New Jersey native Rabbi Debra Orenstein, who rose to prominence in California as a proponent of women’s spirituality and Jewish renewal, has returned to her home state after nearly two decades on the West Coast.
She just began her tenure at the Conservative Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, after 18 years as religious leader at the Renewal congregation Makom Ohr Shalom in Encino and on the faculty at the American Jewish University, formerly the University of Judaism, in Los Angeles. She is also the author of “Lifecycles,” a series of books addressing Jewish life-cycle events from a woman’s perspective. Her first service at B’nai Israel was July 16.
A seventh-generation rabbi, she is the daughter of Rabbi Jehiel and Sylvia Orenstein; her father is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth El in South Orange; her mother has argued key cases as a public defender for the State of New Jersey.
During her first week at B’nai Israel, NJJN caught up with Orenstein.
NJJN: After 18 years at Makom Ohr Shalom, why return to New Jersey now?
Orenstein: It was a very over-determined decision. There were a lot of factors that all got me to New Jersey. I always said I love everything about California and LA except the earthquakes and being far from my family. I always had the feeling this wouldn’t be my final place. I couldn’t imagine California as my permanent home. My kids are getting to be school age — my son will be going into first grade — so it was a good time to think about moving. Also, my parents are still very useful and active but they are getting older, so this is a good time to come and move back and be near them.
And finally, this was a really good shidduch [match] with B’nai Israel.
NJJN: What attracted you to B’nai Israel?
Orenstein: The synagogue is affiliated with the Conservative movement but is transdenominational in a lot of ways. That fits my description as well. I’m from the Conservative movement — I was educated in the movement, my roots are in the movement, and I care about it — but I also studied and taught at [the Reform] Hebrew Union College and have been affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement, and I’ve learned with Lubavitchers. I try to reach beyond movement boundaries. I have a very open and experimental approach to Judaism. I’m willing and eager to try new things and use innovation in a prudent and responsible way to connect people with tradition.
NJJN: Is it difficult to transition from a Renewal synagogue on the West Coast to an East Coast Conservative shul?
Orenstein: Well, today is day three. It’s probably too early to know. But I’m a person who bridges worlds. My West Coast Renewal synagogue and my East Coast Conservative synagogue are not that different. For Renewal, I use more Hebrew and more tradition than most; my Conservative synagogue uses more creative liturgy and innovation than most. Maybe that’s because for me, Renewal isn’t really a movement but an approach. It means you constantly ask questions of personal and political meaning.
NJJN: Judaism on the West Coast is different from Judaism on the East Coast, isn’t it?
Orenstein: Certain trends are different, but I’m not convinced that Judaism is fundamentally different on the East Coast and West Coast. Despite the news — especially regarding Israel — I believe in klal Yisrael and the fundamental unity of Israel. All Jews really want and need the same things.
NJJN: Is there anything you plan to import from your tenure at Makom Ohr Shalom?
Orenstein: Actually, I am bringing something that was already in place when I arrived at Makom Ohr Shalom: a Yom Kippur healing service. During the afternoon break, lots of congregations offer stories or study. In California we’re used to a healing service. Folks here seem really intrigued and want to know more, so I thought we’d try.
I also have my own style for reading the Torah that I did on my interview with B’nai Israel. In addition to reading the Torah, I add an English translation and a commentary, all in trope. It’s the way the Torah reading is described in Nechemiah, and it’s something I learned from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi [considered the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement]. It’s very involving and brings people together.
NJJN: What are you looking forward to here in New Jersey?
Orenstein: I like the small-town feel of the towns here. We went to the movies in Westwood and the movie taker gave us our tickets and said, ‘Oh, I have to go turn on the projector.’ That doesn’t happen in LA. I’m also looking forward to taking my dad’s Talmud class once a week. And I love the close-knit feeling in the Jewish community in New Jersey that is so different from LA.
NJJN: What is your vision for your tenure at B’nai Israel?
Orenstein: I want to help connect people’s lives to Torah and Torah to people’s lives. That’s what I would be doing wherever I live. It’s a little soon to know more. But my dad once said that being a rabbi is the greatest job because you’re on retainer to do mitzvot and teach Torah.