In L.A., Reb Mimi found herself, her soul family and a way home
In July of 2001, Reb Mimi Feigelson boarded a plane at Ben Gurion Airport bound for Los Angeles, where a full-time job at a university awaited her.
Rather than bless her good fortune — after all, she had no doctorate and hadn’t been searching for an academic position when the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at what is now known as the American Jewish University (AJU) offered her a job — she cried out to God, wondering why God had chosen to banish her from Israel, which she called home since moving there with her family when she was 8 years old.
When we sat down to talk in August, days before she would move back home, she wondered no more.
“Sixteen years ago there was no possibility that was clear to the eye that I could live my life in Yerushslayim as an Orthodox rav,” she said. “I found that the Divine Mother picked me up out of Yerushalayim and transferred me to Los Angeles. L.A. was an incubator that gave me the ability to grow into the rabbi that I am today. The students that chose to walk with me, to challenge me, to trust me, to pray and cry and laugh and learn with me, they are those who helped me grow into being who I am, and prepared me for going home. Being in Los Angeles has given me the strength to live as who I am without apology.”
Reb Mimi (as she is universally known) was ordained by the Chasidic Reb Shlomo Carlebach in the early 1990s, a fact she kept hidden for many years because the Orthodox world was not ready to consider a woman rabbi, let alone a deeply spiritual Chasidic rebbe. She was “outed” as a rabbi in 2001, and found that Jerusalem’s rigid religious and social structure had no place for her.
So Reb Mimi signed a two-year contract to become the mashpiah ruchanit, the spiritual guide, at the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordained its first class of rabbis just a few years before she got there.
But she always knew her stay in Los Angeles was temporary — she kept her watch on Israel time for 16 years — and in July she signed a contract with the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, which educates Israeli Masorti (Conservative) rabbis. She is now the mashpiah ruchanit at Schechter, the same position she held at Ziegler.
At Schecther, she has everything she needs: A beit midrash (study hall) to call home, a steady flow of students, inspiring colleagues and a Jerusalem address. Still, leaving Los Angeles was harder than she imagined it would be when she arrived.
During her sojourn in Los Angeles, Reb Mimi ushered more than 150 souls into the rabbinate, and inspired hundreds of other students and friends (myself included) whom she met at AJU, the Happy Minyan, B’nai David-Judea Congregation, on the streets and in the shops of Pico-Robertson, and in her many stints teaching around the city and throughout the country.
In addition to her classes and formal and informal counseling for Ziegler students and alumni, Reb Mimi held study sessions in her beit midrash in her Beverly Hills apartment, where tchotchkes and books and her joyous collection of jewelry and scarves exploded from every surface. Her Shabbat tisches filled Friday nights or the waning hours of Shabbat with nigunim (melodies), Chasidic tales and novel interpretations of Torah.
Reb Mimi brought something that Los Angeles didn’t even know it craved: Spirituality that is as substantial as it is ethereal, as academically and intellectually sound as it is soul-touching, embodied by a woman who defied every definition and convention we had all thought we needed — about what words we use to refer to God, about the logic of denominational divides, about what constitutes a family, about how many rings can fit on one person’s hands. (Each ring is connected to a person or event in her life, so why should she leave any off?)
Intellectuals, even skeptics, were drawn to Reb Mimi’s uncompromising intellect and her insightful interpretations of the texts, and found themselves drawn into the aura of meta-meaning she created; those who already had a soulful bent grew to understand that spirituality not based on wisdom and understanding can be vacuous.
With her kaleidoscopic couture and her ability to instantly cut beneath the surface, Reb Mimi drew people in and created deep connections. She now considers Los Angeles a true home, and she has people here she considers family in as literal a sense as possible.
A small cadre of Reb Mimi’s students became her soul children: They use her name as part of their own when called to the Torah; she has been present at the birth of their children; and the Shabbat blessings she offers them each Friday — in person or via Skype — is the most sacred moment of her week. Inspired by a Chasidic tale, she even started a savings account for her soul children, so tangible and real is the connection.
She has a soul brother she buried here, and she sat shivah for him, and now she is eternally connected to the land of Southern California.
Reb Mimi is grateful that God opened up a way for her to influence such a large segment of world Jewry. The fact that it is in North America and not Israel, and that it came through the Conservative movement and not her birth denomination of Orthodoxy, is both painful and irrelevant.
“It is painful that my denomination of origin cannot embrace the Torah I have to offer,” she said. “And at the same time, I answer to God. And I live well with myself answering to God. God’s world is so much greater than these denominations.”
Being in America, she said, challenged her and changed her.
She cried out to God, wondering why God had chosen to banish her from Israel, which she called home since moving there with her family when she was 8 years old.
“It has changed my Torah and my personal life. It has challenged my world of axioms, sometimes demanded of me to question my beliefs,” she said.
In many ways, she became a different person while she was here.
She shed 130 pounds, had long-needed double knee replacement surgery, and went from having long hair to a buzz cut (with one long, thin braid she never cuts).
She spent six years on a doctoral dissertation at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion that explores Jewish funeral rituals and how people can reclaim their own funerals as the last chapter in a life, and not the first chapter of death.
In her formal bio, she now goes by Rabbi Dr. Reb Mimi Feigelson — able to proudly embrace and advertise all the disparate parts of herself.
“I have learned to honor the gifts that God has given me and honor that path I have been asked to take. And that means I am learning in my life to create harmony of all my pieces,” she said.
Being in Los Angeles gave her a chance to re-examine the model of her brokenness: She shifted from thinking that the scattered shards of her soul needed to be collected, and instead realized they needed to be planted, like seeds.
And she can do that because, in Los Angeles, she found partners for her journey.
“Being here gave me a sense of being less alone. I used to say that I knew God loved me by virtue of the teachers I have. My life changed when I said I knew God loved me by virtue of the students I have. And that happened here, in Los Angeles,” she said.
The Orthodox world, and Jerusalem, have changed along with her. In the past decade, Orthodox women trained to answer halachic questions have gained acceptance, and women ordained as clergy are just getting a foothold in the Orthodox world.
Still, Reb Mimi remains a breed of her own: Her interest is in nourishing souls and saving lives, within a framework of traditional texts and halachic observance, but she is not one to offer verdicts on legal minutiae. So she knows her path will still be her own, and she is OK with that.
She is, finally, done apologizing for who she is.
“Jerusalem is still a hard city,” she said. “There is a way in which Jerusalem is still a city without compassion. But my dream to come home as I am is actually going to be fulfilled.”
Julie Gruenbaum Fax is a Los Angeles-based journalist who ghostwrites memoirs and autobiographies.