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Rabbis of LA | Mother Teresa Was Right – Ben-Naim Was Meant for the Rabbinate

Rabbi Ben-Naim considers Los Angeles “the perfect place for me as a post-denominational, halachically inspired, rooted person.” 
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February 15, 2024
Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim

Many of Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim’s colleagues could identify the moment when they knew they were destined for the rabbinate. But even after 25 years at Wilshire Boulevard Temple as a day school educator, Rabbi Ben-Naim had to think for a moment when asked what drew her to the rabbinate. Her responses reached deeper. “For me,” the Chicago native who grew up in Cincinnati, the American birthplace of Reform Judaism, said, “it was a series of blessed circumstances, besherts. Growing up in a classical Reform congregation (Isaac M. Wise Temple, named for the founder of the American Reform Movement), I went to Religious School Monday, Wednesday and Sunday. And we went to temple every Friday night.” Being a part of Reform community life “was a way of life for us,” Elissa Schwartz Ben-Naim, who married into a Moroccan family, said. Sort of a regional thing. “Back then in the Midwest, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, temple was a way of life.”

It’s still a way of life for her as Director of Jewish Life & Learning at both the East and West campuses of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Brawerman Schools, grades K-6. The schools describe themselves as “the choice of hundreds of families for their commitment to Joyful Judaism.”

As a young woman, Elissa enrolled in the College of Wooster in Ohio “mostly because I was recruited for being Jewish. I was one of about 70 Jewish students in the whole school.” The rabbinate was not in her thoughts. As a freshman, she was the lone Jew in her Religions 101 class.

For the first time, she was not in a Jewish community. She found herself reading Judith Plaskow (the first Jewish feminist theologian) and other Jewish thinkers. “I learned what others felt about Judaism writ large,” Ben-Naim said. “I had exposure to Catholics and Muslims, seeing students turn the pages with tissues. I started my formal study of world religions.” Being in the middle of Ohio in the 1980s, she noted, few universities had extensive classes in Judaism.

When studying religion in general, she became fascinated by other religions. “For a couple years,” the former Ms. Schwartz recalled, “I went to Mass every Saturday with a close friend – just as a spectator, and as a student of rituals and philosophies.” By her senior year, she was writing about women as rabbis.

She earned a Fulbright Scholarship to go to India and do research on the female guru and goddess tradition, and a photo documentary on women participating in religious ritual, Hindu, Islam, Christianity.

During her nine-month post-undergrad study-travel seminar, Ben-Naim had two profoundly emotional experiences: spending a month with the Sisters of Mercy during monsoon season, helping the destitute and dying, and a 15-minute audience with Mother Teresa. She barely slept the night before her meeting with Mother Teresa. Ben-Naim had prepared “well-crafted” questions; she wanted to know how the 82-year-old nun felt about women being ordained as priests. Mother Teresa was having none of it. Her most meaningful guidance was that Ben-Naim should embrace the rabbinate. “It would have been easy for me to have found another religion,” Ben-Naim said.

“But what happened to me, what always has happened to me is part of the beshert experience: I would be meditating my heart out, wanting to understand traditions in religions in India, and davka, I would open my eyes, and there would be a Magen David! Or I would look to my right, and there would be a quote from Isaiah.” She wrote “notebook after notebook of notes and reflections. It was as if my path — everywhere I went, Judaism was beneath my nose.”

The rabbi said she never was in a place where she was trying not to be Jewish or looking for something else. It never got to that point because “it was so obvious I was going to finish my Fulbright and go to Hebrew Union College rabbinical school.” She already had been accepted before going to India.

She has always been halachically minded “because I was raised in such a phenomenal environment that was very spiritual and considered all types of religious ritual as an opportunity to connect to oneself and to the Divine, the halacha stuck with me,” Ben-Naim said. “When I came home from India [in 1992], I decided that was it, that I would keep Shabbat and the other laws.”

“I want to leave an imprint on people the same way I was blessed to receive my education, by Jewish and non-Jewish mentors.“

Then came her first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem. “I was living with a sense of Shabbat, and learning the system of halacha,” she said. “Thank God I met my husband of 27 years,” and today it is three children and a couple mortgages later … “I have wanted to have a meaningful career and presence in Jewish life,” the rabbi said. “I want to leave an imprint on people the same way I was blessed to receive my education, by Jewish and non-Jewish mentors.”

“It has been,” she said, “so much more than being a rabbi – it is Judaism as a way of life. I have been incredibly fortunate in Los Angeles, at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, being a congregant at B’nai David-Judea, and raising my children from Brawerman, to Milken, to Shalhevet and beyond.”

Rabbi Ben-Naim considers Los Angeles “the perfect place for me as a post-denominational, halachically inspired, rooted person.” 

Rabbi Ben-Naim and her husband have been members at B’nai David nearly three decades, since before they were parents (they now have three children). The rabbi explained they chose B’nai David to be with halachically minded congregants who are open to Modern Orthodoxy “in a way that resonates with me.”

“For her, she said, “when I am looking for a rav or a rabbah, it is beyond gender.

Fast Takes with Rabbi Ben-Nai,

Jewish Journal: What is your favorite Jewish food?

Rabbi Ben-Naim: Sephardic – Arayes, with the right sauces, tahina sauce.

J.J.: What is the favorite place in the world where you have traveled?

Rabbi Ben-Naim: Israel. I would go tomorrow. Two of our sons are living there. One is a soldier.

J.J. What is your favorite off-time pastime?

Rabbi Ben-Naim: A balance between cooking and self-care, working out, exercise.

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