Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum said she always had a Jewish soul. Raised a Southern Baptist, Berenbaum is now one of a few African-American women to enter the rabbinate.
“I think I bring a perspective that is different and unique,” said Berenbaum in a phone interview from her office at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Mass., where she is director of congregational learning and programming.
“I don’t think many Jews unless they’re Orthodox walk around wearing their Jewishness,” she said. “But, I can’t walk around and not wear my blackness.”
Berenbaum will be guest speaker Nov. 8 during Shabbat services at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick. Her appearance is being sponsored by its Daniel Pearl Education Center, a non-profit organization committed to the ideals of understanding and community in keeping with those of the Wall Street Journal journalist who was murdered in Pakistan for being Jewish.
“Her story resonates with the mission of the Daniel Pearl Education Center, which stands for acceptance of all people,” said chair Dr. Andrew Boyarsky. “I can’t think of a better example than a female, black rabbi. Her story just resonated with us.”
Berenbaum, known as “Rav Berenbaum,” began her spiritual journey as a child growing up in Brookline where she was exposed to Judaism through friends in the town’s sizable Jewish community. It was at a friend’s bat mitzvah that the former churchgoer said she felt an immediate connection to the Torah.
“The moment the ark opened and the Torah was taken out and carried around the room I just felt drawn to it,” she said.
Berenbaum began observing the Jewish Sabbath and learning what she could about the religion on her own.
While a student at Tufts University she had a Jewish boyfriend and double majored in psychology and Judaic studies. During her sophomore year she underwent a Conservative conversion.
Her parents, she said, were neither shocked nor put off by their daughter’s decision and remained supportive throughout the process.
“My mother said to me, ‘I always knew you were Jewish,’” said Berenbaum.
She began teaching Hebrew school at the Kesher Center for Jewish Learning and Culture in Cambridge, Mass.
“I loved it and have sought to replicate those experiences wherever I have gone,” said Berenbaum. “The kids at the end of the day didn’t want to leave. There was a love of community with no negative baggage.”
Berenbaum went on to earn a master’s degree in Jewish education and was ordained in 2013 by the unaffiliated Hebrew College in Newton, Mass.
Her first position was at the Reconstructionist Congregation Shir Hadash in Milwaukee, where her mixed heritage came into play during her four years there.
“Milwaukee has a lot of segregation and the Jewish community is working very hard to bridge that gap of segregation, which is very zip code based,” said Berenbaum. “I was proud to be the connection between those two communities. I would often go representing my synagogue in multifaith work with black churches.”
Berenbaum would go on to serve as religious leader at the unaffiliated Temple Har Zion in Mount Holly in Burlington County, leaving in July to return to her hometown at her current 360-family synagogue, which is also denominationally unaffiliated.
“People in south Jersey were fascinated and blown away by me,” she said. “I know we live in an Ashkenazic world, but I think I represent the wide diversity of Judaism. There are plenty of African-American Jews who have been here living Jewish lives for generations.”
While at Temple Har Zion, Berenbaum was invited to read an interfaith prayer for peace at the 2018 inauguration of Gov. Phil Murphy.
Berenbaum and her husband, Joel, have a 2-year-old daughter, Gayla Bracha. She hopes to bring the diversity of her multicultural family and the Jewish community together to create a spirit of inclusiveness without regard to denomination, sexual orientation, race, or gender.
“I have an affinity for gospel music,” said Berenbaum. “When I hear gospel tunes I hear an undertone of Torah. When I come back I put them into Hebrew in my head. My dream is to have a choir sing those tunes with Jewish texts. I believe certain songs can open the gates of heaven.”
If you go
Who: Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum
What: “A Conversation on Religion and Race”
When: Friday, Nov. 8, 8 p.m.
Where: Temple B’nai Shalom, East Brunswick
Cost: Free; for information, email email@example.com