When Rabbi Eliana Fischel came to Washington Hebrew Congregation to interview for the job of assistant rabbi, the first congregants she sat down with was a group of teenagers. It was a surprise, she says.
“I asked them what they loved about Washington Hebrew — retreats, making friends with people outside of school and being taken seriously by adults,” she says. “They asked me why I wanted to be a rabbi, which led into a conversation about what they thought they might want to do later in life. It was awesome.”
Fischel, 29, got the job at the Reform congregation. “My number one goal is to build relationships with the people in the community and then everything else comes after that,” she says.
Fischel grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y. But her love of Judaism blossomed during her summers at the Reform movement‘s Eisner Camp in Massachusetts, where she was a camper and later a staff member.
“At Eisner Camp, I created a Jewish community that was my own,” she says. “I loved my home synagogue, but as a 15- year-old, that wasn’t my community, it was my parents’. Eisner Camp made me think about the Jewish community and what my role as a leader could be.”
Among her leadership roles at Washington Hebrew Congregation will be navigating, with Rabbi Susan Shankman, the issues of sexual assault, harassment, and gender-based pay inequity. Their planned series about #MeToo and the Bible will try to give women in Jewish history a voice they didn’t have.
But this won’t be a class for women only, Fischel says.
“The class is for everyone. This is not a ‘women’s’ issue. We need men at the table in order to create the cultural change needed for these offenses to stop.”
She adds, “Judaism should apply to someone’s full life. It’s not just something that happens in a building. People’s lives are meaningful, and Judaism provides us a language of meaning. I aspire to be a rabbi who opens the spirit and the heart.”
She looks forward to exploring Washington with her husband, Rabbi Eric Abbott, who is rabbi in residence at Washington Hebrew Congregation and senior Jewish educator at Johns Hopkins Hillel.
“I have a radical amazement when I see the monuments,” Fischel says. “It makes me excited to be here. I feel like there’s a real purpose to the city. I’m excited to jump in.”