September 16, 2019

Leading . . . by pulling back

When Lori Schneide was 16 years old, she lived in India for the summer.

“I had this deep impression of calling,” she said. “There’s something we all can humbly contribute.”

When she finished college, the Reform Jew from Long Island decided she would travel the world to continue studying arts and literature. But when she landed in Ireland on Yom Kippur, she decided to go to synagogue. “I sat up and opened the old machzor covered with peach fuzz and started crying,” she said.

Six months later she ended up in Israel, first on a kibbutz, then in Jerusalem, then in the spiritual city of Safed at a yeshiva for newly observant women. Over the next decade and a half, Schneide’s religious journey took her to Chasidic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist institutions, from Israel to New York to Philadelphia and now Los Angeles, the place she hopes to make her spiritual home — at Temple Shalom of the South Bay, to be precise. The Hermosa Beach-based synagogue recently hired Schneide, now 36, to lead the burgeoning synagogue, which is in the process of officially joining the Reconstructionist movement.

Which is precisely the outlook that appeals to Schneide, after her long and diverse religious journey. For example, her immersion in Orthodoxy — learning with the Breslover Chasidim in Israel and studying at Drisha in New York — was only part of her educational process. “I always knew I was just passing through,” she said.

And although she grew up Reform and even worked as assistant principal at an Upper East Side Reform school, “I knew it wasn’t Reform.” When she decided to become a rabbi, she went to the Conservative-affiliated University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) for a year of prep work. It was there she studied the writings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism.

“It was so clear to me this was my ethos,” she said. “I see Judaism as dynamic. The reason why we are still here is because we are not monolithic,” she said. Jews are like light through a piece of glass, “a spectrum.”

Schneide, a vivacious and passionate woman with curly long brown hair, worked as education director at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Pacific Palisades, and then attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia for four years and is finishing her master’s degree there. She is completing her rabbinic training at the nondenominational Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles.

“AJR reflects Reconstructionist values,” she said. “Judaism is a living dynamic, and every community defines that dynamic.”

And that is what she is hoping for Temple Shalom. “What’s deepest in my heart is creating a place that reflects the South Bay community,” she said. “I don’t want to teach them what to think,” she said. She wants the congregation to learn and make their own choices, “something that reflects 21st century values.”

Temple Shalom was founded three years ago as a religious school and later became a synagogue. Founders had always wanted it to be a Reconstructionist synagogue, but the most recent rabbi was affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement. When he resigned in December, “We felt this is our chance,” said board member Carol Risher, who has attended the synagogue since its first service.

“There is an interest in Reconstructionism,” Risher said, noting that when the synagogue held adult education classes on the subject, “many people said, ‘Hey, this is where I’m at, this is who I am.’ With Reconstructionist synagogues an hour away — Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades and University Synagogue in Irvine — Temple Shalom fills a need,” she said.

Temple Shalom has 85 families and about 100 children.

The last piece of the puzzle was hiring Schneide.

“She brings an energy and enthusiasm that is infectious,” Risher said. “We think she will help us grow and flourish.”

Schneide represents a new generation of rabbis who want to integrate technology with religion. For example, she creates a blog for each of her b’nai mitzvah students about their training process. “In the end, the community will get a really refined sense of who the child is as they go through the process.”

She is also concerned with her own generation, X, and the next, gen Y.

“What is the spiritual practice of this Internet generation who have as-of-yet come out as ‘culturally Jewish?'” she wrote in a 2005 Jewsweek article, “A Truly Hip Chanukah.” “I ask you, Jewish-hipster: how do you do Jew?”

Her answer draws on her multidenominational education: “We need to explore our place as inheritors of a Jewish tradition that has privileged us with identities as highly educated, manifestly creative and lustful-for-life hipsters.”

Schneide does feel privileged, even though she lives at a crossroads of generational Judaism.

“Being a rabbi is the most unbelievable privilege of a lifetime,” she said. She compared it to how God created the world by tsimtsum — pulling back — so that the universe could be created.

“All you do as a rabbi is pull back, pull back, and make space to shine,” she said.

“It’s so not about me.”