Becoming a rabbi is a calling. But who — or what — is on the other end of that theological telephone? And how have some rabbis found congregations or positions that are perfect for them, and vice versa? Is it through God or luck, fate or coincidence? Five rabbis agreed to share their histories, and it became clear that small but tremendous twists of fate — a phone call, Benjamin Franklin, Maimonides, a course guide and a stranger’s wedding — decided their futures.
The Phone Call
Smuggling packets of hot chocolate into Graterford Prison, just outside of Philadelphia in Perkiomen, seemed perfectly natural to Rabbi Jonathan Gerard. It was winter outside and chilly inside the prison. Gerard would be there for his 12-hour shift as the prison’s chaplain. It wasn’t the first time that Gerard brought contraband into the penitentiary. On a semi-regular basis, he stuffed treats into his coat pockets, then stashed them in his desk drawers to later share with his congregants. That his congregants were convicted murderers and molesters, thieves and thugs did not alter Gerard’s compassion for them.
“Prisons are filled with people who society is afraid of, not people who can’t be transformed into functioning citizens,” Gerard explains. “This is what I realized: One-third of the men in Graterford should never be let out; one-third could be let out; and one-third we’re not sure about, so we should keep them in. But overall, prisons are concerned with security, not with rehabilitation. Do you believe that some people can be reformed, restored and re-entered into society? I do.”
Which is why Gerard took the job of prison chaplain in 2008, where he served for 18 months. He was 61 years old and about to retire as rabbi of Temple Covenant of Peace, a Reform synagogue in Easton, Pa. TCP was the last of several congregations that Gerard led, including those in Brownsville, Texas, Troy, N.Y. and Dover, N.H. Along the way, Gerard earned a doctorate in family counseling and established a practice at the Family Therapy Center of Southern New Hampshire.
But of all the people he has met and ministered to, it is the men of Graterford Prison about whom he speaks most passionately. Just eight of the 3,400 inmates were Jewish, but Gerard met regularly with another constituency as well: 50 prisoners on death row and another 150 who were in solitary confinement.
When Gerard tells their stories, he speaks of what they did on the “outside” and on the “inside.” One prisoner has been incarcerated since the 1970s for beating a woman to death while he was high on drugs. But, Gerard says, he reads every single day and loves to learn, and has become a role model for other inmates. Then there was the Vietnam veteran who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — before anyone knew what PTSD was or what to do about it — serving a sentence for murdering someone in a violent rage. In prison, he found ways to deal with the psychological issues that resulted from his military service.
If Gerard was drawn to inmates whose lives were decided by moments of fate, perhaps it’s because fate factors into his own biography. Mostly, it has to do with one phone call that changed the entire course of his life.
Gerard was a young, somewhat unfocused man from Long Island in the late 1960s. He had gone to college and taken premed courses, but ended up graduating from the University of Massachusetts in 1969 with a degree in English literature. Gerard won a fellowship to teach underprivileged children in Springfield, Mass. Then his draft number came up.
“By then, the war in Vietnam had become a national nightmare and there was no one who wanted to go,” Gerard says. “I applied to be a conscientious objector, but the draft board in Great Neck had never allowed a Jew to do that. Their reasoning was that there was all kinds of war in the Bible, so how could military service be against my religion? But with help from my father, I presented an argument that won. However, I still had to fulfill the service requirement, or what was called alternative service.”
What followed was a series of community service positions, one of which was as a religious school teacher in Seattle. Through that work, Gerard realized that he loved Jewish literature; he decided to go to rabbinical school and was accepted into a program in Israel. But there was still the matter of the draft board and satisfying his service requirement — rabbinical school didn’t qualify for deferment.
“The draft board found me a job as a live-in janitor in a housing project in Buffalo,” Gerard says. “I was given a phone number and told to call to ask when I should start work. I remember standing in a parking lot and using a pay phone to make the call. I was so nervous, because either I was going to rabbinical school or going to Buffalo — or possibly going to Vietnam if the draft board revoked my objector status.
“So I got the supervisor on the phone and babbled a bit about how I wanted to go to rabbinical school,” Gerard remembers. “He said, ‘Relax. The draft board’s records are out of date. We already hired someone for the janitor position.’ So I didn’t have to go. My service time finished without the draft board finding another position for me, so I went to rabbinical school. It is what I was meant to do with my life, of that I am sure. But back then, I was not in charge of my life. The draft board was. I think about people who did have to go to Vietnam — or into any other war. Is that what they were meant to do with their lives?”
Feeling a connection to Benjamin Franklin and Philadelphia’s history is not unusual for a school-aged boy in the United States. It is, however, decidedly unusual if that boy lives in Egypt. “From the time that I was a child and studying American history, I would see pictures of Philadelphia’s historic area and of Benjamin Franklin and think that there was something special about them,” says Rabbi Albert Gabbai.
