I’m very excited to be blogging for The Times of Israel. I’m a relatively newly-minted rabbi — I was ordained 20 months ago. Although technically, my second career, the rabbinate feels like my first — it was just “waiting in the wings” for a few decades!
First, I would like to share a little about myself: I grew up in a very Jewish home but not a religiously-observant home. We celebrated the holidays and my bat mitzvah with great joy. When I was a teenager I had the good fortune of being introduced to USY and of attending a week of learning sponsored by the Conservative youth movement, as well as a week of learning sponsored by the Orthodox youth movement. Those experiences are what sowed the seeds of my family’ observant Jewish life.
After learning at the feet of scholars from both movements, I became imbued with a desire to learn more and to do more. I asked my parents if we could keep kosher and observe Shabbat. I’m convinced that the desire to do what their only child asked (!) was part of the reason that they readily agreed. I also believe that another part of why they agreed was that, for my parents, that Jewish spark, the “pintele yid,” which I will explain more fully in a moment, was perched just below the surface — just waiting to be invited to emerge!
It was a sea change for my family — new dishes, new markets to obtain the appropriate kosher meat, poultry and pareve (dairy-free) creamer, counting six hours from meat to milk consumption and a lot more… And, I don’t want to overlook what the makeover looked like in transitioning to being Shabbat-observant. Shabbat became a holy day, devoted to festive family meals and bonding, synagogue, friends, enjoying Gd’s world – basking in soaking up the specialness and the beauty of the day, praying, reading, walking, resting….
Thank Gd, everything seemed to align well and all the transitioning felt natural, as I think back on it. I was fortunate — my parents and I were in it together.
After we transitioned to being observant, the rest is history! Having learned and experienced so much in USY, I became the youth director of my synagogue – then…I married a rabbi!! Two children later, I found myself teaching Hebrew in my husband’s synagogue which led to my further teaching several adult b’nai mitzvah classes — for both women and men. I loved being a rebbetzin — and having the privilege of having a special window into the neshamot, the souls, of our congregants
Sadly, the rabbi-rebbetzin partnership, which I had hoped would last for many years, wasn’t meant to be. My husband took ill after we were married for about 10 years and I was faced with a huge challenge — it became clear to me that I had to step up, or step away and let nature takes its course….
With all due respect to nature, I stepped up. I learned how to help my husband perform rabbinic functions as best as he was able to, given his growing cognitive impairment, and I became the back-up…I was his “eyes and ears,” which interestingly, when he was still well, he invited me to be in the day-to-day interaction with congregants. Maybe he sensed that I would be called upon someday to fill that role in the fullest sense of the phrase. Fast forward 14 1/2 years — after an arduous and losing battle with the protracted illness of dementia, my husband passed away. Yehi zikhro barukh — may his memory ever be a blessing. The synagogue hired a rabbi, but I remained active, I continued teaching and I even held the office of president of the synagogue for a number of years.
The thought of enrolling in rabbinical school entered my mind during those years, but I had to earn a living, so my next career moves were day school teaching, owning a retail Judaica store, being a synagogue executive director for almost 20 years, and then… becoming a rabbi!!
I offered the following remarks at my ordination from the Academy of the Jewish Religion on May 6, 2021. That day marked the realization of what I believe to be my calling — namely, to be Gd’s partner, as a rabbi, teaching the joys of living a Jewish life to all who are seeking:
“People often avoid making decisions out of fear of making a mistake. Actually the failure to make decisions is one of life’s biggest mistakes.” These words of Rabbi Noah Weinberg speak to my decision to become a rabbi. There are two special words which led to that decision. They are “pintele yid,” the words that refer to the Jewish spark which is in every one of us. My passion for being a rabbi is a product of my wanting to help ignite that spark in others, as it was lit for me.
Hakarat ha-tov, showing gratitude is especially important to me. It is with awe and reverence that I thank the Ribono shel Olam for the bounty with which He has blessed me. One of my favorite prayers expressing thanksgiving to Gd, begins with the words, Modim anachnu lakh. Rav Yitzchak Hutner says that the literal translation of Modim anachnu lakh is not “we thank You”; rather, it is “we admit to You,” explaining that the reason these two words are one and identical, in Hebrew, is because a person’s ability to give thanks to Gd, or to another human being, is based on his ability to admit that he is incomplete and that he needs the favors and kindnesses of someone else. This teaching brings home to me our connectedness to Gd and to each other, as well as the importance of humility.
I then thanked my rabbis, cantors and teachers, my rabbinical school and I thanked my parents of blessed memory, who “always cheered me on and who guided me so lovingly and so selflessly. I wish they had lived to celebrate this joyous day with me. I wish, too, that my husband, zikhrono livracha, who opened up for me the wellsprings of Torah and mitzvot, and who modeled in so many ways the rabbi who I hope to be, had lived to be here.
Acharon acharon chaviv — very dear, yes, and always uppermost in my heart and in my life – may they live and be well — is my cherished family: To my children, to my in-law children and to my grandchildren, you are precious blessings from Gd. I love you all so much.
Although the rabbinate is my second career, it is part and parcel of the career path which I began to carve out in my teens, a career of service to the Jewish community. Ordination is a huge milestone and a great achievement for me. At times, I feel that I’ve been prepared for this moment for years. At other times, I feel it is very daunting and I’m filled with self-doubts. I hope that I am sufficiently prepared to go out into the world as Rabbi Marge Wise. I pray to Gd that I am.
Baruch Ata Hashem Elokaynu Melekh ha-olam shehekheyanu v’kiyimanu v’higianu lazman hazeh. Blessed are You, Gd, Master of the world, who has kept us in life and sustained us and enabled us to reach this day.
Thank you, dear readers. I hope you enjoyed my first blog.
Next up: What I’m devoting a large part of my rabbinate to — teaching prospective Jews by choice. Please stay tuned!
Rabbi Marge Wise