At the age many rabbis start thinking about retirement, Hannah Orden is taking her first full-time pulpit, at Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit.
At 61, she said being a rabbi “was always in the back of my mind.” But while growing up, that path wasn’t open to her. She spent some time in theater and ultimately became a teacher and a writer. She and her husband settled in the Boston area, where they raised a daughter, now grown.
She often took on leadership roles, running a parent-teacher organization, serving as a community activist. So when she explained to friends that she wanted to be a rabbi because she wanted to be the leader of a community, they often responded, “But you already do that.”
“For me, being a rabbi ties together all the things I’m interested in and have been all my life,” she said, speaking in her new office, already lined with her books and paintings done by her daughter and friends. But “it adds the extra dimension of spirituality that was always missing for me.”
Orden was ordained at the Hebrew College of Boston, a nondenominational rabbinical school (or “transdenominational,” as Orden says) in 2010. She served Temple B’nai Israel in Laconia, NH, for four years, continuing in the pulpit where she had done her student internship. At Beth Hatikvah, a Reconstructionist synagogue, she succeeds interim rabbi Jon Cutler, and Rabbi Amy Small, who led the congregation for 16 years, beginning in 1997.
One thing Orden loves about being a rabbi is that she gets to work directly with other people. “I’m a very relational person,” she said, in a direct reference to Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community, a recent influential book by Dr. Ron Wolfson.
Even in rabbinical school, everyone was interested in text,” she said. “I was interested in what the person in front of me had to say about the text and how we related through the text.” She added, “What I love about Torah is that it is an access point — taking an ancient text and making connections to talk about the meaning in our lives. We can still have rich conversations based on the text.”
As soon as she met the people at Beth Hatikvah, she said, she felt like she had found a home. “I feel like this is the congregation I went to rabbinical school for,” Orden said. “This community is very interested in being a community, and everything I’ve ever done is about building community. This congregation just feels like a good partner, open to receiving what I have to offer.”
She said she is interested in helping people find a spiritual path. Having grown up in a family somewhat disconnected from Judaism, she said, “I understand what it’s like to sit in discomfort with an unfamiliar siddur. I want to help other people on this journey, to help seekers,” she said. But she’s also realistic. “I have to accept that most people sitting in the congregation in pews are not interested in being on a journey. They are there to be part of a community, and to socialize.”
She said she’s still working on the answer to the question, “What do people want and need from a rabbi?” And she said she understands that “for many people, that is different from what I had anticipated before going to rabbinical school.”
Her biggest challenge, one week into her tenure, has less to do with the rabbinate and more to do with adjusting to suburban New Jersey life.
“It’s a whole new group of people, and a whole new way of doing things. My first order of business is just getting to know people and how this community works. If I had gotten a pulpit in Boston, I would have the advantage of knowing the area and what the issues are. It’s trickier to serve a congregation in a place I’ve never lived before.”
Still, New Jersey is not entirely foreign, Her husband grew up in Fair Lawn, and she has come on regular visits to see her in-laws, who live in Teaneck. And she knows there are some advantages here that she didn’t have as a student rabbi in New Hampshire — namely, rabbinic colleagues.
“It won’t be as lonely here as in New Hampshire,” she said.