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Healing the world, one network at a time

New JFN head Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu places great value in ‘Jewish wisdom’

Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu
Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu

Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu of Teaneck has always been interested in both healing and Judaism. Her goal has been to combine those two areas, using one to advance the other.

“Healing was always an interest,” she said. “But when I was deciding between psychology and the rabbinate, I wanted to study Judaism more. I always wanted to use Jewish wisdom and practices to help people. Life is so challenging. Tradition gives us pathways, connecting to our inner feelings and thoughts.”

Throughout her working life, Rabbi Sirbu has found many ways to combine her two passions. In her new position as executive vice president of the Jewish Funders Network, she is hoping to continue that work. The network, with 2,500 members from 11 countries, helps promote responsible giving in addressing challenges facing the Jewish world.

Rabbi Sirbu was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary; during her senior year there she interned at the New York Jewish Healing Center. Her first job as a rabbi was as a hospital chaplain. From there she moved to serving Jewish community centers and nonprofit organizations.

In her 10 years at Clal — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Rabbi Sirbu created and grew Rabbis Without Borders, ultimately reaching more than 240 rabbis through fellowship programs and “countless more in seminars, workshops, and through her writing,” Rabbis Brad Hirschfield and Irwin Kula wrote in the tribute marking her departure from that organization. In addition, they noted, “she has helped rabbis become more pluralist and innovative, the core goal of this program.”

Rabbi Sirbu also has engaged in advocacy. In 2018 she co-founded the Gender Equity in Hiring Project, a nonprofit that advocates for salary transparency in the Jewish communal world.

She grew up in Austin, Texas, where her parents both were professors at the University of Texas, and her father was the chair of Jewish studies. “Our house was very Jewish,” she said. “We were one of four Jewish families. We went to Houston for our meat.”

While she “felt very Jewish,” she was sent to an Episcopal high school, since her parents wanted their children to get the best schooling available. Ironically, “the school helped inspire me,” she said. “I saw how religion could be a positive force in people’s everyday life. It made me more curious about my own tradition.”

How does healing come into play in her new position? Among other things, “I’ll be bringing what I learned about building networks,” Rabbi Sirbu said. At Clal, she worked with rabbis; now “I’ll be doing the same thing for foundations and donors.

“I’ll help build givers around certain issues,” she said. Noting that there already are affinity groups for Jewish poverty, arts, and culture, she said that she would work to develop more grant-giver affinities. “There are lots of challenges around the world. I’ll listen to the funders and then bring people together who have similar areas of interest.” This, she said, will have the greatest impact.

Rabbi Sirbu said she is “really impressed” with the Jewish poverty initiative. “The pandemic highlighted divisions between the haves and have-nots. We have a significant percentage of Jews who live in poverty, but we don’t talk about it or try to alleviate it.” The Jewish community has a good track record of social service, she said, but still faces big mental health challenges.

The funders are “the main philanthropists in the Jewish world, ranging from big foundations to Jewish federations to individual donors who have smaller family foundations or give of their own accord,” she continued. “It’s a real mix of people.”

Rabbi Sirbu’s personal strengths would seem to be a good match for this position. “My strengths center around listening and being present for people,” she said. “I need to hear from the funders what their concerns are. Next is my ability to sift through and integrate information and help bring people together. I’m a natural networker; I love introducing people to each other. Also, I’m very much a creative strategizer — looking for the best ways to tackle a particular problem. I love thinking outside the box.”

She also loves bringing people with different viewpoints to the same table. “That’s how you get the most creative solutions. It worked at Clal, with rabbis and lay leaders from different backgrounds. When they sat around the table, they would share their thoughts and opinions and gently challenge each other. Everybody in that space had an open heart and an open mind. Nothing was combative. There was a sense that we’re here to solve issues together. I like to create that safe space.

“I’m here to serve the funders and hear their concerns,” she said, noting that her first meetings will be over Zoom, “but will evolve into face to face. We tentatively have a conference scheduled in October, the Israel Ideas Festival. JFN is known for annual conferences that bring together many different funders. There’s high-level discourse on various issues.”

The organization has an office in Israel, with six staff members, she said. Conferences are held in Israel every third year.

Rabbi Sirbu’s husband, Rabbi Steven Sirbu, leads Temple Emeth, a Reform synagogue in Teaneck; the Sirbus have a daughter, 16-year-old Talia. Living in a two-rabbi family is “wonderful,” she said, and that their strong commitment “is a strength in our relationship.”

Asked what she considers to be the biggest need in the Jewish community today, Rabbi Sirbu said, “We need to work on developing a more meaningful, deep Jewish connection for our new generation. People don’t remain Jewish just because their grandparents were. We need to develop more meaningful religious experiences, services, retreats, social justice opportunities infused with the knowledge and content of Jewish tradition. We need to help people remain part of the Jewish people and committed to tradition.

“This is a moment of real opportunity to have an impact in the Jewish world and beyond,” she added. “Everything was turned upside down this past year. It’s a great time for people to really identify what’s meaningful to them.

“Where do you want to have an impact? It’s an important time to help grow the organization and heal the world.”

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