As the religious school director for Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Rabbi Bailey Romano combines working with students with her passion for Judaism.
Romano, 30, came to the Reform congregation on July 1, a month after she was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Romano was born into a Catholic family in Slidell, La. When she was 4, her aunt converted to Judaism. After that, Shabbat dinners and Passover seders at the homes of her aunt and her Jewish friends exposed her to Judaism. By the time she entered high school, she was serious about Judaism.
“Both of my parents were much more spiritual people than people who cared so much about the church,” Romano says.
When she was 19, she converted.
At Rhodes College in Memphis, she majored in religious studies, researched American Jewish history and got involved at the campus Hillel.
“I was doing a lot of things that could hint at me wanting to be a rabbi that I didn’t realize at the time,” she says.
She then pursued a master’s degree in American Jewish history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in Cincinnati.
“At HUC, I was being told, ‘You should apply to rabbinical school.’ And I told them, ‘You’re crazy, I just converted three years ago.’”
She went on Birthright, and during the trip she talked to other participants as well as the Israelis they met about different forms of Judaism and spirituality. When she returned, she felt her calling to be a rabbi.
“I spent the last five years studying to be a rabbi to combine my love of Jewish education with my passion for the rabbinate and for building Jewish community,” she says.
In her first job since being ordained, she’s thankful for the mentorship of Rabbi David Spinrad and Cantor Jason Kaufman.
“I am really happy that this is my first job out of school,” she says. “The moment I walked through the doors, people really welcomed me as their rabbi.”
She has an authentic perspective to offer interfaith families, congregants who have converted and others who are considering conversion. Romano says she can speak from her own experience in these matters, whereas other colleagues may only be able to empathize.
“They know that I’ve had some of those same experiences,” she says, adding, “I have to navigate this in my own life with my parents.”
She has begun to meet with couples who are interested in her officiating their marriages, and often talks to interfaith couples.
“I tell them very openly that I think that it’s really amazing and important for interfaith couples to figure out what creating a Jewish home looks like for them,” Romano says. “They’re at an advantage because they’ve started to have those conversations, whereas two born Jews … may take it for granted.”
Romano also has a master’s degree in Jewish education and administration from Xavier University, so this position is a natural progression for her.
“What really drew me to Beth El was the opportunity to be both a rabbi and an educator,” Romano says, “and to really take a look at what was possible in terms of reframing our youth and family programming.”
Her biggest goal is to bring more young families together by creating more programs and services that include parents as well as their children.
“If parents aren’t connected to each other, they don’t want to come. And then kids aren’t as connected because they don’t see their parents being connected,” she says.
She’s planning family services with music, parent education, b’nai mitzvah workshops and classes whose focus will depend on the age of the group.
“We stay busy at Beth El. And we try to offer our students, our families, lots of opportunities to connect with one another,” Romano says. “And we’re hoping to increase that over time.”