After nearly half a century under the direction of Rabbi Scott Glass, Temple Beth El is changing hands and Rabbi Rachel Safman is having to figure out how to build community, bridge tradition and modernity and and do it all in the midst of a pandemic. We spoke with Rabbi Rachel Safman on a Saturday night after she’d finished celebrating Sabbath and tucking her youngest into bed. Parts of this interview have been edited for clarity and/or brevity. We started with “hello” and here's what followed:
Ithaca Times: Great. Okay, so then my real first question is: Can you tell me who you are and what brought you to Ithaca?
Rabbi Rachel Safman: Sure. I first came to Ithaca to study Developing Sociology at Cornell, I was a PhD there and I took my degree and went out into the world teaching and researching the sociology of health and community for the better part of a decade. But I’ve always been very involved in the Jewish community since my teenage years and when I ended up becoming more and more active and it was a significant demand on my time and my energy, I had to ask myself whether I was going to put my academic career to the side and pursue professional training in a career in the Rabbinate. I did. So, I come back to Ithaca now as a Rabbi who has received my ordination from the American Jewish University from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and hopefully creating opportunities both internal in the Jewish community but also the larger world.
IT: Can you tell me more about the work you did with past congregations?
RS: Following my ordination, in 2013, I joined a congregation in New London, Ct., also Beth El, in that case Congregation Beth El. I helped pioneer use of remote technologies to make our congregational life accessible to whoever, for whatever reason, couldn’t be physically present on campus for ritual programming and educational and social activities through virtual streaming in our congregation.
Another area that really interests me is creative ritual and thinking about how we use the vocabulary we’ve inherited to create something that delivers a message appropriate to our time and to our community and its needs. There are set ways of doing things, but sometimes those don’t fit the needs of contemporary generations in particularly meaningful ways, and how we continue to incorporate ritual into our lives gets interrupted. I'm interested in finding a solution to that.
IT: What does conservative Judaism look like in 2020?
RS: Conservative Judaism draws from an incredibly rich archive of knowledge and of human experience, showing us how we can respond to the issues that we’re confronting today. Sometimes the solutions are very adept and sometimes they’re a bit awkward and need some work. But, hopefully, my colleagues and I are going to figure out how to do that dance well.
One of the issues the conservative movement has had for quite some time is deciding how tightly we hold onto certain traditions or established patterns without having the whole purpose unravel on us.
The COVID has given us a kick, if you will, to move some of that process of change into a higher gear. So, these boundaries that some of my colleagues were reluctant to cross, for example: the use of electronic devices on the Sabbath, are no longer just intellectual discussions but real obstacles that we need to address for the survival of our community. The survival of our tradition depends upon it.
IT: This position comes with a lot of additional weight, and you're a woman leading this temple, can you speak to that?
RS: The conservative movement has approved the ordination of women for almost 35 years now. A slow progression that’s been encumbered by unstated prejudices, or an attachment to the nostalgia associated to the “Rabbi” of our past and inevitably, if you go back in time, by definition that person was a man.
I’ll never be that person: in terms of my physical presentation, in terms of the quality of my voice, I’m not going to stir up those nostalgic presentations for better or for worse. I’ve found, in the short time I’ve been here at Temple Beth El, a very high degree of openness to having a woman lead the mission. They’ve been open to embracing who I am.
IT: What are your goals for Temple Beth El?
RS: In the short term, the congregation is still in the process of redefining itself after remaining under the leadership for 44 years of Rabbi Glass, who was an incredibly beloved and dedicated leader in the community. I would imagine a certain amount of trepidation about what that means. That’s something that we’ll have to work through together, hopefully to some compelling end that we’re both drawn to and feel positively about.
IT: With COVID, what’s it like coming in and connecting with the congregation at such a distance?
RS: When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. These are incredibly strange times to be coming into a community and trying to form relationships with people, trying to get to know as many people in a short amount of time and to become known enough to them that you’re not just a stranger when they have the need to contact you. So, what we’ve done is set up a small selection of get-togethers as distanced in-person gatherings and mostly on Zoom. It turns out, as is true in any community, that there's a lot many people don't know about one another, so it’s been more than just them getting to know me and me getting to know them.
IT: What would you say to someone with no relationship to Synagogue or religion, but nonetheless, randomly stumbles in one day into Temple Beth El, especially during these times?
RS: Welcome. Especially during this time when we’re feeling so isolated and cut off to the point where we can’t even be in the same space as another person with whom we’re not co-residing. And I think the religious communities at large, and certainly the Temple Beth El community provides virtually, but nevertheless so, provides a place of community, a place where individuals can feel valued for who they are.