New rabbi making changes

The Mirror

Rabbi Zari Weiss will only be at the Bet Chaverim Community Synagogue of South King County a handful of days a month, but she’s preparing to make some changes at the synagogue.

Though she’s admittedly impatient, she’s resolved to infuse the congregation with intellectual and academic rigor, demand more of bar and bat mitzvah candidates, celebrate traditional festivals, and atone meaningfully during the High Holiday observances.

Weiss received her rabbinical education at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion and was ordained in 1991. She took the part-time position at Bet Chaverim about six months ago.

The current service schedule is spare compared to larger, full-service synagogues in the region. Of the four Friday night services a month, Weiss leads two, plus the one Saturday morning service a month.

She’s also been coming in two Sundays a month to help religious school director Ellen Bloom develop curriculum.

Even though Weiss’ time is limited, she’s set out a lot to accomplish with synagogue members.

“I want to help them grow, but as much as I want to help them grow in size and membership, I want to help them deepen, get greater facility with Jewish texts, with Jewish teaching and ideas and liturgy,” she said.

South King County’s Jewish community is diverse. There are many interfaith couples, some with little kids and others with children in college, and people are observant in a range of degrees. As with many congregations across the religious spectrum, the Bet Chaverim regulars who attend every Friday night service are sometimes shocked to see how many people show up for High Holidays.

Weiss said she wants all to feel welcome, regardless of their levels of observance, the religious tradition in which they were raised, their Jewish or Hebrew literacy, or the religious compositions of their immediate and extended families.

“In general, my philosophy has been to try to reach out to people and make them feel welcomed instead of putting up barriers that make people feel excluded,” she said.

But Weiss said she also wants her Jewish community to learn and grow as individuals and — crucial to Judaism — to grow as a community, Weiss said. Modern Reform Jews need to know how to keep a Jewish home, how to observe Shabbat, how to read and understand Hebrew, and how to enjoy a family life infused with Judaism, she said.

The Reform movement suffers from a cultural stigma that perceives it to be “Judaism Lite” and, in some congregations, the epithet fits. Some Reform Jews thrive in an environment in which they regularly break the Sabbath, fail to keep kosher, ignore the mikvah and stop studying Torah simply because they’re Reform Jews and they don’t have to. Weiss said that’s not how it’s supposed to be.

In fact, she explained, there seems to be a backlash against lackadaisical Judaism. Orthodox Chabad houses are springing up to join the Reform movement’s Hillels in communities and on college campuses across the country, including several in Seattle, Tacoma and King County’s east side, and they’re attracting young people and those interested in a greater level of observance.

Two new mikvah baths for ritual cleansing opened last year in Seattle, where before there had only been one — at the Orthodox shul on Beacon Hill — for years.

Weiss noted Reform Judaism has grown more traditional and more observant since its inception in the 19th century, despite its permissive reputation. There even have been several changes since she was a child, including the wearing of tallitot, or prayer shawls, and kippot, commonly called by the yiddish term “yarmulkah.” She said that’s good, but added Jews could do more.

“Every Jew has a righteous duty to make a conscience choice,” she said. “Everyone should go through a process of study and observance. I really want Jews to be serious Jews. I don’t care what denomination someone is.”

Weiss said she’s part of what appears to be a new generation of Reform rabbis who demand Jews have a greater level of commitment, including “communal activity, study, all the celebrations.”

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