Congregation Shalom Aleichem Jewish Services and Sunday School Howad County Maryland

Rabbi Joanne Heiligman

About Rabbi Heiligman

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Rabbi Heiligman I grew up in Squirrel Hill, a very Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh. I was fascinated by Judaism and religion from about age 3. I was raised in a home that was not kosher or observant in any Orthodox sense of the word, but very strongly Jewish all the same. We lit candles, said kiddish (one-line version) and had challah Friday nights, along with a special dessert that the kids fought over. My mother made traditional foods for the holidays (Latkes and Hamentaschen). My parents belonged to an Orthodox congregation because their friends did, but in no way was I "raised" Orthodox. (My parents switched to a Reform congregation about 10-15 years ago, and are getting much more out of synagogue life).

My high school Hebrew School program was Reconstructionist. I belonged to BBG (B'nai Brith Girls youth group) & NFTY, a reform youth group.

I went to public schools and had friends from across the Jewish spectrum as well as Christians. What I got out of my broad Jewish background, was a level of comfort in diverse Jewish settings and a feeling that we are all one family. I don't see Orthodox Jews as "other" or "weird" as some do. I am committed to building bridges of friendship and understanding among all Jews. But as a young woman coming of age in the feminist 70's, I was not interested in being Orthodox. As a young adult, I joined a conservative congregation, the only one in town.

When I was graduating from college (BA Psychology after studying engineering & physics, but that's another story), I looked at the things I love to study and do, such as Judaism, counseling, teaching, art, music, writing, etc., and thought that a Rabbi could conceivably do all those things. It crossed my mind earlier, in the 70's, but there were only a couple women Rabbis at the time and didn't seem at all realistic. I hadn't thought about it again for eight years.

I had always resisted choosing a label, preferring "Recon-form-odox-ative," but choosing a Rabbinical school meant choosing a movement. The more I read, the more I felt I was a Reconstructionist. Here was a movement that taught what I believed:

  • Judaism is a vast civilization, not just a religion. It includes arts, music, literature, drama, three languages, nationality and ethnicities, numerous cuisines and a land.

  • Jews are not "chosen". God does not play favorites.

  • God isn't a person-like being sitting on a cloud and zapping/blessing people at whim.

  • Even if not divinely revealed, Torah and other Jewish texts are holy because we give them that sacredness by our devotion, as our ancestors always have.

  • If tradition is problematic, we seek to reinterpret it and keep it, rather than tossing out the whole idea.

  • "The past has a Vote, not a Veto."

  • Even if a Jew can't believe in a supernatural concept of God, there are other ways to understand God and maintain both spirituality and intellectual honesty.

  • Judaism must enhance the lives of Jews if it is to flourish.

  • Judaism belongs to and must serve the Jewish people even more than the Jewish people belong to Judaism and "owe Judaism" (such as the idea that you owe it to the past to keep kosher, keep Shabbat, keep whatever because your ancestors did. Remember, our ancestors had a reason too. There must be intrinsic value in the tradition, and guilt is not a valid reason, in my opinion, to live a Jewish life.)

  • Reconstructionism was and is completely egalitarian.

  • Reconstructionists define Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.

  • There was room for diversity in belief and practices among reconstructionist Jews, but

  • Communal decisions (such as whether the synagogue would be kosher, for example) were to be made democratically by the community, after study.

  • Serious contemporary American Jews are trying to walk a path that includes the best of two civilizations, American and Jewish.

  • Wisdom is in finding the balance and the creative tension in this situation.

I found that all of this rang true for me and thus enthusiastically joined the Reconstructionist movement in 1983. Shortly thereafter, I was accepted into their Rabbinical College and moved from California to Philadelphia to attend RRC.

Since graduation in 1989, I have served Conservative, Reform and Unaffiliated congregations. I've been a contract Rabbi in the Federal Prison system, for the VA and for a nursing home. I was also involved in Jewish acculturation for New Americans from the former USSR. While I've worked continually in a variety of rabbinic capacities, I haven't held a full-time pulpit in years, as I am the mother of three young children. I particularly love teaching adults about things they may have missed in their earlier Jewish education (or lack of education), so feel free to ask me anything about Judaism. I believe our heritage sits for many of us like a beautifully wrapped present. We gaze at it, but hesitate to open the wrapping paper and see what's really inside. I assure you it's not all spring-loaded snakes and confetti. There's lots of great stuff in there - it's ours, and we cheat ourselves when we fail to take full possession of it.

Rabbi Joanne Heiligman

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