Rav Amelia Wolf has spent several months in her new position as the spiritual leader at Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, and when she started, she outlined several long-term goals that she sought to accomplish with the congregation, including forming connections with the community and putting more intense Jewish learning in place. Now, several months into her role and amid the outbreak of a war in Israel, Wolf reflects on the beginning of her rabbinical career.
You wanted to get people more engaged and increase high-level Jewish learning. Have you been able to accomplish either of those goals yet?
Well, both of those are very long-term goals, so it’s hard. I will say that I have started teaching monthly Beit Midrash classes on different subjects that are pretty in-depth. We’ve done certain classes on bioethics. We’re doing one soon on the Mi Sheberach and the history of it, how long it’s appropriate to leave somebody on the list. We’ve done one on cremation versus burial in Jewish tradition. And people are definitely showing up. People are coming in larger numbers to services, but a few months isn’t quite enough time to see if this goal has been achieved.
You’ve done a class on bioethics, what does that entail?
I’m trying to gear several of these monthly classes on Wednesday evenings around topics related to bioethics. So, we have done one on death and dying and we’re going to be doing another one on death and dying and burial. We’re going to be doing a few different classes with focuses on issues of sickness and healing, the body, its organs, donations, all of these questions that come up, where Jewish law either might clash or actually be very much in sync with contemporary Western ethics.
What got you interested in these topics and made you decide that you should do this with your congregation?
Well, I did take a class at JTS [Jewish Theological Seminary] on this topic, and I just found it extremely interesting. But why I decided to learn it with the congregation is that these are topics that everybody deals with at some point in their life. Everybody who is alive dies, everybody who is alive, or nearly everybody, will experience illness or their loved one will experience illness. We all have these bodies, and they go through all these terrifying changes. And there’s a misconception in general around religion that it’s about the spirit, that the soul is detached from our day-to-day very embodied, earthly lives. And it’s just so far from being true in Jewish sources, Jewish tradition, Jewish history. And as I said, everybody goes through this. It’s a topic that everybody has thoughts about, has fears about, has anxieties about, wants to be able to talk about.
What type of challenges have you faced in your first few months as a rabbi?
I never could have been prepared so soon after just barely starting to integrate myself in the community for having such traumatic and tragic circumstances hit the Jewish world, which just touched so many people in our community, from the very personal, from their own family members being directly affected, and then to just a general sense of Jewish people who live in fear … in their own communities and the Diaspora. No one could have been emotionally prepared for this. And it’s not an easy time to feel your way around a community. On the other hand, something horrible is always going to happen. And that’s part of the reason why I became a rabbi – to be able to help people through these tragedies.
What have you been doing to help people through these difficult times?
We had to modify our services from the holiday during which the tragedy struck … I held special processing tables during kiddush … some people needed to have a time to not talk about this and other people needed a space specifically to talk about what’s going on. So, we set aside tables to make sure people could have those spaces. I would always sit there. I had one-on-one meetings with many different congregants. Some reached out to me, some I reached out to them because I had noticed that they could use someone reaching out to them. And [we held] communitywide vigils which I helped to plan and I invited people to and made space there. So, anything from the communitywide processing to one-on-one meetings in my office for anyone that needs to be able to discuss what’s going on.
What is your plan over the next several months to be able to continue to accomplish your goals?
Recently, at a Chanukah event, it was part party, part dinner, party menorah lighting, we provided activities with the kids downstairs, and we had an adult learning program upstairs. And a congregant came up to me and she said, ‘Oh, this was so interesting. Maybe I should be coming for some of the things that aren’t just for my kids.’ And I feel very, very strongly that the Jewish life learning is for adults as much as it is for children. It’s very clear to me, but I think what I learned from that is that if we integrate, we have everything on the same day around the same topic, where people will know their kids will be taken care of, they’re in the same space at the same time, we can actually serve a whole bunch of the community at once rather than saying, this is just an event for you and that’s an event for you. This is more long-term – This could take a year or two years for this culture to build up … We’ll have adult learning, and we’ll have childcare and children’s activities so that parents can feel free to come up and learn, so that there’s intergenerational communication in the community, and so no one just feels that this isn’t a place for families, or this isn’t a place for adults, or this isn’t a place for seniors – this is actually a place for everybody.