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When discussing why she returned to her hometown, Rabbi Rachel Weiss of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) attributed it in part to “the curse of Evanston.”
“They used to say, ‘You will compare everywhere else that you will ever live to Evanston,’ Rabbi Weiss said. “Not that it’s a utopia by any means, but it has a lot of the elements that I look for: racial diversity, economic diversity, religious diversity, and family-composition diversity. It was a really meaningful place to grow up.”
Rabbi Weiss assumed her position at JRC last August. The role is also a homecoming of sorts; she grew up as a member of the congregation and attended Hebrew school there.
“JRC is a particularly dear community to me, and a very special place that I think really combines a Judaism that is lively and engaging, [with one] rooted in the Jewish people and in this particular Jewish community,” she said.
Reconstructionist Judaism is the smallest of the four main American Jewish movements, and also occupies a unique position among them. Its members follow a theology determined by by the historical evolution of Jewish civilization as much as the Hebrew bible, working towards a religion that is dynamic and reflects the experience of the people practicing it. Individual congregations oftentimes make their own determinations on liturgy and other issues.
“I think Reconstructionist Judaism is striving to be real-world, forward-thinking, creative Judaism,” Rabbi Weiss explained. “I think I have a voice to lend and a voice to lead in that.”
Rabbi Weiss, who had wanted to be a rabbi since high school, recalled connecting and engaging with Jewish culture at a young age. She asked to go to Hebrew school, and was not doing so at the insistence of her family. Her parents had been only loosely affiliated with another congregation, and the family often attended High Holiday services at Northwestern, which were open to the public.
“We weren’t really connected to the community, and I wanted to learn more,” said Rabbi Weiss. “I asked, ‘Why were we doing this?’ I wanted to know what was happening, so I asked to go to Hebrew school … My family chose [JRC] because this is where they had community. They knew more people there.”
Rabbi Weiss also spent time as a social worker before rabbinical school. She ran the Nuestro Center in Highwood, working with the Mexican immigrant community. That experience for her was like running a “secular congregation,” she said, since it entailed programming, organizing, and counseling, among other services. It was an intentional step on her path to the rabbinate.
“I knew that I didn’t want to be a 27-year-old rabbi with no experience outside of academe,” Rabbi Weiss added. “I got a lot of ‘real-world’ experience real fast. I navigated communities both in Highland Park and Highwood and learned a lot about privilege and access.”
She returned to Evanston, along with her wife Julia and their two daughters, after several years as part of the clergy at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST), a mainly-LGBT synagogue in New York City. CBST, Rabbi Weiss noted, also offered numerous opportunities to work with a diverse congregation.
“It had people who grew up ultra-Orthodox … coupled with people who grew up in Jewish liberal settings, who weren’t deeply connected to Judaism but came out and weren’t openly accepted, and everybody in between,” she recalled. “They were coming to create their own community, and seeking to maintain their own community and the intersections of social justice. Many would say that just keeping the doors open, and walking in them, was an act of social justice.”
Her return to JRC came after a few difficult years for the synagogue. Its previous full-time rabbi, Brant Rosen, left when his activism engendered controversy among some congregants. Rabbi Weiss said JRC members nevertheless worked diligently to go forward after Mr. Rosen’s departure.
“One of the things JRC can be proud of is that it experienced a painful trauma in its history and rallied its members together, reminding us that the core of JRC is not its rabbi, but its members,” she added. “Members brought us through and carried this congregation through, both by hiring an interim rabbi and taking on a lot of lay-leadership. The members of this congregation are its unsung heroes.”
She is especially eager to help continue JRC’s social justice work, she said. Immigrant- and refugee-rights and outreach to Muslim neighbors are among the myriad concerns the congregation works on.
“There are major social justice issues to be worked on in our own backyards, in Evanston, Chicago, and the suburbs,” Ms. Weiss explained. “I want to see us continue to work on racial, socio-economic, immigrant, environmental, and LGBTQ justice – these are just a few of the pieces we can be doing important work on, and continuing to partner on in our local communities. As much as we want to effect national change, we also have to effect real interpersonal relationships with our neighbors.”