February 22, 2020

Into the Words

People are always asking Dvora Weisberg’s parents, "Where did you go wrong?"

They ask not because Weisberg has fallen away from Judaism, but because two marginally affiliated parents produced a traditionally observant daughter who thought — more than once — about becoming a rabbi.

Weisberg, currently completing her first year as a professor of rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles, grew up in San Francisco at Temple Emanu-El, among the robed clergy and English-dominant liturgy of classical Reform.

"It was all we knew: going to Sunday school and going to services only on the holidays, and only children’s services," she told The Journal. "We were taken into the sanctuary only to see it."

After her bat mitzvah, Weisberg attended Camp Swig in Saratoga in Northern California, where she discovered Reform Jews who prayed every day and did so in Hebrew, wearing tallit and kippot. "There began to be this realization that there was a gap between what I enjoyed doing and what we were doing at [Emanu-El]," she said.

But back home, the other children in her temple youth group, and even the rabbis, weren’t responsive, she said, adding, "There wasn’t the scope to explore, and there wasn’t anyone to explore with."

Exposed to Conservative worship by teens she met through a Bureau of Jewish Education program, Weisberg identified as a Conservative Jew by the time she left for Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., to major in Jewish studies, armed with four years of modern Hebrew taken at San Francisco’s elite Lowell High School.

She became interested in rabbinics, the study of Talmud and other commentaries by the rabbis who expounded on Jewish law during the first six centuries of the Common Era, after sparring with a lot of young Orthodox Jewish men who kept telling her what traditional Judaism didn’t allow women to do.

The way to counter these men, Weisberg said, was to know more about Judaism than they did. "Talmud was in the Traditional community what money was in America," she said. "If you had it, you had a certain amount of power."

Weisberg had been encouraged to think about becoming a rabbi as far back as 10th grade, and she inquired about rabbinical school at HUC’s New York campus at a time that the Reform and Reconstructionist movements were ordaining women, but the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) was not. But in those days, she said, HUC was attracting a lot of women who really rather would have been at JTS, and the dean "made it clear that the college wanted people who really identified as Reform, and, well, I didn’t."

Instead, Weisberg signed up for what she called "Martyrdom 101" at the overwhelmingly male JTS, earning a master’s degree in rabbinics in 1983. She was admitted to Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia but, deciding the school wasn’t a good philosophical fit, began a doctoral program at JTS instead.

Weisberg applied to the seminary’s rabbinical school as soon as its leadership extended admission to women, but by the time she was accepted there, the lure of the rabbinate had weakened.

"There’s a time when sitting on that side of the classroom loses its appeal and you want to be a grownup," she said. As a teacher of texts, she added, "I do the kind of work I’d want to do as a rabbi."

After several years at the College of William and Mary and the University of Pittsburgh teaching introductory Jewish studies courses to largely non-Jewish students, Weisberg now has the pleasure of teaching Jewish texts in Hebrew. "There’s a richness to text in the original that isn’t there in translation," she said, adding, "There’s also more of an ‘us’ feeling" in a school where everyone in her classes is Jewish.

An invitation several years ago to teach at a Reform movement kallah, a summer study-worship retreat, caused her to take Reform Judaism more seriously. The kallah represented "a transition back into Reform Judaism, to see that Reform is different, has more space for Hebrew and text than when I was a kid."

A member of Temple Beth Am, Weisberg is comfortable as a Conservative Jew teaching at a Reform institution. "I find myself defending Reform Judaism," Weisberg said. "Reform is not understood and certainly not appreciated."

She said her parents are just fine with the fact that both she and her brother, Adam, who is Hillel director at UC Berkeley, are observant. "I would raise my children the same way if I thought they would turn out this way," she said.

Although Weisberg grew up with the usual San Franciscan’s disdain for Southern California, she enjoys the Jewish-intensive atmosphere of Pico-Robertson, where she lives with her husband, Rabbi Neal Scheindlin, and their two sons, Micah, 12, and Noah, 8.

In fact, Los Angeles has treated Weisberg pretty well this first year. "I love where I daven, and I love where I work," she said. "They pay me to do what I love best anyway."