New rabbi uses ancient texts to teach modern Judaism
It could be said that Judaism has been texting long before the advent of the cell phone. Yet those so-called texts that comprise the Torah and Talmud depend on people to explain the words’ significance.
For Maya Glasser, 28, who began as assistant rabbi July 1 at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, the connection between ancient text and modern Judaic practice has long been an area of fascination.
In fact, so much so that as an undergraduate student at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, which allows students to create their own course of study, she earned a degree in “religion and theater as text and interpretation.”
Glasser’s concentration, she believes, will provide a background in helping her impart religious texts to her new congregation of 500 families, much as writers and actors must impart meaning and interpretation to an audience.
“There are so many similarities,” she told NJJN in a phone interview. “What are the words in books and how do we relate to them? How do we create text and how do we create meaning from that text? My takeaway here is that there is kind of a fundamental relationship between people and text. Text needs us to be read or it doesn’t mean anything, and we need text because it helps us form community and create meaning. It’s a mutual interaction.”
She finds the connection evident in the weekly Torah class she helps lead and added, “There is always more to learn as we place ourselves at the intersection of past, present, and future.”
“Every week the Torah gives us a new way to look at the world and helps us to learn how our tradition itself provides us with guidelines and values and shows us we are not alone,” she said. “There are other people who have been what we’ve been through and shows us the power of community.”
As an example, Glasser said that Israel’s recent nation-state vote came up during a discussion on Deuteronomy. The law, mired in controversy, established Hebrew as the official language, Israel’s “right to exercise national self-determination,” and “Jewish settlement as a national value.”
“We had a discussion about the fascinating parallels between how we are supposed to relate to the land of Israel, how the land of Israel relates to progressive Jews, and how that affects us today,” said Glasser.
She took over her position from Rabbi Philip Bazeley, who became senior rabbi following the retirement of Rabbi Bennett Miller in June.
Glasser grew up in Edgemont in Westchester County, N.Y., and attended Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, realizing early on she was destined for a leadership role in the Jewish community.
“I loved being at temple,” she recalled. “I was a shy kid and it was hard for me in secular school to fit in. As a high school kid, I was at temple five or six days a week. It is where I felt respected and where I was acknowledged for who I am.”
She received her ordination in May from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC) in Manhattan. Before entering the seminary Glasser served for two years as adult education and programming assistant at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, where she organized classes and programs.
While at HUC, she also interned as a chaplain at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, handling clinical pastoral education with multi-faith patients, including those in palliative care. Glasser also was a fellow at the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
Glasser said the decision to come to Anshe Emeth for her first rabbinic position was easy, adding, “I knew from the second I walked in the door. I could just feel how warm and welcoming the community was. I was just so impressed with the number of [adult education] classes and the number of social action projects.”
Glasser called Bazeley “an incredible teacher” who has aided her adjustment to her new position by watching how he patiently relates with congregants, “meeting each congregant where they are with the best of intentions.”
Bazeley said Glasser is a good match for the temple.
“We are thrilled she has joined our temple and we are very excited about everything she brings to us,” Bazeley said. “We are expecting her to do wonderful things and I’m thrilled to call her my rabbinic partner.”
The new rabbi’s journey has just begun.
“I still have a lot to learn from this really incredible community,” she said. “I’m grateful to have my first position in a place that is so supportive and where I can continue to grow and have an impact on the community. I wanted to feel as if I’ve come full circle with my childhood synagogue experience and this is that place where people feel happy, and when they walk in, feel they are valued.”