January 27, 2020

Seminaries Issue New Crop of Rabbis

Los Angeles’ three rabbinical schools will present the Jewish community with 26 freshly minted rabbis this month as the seminaries hold their ordination ceremonies.

The University of Judaism (UJ) will ordain seven men and three women as Conservative rabbis Monday night at Sinai Temple. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) will award smicha to 13 ordinees on May 25 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple; the same day, the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) will ordain its first three rabbis at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The nondenominational, Mar Vista-based AJR, a spinoff from an older seminary in New York, began holding classes in early 2000. Its rabbinical and cantorial programs cater to students already established in careers.

Two of its first ordinees, Tsipora Gabai and Miriam Lefkovits-Hamrell, are longtime Jewish educators who were born and raised in Israel. The third, Alicia Fleissig Magal, has held executive positions in Jewish communal organizations, including a tenure as program director of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.

To encourage students to pursue careers as rabbis and cantors, AJR clusters its classes on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays. A number of students commute weekly from out of town.

"The flying wasn’t fun, but once I got there it was wonderful," said Gabai, who lives in the Bay Area and works as head of Jewish studies and assistant director of Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito. "The school is small enough so you get to know everyone."

The youngest of AJR’s three ordinees at age 45, Gabai was reared in an Orthodox Moroccan family and believes she might be the first Moroccan woman to become a rabbi. Her ultimate goal is to establish an egalitarian Moroccan synagogue in the Bay Area.

Magal had already begun studying for ordination through the Jewish Renewal movement when she began at AJR and will receive smicha from that movement in August. However, the Renewal program is largely one of independent study, and, Magal said, "I wanted the classroom, too; I really craved that kind of chevruta [partnership] learning."

Having worked and worshipped in all the Jewish denominations, she treasures the maturity and diversity of AJR’s students and faculty.

"We each bring life experience and experience in the Jewish community," Magal, who will lead a small Renewal congregation in Chicago, told The Journal. "Very animated discussion in every class; we don’t just listen."

AJR’s dean of students, Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, said the school’s first rabbinical graduates "will make unique contributions to the Jewish community as visionaries and as people who have a commitment to bring out the unique talents of those whom they encounter."

The nine women and four men becoming Reform rabbis in HUC-JIR’s second class of Los Angeles ordinees represent a sharp turn from last year’s group. While only two of 2002’s eight ordinees went directly into pulpits, 11 of this year’s class are joining or remaining on congregational staffs or plan to do so.

The pull of congregational work is easily explained, said Michael Lotker, a former physicist who will remain at Congregation Ner Ami in Camarillo, a small congregation he served as a student: "To paraphrase Willie Sutton, that’s where the Jews are."

Three of HUC-JIR’s ordinees are 50 and older, all longtime Angelenos who were drawn into Jewish life after different careers.

Yossi Carron, a single father of a teenage daughter, was an orchestra leader with a successful career playing private parties when a new congregation asked him to become its cantorial soloist in 1992. Over several years, he learned more and more of the liturgy, but, he told The Journal, "I didn’t know enough to really explain what was going on, where the prayers came from and how they fit into theology."

He enrolled at HUC-JIR with the thought of possibly earning a master’s degree in Hebrew letters.

"Six months later, my business was closed, my house was sold and [my daughter] Jenny and I were off to live in Jerusalem for what would become two extraordinary years," Carron said.

Balancing classes, fatherhood, and "as many jobs as I could piece together," he managed to pull off a change of life’s course that’s "in a class all its own."

"I’m probably the age of most of the other students’ parents," said Suzanne Singer, a former producer of documentary films who will move to the Bay Area with her actor-husband to become assistant rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland. Singer, too, is looking forward to congregational work.

"I really enjoy being creative with the liturgy and leading services," she said.

One HUC-JIR ordinee veering from the congregational path for now is Sarah Schechter, who became a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force Reserve last year and, upon ordination, will be the Air Force’s first female rabbi. Schechter, who attended college in Japan and worked for several Japanese institutions, plans to be an active duty chaplain in the near future.

"It’s a more diverse class in terms of ages, in terms of experiences before they came here," said Rabbi Richard Levy, dean of HUC-JIR’s rabbinical school. "They have worked very hard to celebrate the value of their diversity."

At UJ’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which will ordain its fourth group of rabbis this year, the rabbinate is all in the family. The 10 graduating rabbis include one married couple, one engaged couple and three students married to rabbis or rabbinical students from other seminaries.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School, told The Journal that the 2003 class is unusually cohesive.

"I’ve never seen a group that’s so caring about each other and the people they work with," he said. Most of the new ordinees will go into pulpits or jobs in Jewish education.

Ordinee Joshua Hoffman, who will join Valley Beth Shalom in Encino as an assistant rabbi, appreciated the depth of text study UJ offers.

"The most remarkable aspect of the study at UJ is the commitment to the relevance of the texts that we study," he said. "When we finish a text, we really think about how we’re going to take it our into the world."

For Joshua Katzan, who taught at Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple for several years and will move on to a congregational job in Denver, the education in pastoral counseling was especially meaningful.

"That’s a unique area of rabbinical education that’s as important as the text study," he said.

Whether the road to the rabbinate is a straight line from adolescence or a late turn in a winding path, ordination is an emotional moment. Katzan, who harbored fantasies of being a rock star during his Milken years, said, "I’m mystified, blown away and very, very excited."

"I pursued a dream I had since I was a kid," AJR’s Gabai said.

"It was always the right decision," Carron mused. "No matter what bumps there were during these years, I awakened early every morning and was always so excited to be up. I was doing something incredible, and I didn’t want to miss anything."

The University of Judaism will hold its ordination ceremony on Monday, May 19, at 7 p.m. at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd. For more information, call (310) 476-9777.

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s ordination will take place Sunday, May 25, 10 a.m., at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd. For more information, call (213) 749-3424.

The Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., will host the ordination for the Academy for Jewish Religion on Sunday, May 25, at 2 p.m. For more information, call (310) 398-0820.