So when Gabbai left his native Egypt and arrived in New York to study at Yeshiva University, the first trip he took was to Philadelphia. “I took a Greyhound bus to Philadelphia; I remember it like it was yesterday,” Gabbai says. “I visited several historical sites, and I was very impressed.” But this was in the early 1970s, when Independence Mall, and Philadelphia in general, didn’t exactly inspire awe in many people, especially not someone raised on Egypt’s historical grandeur. “But it felt like I was fulfilling a dream,” Gabbai explains. “I felt a connection to this place. And of course, I thought the synagogue was beautiful.”
That synagogue was the one he would eventually lead: Mikveh Israel, at Fourth and Market streets. That would come only after Gabbai spent 18 years in New York, and it was tragedy, not telepathy, that brought him back to Philadelphia. Gabbai’s brother was being treated for brain cancer by the renowned oncologist Dr. Isaac Djerassi, who happened to be a member of Mikveh Israel. Gabbai constantly traveled from New York to Philadelphia to visit his brother and attended Mikveh Israel, reviving his connection with the synagogue. Mikveh Israel offered Gabbai its chazzan position in 1988, the same year that his brother died.
In 1989, Gabbai became certified as a rabbi, and he has led Mikveh Israel ever since.
Now, he is leading Mikveh Israel through its current renaissance as the congregation expands its programming by using space that became available when the National Museum of American Jewish History moved into its new location on Independence Mall. Gabbai says the congregation’s membership has grown and now includes both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. And of course, Mikveh Israel gets its fair share of tourists who want to experience Philadelphia’s history, of which Gabbai is now a part.
While Gabbai and Gerard grew up in homes steeped in Jewish traditions, Rabbi Michael Uram did not. “I grew up pretty disconnected from religion,” he says. “I didn’t go to services on the High Holidays. I babysat on Rosh Hashanah and packed groceries on Yom Kippur.”
Born and raised in Cleveland, Uram became a Bar Mitzvah at the Reform synagogue that his family attended. But even that didn’t make a huge impression on him. “I thought that religion was collective insanity,” Uram says. “I have a clear memory of sitting in synagogue and doing the ‘I am the Lord your God’ call and response and thinking, ‘It’s totally bizarre that we are all talking to an invisible man in the sky.’ ”
There was one Jewish thing to which Uram felt connected: his summer camp. But then again, he points out, who doesn’t love camp? So when Uram enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, he joined a fraternity and got involved with student government, but not Jewish groups — and certainly not the campus Hillel.
That changed during Uram’s sophomore year when he had to choose a class to fulfill a course requirement. “I was looking through class descriptions and saw one about religions, which would normally not interest me, except that it had the word ‘Maimonides,’ ” Uram says. “That had been the name of a gazebo at my summer camp. So in my immature, sophomore frat-boy mindset, I thought, Let me kill the course requirement and finally find out who this guy Maimonides is. Second semester, I walked into that class — and it changed my life.”
With deep respect and affection, Uram describes the class’s professor as a “wacko and an aging hippie” who specialized in Kabbalah. “This Judaism was intricate and even dark, and it was very different from the Judaism that I grew up with,” Uram explains. “It wasn’t, ‘Be a good person, love yourself’ fortune cookie sayings. Nor was it like a comic book where every holiday had a good guy, a bad guy and a food.”
Uram became a religion and philosophy major and studied Judaism, Eastern religions and Christianity. That education gave him a new, deeper perspective on God and theology. In time, Uram realized that he did identify with Judaism — but not Reform Judaism.
Now 37 years old, Uram looks back on his childhood and teen years as a time when he felt disconnected from Judaism because he wasn’t plugged into the socket that was right for him. Whereas some teens struggle against the structure of Orthodox or Conservative Judaism, Uram didn’t have enough structure to fulfill him spiritually. In fact, the more he learned, the more observant he became — keeping kosher, davening with Orthodox and Conservative minyans and participating at Washington University’s Hillel.
So when that Hillel’s director got Uram a job at the Hillel of Northwestern University, Uram took it. Soon after, Uram decided to become a rabbi and was accepted to the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Upon his ordination, he sought not a synagogue but a campus. His connection to Hillel is as strong as his connection to Judaism because one led to the other, he says.
In 2005, Uram became associate director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Hillel; he has been its director since 2010. Penn’s Hillel has been what Uram calls “an amazing fit.” Others agree: In 2007, Uram received the Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence, Hillel’s highest award for professional achievement. In 2012, The Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews in American life. But it is through the students themselves that Uram finds the most joy. He prays with and ministers to Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, as well as those students who are questioning where — or whether — they fit into the spectrum. Uram relates to that struggle and offers guidance that comes from his personal experience with the different movements — and from Maimonides.
The Course Guide
Here’s a great thing about girls born into Reform Jewish families in the past 30-odd years: They weren’t told what they couldn’t be. Neither American nor Jewish culture restricted their aspirations. But when the sky is the limit, finding focus and inspiration may prove difficult. So when Beth Kalisch was growing up in Westchester County, N.Y., she knew that she loved reading, writing, singing, her synagogue, Judaism and her family. What that added up to career-wise, Kalisch wasn’t sure. She did have strong female role models. Mom was a lawyer and one of the assistant rabbis at their synagogue was a woman. Dad was a businessman — but none of these careers appealed to Kalisch. When she was accepted at Yale University, Kalisch began her freshman year thinking that she would become a professional writer, perhaps a novelist.
