Rabbi David Wolkenfeld and Rabbanit Sara Wolkenfeld are settling into their new home, as this summer he became Ohev Sholom Congregation’s rabbi and she became the part-time scholar in residence and halachic adviser for the Northwest D.C. synagogue’s mikvah.
They are the religious leadership team — the two halachic authorities Ohev Sholom has, says synagogue President Jay Einhorn — at what the rabbi calls a “modern Modern Orthodox” synagogue.
The synagogue’s most recent leader to go by the title “rabbi,” Shmuel Herzfeld, left at the end of 2021 after 18 years and founded a yeshivah. A decade ago, Ohev Sholom was among the first Orthodox congregations to hire female clergy, Maharat Ruth Friedman, who left this summer with plans to move to Kenya for a year with her family.
This spring, Ohev Sholom dropped “The National Synagogue” from its name largely for security reasons, Einhorn says.
Rabbi Wolkenfeld, a New Yorker, previously led Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago, while his wife, a New Jersey native, was the director of the synagogue’s mikvah. They are in their early 40s with five children, ages 6 to 17.
The interview is condensed and edited.
Your father was an ordained Orthodox rabbi who pursued a career as a psychotherapist. And by the time you were born, your parents were no longer observant. How did you become observant?
Rabbi Wolkenfeld: Around the time of my bar mitzvah, I became interested in Judaism and exploring Orthodoxy. I sought out learning opportunities. My father’s extended family is Orthodox and I had positive exposure to my extended family. In my teen years I became more observant. My father died when I was 15, and I started going to a local Orthodox synagogue [Lincoln Square] to say kaddish — that was the context in which I was first part of a synagogue community in a daily way.
Why did you want to become a congregational rabbi?
To combine teaching with being deeply involved in the life of a community. Before we had a congregation, Sara and I worked on a campus [for a decade], which was exciting and fun. But our students passed through every four years.
Why did you seek the position at Ohev Sholom?
We wanted to be closer to family — our families are on the East Coast. And Ohev was open to a professional role for Sara. There is enormous potential for growth at Ohev, the values of the congregation very much align with ours. Their needs align with what we have to offer.
What changes or enhancements are you hoping to pursue?
I am really excited about teaching the prayer experience. Daily prayers are a wonderful opportunity for men and women and children to support one another and orient their days in positive ways. The Shabbat morning experience for children and adults can be opportunities to connect and learn — to connect with the prayers and develop relationships with everyone who’s part of the community. It’s not something I want to change. I’m looking forward to getting to know everyone.
Rabbi Herzfeld is credited with reinvigorating Ohev Sholom and raising its profile, sometimes in unconventional ways. Are you looking at raising the synagogue’s profile? How?
I am looking at raising the profile of the congregation in ways that reflect the core attributes of a strong, vibrant community. I’d like to be known as a community that excels at extending hospitality to visitors … where the prayer experience is intense and beautiful and inspiring … a community that is accessible and where there is also intellectually compelling learning taking place. … a community where men and women exercise religious leadership and where there are teachers and students of Torah, and where young children are raised to be excellent Jews and embrace the religious commitments of their parents.
You aim for a progressive vision of Modern Orthodoxy and at the same time look to preserve its connections to the broader Orthodox world. What does that mean?
To be really open to the best ideas that are being promoted by the world — that’s humanism and democracy and feminism, universalism — and to be doing so while being deeply integrated in a life committed to Torah and mitzvot. To do so as Modern Orthodox Jews means that we are also doing this in dialogue with a broader Orthodox community that is more skeptical of those values. We want to influence and be influenced by the full Orthodox family. We daven with them, we eat with them, we learn Torah with them and from their books.
How do you see the roles for women?
The congregation is very proud of having been among the first [Orthodox] congregations to put women in positions of religious leadership. The congregation is constantly looking for ways to include women in communal ritual life, looking at creativity and in the spirit of innovation, but also grounded in traditional Jewish life and halachah, Jewish law.
Will Ohev Shalom seek to hire another maharat?
There is a strong desire by the congregation to have a woman in a position of religious leadership. It is a long-term desire of the congregation. ■
Andrea F. Siegel is a freelance writer.
‘Are books more virtuous than screens?’
Questions for Rabbanit Sara Wolkenfeld
You teach, speak and write about Jewish texts, Talmud, other religious study. At Ohev Sholom you’re the first scholar-in-residence. Are you salaried?
Rabbanit Wolkenfeld: I’m salaried. It was important to us, and to the community, that having had a woman in a leadership position for so many years, that there would continue to be some of that leadership in shul. I will teach primarily adults, but I’ll do some teaching for teens also, the full range of religious texts. My teaching background is primarily in teaching Talmud.
We are enthusiastic about a community that makes the decision to professionalize that kind of role for women. Teaching and speaking are what I do professionally; this allows me to focus that energy on the community, not look elsewhere. One thing that happens is that roles that are volunteer don’t come with job descriptions. I think this is a new model, and the congregation wrote a job description — I think that it is kind of groundbreaking.
What are planning to teach now?
I’m beginning with some teaching in the coming weeks around the high holiday liturgy, a favorite topic of mine. As we are looking to prepare for the season’s holidays, I like to teach about the prayers we are going to be encountering that are familiar because they are big ones, and they happen every year, and we are often unprepared when they actually happen.
Your husband enjoys making tomato sauce and going to farmers markets. Your interests?
My personal research interests are in Jewish ethics of technology. It’s helpful thinking of it in terms of questions about technology and looking at it through a Jewish lens. For example, around media, general questions such as: Does it matter how we consume information? Are books more virtuous than screens? Who are we opening up access to and closing access to? ■
—Andrea F. Siegel