TBE welcomes Rabbi Chelsea Feuchs

An interview by Rebecca Nieubuurt, Congregation-Based Social Worker Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County

Rabbi Chelsea Feuchs joins the clergy team at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor after being ordained as a rabbi at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. A graduate of Brown University, Rabbi Chelsea has worked with the AFL-CIO as a union organizer, was a Dorot Fellow in Israel, and has dedicated herself to the study of feminist thought in Torah. TBE would like to take this opportunity to introduce Rabbi Chelsea to the greater Washtenaw County community. Recently, Rabbi Chelsea sat down with me to discuss her transition from New York City to Ann Arbor, her hopes and aspirations as the Interim Director of Education at TBE, and what inspired the spiritual journey that brought her to our doorstep. We are all excited to welcome Rabbi Chelsea to TBE and the Greater Ann Arbor Jewish community.

Rebecca: Welcome to Ann Arbor and to Temple Beth Emeth! I know how intimidating it can be to walk into a new position in a new state, being fairly new to the area myself. How are you settling in?

Rabbi Chelsea: It’s been great joining the TBE community and working with the staff and congregants here! There is a lot to do to prepare for the new school year, but I am really looking forward to having students and their families back in the building to learn and connect together. I can tell already that there is a lot of energy and excitement about learning and growing here. People have been so welcoming and supportive. I had the opportunity to lead services during the first part of Rabbi Whinston’s sabbatical this past winter, when I was still a student, and folks treated me with such respect and encouragement, it was a wonderful introduction to the community.

Rebecca: You’re freshly ordained this year! How does it feel to be done with school and on this path within the rabbinical world?

Rabbi Chelsea: Well, it feels really good! There are so many things that I loved about school. I’m a total nerd, so much so that it was referenced under the chuppah by my rabbi. I am happiest with a book, and I feel like I am reading all the time. When there is something new that I learn about, I want to get all of the background, context, and touchstones so that I can integrate it into my everyday thinking. Those deep dives into new material are when I feel most energized. There are so many things I enjoyed about being in school, in particular my mentors, who were incredible and inspiring teachers.

But as much as I loved being in the classroom and learning new things, by far my favorite parts of my education were my internships at Central Synagogue in Manhattan and B’nai Israel in Connecticut. I’m really excited to be a rabbi in a congregation, using my learning in the service of others and building community. When I was able to incorporate the liturgy I learned into a hospital visit to provide pastoral care, or when I brought creative commentary into a Rosh Hashanah sermon that helped the material land in a new way, or when I saw a kiddo light up when a Hebrew letter finally clicked in their mind, those are the moments I lived for. And I particularly loved teaching more challenging Tanach stories to adults of all ages. It was energizing to see students ranging from 20 to 90 years old discover new pieces of our sacred text and see that our tradition has always been able to acknowledge and grapple with the messier and more difficult parts of life.

Rebecca: Tell us a little bit about your Jewish background. Who were educators that played a big role in your Jewish education?

Rabbi Chelsea: I grew up in a Jewish household, but with limited access to formal Jewish education. It’s a longer story for another time, but in my teen years I found myself in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, which is where I came of age. That experience was profound for me and I loved the community there; when I didn’t fit in at my high school, the UU youth group was my safe space. It was a welcoming and engaging community, and their commitment to social justice was really clear. So, I decided that I wanted to grow up and be a leader of a place like that, and saw myself becoming a UU minister.

In college I gained much greater access to Jewish spaces, education, and traditions. It wasn’t too hard for those dreams of the ministry to transform into dreams of the rabbinate, which was much more aligned with my heritage and identity. In my first visit to Brown RISD Hillel, the campus rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai Rachover, noticed that I did not have a lot of Jewish content knowledge, so he invited me to learn with him. He met me where I was at and never spoke down to me just because I was new to Jewish learning, and that really opened the doors for me. I ended up majoring in Judaic Studies, studying abroad in Israel, and becoming Hillel president … I guess you could say I jumped in with both feet!

In addition to that rabbi, I had countless amazing teachers. Every single Hebrew teacher I have ever had, probably around a dozen at this point, brought so much warmth and care into the classroom. They had an obvious, deep, contagious love of the Hebrew language, and I caught that bug.

I connected easily to the stories in the Tanach and came into my rabbinic studies at Hebrew Union College with a deep love of Torah, in particular feminist readings of Torah. Dr. Adriane Leveen, Senior Lecturer in Hebrew Bible and my thesis advisor, nurtured what I came in with and pushed me in other directions, which led me to my thesis on death and legacy. Thanks to her, I developed and taught a class on that subject, which became my most powerful experience as a teacher and something I wouldn’t have done without that push.

