For someone described as “born to be a rabbi,” Lisa Malik’s path to the pulpit was filled with intriguing twists and turns.
On Aug. 3, Malik will take the helm as rabbi of Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen, becoming the first female rabbi in the Conservative synagogue’s 48-year history.
Raised in Brooklyn by Orthodox grandparents and secular parents, Malik attended the Yeshivah of Flatbush and her grandparents’ Orthodox shul. When her family moved to New Jersey, she was introduced to Conservative Judaism at the East Brunswick Jewish Center.
After earning bachelor’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School of Business, Malik embarked on a corporate career track in San Francisco. Or so she thought.
“Something inside me compelled me to join a synagogue and become involved with the Jewish community. I became a substitute Hebrew school teacher,” Malik said in an interview with NJJN. “I realized that it was my quasi-volunteer work in the Jewish community that defined who I was, rather than my actual profession. I felt like I was making a difference in people’s lives.”
When a career counselor suggested she study to become a rabbi, Malik balked. “I didn’t even know any female rabbis; it wasn’t on my radar screen,” she said. But when she was accepted to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, she called her grandmother to announce her plans.
Her grandmother was less than enthusiastic. “She told me she didn’t survive the Holocaust for this,” Malik recalled. “Being an Orthodox woman, it went against everything she believed in.”
Unable to make a break with her family, Malik put rabbinical school on hold to earn a doctorate in Jewish education at Stanford University. “I studied rabbis and synagogues instead of actually working as a rabbi in a synagogue,” she said.
But when her calling persisted, she enrolled in the seminary. Her grandmother passed away just before classes began and never knew about Malik’s rabbinic plans.
At JTS, she received a number of awards, including the Rabbi Morris Silverman Prize in Liturgy, the Raymond Mark Wintrob Memorial Prize in Bible and History, the Dr. Michael Higger Prize in Talmudic Studies, and the Cyrus Adler Prize as the outstanding student in her graduating class. She was ordained in 2004.
Malik served a four-year post as rabbi of the Suburban Jewish Community Center-Bnai Aaron in Havertown, Pa., before accepting the position at Beth Ahm, whose membership consists of about 270 families.
“The Beth Ahm congregation came across to me as a very warm, loving group who really respect and care about their rabbis and their rabbis’ families,” said Malik, 45. She and her husband, Adi Wyner, a professor of statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, have three children; Ariel, 15, Eva, 14, and Rivkah, nine.
“Beth Ahm’s values are in sync with mine,” Malik said. “They value Jewish education for adults and youth, and they consider themselves one of the most traditional Conservative synagogues in Monmouth County.”
Malik’s resume shone, said Beth Ahm president Lisa Weiss of Middletown.
“Her education, her background, her intelligence, and her writing samples were so inspiring and impressive,” she said, “Once we met her it became obvious it was a perfect match. The inspiration just emanates from her. She was born to be a rabbi.”