2017-07-19 / Home

Spirituality, family roots drew THZ’s new rabbi to Mount Holly


Standing in front of Temple Har Zion were (from left), Joel Berenbaum holding Galya Bracha, Joel’s mother Myra, and Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum. Standing in front of Temple Har Zion were (from left), Joel Berenbaum holding Galya Bracha, Joel’s mother Myra, and Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum. Although raised without a strong religious foundation, Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum knew from an early age that she would grow up to be “a person talking about God.” The big unknown was which of the world religions she would embrace.

“When I was seven, I remember putting on my dad’s bathrobe, flipping over a table, and giving a sermon to my stuffed animals about God and loving God. I made sure they were quiet because that was the way they were supposed to be for the sermon,” recalled the new spiritual leader of Temple Har Zion in Mount Holly. “My parents thought I was insane.”

Her parents, both black Southern Baptists who had settled with their only child in Brookline, Mass., were spiritual, if not church going. Nonetheless, they were always supportive of their daughter’s religious journey. By Christmas morning of sixth grade, there was only minimal eye rolling when Berenbaum insisted on giving a prepared sermon before the presents under the tree could be unwrapped.

“It was my first full-on D’var Torah,” she said.

Berenbaum discovered Judaism not long after that. That was in middle school when the flood of invitations to her friends’ b’nai mitzvah gave her excuses to go to services.

“From the first bat mitzvah I went to—it was so mesmerizing—I remember wanting all of it,” she recalled. “I wanted to wear a tallit and to kiss the Torah as it came around. The kid who was behind me, who shall remain nameless, he was like, ‘you aren’t Jewish; you can’t do these things.’”

Still, Berenbaum wasn’t put off for long. Judaism returned to the forefront when the passing of her boyfriend’s father exposed her to Jewish mourning rituals at age 18.

“Saying Kaddish for his father was my first adult experience with Judaism,” said Berenbaum, 34. “I fell back in love just like I was at the bat mitzvahs. The Torah service was wonderful. The concept of Torah study, and Shabbat—they were all things I had glommed onto myself without actually knowing they were part of Judaism.”

By the summer between her freshman and sophomore year at Tufts University, while pursuing a degree in clinical psychology, Berenbaum devoured every book on Judaism in her public library.

Fortunately, coming out to her mother as a Jew turned out to be not such a big deal. “I said, ‘Mommy, I think I’m Jewish,’” she said. “My mother responded, ‘we always knew you were Jewish.’”

Back at Tufts, she picked up a second major in Judaic studies and started the process of conversion. From there, Berenbaum’s story becomes more conventional. She taught Hebrew School in the Boston area for two years before embarking on rabbinic school at the Hebrew College in Newton, Mass. Six years later, in 2012, Berenbaum, the second black woman to be ordained as a rabbi in the United States, took a job as spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Hadash, a small Reconstructionist congregation in Milwaukee.

With the move to Har Zion, self-described as an egalitarian, Jewish Renewal-oriented synagogue in the Conservative tradition, Berenbaum feels a sense of homecoming. It’s not just her comfort level with Renewal, a trans-denominational approach to revitalizing Judaism with old and new practices. Both her parents were raised in Burlington County—they ended up in the Boston area where her father, who was blind, attended the Perkin School for the Blind. Also her husband Joel, who is currently studying to be a special education teacher at Alverno College while staying at home to take care of the couple’s six-month-old daughter Galya Bracha and lemon beagle Clint, is from Elkins Park, PA.

Replacing Rabbi Richard Simon, who led THZ for 32 years, she said is an awesome responsibility.

“I know I’m standing on a really strong spiritual foundation,” she said. “Even just being in the building, I can feel the spiritual footprint he created.”

Laura Markowitz, THZ’s new president, said Berenbaum’s background, experiences and very essence seemed a great match for the synagogue that mixes traditional liturgy with the incorporation of drums, keyboards, chanting, dancing and meditation.

“She just seemed to fit as a person who knows who she is,” said Markowitz. “Her love of text, of study, of Jewish liturgy and of song came through every time we spoke to her.”

As for Berenbaum, she already feels she is surrounded by family at THZ. She looks forward to helping congregants continue their journey and to spread the love of Judaism to all who are open to it.

“I fell in love with Judaism; I think it’s the coolest thing since sliced bread,” she said. “I just want to be able to show this amazing religion to anyone who lets me. I’m really one of those lucky people who gets to do what I love to do.”

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