Rebecca: What drew you to Ann Arbor and Temple Beth Emeth?

Rabbi Chelsea: When my husband accepted a position at Michigan Medicine I was excited to move to a city as vibrant as Ann Arbor, and happy to learn that there was such a robust Jewish community here. Amazingly, there were multiple job opportunities in the area for me as well. When I saw how dynamic the Temple Beth Emeth community is, how dedicated they are to engagement with each other and the wider world, and how wonderful the staff is, it was a no-brainer that I wanted to become part of this congregation.

Rebecca: We have had some amazing leadership at the Religious and Hebrew School. What strengths do you hope to maintain in this program, and what new ideas might you bring to it this upcoming year?

Rabbi Chelsea: I could not be more fortunate to follow Terri Ginsburg and Rabbi Alter in this position, and I am so thankful both for what they have established at our school and for their willingness to share their insights and advice with me. I think our school is amazingly open, welcoming, and warm. We bring together students with such diverse backgrounds, in terms of their identities, content knowledge, and learning needs. Everyone has a place here, everyone deserves a pathway into Jewish learning that feels accessible and meaningful to them, and I see that stressed from top to bottom. This is true not only for the kids but also for their caretakers, who are invited in regardless of their background, whether they know Hebrew like the back of their hand, haven’t engaged in Jewish learning for years, or are Jewish-adjacent parents who come from another faith tradition. Our teachers know the importance of making everyone feel seen and cared for, and the importance of building positive associations with being in Jewish community and at the temple. The staff here has really blown me away with their enthusiasm and compassion for students and their learning, not to mention the depth of their knowledge that they are so happy to share.

With all those strengths in mind, we also have to acknowledge how tough the last three years have been because of the pandemic. COVID had a huge impact on our ability to be together and to form the strong bonds that we prize between students and among families. A big part of my focus is increasing our opportunities to engage with each other and building friendships that not only make it fun to be here at the synagogue, but also extend beyond our walls. One concrete example is that I am introducing a new program called Family Camp. Family Camp is going to be added to our monthly Elementary Shabbats and primarily geared towards those kiddos, although younger and older siblings are totally welcome, too! Each time we will have a different theme, largely focused on Jewish holidays, and we will play team-building games and have competitions all based around that theme. It provides an opportunity for families to play and learn together, for students to reinforce and share some of what they are learning in the classroom, and most importantly, to strengthen ties among students and parents/caretakers.

Rebecca: What are your passions within Judaism and the rabbinate? What are your passions or hobbies outside of a strictly Jewish context?

Rabbi Chelsea: I’ve already mentioned how passionate I am about Tanach and Torah study … I could go on about that all day, but I should list other passions too! In addition to that learning and teaching, I love providing pastoral care in my rabbinate. My time working as a hospital chaplain and counseling folks in congregational life has been so fulfilling, and I hope to build relationships in the community so I can help provide that kind of support here, especially to our students and their families. With youth and teen mental health concerns on the rise, religious spaces and leaders can be a source of comfort, in addition to trained mental health professionals, of course. I love working with kids, meeting them where they are at, and also showing them that Judaism can be fun and moving and surprising — I think our summer camps, which I totally love, show that so well, and kids deserve to feel that way all year round.

Outside of a Jewish context, I enjoy cooking and baking, and I love hiking and mixed martial arts. That being said, I like making Jewish foods, I feel spiritually connected when I am out in nature hiking, and I taught MMA at the URJ summer camp where I grew up … so maybe I am always in a somewhat Jewish context!

Rebecca: Given that my work is with aging congregants, my role at TBE and yours don’t intersect as often as we’d like. However, I have found in my time here that the Greater Ann Arbor Jewish community is profoundly interconnected and I feel considerably lucky to have found myself at Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County and Temple Beth Emeth and Beth Israel Congregation. As someone who has seen firsthand how warm and welcoming and supportive our community is, I can assure you that you’ve made a wonderful choice in working here. Thank you for letting me be the one to introduce you to Washtenaw County and taking this time with me today.

Rabbi Chelsea: Thank you! It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

Rabbi Chelsea Feuchs started as the Interim Director of Education on July 5. She came as guest clergy during Rabbi Josh Whinston’s winter sabbatical. More information on Family Camp will be posted on the Temple Beth Emeth website www.templebethemeth.org

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