Rabbah Arlene Berger’s first day as rabbi of Olney Kehila in May was the unaffiliated congregation’s Mitzvah Day. That day of doing good for others was, by coincidence, an example of her vision for her new community.
“My vision is to talk about what it means to be a Jewish community and recognize that we’re part of a culture of multiple civilizations — and to feel complete,” she said.
The 35-member-family congregation, which meets at various locations in the Olney area, was founded 14 years ago. “It formed as a Hebrew school for families who didn’t feel comfortable in a traditional congregational setting,” Berger said.
Eventually the kehila, Hebrew for congregation, began to meet for Shabbat services once a month and for High Holiday services.
Olney Kehila has many interfaith families, who “want Jewish in their life, but want to figure out how to do it their way,” she said.
Berger, of Rockville, has explored many Jewish ways herself. “I have swum through the multiple streams of Judaism,” she said.
Raised in a secular Zionist family in Providence, R.I., she spent most of her life in Conservative Judaism. But she also has lived as an Orthodox Jew and was ordained as a Reconstructionist rabbi.
Or rabbah, the honorific she goes by. “The English term ‘rabbi’ is non-gender,” she explained. In Hebrew, a rabbi is called rav, a masculine term. Rabbah is the feminine form.
“I’m not trying to be part of a social movement,” she said, downplaying the significance of her title. “I’m a lady rabbi. I’ve wanted to be a rabbi ever since I was a young girl. I was told I couldn’t because I wasn’t a boy.”
From her rabbi’s perspective, Berger noted that Olney Kehila has not developed in the way common to congregations.
“I would like to bring in certain aspects of a traditional Jewish community — more adult learning, text study,” said Berger, who contributes a regular Torah commentary to Washington Jewish Week.
She wants to introduce a committee structure for what congregants are doing informally. “And I want to get the kehila more connected with other congregations and other Jews.”