‘Fit rabbi’ brings community-building to new pulpit
Dina Rosenberg wants to reach people ‘where they are’
Dina Rosenberg — known by the social media moniker “the fit rabbi” — plans to bring physical wellness and more to her new pulpit.
On July 1, Rosenberg became religious leader at Temple Beth Shalom, succeeding Rabbi Ira Rothstein, who retired after 40 years at the 400-family Conservative synagogue in Manalapan.
It’s on Instagram and Facebook that Rosenberg can be found giving divrei Torah on the connection between Judaism and physical fitness.
“So much of what I learned in promoting my own self-care has helped me as a rabbi to promote self-care in others,” said Rosenberg. She accomplishes that by conducting classes on nutritious Jewish cooking and promoting Jewish concepts about healthy living.
At her first position at the Bay Ridge Jewish Center in Brooklyn after her 2011 ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), she ran a program on Shabbat afternoons training congregants to run a half-marathon.
The focus on fitness for the 35-year-old Rosenberg, who is expecting her first child in October, began when she undertook a weight-loss regimen while attending JTS; to celebrate the one-year anniversary of losing 47 pounds — and keeping it off — Rosenberg ran the New York City Marathon.
Since then, she has run the marathon three more times, each time raising funds for Team for Kids, to support fitness and health programs for children in low-income schools across the nation.
Rosenberg intends on putting some of her fitness background to use in her new position, with plans to have Shabbat hikes with congregants and other wellness programs connected to Jewish concepts.
Such activities not only promote physical well-being, they also build “a sense of community,” said the rabbi. “What I really love about Judaism is the creativity involved. We are allowed to ask the questions; we may not have all the answers but we’re supposed to keep asking.”
After her Brooklyn pulpit and before coming to the Manalapan congregation, Rosenberg served B’nai Shalom of Olney in Maryland, a suburb of Washington.
It was while growing up at Temple Aliyah in Los Angeles that Rosenberg made a lasting connection to Judaism; she said the congregation’s “incredible rabbi,” Stewart Vogel, became her mentor, and “the synagogue became my extended family, my chavurah.”
In addition, Rosenberg said, “My parents made it fun and interesting and a place I wanted to be. I made my best friends there.”
As a youngster she would be at the synagogue almost every day, attending religious school and services and taking part in youth group activities. She was such a presence that when she was about 10 years old, Vogel mentioned her by name in a High Holiday sermon; he said, according to Rosenberg, that “I had brought in more members than the membership committee because I talked about [the temple] constantly.”
Her connection to Judaism kept growing, although Rosenberg initially wanted to be a lawyer and majored in communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Rosenberg has completed four 400-hour chaplaincy fellowships and is working toward being certified as a chaplain.
“It’s important to me as a rabbi to be able to reach out to people and help them where they are,” she said. “When I do clinical pastoral counseling, it forces me constantly to reflect on how I am as a person and a rabbi, and that constant self-reflection forces me to be a better person and rabbi.”
Among Rosenberg’s favorite pursuits is working with children, and she is already brimming with ideas on how to engage youngsters and their families in congregational activities. Three Shabbat dinners devoted to kids are planned, and she is considering such themes as Disney or superheroes, where children can come to the event in costume. “That way kids can express who they are and their diversity and do it in a Jewish context,” said Rosenberg. “I probably will wear a Wonder Woman costume.”
The rabbi has also invited teens to the Old Bridge home she shares with her husband, Mark Kirk, and two dogs, Peanut Butter and Basil, to help erect the family sukkah (the holiday falls just before Rosenberg’s due date, so she doubts she herself will be of much help in its construction).
Rosenberg describes her artist husband as “my balance” — because “he is artsy and creative, and being a rabbi is a full-time job” — and as a “challah baker extraordinaire” who recently turned out a pink loaf laden with cranberries and white chocolate. She said he plans on sharing his techniques through challah-baking classes at the temple.
To broaden congregants’ appreciation of all Judaism has to offer, Rosenberg also intends to hold such out-of-the-box activities as holding worship services around a campfire.
“So much of Judaism needs to be experienced, and to fully experience it,
it is important to be outside and in nature,” she said.
For instance, during services the congregation traditionally turns to the sanctuary to welcome the Sabbath queen during the singing of “L’cha Dodi.” However, Rosenberg said, outdoors, congregants can face anywhere to welcome Shabbat, leading to “a different level of connection” and gratitude for God’s creation.
Rosenberg said she is eager to join the “powerhouse” of women leaders at Beth Shalom, including executive director Karen Ross, education director Nancy Shechter, and Cantor Summer Greenwald-Gonella, all “working together to make the congregation relevant, vibrant, and exciting to everyone in the area.”
“It is a warm and welcoming synagogue where members are really excited about its past and really excited about the future,” Rosenberg said. “It’s what made me want to come here.”