October 18, 2018

Morateinu Alissa Thomas-Newborn joins the clergy

Despite her pioneering role as the first woman to serve as a clergy member in a Los Angeles Orthodox congregation, Alissa Thomas-Newborn plays down the novelty of her professional position in favor of how she fits into tradition. “Women have always been partners in Jewish life and tradition,” the newest member of the spiritual leadership team at B’nai David-Judea Congregation said in an interview. “The learned men and women of our Modern Orthodox community have and continue to inspire a vibrant and committed love of Judaism in our modern world,” she said. “It is of great value and importance to have female communal role models in the Modern Orthodox community who work in partnership with our male communal role models.”

In her new role, Thomas-Newborn will be referred to as Morateinu, “our teacher,” and will serve the community in partnership with Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, BDJ’s rabbi. “The functions Alissa will fulfill will evolve in an organic way over time, but will ultimately encompass all of the roles we seek in a spiritual leader, with the exception of the handful of roles which the halachah limits to males,” Kanefsky said from the pulpit on May 2, as he announced the new hire on Shabbat morning. These roles exclude being counted in a minyan and leading services, as well as reading from the Torah before the congregation.

Especially from the pulpit, Thomas-Newborn conveys her passion and commitment strongly, but with a soft-spoken, gentle way that enables her to gracefully introduce complicated issues to the community. In her role as BDJ’s Kehilla intern over the past eight months, Thomas-Newborn planned a program about mental illness, a condition that is often considered taboo to discuss in the Orthodox community. She organized a series of programs over a single Shabbat, co-sponsored by National Alliance on Mental Health, Alcott Center for Mental Health Services and JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others, part of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services). The series had three main goals: to provide education about mental illness, to create a safe space to share within the community and for members of the community to empower one another in providing support.