“But I was also interested in social justice and world affairs, and that made me think about doing nonprofit work,” Kalisch says. For her first three semesters at Yale, Kalisch took English and political science courses. She loved English literature but was frustrated by its seeming irrelevance to contemporary issues. She loved political science’s real world focus, but not the quantitative focus of the field.
On the night before the beginning of the second semester of her sophomore year, Kalisch sat in her dorm room at Yale. It was late; her roommate was asleep. She flipped through her course guide, looking at different classes, all the while running out of time to decide on ones to take. “Then I saw it: religious studies,” Kalisch remembers. “And I knew, with absolute certainty, not just that I wanted to take the class but that I wanted religious studies to be my major and my career.”
Kalisch woke her roommate to convey her great news. The roommate told Kalisch that she was being ridiculous. She had never taken a class in religious studies, and now she wanted to major in it?
Then, Kalisch had the same experience that Uram had. She walked into a classroom and met a college professor who changed her life. “Her name is Professor Christine Hayes and the course was titled ‘Judaism: Continuity and Change,’” Kalisch says. “I love the title and I use it when I teach. It really represents the essence of Judaism, or at least Reform Judaism. There is continuity, and there is change.”
But it was the study of other religions that would cement Kalisch’s love of Judaism. Like Uram, she enrolled in classes that introduced her to Christianity and Islam. “Studying other religions gave me a broader sense of what Judaism means to other religions, because it is the basis of them,” Kalisch explains.
Religion, reading, writing, politics and social justice: Being a Reform rabbi seemed the perfect fit for all of Kalisch’s intellectual passions. She studied at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, during which time she ministered to congregations in places as disparate as Mississippi, Wyoming and Ukraine. After she was ordained in 2009, Kalisch served as adjunct, then assistant rabbi at two Reform synagogues in Manhattan. In July of this year, she arrived in the Delaware Valley to helm her first congregation as Interim Rabbi of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne. She had never been to the area and didn’t know much about the Main Line. “But I feel like this is the perfect place for me at the perfect time in my life,” Kalisch says, “and I hope the congregation agrees.”
A Stranger’s Wedding
If Michael Ross noticed the wedding taking place, it held his attention for only a moment. It was 2004, and Ross was on his way to the library of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. His mind was on his books. He was in the final year of his master’s program for Jewish studies. Weddings and other events were commonly held on the promenade near the library, so Ross didn’t notice anything — or anyone — special.
But there was someone special: Rachel Brown, a guest at the wedding of her friend, Rabbi Miriyam Glazer. Brown was also a student at AJU and also in the final year of her studies — but in the rabbinical school, not the master’s program in which Ross was enrolled. The two had never met. But Brown saw Ross walking toward the library, and her eyes — and quite possibly her heart — followed him. In the moment that their paths crossed, a new road began to form. On it would grow their love for one another and for Judaism. “She changed my life because she saved my heart,” Ross says. “What Rachel and I have created makes me realize that I didn’t know what love was until I met her.”
The 1990s were not a good decade for Michael Ross. In 1999, his seven-year marriage to a gentile woman dissolved when she reneged on her agreement to raise their children as both Jews and Christians. “Luckily, we didn’t yet have any children,” Ross says, “and it was obvious that our lives were going in different directions.”
Ross left her and began what he calls “a period of reforming and transforming my life.” He renewed his dedication to Judaism and enrolled in classes in the San Francisco area. That led him to AJU; he was accepted into its master’s program and began studying there in 2002. As his graduation neared, Ross knew that he wanted to further his education in Judaism, possibly by going to Jerusalem or by attending rabbinical school, or maybe both.
Brown didn’t know any of that when she saw him on the day of her friend’s wedding. The next day, she approached Ross in the hallway of AJU. The two began dating and their relationship became serious. Then, Ross got accepted to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, across the country from Los Angeles — and Brown. While Ross began his studies, Brown finished hers, becoming ordained in 2005. She received a job offer from Congregation B’nai Jacob in Phoenixville, coincidentally and conveniently near RRC. Ross and Brown were reunited and married in 2006.
After his ordination in 2010, it was Ross’s turn to subordinate his employment choices to the geography of his wife’s career. He has done so, becoming education director at Am Haskalah in the Lehigh Valley, teaching at Gratz College’s Jewish Community High School and founding Hayom, a Jewish learning center in Phoenixville. As it turns out, the pursuits of Jewish education, values and culture perfectly suit Ross’s temperament and interests. In fact, he thinks that — long and difficult as his path has been — it has led him to do exactly what he was meant to do.
Melissa Jacobs is the senior writer for Special Sections. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.