The following is from Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel.
Rabbi Alexandra Klein, who received her rabbinic ordination in May from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), joined Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel (TSTI) in South Orange as the assistant rabbi on July 1. The Reform community is hosting a series of welcome events throughout the summer for congregants to meet Rabbi Klein, and a formal installation Shabbat service will be held on October 16.
Rabbi Klein recently shared some thoughts about her chosen career, her new synagogue community and the role of the rabbi beyond temple walls.
Q: What drew you to the rabbinate as a career?
A: I have always felt a calling to help people. As a child I thought about being a doctor, nurse, therapist – but the connector for me across different experiences and periods of my life has always been the Jewish community. When I came to understand that the rabbinate would afford me the opportunity to help and serve people in a Jewish setting, it felt like a moment of epiphany. I realized that being a rabbi would mean doing all the things I’ve been naturally drawn to – teaching, counseling, building relationships – and doing it through a Jewish lens. Judaism has been such a guiding force in my own life, and I’m excited to be able to share it with others.
I’ve always been very involved in Jewish life. I grew up attending Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield and being involved in youth group there as well as NFTY-GER (National Federation of Temple Youth-Garden Empire Region). I also attended URJ Camp Harlam in Pennsylvania, which was the single most formative experience in my youth. I went on to work there as an adult, as a unit head and program director. Extending that camp experience of “living Judaism” into my rabbinate has always been a goal, and I’m thrilled that TSTI is giving me two weeks every summer to serve on the camp faculty in addition to my other rabbinic duties.
Q: Any particular highlights of your rabbinical school studies?
A: Rabbinical school at HUC-JIR was such a rich experience, and a high point was my first year of study, which was spent in Israel. I’d been there on trips through prior jobs and had visited through Birthright Israel, but being completely immersed in Israeli society, living an entire year on the Jewish calendar, was amazing.
I also had some wonderful internships that allowed me to use my learning from classes out in the field, which helped me develop into the rabbi I am today. This includes community organizing with unaffiliated Jews in their 20s and 30s, serving as a chaplain at NY Presbyterian Hospital, co-facilitating support groups at Central Synagogue, and counseling homebound seniors this past year with the organization DOROT. Serving as a student rabbi last year for Beth Sholom Temple in Fredericksburg, Virginia, was also an eye-opening experience. The Jewish community there is small in numbers compared to here in the Northeast, but I learned so much from the community’s resilient commitment to Jewish life.
Spending five years devoted to learning – both from Jewish texts and from experiences out in the field – was an amazing experience!
Q: What Drew You To TSTI?
A: When I sat down for my initial interview with the search committee, I knew nearly immediately this was the right community for me. It felt like we were speaking the same language in terms of our values and dreams for congregational life. I was so moved by my interviewers’ passion for the TSTI community and commitment to its success. It was incredible to see that passion reflected tenfold when I came to South Orange for my on-site interview.
TSTI is clearly a place that seeks to make everyone feel that they matter, across all ages and stages of life. For instance, in all my interviews I asked what the different congregations were doing for older adults and empty nesters. TSTI was the only synagogue that had meaningful programming for these members. Judaism has something to offer people at all stages of their lives, but it’s not always obvious when there is not a simcha or life cycle event to celebrate. TSTI works hard to make it clear that there is a place here for everyone at every stage of life. That’s the kind of community I wanted to serve.
I grew up in Montclair, so I’m delighted to be back in a place that feels comfortable. It’s a gift to be among people who value the same things – being good to one another, being open to discussions on race and diversity, and being open-minded and open-hearted about all kinds of differences. This is not a given everywhere, and I feel lucky to be able to put down roots in a place where this is the case.
Q: What will be your responsibilities at TSTI?
A: Many times the portfolio of the assistant rabbi is youth programming. However, Senior Rabbi Daniel Cohen and the TSTI leadership have made it clear that they want their assistant rabbi to have a well-rounded rabbinate, and to do, experience and grow in all areas of community life. I wanted to be a rabbi in order to serve people through their entire lives, rather than just one particular time, so I’m thrilled at the prospect of working with the entire TSTI community in many different settings.
I also love helping people find meaning in their lives through (religious) text study and learning. To be immersed in learning for the sake of learning – and to be able to use that to teach and inspire others – is a gift I’m excited to share with our members.
Beyond the pastoral counseling I’ll do with congregants, I am also eager to extend my pastoral work to the broader community through clergy collaboration across denominations and religions. Our voices are stronger when we join with other communities of faith, and having a united voice of the clergy across the community can create powerful change. Together, we can help to bring healing to our greater world – TSTI is very involved in that work already and I am excited to add my voice to these efforts.
Q: What do you see as the evolving role of the rabbi?
A: Increasingly, rabbis are expected, and need, to serve beyond the walls of the synagogue. We must engage many different populations – such as adults in their 20s and early 30s – by reaching them where they are, rather than solely expecting them to come to us inside of a synagogue building. This kind of outreach is an important trend in modern Jewish communal life, and as a rabbinical student I led Jewish programming in restaurants, art galleries and taverns. I hope to continue that work here at TSTI.
Along those lines, the rabbi needs to have eyes and ears tuned in to those who are present, be mindful of who is not present, and invite those people to see that there is a place for them in congregational life. TSTI does this well, and we can always do more.
Q: Any other thoughts to share?
A: I look forward to building relationships inside and outside the TSTI community. It’s what drew me to this work to begin with, and now I’m in a place where I hope to truly make a difference.