Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs
Life Member, Hadassah Northern New Jersey

My Journey to the Rabbinate

Artwork courtesy of Hadassah.
Artwork courtesy of Hadassah.

How many kids have been asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Most likely, most. Whether they proudly stated that they wanted to be firefighters, or ballet dancers, astronauts or teachers, few, if any, felt the need to suppress their dreams.

My yeshiva did a phenomenal job on me. I could have been a poster child for the yeshiva. Coulda!! BUT I learned early on that girls and their dreams were NOT wanted, not prized. And what did I want? To become a rabbi.

My brothers also went to yeshiva. At home, my family discussed interesting issues raised in the Talmud. I would stick in my two cents about how I understood the issues. I was fascinated and interested in the discussions. My brothers found them boring. I found them challenging! (I didn’t learn Talmud in school. Talmud was NOT for girls.)

My brothers and I attended an Orthodox summer camp. Many of the boys had absolutely no interest in doing one thing for any longer than was required in terms of davening (praying), participating in a kumsitz (musical gathering) or doing any extra learning.

I, on the other hand, was the last to leave when shul was over, sang the loudest around the campfire and only wished I could spend more time learning Jewish texts.

At the end of the camp session, the head counselor always gave each of us a small journal, a diary of all the summer’s events. The last pages listed every camper, with a comment about each to help everyone remember who was who. For example, “Will Ann always wear a ribbon in her hair?” Mine was, “Will Laurie become a rebbetzin [rabbi’s wife]?”

REBBETZIN? In other words, no matter HOW much I knew, how much I loved being immersed in all things Jewish, the most I could aspire to was to marry a rabbi! I was devastated, embarrassed, angry, insulted, depressed – I could go on!!

Well, life moves on and many, many years later, after retiring from teaching, I had a life-changing experience when the rabbi of my shul visited me while I was in the hospital. I was so shocked and upset by his insensitivity that I was forced to politely ask him to leave! The next day, a different rabbi from the community came to see me and his visit was so uplifting, so helpful and so caring I decided right then that IF I recovered, I would like to do for someone else what he did for  me.

As soon as I was released, I investigated becoming a hospital chaplain. I applied to a CPE (clinical pastoral education) program and was delighted to learn that I had been accepted.

On my first night of class, about 20 students, mostly strangers to each other, sat around a long table. To my right were three young men. Apparently, they had all attended the same Christian seminary. They were eager to share with each other that they were eagerly anticipating ministering to Jews at EOL (end of life) to help them to “see the light,” to find Christ. (I wasn’t eavesdropping, but the students made no attempt to whisper, although they might have if they’d known I was Jewish.)

It took me a nanosecond to see the handwriting on the proverbial wall. If these guys graduated from their seminary, they would be out in the community, so I had to act. I realized that if we all ended up in the same hospital as chaplains wearing identification badges, ”Reverend Smith” might be called upon sooner than “Laurie.”

What was missing? A title!!

The moment I arrived home, I googled rabbinical schools and found one that appealed to me in New York City. Having had a yeshiva education, kept up my study of the Torah and the Talmud, been a weekly shulgoer and 80% observant, I was able to forego many introductory and basic classes.

I graduated in half the time anticipated.

I now have a master’s degree, but I was very sad when I completed the program.

I’d always loved being a student and absolutely cherished my time being absorbed in all subjects Jewish! The experience was exhilarating, and a dream come true! And in my wildest dreams, I had never imagined it was my husband who would be the rebbetzin!

Upon completing the program, I received smicha (ordination) and now my identification badge reads “Rabbi Laurie”!  It is clear to the nurses and staff where I work whom to call when a Jewish patient needs a chaplain: a fellow Jew! The very first time I was called upon to visit a critical patient, a Jewish patient, was my “AHA” moment.

Everything came together in that one request for a chaplain. I was called upon to do what a special rabbi once did for me — offer support, comfort and hope. YAY! How many people in this life get to fulfill their most heartfelt desire?

My rabbinical journey began about 25 years ago, long before attitudes about women as rabbis started to change. There were no willing mentors that I knew of.  Sad to say, I was on my own.

I have had one especially meaningful experience I would like to share. I was called to a patient’s room and, upon entering, could see she was in great distress, anticipating a procedure later that morning. While she did not appear to be at death’s door, she was in a good deal of pain.

My initial impression was that since she was not up for any conversation, I would make my visit short. I introduced myself and told her I would keep her in my thoughts and prayers for improved health. At that moment, she shared with me that her discomfort stemmed from the fact that she had not gone to the bathroom in days and the upcoming procedure would rectify the problem.

I shared with her a Hebrew prayer, Asher yatzar, that asks G-D to please keep open the pipes that should be open and keep closed the ones that should be closed, and may they never get confused. I said the prayer and she repeated it. I wished her well and left her room to go to other rooms down the hall.

Coming back up the hall later that day, I noticed someone at the far end waving her arms vigorously in the air and shouting. As I approached, I heard her yelling, “It’s a  miracle! It’s a miracle!”  She was referring to the very patient who “had not gone in days”!  Apparently – miraculously – her pipes had become unclogged! Standing beside her was a physician who, hearing about my visit with her and my saying Asher yatzar, asked if I could visit his other patients and share the prayer with them so they, too, could have a Jewish miracle!

Once it was clear to the staff that there was a Jewish presence (ME!!), they called for Rabbi Laurie every time they felt the need. At times, I was even able to support the hospital staff when they themselves felt stress and were overwhelmed.

If only my mom or bubbe had been alive to know of this accomplishment. But there was also some icing on my cake, even a cherry on top! My very traditional older brother, who didn’t see a need for his daughters to attend Hebrew school (no girls in HIS Yeshiva) and who laughed at the idea of a bat mitzvah, had an epiphany. He decided it was permissible for him to attend my smicha event!

It took nearly 50 years to fulfill my suppressed hope, wish and secret desire to become a rabbi with a specialty in hospice care. Having been moments from death three times myself and having also suffered a miraculous spontaneous remission, I am totally at ease dealing with patients who are near death. I even facilitate a Death Café, a gathering to discuss all things “death related.” Clearly, all was bashert (meant to be)!

Never give up your dream. You never know the twists and turns that will come along and guide you on your way!

Rabbi Laurie

About the Author
Rabbi Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs is a Life Member of Hadassah and spent her youth in Brooklyn, volunteering for such organizations as Junior Hadassah, the Civil Air Patrol, BBYO, and Young Judea. As an adult, she became a member of Hadassah, BBW (B’nai Brith Women), Women's American ORT (Organization for Educational Resources and Technological Training) and The National Council of Jewish Women. She has a Masters in rehabilitation of the handicapped. She taught for 25 years and upon retirement became a hospice chaplain. She and Steve, her husband of 53 years have two children, ten grandchildren and two great grandchildren!
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