driving straight from work to CBI or CBI to work. 

L: So this question is completely out of left field…but what do your parents do for a living? Are they still working?

G: They’re retired. My dad was a state auditor. And then my mother…she taught for a while, and then she was a stay-at-home mom for a while…and then she got a job as a secretary, I think maybe at the business school at U.T, you know…and then she was actually a…so she got her clergy license…she was actually an assistant pastor. She was in charge of pastoral care at MCC for a while. So she’s never been a senior pastor or anything but she’s a retired pastor.

L: So the one thing we didn’t cover was your work experience with Teach for America. I’ve already asked you about that a little bit…you taught high school physics, was it?

G: Uh huh. Yeah.

L: For 12 years?

G: Yeah. And other assorted sciences.

L: Were you kind of a science nerd?

G: I was. So I have a triple major.

L: Oh that’s awesome.

G: I don’t have any graduate degrees, but I have a triple major in English, History and Physics.

L: So I think you’ve answered all of my questions…except for one more. So what do you now want to be when you grow up?

G: (Laughs) 

L: What are your future plans? If any.

G: You know I don’t know if I have it all figured out. I don’t know if I thought of a job that I can reasonably get paid for that would incorporate all of the things that I want to do, you know?

L: Have you thought about going to Rabbinical School?

G: I’ve thought about it. I think from a practical and financial standpoint, it’s an unwise idea…but yeah, I’ve thought about it.

L: That’s cool. I can picture you doing that. Just saying…(laughs)

G: (Laughs)

L: Alright. Is there anything else you want to share?

G: I think that’s all I can think of…

L: Yeah, we covered a lot! That was a good interview. Thank you.

An Interview with Rabbi Epstein

Rabbi Rebecca Epstein at Congregation Beth Israel, Austin, TX

Rabbi Rebecca Epstein at Congregation Beth Israel, Austin, TX

Rebecca Epstein is our Educational Director and Rabbi. She has been a wonderful and engaging member of our rabbinical staff going on four years now. She was raised in Minnesota and went to college in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Q: What led you to become a rabbi?

A: “I think the biggest influence on me was that I lived in New York City on 9/11, and at the time I had just graduated from college and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I was doing some different volunteer projects, and was also a modern dancer, so was taking dance classes. I was also teaching Hebrew school, and really wanted to give the Hebrew school kids a place they could come and feel connected to tradition and their community and feel positive after 9/11. This is what motivated me — to give back a sense of community and tradition.”

Q: You mention that you enjoy working with children. What was your own childhood like?

A: ”I was raised in Minnesota to a Jewish Dad and a non-Jewish mom. Mom was spiritual, but didn't go to church. I went to temple with my dad for the High Holiday services. Temple was the only religious place I went to.

I felt drawn to Judaism as a child. I loved the music, the tradition, and loved our rabbi ( one of the first female rabbis). I told my parents I wanted to go to Sunday school and wanted to be Bat Mitzvah’d.”

Q: What has been your biggest reward as a rabbi?

A: ”Teaching kids and adults, and watching them get excited learning about Judaism. Giving meaning to their lives — that is really special and rewarding. And I feel I can do that in many ways. Even sad events, like funerals — I can minister to those in need, and that is a privilege."

Q: What about your biggest challenge?

A: ”Getting teens excited. They are the future, and getting them involved is important for strengthening their identity, as they will be the future of the Jewish people.”

Q: What do you like most about CBI?

A: ”What's awesome about CBI is that people are excited to try new things. And what's really nice is that the temple gives me the freedom to try new things.

One example is that in January, over the MLK weekend, we are planning a program where we focus on welcoming the stranger. The whole weekend will be spent learning about Social Justice, and connecting this through a Jewish standpoint and also a current events standpoint. I am always excited working on a new project and trying something I haven't done before. That's a really cool thing.”

“Also, entering into my 4th year year here, working with the kids and families and getting to know them and building relationships has been very rewarding.”

Well, Rabbi Epstein, interviewing you has also been a rewarding privilege, and I feel blessed having gotten to know and learn about you.

Carol Calvery