A new rabbi helps a temple move past loss
On July 21 a dozen women waited outside the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, the home of Temple Micah, for a Rosh Hodesh group started by Rabbi Vicki Tuckman, who died of cancer on April 7 at age 45.
That evening the group would be led for the first time by the synagogue’s new rabbi, Roni Handler.
To help the women negotiate together the path from grieving over Tuckman’s death toward a different, but potentially exciting future, Handler drew on her experience as an editor of ritualwell.org and a creator of new rituals to meet present-day circumstances. It is a passion she developed at Mayyim Hayyim, a kosher community mikva in Boston that provides a welcoming space for both traditional and creative mikva uses.
There, Handler especially enjoyed working with the ritual creation team to write ceremonies for people immersing themselves in the ritual bath.
“I got turned on to ritual and the role of ritual in people’s lives and the power of tradition to help people make meaning in their lives,” Handler said.
Handler’s early Jewish experiences were typical: a Conservative synagogue in northeast Philadelphia, a NFTY Reform youth group with friends, and a high school program at Gratz College.
What changed everything for her was going on the March of the Living with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, visiting a concentration camp and other sites of the Shoa in Europe before continuing on to Israel.
“I had an early horror and fascination with the Holocaust and couldn’t believe something so atrocious happened in the not-so-distant past,” she told NJJN. “But walking those paths in Poland was eye-opening and transformative. It was the moment when I felt I chose my Jewish identity for myself.”
She sensed that being Jewish provided “a tremendous amount of hope and faith” and realized that she wanted “to keep those traditions alive and to connect with them because so many people died for them.”
At George Washington University, she studied international affairs, focusing on Middle Eastern studies. She studied abroad at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Her exposure to different learning environments, Shabbat experiences, and religious identities nudged her toward thinking more about Jewish identity.
“Everyone felt very strongly and passionately what it meant for them to be Jewish, but each expressed it so differently,” she said. “I wanted to know what it means to be Jewish if we all are doing it in so many different ways, and it means so many different things to all of us.”
During her work on a master’s degree in Jewish communal service at the Hornstein program of Brandeis University, Handler said, she learned a lot from her internships and fieldwork. At the Rashi School, a Reform day school, the social justice coordinator, Stephanie Rotsky, “helped teach me how to be an educator — something I’ve kept with me all the years.”
Handler has edited ritualwell.org since 2007. It has a database of rituals for holidays, life-cycle events, and contemporary moments that people want to experience through a Jewish lens, like packing up a parent’s home or sending a child to college. It is a project of Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where she received ordination.
Handler also helps with recruitment at the college and is part of the movement’s community engagement team, which thinks about how to connect with all Reconstructionist affiliates as well as people in the broader world.
At the Rosh Hodesh gathering, she used a carefully crafted ceremony celebrating the new Hebrew month of Av, with references both to Tisha B’Av — the fast day mourning the historical atrocities committed against the Jews — and Tu B’Av, a day to celebrate love and matchmaking. Out of deep mourning, she said, comes a “moment of celebration, dancing, and rejoicing, bringing us back into life.”
The participants seemed to appreciate an opportunity to remember a beloved friend and rabbi.
“I’m looking forward to having someone leading us, but there are moments that are hard, so my feelings are mixed,” Rosalee Marks told NJJN.
“Rabbi Vicki touched everyone’s heart, mind, and spirit to a degree that I, as an older woman, have never seen before in my life,” said Marion Pollack.
Said Lisa B. Schwartz: “She treated us like we were each special in our own way.” All three women are from Lawrence.
Handler said she is still getting to know the Temple Micah community and learning “what Rabbi Vicki meant to them personally, who she was, what she brought to them, what they got from her.”
Her hope is that “through sharing [these stories] we can continue to carry her light through the world and through the community.”