New rabbi at Temple Micah drawn to ‘menschy’ community

New rabbi at Temple Micah drawn to ‘menschy’ community

Rabbi Elisa Goldberg was looking for two things in a synagogue and she found both at Temple Micah in Lawrenceville, where she stepped up to the pulpit on June 1. The first was “a place where I could be for a long time,” and the second was for it to be a part-time gig so she could be available for her 12-year-old daughter. 

Goldberg is a Reconstructionist rabbi who has a passion for spirituality and is drawn to human connections. These avenues came together for her in a previous role as a chaplain in a nursing home. 

“You are in place that seems devoid of meaning, but all of a sudden you can make a profound connection with another human being,” she said. “It is the gift of being a rabbi — people let you into places that are very tender.”

It wasn’t until after graduating from Cornell University in 1990 that she set her sights on rabbinical school. For most of her young adult years, she practiced meditation and dabbled in art.  

Goldberg grew up in Harvard, Mass., a small town near Lexington and Concord, where her family was one of two Jewish families.

Her parents, both of whom grew up in “very Jewish communities” — her dad in Brooklyn and her mom in Pittsfield, Mass. — wanted to do something different so they raised their two children outside of a vibrant community. 

“My parents weren’t very religious but were very culturally Jewish,” she said. They observed the major holidays and Shabbat “a little.” 

“They were leaving behind a stereotypical Jewish life, but it was really important, to my mom in particular, that we have a Jewish education,” she said. 

They joined a synagogue a half hour away, in Marlboro, Mass., which had “a great little Hebrew school,” Goldberg said. “It was small, with a lot of kids like me, from communities where there weren’t a lot of Jews.”

After her bat mitzvah, her parents divorced, and she and her brother moved with their mother to Pittsfield. “Jewishly it wasn’t a good time for me to move in terms of my Jewish education,” she said, noting the challenges in her adolescence of the divorce and her move to a new town and

After the move, Goldberg discovered meditation and focused on art, creating assemblages (three-dimensional pieces) and drawings. She practiced meditation throughout high school and into college and annually attended silent retreats with the Insight Meditation Society until her daughter
was born.

While at Cornell University, Goldberg was an activist involved in feminist politics and the movement for divestment from apartheid South Africa. She got involved with Hillel later in her college career, and calls herself “a little bit of an iconoclast” who “wasn’t your typical Hillel student.” 

“I was questioning everything and that wasn’t what Hillel was like at Cornell at that time,” she said. “My peers were mostly in sororities and fraternities.” Yet she also wanted to learn “about my history and what Judaism had to say about things.” 

She appreciated the fact that for the Hillel rabbi, Larry Edwards, “no question was off the table.” As a result, she said, “I got super excited about Judaism and wanted to learn more.” 

After graduating in 1990 with a degree in anthropology and women’s studies, Goldberg spent two years on the staff of Cornell Hillel where she said she first experienced Judaism as an adult, in a “much more intensive Jewish community than I had ever been involved in before.”

Goldberg was drawn to the rabbinate because it was a profession where she could study, teach, and retain her activism by “bringing healing into this world through the prophetic aspect of the rabbinate, but also through personal encounter with other people,” she said. 

She enrolled at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1994. During rabbinical school she interned as a chaplain at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center, now the Abramson Center, and was “totally enamored” with tending to people’s spiritual needs. After her second year she took time off to do a chaplain residency program in a hospital.   

She was also a student rabbi in two congregations, the Reconstructionist Mayim Rabim Congregation in Minneapolis and the unaffiliated Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the world’s largest synagogue serving people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, located in New York City. 

“Both were communities of people who had a lot of intention and were very spiritual and making Judaism relevant and meaningful in their lives,” she said. “Both are places that people choose to go, not because they are supposed to or because their parents belonged or out of a sense of obligation, but out of their own personal journeys and that’s an amazing place to be a rabbi.”

During her senior year, and for another year after graduation, Goldberg served as rabbi of Martins Run, a Jewish retirement community in Broomall, Pa. She led services, served on the organization’s senior leadership team, and did pastoral counseling, which for her is “the most sacred work.” 

“We all find our spiritual sustenance in different places; for me I always find it in relationship with other people,” she said.  

At Martins Run, she learned to lead services in different ways for different populations, she said. “I brought that sense of Yiddishkeit and Jewish life into these homes that didn’t have any. … It is really important for people as they grow older to connect to community and spirit.”

She carried those lessons with her and instilled them in her programming as director of the chaplaincy program at the Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) in Philadelphia.  

At JFCS, she said, “We had professional and volunteer chaplains who went to nursing homes, retirement communities, senior centers, hospices, and hospitals, bringing Jewish life, spiritual counseling, and other forms of communal connection to people.” 

In 2014, after 14 years at the JFCS, Goldberg decided it was time to try something different. For a year she served as interim rabbi at West Philadelphia’s Kol Tzedek, a progressive Reconstructionist congregation. “It was a really dynamic community, with a lot of young people,” she says. “It was really exciting to learn from them, and bringing some stabilizing energy for them during the transition was very important.”

After a couple of other interim congregational jobs, she decided to find her own pulpit because, she said, “I love the opportunity to be involved in lifecycle over time with people, to help a community to support and sustain themselves, and to have a chance to teach some Torah and help people on their own spiritual journeys.”

Besides her position at Temple Micah, Goldberg also works for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association as director of the Office of Rabbinic Career Development, doing placement and professional development. She lives in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia with her husband, Steve Weinberg, and their daughter, Jesse. 

Goldberg is replacing Rabbi Roni Handler, who served for two years before leaving to take a full-time position as director of congregational learning at Beth Tikvah B’nai Jeshurun in
Erdenheim, Pa.  

Temple Micah holds monthly Friday night services and Shabbat morning services when there is a bar or bat mitzvah. For 50 years the synagogue has “happily” resided in the Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church, Goldberg said, and is committed to remaining the same small size, about 200 member families. 

Calling Micah “a menschy community,” she said, “I think it is a model of Judaism we are going to see more of.”

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