New Beth El leader had detours on route to rabbinate

New Beth El leader had detours on route to rabbinate

Raysh Weiss drawn from Orthodoxy to Conservative egalitarian shul

Rabbi Raysh Weiss of Beth El in Yardley, Pa., said she moved to the area “to build roots.” Photo by Ann Silver
Rabbi Raysh Weiss of Beth El in Yardley, Pa., said she moved to the area “to build roots.” Photo by Ann Silver

As a youngster, Raysh Weiss attended the egalitarian bat mitzvah ceremony of a family friend who is profoundly deaf. The experience had a strong impact on her and propelled her on a journey away from the Modern Orthodox community her family was part of in Skokie, Ill.

Her ultimate destination: the pulpit of Congregation Beth El, the Conservative egalitarian synagogue in Yardley, Pa.

“What got to me in my kishkes” during that service, she told NJJN, was that “not only did the bat mitzvah pronounce everything perfectly, she also used throat vibrations to follow the trope and sang everything on key.”

“Hearing this woman taking ownership of her Judaism, reading Torah, giving a dvar Torah was very empowering to me.” 

Weiss remembers saying to herself, “Here’s this incredible young woman who did this — I want to learn how to chant Torah,” something she would not be allowed to do within the restrictions of the Orthodox congregation to which she belonged.

So she found a private tutor to teach her Torah trope and eventually told her parents she also wanted to become bat mitzvah with a privately coordinated egalitarian service. They said yes, but only if she agreed to tell no one in their community. “They didn’t want me to get kicked out of school,” Weiss explained.

Her independent study led her to apply to be a freelance Torah reader, a job that was, she said, eye-opening. “That’s where I fell in love with communal work. I loved forging relationships with all different kinds of synagogues, seeing them in different moments and generations. It’s what sealed the deal for me,” Weiss said.

Once she learned trope, she was also able to arrange the bat mitzvah service she had envisioned for herself — at Harvard Hillel’s egalitarian minyan, where her older sister, a student at the university, had become involved.

After Weiss graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in comparative literary studies and media, in 2006, she expected to matriculate at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).

A Fulbright fellowship, however, led to a two-year extension from the seminary and a year in Germany doing fieldwork in ethnomusicology, with a focus on klezmer music in postwar Europe. She traced its path from a “grassroots, countercultural, edgy” phenomenon to one that was “appropriated into mainstream high culture and stripped of its political zing.”

Another detour off the rabbinic path was a stint at the University of Minnesota’s department of cultural studies and comparative literature, where she did research into 1930s Yiddish musical cinema.

The return to the goal of becoming a rabbi happened, she said, “almost by accident.” While living in Minneapolis, four miles from the closest Conservative synagogue, she began to look for people to share Friday night services with. She brought together a group of graduate students, who soon morphed into a chavurah. The 20- and 30-year-olds came together for study, kabbalat Shabbat services, and social justice projects. The chavurah, Weiss said, was “very vibrant and transformative” and was where she made “some of my closest friends in life.”

One positive thing happened early on after she finally arrived at JTS: She met her husband “at the first morning minyan I attended at JTS rabbinical school; he helped me adjust my tefillin,” she said. Her husband, Rabbi Jonah Rank, is education director at Kehilat HaNahar, the Reconstructionist congregation in New Hope, Pa.

After her 2016 ordination, Weiss moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to serve as senior rabbi of Shaar Shalom Congregation. She chose this community because, she said, “growing up I had a fantasy of being in a place where there were no other Jewish resources” (and they also gave her husband a part-time position).

At Shaar Shalom, she initiated programs for all age groups, and in the Halifax community founded a chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, whose mission is to build relationships between Muslim and Jewish women.

But after three years, she and her husband, who have two daughters, Ariana, now 4, and 7-month-old Meital, realized “we wanted to be in a place near a day school, and we are excited to be in a place where we want to build roots.”

Weiss took over the leadership of Beth El from an interim rabbi, who served for a year after Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg left, Weiss said, “to fulfill his lifelong dream of taking the pulpit in a very large synagogue.” Gruenberg is now senior rabbi at Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore. “He loved it here, was very much beloved, and is a dear friend of ours. His opportunity is my gain as well.”

“We are excited that Rabbi Weiss has joined our community,” said Liz Ravitz, one of the congregation’s presidents. “Her roots in traditional egalitarian Judaism combined with her ability to hear the needs of the congregation will help Beth El grow and thrive. She brings warmth and a genuine desire to get to know each and every member.”

Weiss said the staff and lay leaders at her new congregation, which has about 300 families, are “top-notch.”

“It is a really intentional and talented community, and is extremely warm and welcoming,” she said. “You walk into the place, and you want to be here. It is very exciting to be in a place that has so much passion.”

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