Rabbi Rachel Simmons brings her cats — and change — to Congregation Har Shalom

Rabbi Rachel Simmons. Photo by David Stuck

As we count down to Rosh Hashanah, we’d like to introduce you to five new rabbis in the Washington area who are gearing up for their first high holidays here.

Rabbi Rachel Simmons took the long road to Congregation Har Shalom, where she became associate rabbi this summer. With her cats Kohelet and Galilee aboard, she drove the length of the country, from LA to D.C.

“I smiled when we hit Utah and I haven’t stopped smiling since.” It’s mid-August and she’s chalked up her firsts as a rabbi at Har Shalom — first wedding, first funeral. She’s meeting groups of congregants. The Conservative synagogue has 700 member families.

Right now, Simmons, 34, is sitting in the cheerful light of the sanctuary. She says she’s here to change some things. And that she embodies the change she’s bringing to Har Shalom. “When I walk into the room as the rabbi, just by being myself, and showing up and loving Torah, I am being change.”

She received her ordination from the movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. But she is not what you’d expect a rabbi to be at a suburban Conservative synagogue with its professional, middle class membership and its own origin story dating back to 1964.

“I’m not the classic stereotypical rabbi,” Simmons says,

Simmons is a millennial. She doesn’t carry that boomer baggage. She doesn’t blink at someone’s pronouns. And unlike most rabbis you might picture, she doesn’t identify with a single gender. “People think of male rabbis and female rabbis,” she says. “I’m queer and bisexual. I’m single and I have two cats.”

Synagogues, on the other hand, are largely bifurcated, she believes. “There are Jews who really connect to the tradition, the mitzvot, the texts. And there are Jews who connect to the community, the spiritual, emotional side. You need to have both,” she says. “My goal as a rabbi is to open the door between the two groups.”

In her own story, Simmons saw a door and walked through it. She grew up in Alexandria, in a military family, a Fort Belvoir kid. When the children in her kindergarten class were asked about their favorite books, Rachel volunteered that hers were by Isaac Asimov and Kurt Vonnegut. “I’ve always been that kid,” she says.

“I was raised Protestant,” she continues.

“I had stopped believing in Jesus, but I had friends who were Jewish.” There was the candle-lighting, the brisket-making, the disagreeing over Israel “through a lens of love. It just felt right.”

In her 20s, she converted at Adas Israel Congregation in the District. “I literally stepped out of the mikvah, got dressed and Gil Steinlauf [then the synagogue’s rabbi] hugged me and said, ‘We need to talk about your future.’”

Now at Har Shalom, the future has arrived. At least for the moment.

“It’s a challenging job,” Simmons says. “And it’s also rewarding. My job is to be a sacred agitator. I want people to grow.”

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