Answering the call



Melissa lights the Chanukiah at JCC Manhattan with her fellow intern.

As I’ve mentioned, I have the immense honor of interning at The Center For Jewish Living at JCC Manhattan this year. I also have the honor of interning alongside a woman getting smicha at JTS who recently shared about a project she was asked to do for a class which I assigned myself — write an essay describing your rabbinic calling and putting it in a textual framework. So while this is in no way an essay, it is my reflection on that prompt – or at least what resonated with me afterwards.


We learn in Pirkei Avot that Avraham had ten tests, but the mishna is deliberately vague about what exactly those were. (I don’t like using the word test in this discussion, which I am pretty sure I have already written about, so I’m going to use the word trial from here.) Rambam brings a list based entirely on psukim, which resonates with me more than the options which rely more heavily upon midrashim.

Maimonides lists Avraham’s trials as follows:
1. God tells him to leave his homeland to be a stranger in the land of Canaan.
2. Immediately after his arrival in the Promised Land, he encounters a famine.
3. The Egyptians capture his beloved wife, Sarah, and bring her to Pharaoh.
4. Abraham faces incredible odds in the battle of the four and five kings.
5. He marries Hagar after not being able to have children with Sarah.
6. God tells him to circumcise himself at an advanced age.
7. The king of Gerar captures Sarah, intending to take her for himself.
8. God tells him to send Hagar away after having a child with her.
9. His son, Ishmael, becomes estranged.
10. God tells him to sacrifice his dear son Isaac upon an altar.

That tenth test is Avraham’s true hineni moment. The moment he can no longer ignore the calls, and begins to accept his relationship with God and his future as a leader of the Jewish people.

One of the most profound things I learned in looking at all the various iterations of this list, is how many of the trials were not so clear in the moment, but upon reflection become easily placed into the list.

That’s how I feel about my rabbinic calling.

There are so many moments throughout my life that were calls, some were very clear, but others were less so. And ultimately, I too had my hineni moment, the moment at which I could no longer ignore the calls and took a moment to really hear Hashem.

Interestingly, when I stopped to really think about them, I too had ten moments of feeling a call.

1. Before my Bat Mitzvah when I fell in love with being in shul, leyning, and leading tefilla. (Also, when I first began exploring feminism and what it meant to me in a Jewish context.)

2. Constantly being told as a teen that I’d be a great rabbi.

3. Debating what graduate school to attend and whether to do a dual degree at once or to wait and decide how to expand my MSW after completion.

4. Spending an entire conference with a small group of rabbinical students, and one of them saying “give me a call when you change your mind about becoming a rabbi.”

5. Reaching out to what I thought would have been the best choice rabbinical school for me and not hearing back. {It is a particularly good thing that this happened, since I ultimately left the Conservative movement.}

6. Embracing the “rebbetzin role” (and subsequently starting this blog) after meeting and marrying my husband, and continuing on our evolving religious path. (And having all those people who told me as a teen I’d be a great rabbi nodding their heads.)

7. Meeting Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg in Denver, who was then the Director of Recruitment for Yeshivat Maharat and first planted the seed.

8. Meeting Rabbi Avi Weiss the first time, where he casually mentioned attending Yeshivat Maharat while my husband attended Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

9. Listening to a podcast of a panel of future Maharat’s at Stanton St Shul while walking to Nishmat where I was falling more in love with text study every day.

10. An initial skype meeting with the esteemed and beloved Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Jeff Fox.

Once I was able to really stop and hear the call, to accept that this was where I was meant to be, answering hineni was the only choice. It was reflexive and instinctive, just as I imagine it was for Avraham. I had no idea what coming to Yeshivat Maharat would really mean. I had no idea just how difficult it would be on so many levels. I also had no idea just how rewarding it would be on so many levels. But I knew I had to say it. And I know I have to continue saying it.




My Maharat Life

Learning in yeshiva last year (Photo: Uriel Heilman, JTA)

I am a future Maharat.

