Rabbi Healy Shir Slakman, 29, recently returned to Temple Micah as assistant rabbi and director of spiritual arts, where she is leading music programming and managing the B’nai Mitzvah program. She was a rabbinic summer intern at the Washington, D.C. Reform temple in 2021 before her ordination at Hebrew Union College last May. She lives in Kalorama in Northwest D.C.
What can you tell us about your background and your Jewish upbringing?
My dad’s family, they’re Tunisian Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1960s. I had a nomadic upbringing, all over the place. I was born in San Francisco, grew up mostly in St. Louis, a little bit in Atlanta and also a little bit in Ramla, Israel. Judaism was always an anchoring presence in my life and the interior life with my family. Shabbat rituals at home inspired me. I worked at a local synagogue as a song leader and spent many summers singing at URJ Camp Coleman.
How did you know you wanted to become a rabbi?
I didn’t think I was going to be a rabbi when I went to college. I studied completely different topics – visual arts and finance at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg [Fla.]. Elie Wiesel taught winter courses there. I found myself continuing to be intrigued by spiritual things lurking around, not expecting I would officially do it as my career. After I attended college, I got a normal grown-up job. But I was still being drawn to Jewish professional spaces and Jewish community spaces. So, I thought I should just really lean in all the way and work in those spaces.
What will be your role as director of spiritual arts?
That’s something I’m really excited to do as a rabbi. It’s a redefining of the roles of contemporary clergy. Sometimes cantors are in charge of music. Now I’m in charge of music and I bring my rabbinic education, my textual historical background to that for this work. At Temple Micah, they love pushing boundaries and they have been fascinated by American folk music. I’m really excited to bring Sephardic folk music, this ancient liturgical prayer music. A big focus of mine right now is bringing Sephardic prayer, Sephardic traditions and Sephardic culture into an American progressive Jewish space. Another big interest for me is Jewish food. I wrote my rabbinical thesis on cookbooks and Jewish cooking – the way we can learn about Jewish culture, Jewish history and Jewish identity through food.
How will you approach the task of engaging a younger generation in Jewish life and traditions?
It’s a lot about being a part of those communities. I’m a young person myself and am committed to listening to what people are looking for and wanting in the Jewish world, then seeing what works with an eye toward pushing boundaries that haven’t been pushed before. I think there’s a lot of young Jewish people who are spiritually thirsty and for some reason they’ve felt disenfranchised over time, like they don’t see Jewish engagement as an option. We need to have these conversations with people and figure out how to bridge that gap.
What are your goals and aspirations as a young rabbi?
I want to be on a journey of exploring. I’m very curious about elevating, exploring, redefining and reexamining roles that women have had in a Jewish context over time.
What social justice causes interest you?
I’m interested in rights for immigrants in our nation and safety for people who have come to America. I’m interested in women’s health and reproductive health issues. Other causes I care about are inclusivity and accessibility in Jewish communal places and fighting for democracy in America and Israel.
Why is Temple Micah a good fit for you?
I love the clergy team. It’s a team of very rebellious, very brilliant, very open-minded and very inspirational rabbis. And I love the community. I think it’s really warm, curious, smart and also rebellious. It’s people who deeply care about Jewish tradition, Jewish practice to their core. They’re, like, what would happen if we don’t do any of the normal prayers? What would happen if we talk about something that’s never been talked about in this space? A total open-mindedness paired with deepness.
Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.