Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, Temple Israel of Hollywood’s (TIOH) associate rabbi for the past 25 years, believes that a big part of her job as a rabbi is not only to educate others, but to keep educating herself as well.
“I really am a voracious learner,” she said. “If I’m going to teach, it’s really important for me as a rabbi to also learn more.”
Missaghieh, the daughter of a Persian father who immigrated to the United States from Iran in the 1950’s and an Ashkenazi mother, had an uphill battle when it came to her education. She is dyslexic, and while learning English was hard enough, learning Hebrew for her bat mitzvah was even tougher.
“After my bat mitzvah, I said I was quitting, and my parents said, ‘Oh no you’re not,’” she said. “I stayed at my synagogue in their youth group in high school and loved it.”
When she was a teen, Missaghieh decided that she wanted to become a rabbi. She’d met Rabbi Nina Mizrahi, one of the first 100 female rabbis who was ordained by the Reform Movement. “I saw her and I thought she was beautiful and she was a rabbi, and that put everything together for me,” she said.
After becoming ordained at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 1996, Missaghieh took on the role of associate rabbi at TIOH, where she’s been ever since. During this time, she’s continued her learning, serving as a Hartman fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute for three years while she had two young children. Today, she still studies with Hadar and the Jewish Institute for Spirituality, and she studies weekly with a chavruta.
At TIOH, she teaches older adults and day school and conversion students, and she trains volunteers on how to perform tahara, which involves washing a Jewish dead body. After taking a class on tahara at a conference, Missaghieh put into place a program where her own congregants do tahara for free for TIOH members getting buried at Hillside Memorial Park, Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries and Eden Memorial Park. So far, she’s taught more than 40 people how to conduct this meaningful ritual.
“It is extremely humbling and beautiful,” she said. “When I do tahara for someone who has passed, I really get a sense that their body is the shell that housed their soul, and that the body in front of me is not the person anymore. It really is a deep privilege to be able to care for them with dignity and gentleness.”
Another area of Missaghieh’s work that she particularly enjoys is teaching converts. When she first started working with Senior Rabbi Emeritus of TIOH John Rosove, he told her that she was going to be working with conversion students.
“I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea why people would even want to convert to Judaism, and not because I don’t love it. But that’s because it’s mine.”
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “I had no idea why people would even want to convert to Judaism, and not because I don’t love it. But that’s because it’s mine.”
She quickly learned that Judaism just clicked for some people, who felt they were meant to be Jewish. “The midrash that says we were all at Mount Sinai made sense,” she said. “I love teaching these students because they’re so excited and passionate and committed. It’s exciting for me to watch them blossom as ‘young Jews’ learning about our tradition, and it makes me really appreciate everything we have to offer.”
Missaghieh said her mission ties into her passion for education: She hopes Jews use what they learn to find themselves.
“I want people to own their Jewish path and to take hold of the reins of their journey, to see the depth that our teaching and tradition has to offer them, and for those teachings to bring them a sense of community, awe, holiness, wonder and gratitude.”
Fast Takes With Michelle Missaghieh
Jewish Journal: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?
Michelle Missaghieh: Passover, hands down, because of all the rituals, the singing, the storytelling and the intergenerational nature of it. I love the Seder.
JJ: What do you do when you have a day off?
MM: I read. I loved the book I recently finished called “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi.
JJ: Who is your role model?
MM: Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I love her brilliance and her ability to see things from all perspectives. She was a working woman in a time when it was difficult to break through the glass ceiling.
JJ: What’s the best place you’ve ever traveled to?
MM: I really enjoyed Bali because I loved learning about the religion and going to the Balinese temples. I also went to Iran when I was five. I still remember being in the Muslim bazaar in Tehran and the famous mosque in Isfahan.
JJ: What’s your favorite word in Hebrew?
MM: “Olam,” which often is translated into “world.” But it also means “hidden” and “forever.” It’s such a good word.