I am a wife and a mother. A sister and a daughter. A friend. A social worker. A writer.

I am a lover of Torah and Judaism. Of Jews and the Jewish community.

I am learning Isur v’Heter and Orach Chayim. I am learning Masechet Ketubot, practical rabbinics, and pastoral Torah.

I am learning a book of Nach and a perek of Gemara as a part of the #womenleadersfortorah siyyum on Tanach and Gemara.

I am filled with hakarat hatov to JLIC, Nishmat, and Pardes for providing me with strong Orthodox women Torah teachers, and to each of those women individually for their leadership, scholarship, and mentorship. Also, to my primary mentors – women who happen to be rebbetzins but are learned leaders in their own right.

I am a rabbinic intern at The Center for Jewish Living at JCC Manhattan and I get to spend time helping infuse Judaism into people’s lives in real and practical and tangible ways across the lifespan.

I am passionate about working in diverse Jewish communities and in helping people engage their Judaism. I am an Orthodox Jew (without any modifiers). I am no less an Orthodox woman or a Jewish communal leader because of my desire to combine them.

I cannot speak for any of my colleagues at Yeshivat Maharat, or any other institution training Orthodox women for leadership positions. I can only speak for myself. And for me, being at Yeshivat Maharat makes it possible to live my dreams while also being true to who I am.

This is my Maharat life.
I heard my call and I am here. Hineni.

The Weight and Warmth of Torah

Before Rosh Hashana I posted the following on Facebook:

We tend to spend a lot of time at Rosh Hashana reflecting on the past year and/or thinking about the coming one.
This year I was given a charge I want to pass on…

Stay in the present.

(For fellow parents of young children for whom time for prayer can be fleeting, make the most of it. Stay present and connected. Pray the liturgy. Talk to God. Meditate. Do whatever you need to make the most of your time.)

Let us start this new year fully present, and take every opportunity given to remain so throughout the year.

Shana Tova!

Post by Melissa (Photo taken a year ago, but its the only recent one I have holding a Sefer Torah)

Post by Melissa (Photo taken a year ago, but its the only recent one I have holding a Sefer Torah)

I walked into services late after dealing with toddler-care needs, and was almost immediately asked if I would hold the Torah in the women’s section during the reading. Of course, I said yes. So what if that was my planned time to catch up on my own tefilla, holding the Torah is such a rare and special honor, that my prayers could wait. This was more important. This was staying present and in the moment in a most profound way. This was my own call to make the most of the time. This was making the most of my time in shul.

Feeling the weight of the Torah in my arms, the wood in my hands, the cloth against my neck – was deeper than words can say. I could feel it all the way through my body. It reverberated in my soul. It warmed me, in both a literal and metaphoric way.

And then it was time for the maftir reading and I had to hand it over. I immediately felt its absence. The lack of weight and warmth was devastating. I couldn’t focus as I longed to have that warmth across my body again.

I thought about that for two weeks. As life happened and I studied more Torah and I held my own Torah (my toddler), I couldn’t stop thinking about that physical weight and warmth of our holy Torah.

As Simchat Torah approached, I got excited. I couldn’t place why I was so thrilled at the upcoming chag. It is one I’ve always loved but this year I was particularly ready. I danced one hakafa with my toddler on my back in a carrier, and then he went to my husband and I was handed a Torah. And immediately, I felt it again. That buzzing in my soul I had felt on Rosh Hashana sitting and snuggling the Torah. Only this time, I was also dancing, and singing, and surrounded by other people feeling it. It only elevated me more. And yet again, all too soon the hakafa was over and I had to hand off the Torah.

During the day, I got to sing and dance and hold the Torah more. With each passing hakafa I felt my soul and spirit soar higher and higher. I cannot adequately find the words to express how meaningful I found the weight of the Torah in my arms and the warmth of it on my body.

I hold that with me as I go about my days, and am working to find a way to feel that same soul elevating sensation even without the physical trigger.