Interviewed by Meg Bernstein, special to the WJN
Even in the calmest of seasons, it is no small task to move your family a great distance and begin a new job as the rabbi of a congregation that, in recent years, has been through many transitions. And with the waning weeks of Av tumbling headlong into Elul, the High Holy Days in sight, that task must seem fraught with extra pressure, as those of us who do the work of congregational leading understand all too well. Amid all of it, I was so grateful to Rabbi Shelley Goldman for granting me some time to speak about her life and her new role at Congregation of Moses in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
This transition marks the third in a series of “brick-and-mortar synagogues,” as Rabbi Goldman calls them, that she has served in the last seven years. That descriptor distinguishes these positions from the one she held with Dor Hadash in Pittsburgh, for whom she primarily worked remotely as an interim rabbi. After receiving ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2016, Rabbi Goldman first served as assistant rabbi to Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, Indiana, before later transitioning to Dor Hadash and then Kesher Israel in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Ever astute, the first question Rabbi Goldman asked me during our phone interview was if I was originally from Pittsburgh. This makes sense if you know that I have kept my area code 412 phone number as a point of pride despite living in Michigan for over a decade. We immediately bonded over both having connections to congregations formerly housed in the Tree of Life building and spoke briefly about our conflicting feelings about the verdict recently handed down in that case. She said, “It’s so complicated. I don’t believe in the death penalty, so when the verdict came down for the Parkland shooter, who was given life in prison, I heard [an interview] with a parent. He said, ‘I don’t understand why the death penalty exists, if not for a situation like this,’ and I really felt for him. And I thought also that they made the right decision because I don’t believe in the death penalty. And then when I heard the verdict two weeks ago, I thought, ‘I don’t believe in the death penalty. And they made the right decision.’” After this, she paused and reflected on how difficult it is right now, insurmountable even, to have a rational moral or ethical debate immediately after a trauma such as this — and we have had so many.
From there we moved on to discuss slightly lighter topics, although the rabbi is no stranger to social justice work, having lived a previous life as an activist and community organizer. Rabbi Goldman considers the social justice work of tikkun olam foundational to her rabbinate. She comes by this view honestly and historically: her mother was a member of the Jane Collective, a group of Chicago women who, before Roe v. Wade came down in 1973, helped secure abortion access to thousands of women seeking healthcare. Goldman has worked to continue that legacy since she was in middle school. She recalls, “In the ’90s, a book about the Janes was published, and we went to a book talk. And someone asked, ‘If abortion ever becomes illegal again, what do you think you will do?’ And the mood was very celebratory, like we were talking about history. And [my friend] said, ‘Well, I don’t want to commit myself to future criminal activity, but that would be a real moment.’ And so, it’s just crazy to me to be in that moment again — or for the first time, really, for me.” Again, the cognitive dissonance of our time rears its head.
We move on to talk about the Movement for Black Lives and Black liberation, another social justice topic near to the rabbi’s heart. She tells me that some years ago, Rabbi Goldman and her partner took in their young niece, who is Black, at a time when the girl most needed a supportive place to live and grow up. That experience was transformative, as close relationships can often be. She tells me, “Taking in and raising kids who need a place adds a level of complexity and commitment. I feel like she’s taught me a lot about the world.”
Our conversation transitions to Rabbi Goldman’s childhood and Jewish upbringing in Chicago, where her family was secular and unaffiliated until she was about 10 years old. That’s when her parents joined a Reform temple in Oak Park because she was asking so many questions: “[My parents] were like, this kid needs Hebrew school!” She also attended Jewish summer camps, including Camp Tavor in Three Rivers, Michigan, where she made many lasting friendships and met Jews from many different movements. In college, she fell in with a crowd who exposed her to Reconstructionism which felt, to her, like a sort of homecoming. After graduating and creating a career in community organizing, Goldman decided to make the huge leap to rabbinical school. In her process of choosing, she visited campuses of Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. It was not until she visited the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside of Philadelphia that “it just clicked.” She knew intuitively that was the right place for her. Our conversation about rabbinical school, a topic of particular interest to me as one who is considering that path, eats up a chunk of our time, but I relish the opportunity to hear about her experiences.
When I ask her about the first things on her agenda as she gets her bearings at Congregation of Moses, she responds as I anticipated a community organizer would: people. “Spending the first year getting to know everybody and getting to know the families. Getting to know the congregation, getting to know the community. It’s a long view. I don’t want to do something or change something without laying the groundwork.” But she and her partner already love Kalamazoo, where they hope to plant their roots. They purchased “a beautiful home in a great neighborhood where every other house has a four-year-old kid!” It sounds like a perfect fit for them, as they raise their two sons, aged four and one.
Before we hang up, I ask the rabbi to share a teaching with me that I can pass on to you, our readers, ahead of the High Holy Days. Would I even be a perhaps-future-rabbi if I did not ask this? She tells me, “I love the idea that shana, like in ‘Shana Tova,’ the root of shana means simultaneously ‘change’ and ‘repeat.’ So, every year in Elul, it’s a time to review the last year and to think about what practices are working. And so, then that means let’s repeat that for the next year. And what do we need to change out to make a good change in the new year? Both are needed, repeat and change, to make a good year ahead.”