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Evanston synagogue welcomes its first female and lesbian rabbi
by Melissa Wasserman
2016-10-04

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Evanston native Rabbi Rachel Weiss comes to Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation ( JRC ) as the synagogue's first female and first openly gay rabbi.

"For me, it's been a really profound and wonderful homecoming," said Weiss.

Weiss has been involved with the synagogue long before leading it. JRC is the place she attended Hebrew school, became a bat mitzvah, worked as a religious school teaching assistant, came out—and married her wife, Julia, in 2002.

"Belonging to a reconstructionist synagogue, for us, was about belonging to a Jewish community where our social values combined with our traditional Jewish practices and rituals could be observed fully," Weiss said about her family joining JRC when she was a child. "So, we made our congregation the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation. It is fully egalitarian, feminist, inclusive, diverse in all different kinds of ways and I would say now JRC has grown to be even more diverse."

Weiss recalled seeing many of her peers reject a Judaism that felt too narrow and traditional, lacking in progressive values, as they were developing their own identities. This was not the type of Judaism she knew. She added that she feels privileged to be serving the synagogue she grew up in that is "out about the fact that Judaism does evolve and change and grow over time, just like we do."

"How do we preserve Jewish rituals and practices and texts that are meaningful and interpret them through a lens that also includes and embraces and celebrates our contemporary lives," Weiss said about what JRC strives to do.

After graduating from Evanston Township High School, Weiss went on to graduate from Grinnell College in Iowa with a B.A. in Spanish with an interdisciplinary concentration in gender and women's studies. Following her degree, Weiss was a social worker for five years in Highwood, Illinois, working with recently immigrated Latino families and advocated for immigrant rights and community services. Then, she attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania where she earned a certificate in Congregational Life. She was ordained in 2009.

Her professional background also includes being the rabbi of Congregation Am Haskalah in Pennsylvania, a senior staff and faculty member of Camp JRF and a rabbinic fellow at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs.

Before coming back to JRC in August 2016, Weiss served as the associate rabbi at New York City's LGBTQS synagogue Congregation Beit Simchat Torah ( CBST ). There, she directed the Limmud Family Education program, among other duties.

"Many young adult Jews have the experience of growing up and really discovering the world, whether it's through college or through work or through development of their own identity and their own values, and have difficulty reconciling that with traditional Judaism," Weiss explained. "I grew up with a congregation that added the names of the matriarchs to the names of the patriarchs. Then I went on to serve the world's largest LGBTQ synagogue where we said, 'Let's not just name the traditional matriarchs and patriarchs by relationship with marriage, but let's look at how we're inclusive of all families. How do we add those who are on the margins, how do we bring to the surface the fact that Judaism can and should and does include all of us in our varying ways of being in the world?'"

In 2014, she was named one of the New York Pride Guide's "45 Under 45" for her leadership. Now, in her current position, according to JRC, Weiss holds another significant title beyond her synagogue. She is the only openly gay rabbi, in a senior role, to currently lead a congregation in the Chicagoland area.

"I hope that people see JRC as a synagogue that has a lesbian rabbi who is proud to be who I am and takes inspiration from that to be out about who they are, whether they're gay or lesbian or bisexual or trans or gender queer or straight; that part of the value of Judaism is being created in the image of God, is to own who you are and be out about that," said Weiss. "Because we can't live our full lives in shame. Judaism commands us to live in the image of the divine and I believe that the divine is commanding us to be who we are."

Besides all of her rabbinical work, advocacy and being a mother of two, Weiss is a linguist, an artisan and craftsperson, English/Hebrew calligrapher and a foodie. Being a fan of all things culinary, she bakes and cooks. She even took this passion to an audition for the clergy episode of Food Network's "Chopped."

"I really think America needs to see someone who looks like me—who is a cisgender, lesbian, fem, reconstructionist, kippah-wearing rabbi—is a what a rabbi looks like," said Weiss.

JRC was founded in 1964 and has over 500 families in its congregation. Weiss is adamant about making her congregants comfortable.

"Specifically, for LGBTQ Jews of all ages and all life experiences, we are open and welcome and as a lesbian rabbi who has basically spent the majority of my career, serving the Jewish, queer community, my door is really open," Weiss said.

Weiss said her high holiday sermons and congregational readings this year will have themes of renewal, forgiveness and hope. She added her sermons and readings will also bring various topics into conversation, including LGBTQ rights, transphobia, violence against the trans community of color, the Black Lives Matter movement and Jewish-Muslim dialogue. Congregant voices, she said, need to be heard.

JRC, Weiss said, has an active gender-inclusion task force and, in addition, the congregation is hoping to have a presence in the Chicago Pride parade.

"While we are working to make all of our bathrooms safe spaces, we're also working to create an all-gender bathroom at the synagogue and we have a good number of gender-variant and trans kids within the congregation who are growing up with supportive parents who are using the synagogue as a home base to really show that diversity and to show their kids that whoever they are and whatever gender they identify with now and however they may identify throughout their life, it's supported within their Jewish community as well," said Weiss.

To learn more about Weiss, JRC and its services, visit www.jrc-evanston.org/.


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