Rabbi Lois Ruderman made a PowerPoint presentation that includes a shot of three nicely dressed, seemingly happy college women. In her presentation to teens about mental health, she said most audience members will describe the group as cheery and socially active. Ruderman then shocks the audience by letting them know that three weeks after the photo was taken one of the students took her own life.
The concept of “pikuach nefesh,” taking virtually any action to save a life, is of the utmost importance to Ruderman, the new religious leader at Congregation Kol Am in Freehold. She comes to the synagogue from one in Bergen County where she prioritized programming that helped families coping with mental illness or addiction.
Ruderman is looking to start such programming for teens at Kol Am and expand it into the larger Jewish community. “It is the ultimate concept in Judaism,” she said. “You can break Shabbat to save a life,” and for Ruderman, education about mental well-being and addiction is a “very important topic for post-b’nei mitzvah kids.”
“The idea is that someone should not be embarrassed to seek mental health help,” she said. “There should be no shame if a teen is absent because she is in a recovery program. Better she should be absent from school because she is in a program than be absent because of addiction or mental illness.”
Her passion for this subject was one of many qualities that impressed congregational leaders when they and president Susan Canter first met Ruderman informally for coffee.
“If the whole rabbinic search committee had been there we would have hired her immediately,” Canter said.
“She captured us right away and just immediately drew us in,” she told NJJN in a phone interview. “A lot of rabbis are inspirational and religious and can commune with God, and that is part of our Jewish reverence. But she is also warm, welcoming, and intelligent, and speaks beautifully. If we had made a list of things we wanted in a rabbi she would have checked off everything on that list.”
Ruderman, who began Aug. 1, took over for Rabbi Ellie Shemtov, who moved to Rutland Jewish Center in Vermont after four years at the congregation. Although Kol Am uses a Reform prayer book, it is a liberal independent synagogue.
Ruderman, a resident of the Regency adult community in Monroe, came from Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, where she had been a rabbi for four years, starting as a rabbinic intern before becoming the assistant rabbi. She was ordained in 2017 by the pluralistic Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, N.Y.
Her thesis, a requirement for ordination, was titled “A Congregational Response to Teen and Young Adult Mental Health.” Her commitment to the subject prompted Ruderman to develop a distinguished speaker series for teens at her former synagogue focusing on depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and recovery.
“Young adults face mental health issues in school management and planning their lives,” she said.
In her programming, Ruderman said, she has brought in young Jewish people in recovery to speak about their addictions. “For some it started because they were prescribed opioids for wisdom teeth removal or a sports injury,” she said.
“Sometimes when I do programming I separate older and younger kids…. I rely on a parent to decide whether their child can attend.”
Another strength of Ruderman is her artistic talents, like designing mezuzah covers. She has designed and sold custom-made clay mezuzot, some to celebrate such occasions as a baby-naming or a brit milah; her favorite featured a 3-D tiny kiddush cup, grapes, and candlesticks.
She plans to use this skill for a mezuzah-making program scheduled Nov. 20 at the Shalom Club of the Riviera adult community in Freehold.
“Everyone comes away with a clay mezuzah baked in an oven,” said the rabbi, who combines art programs with teachings about the laws concerning mezuzot, including what a mezuzah is — a case with the Shema prayer written on a piece of parchment inside — and why it is put on doorways.
Ruderman also designs tallitot and plans to continue her practice of having every bar and bat mitzvah student design and make a prayer shawl to wear during the ceremony. Her students use fabric pens to trace stenciled designs and lettering placed underneath the fabric.
“The kids not only design it, but I have them knot the tzitzit,” said Ruderman. “I teach them what a tallit is, why we wear it, and what designs are appropriate…. Each tallit is thus a unique and personal creation.”
Ruderman came to the rabbinate following a career as a speech therapist in Edison public schools; she then became a Judaica artist before taking time off to raise three daughters, Lauren, Allison, and Michelle, who are now professionals living in New York City.