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New female head rabbi weighs in on how to better serve Milwaukee Jews

Jews are entering into the year 5784 in the Jewish calendar. The new year starts on September 15 and is celebrated as a time of reflection and renewal. People traditionally eat apples and honey in honor of a sweet year.
Maayan Silver
Jews are entering into the year 5784 in the Jewish calendar. The new year starts on September 15 and is celebrated as a time of reflection and renewal. People traditionally eat apples and honey in honor of a sweet year.

The holiest days in Judaism happen this September. They’re called the “high holidays” and include the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement — Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

One rabbi leading her congregation through these days, and more, is Jessica Barolsky. She’s the new senior rabbi at Reform congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun synagogue in River Hills.

Rabbi Jessica Barolsky is the new head rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El B'ne Jeshurun
Linsey Kimmel photography
Rabbi Jessica Barolsky is the new head rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El B'ne Jeshurun.

While there have been female head rabbis at Shir Hadash, a local Reconstructionist synagogue founded about 30 years ago, and several of the congregations have had assistant rabbis and cantors who are women, Barolsky is the first female senior rabbi in a Reform or Conservative synagogue in the metro Milwaukee area. Many of these Reform and Conservative synagogues have been around since anywhere from the late 1800s to the 1950s.

Barolsky weighs in on that distinction: “I'm honored to be that first. It means a lot to me, personally, I think it means a lot to Milwaukee and to the Jewish people to see that example. You know, we hear a lot about ‘You can't be what you can't see.’”

She says she looks forward to the day when a new female rabbi in Milwaukee won’t know if she’s the first or the fourth or the seventh or the 16th because that means that the community has gotten used to it.

Barolsky grew up in Maryland in a fully egalitarian congregation where women could do anything men can do. “So, there really wasn't a separation or any way to distinguish between men and women or anything like that. And that's not true of all parts of Judaism or all congregations.”

In some streams of Orthodox Judaism, women can’t read from the Torah or sing in the congregation and there’s a divider wall between prayer sections for men and women. “It’s a different sort of separate tradition, and I greatly respect people who practice in that way,” says Barolsky. “It's simply not the way that I was raised. I love that things are not off limits to me or to anybody else that there's just as much Judaism for me as a woman as there is for anybody.”

In addition to taking the reins at Emanu-El, after the retirement of longtime rabbi — Marc Berkson, Barolsky has had to contend with breast cancer, which she was diagnosed with and recovered from in 2016.

“I think the biggest thing that I learned was how to accept help,” she says of that period. “Which is not easy for a lot of people, myself included, because we all like to think we can do it ourselves. And it taught me that it's not only OK to say yes when people want to help, but it is so much better for everybody.”

Barolsky says that ordeal changed her perspective in a lot of ways and reminded her that community is not just about giving a helping hand, but it's also about accepting a helping hand. “And that's been a really important lesson for me,” she says.

Maayan Silver
People eat pomegranates on Rosh Hashanah because they're said to have 613 seeds, the number of commandments and good deeds ("mitzvot") in the Torah. Traditionally, people also eat honey cake or apple cake.

Fostering that community is also important for Barolsky. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey, only one-fifth of Jews nationwide attend services at a synagogue, temple or other small Jewish group at least once a month. The rest attend services a few times a year or less.

Barolsky says it is a challenge to get people of all ages to connect with their synagogues, but that one thing that, that study skews is measuring affiliation or participation rates by only looking at religious services. “I think one of the things that we know is that some people connect to Judaism through services, no question, and some people connect to Judaism through social action, social justice work, working together as a community to make our world better. And there's nothing wrong with that. That's an amazing way to connect and practice Judaism.”

And others, she says, connect to Judaism by studying. “We have lots of adult education classes, for example, where people come together and learn and study together, and some of those are people who don't come to services on a regular basis and that's OK.” All Jews are not the same, says Barolsky, and they connect differently.

It’s a similar issue when it comes to connecting with young Jews. While young Jews are more likely to identify as “cultural but not religious,” or on the other end, as Orthodox, according to the Pew Research survey, than older generations, older Jews are more likely to identify as Reform or Conservative.

Barolsky says, “I think a lot of it is really the idea of meeting people where they are and some of that is physically where they are. So going out and having a service in a different location, that's not in the synagogue, that's maybe downtown.”

She suggests events like a meet up in a park for families with young children where the parents can sit and talk and the kids can go play on the playground and still have that Jewish connection. “Maybe it's talking about how Judaism, what advice and wisdom Judaism can give us about the life stages that we're in right now or about.”

"Judaism's been around a really long time," she says, “and has some truly remarkable wisdom and amazing things to tell us and teach us, that even though are very ancient words, are often incredibly relevant to what we're doing now.”

Barolsky says synagogues need to continue to reach out to younger generations and find out what they're curious about. "If they want to be cultural Jews, great. What does that mean to them? How do they define that? And are they looking for more than that, and if not, how can we be ready for when they are or when their children are, because often it's cycles and people eventually come back even if they're not interested today.”


Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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