From Stage to Pulpit, a Rabbi’s Journey

Article and photos by Jason Shaltiel

The rabbi stands before her congregants, their faces dim before her. Her small figure is blanketed neck to lower back in a thick, white prayer shawl. Locks of her curly black hair are tucked behind her ears. To her right stands Rabbi David Ingber, with two guitarists, a percussionist and a pianist, patiently waiting behind them. She raises her arms toward the light coming from a window above, closes her light brown eyes and begins the evening prayer. The congregation follows.

Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer is the co-rabbi of Romemu, a synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. On some nights, she performs as a cantor, leading her flock in prayer cum song.

Whether on the bima–the raised platform of a synagogue–or the stage of a theater, the rabbi is used to commanding center stage.

Ironically, Meyer began life as a self-described “Hebrew school dropout.” From ages 6-12, Meyer attended Hebrew school in the evening, after public school classes. She described the experience as having knocked the passion for religion out of her. “Hebrew school was horrible,” she recalled, adding that her classes lacked structure and that teachings were not reinforced.

In college, Meyer pursued Middle Eastern studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, because she felt she didn’t know enough about the political situation in Israel and the Middle East.

Meyer moved to Israel for a few months after graduating and began performing at a Jewish-Palestinian theater company that promoted coexistence. But she was unhappy as she learned the company not only had one director who was Israeli, but the Arab perspective was excluded from productions. “It felt like a Band-Aid,” she said. “It was perpetuating some of the same problems within the greater society in terms of preferential treatment and different status.”

Music always plays a major role in services at Romemu.

Performing since the age of 5 has helped shape Meyer as a rabbi and as an actor. She learned to play violin and took part in small productions that her family put on for friends.

Years after college, Meyer landed a leading role in Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” a film based on an autobiographical book by Władysław Szpilman, a Jew who lived through the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. The film depicts Szpilman’s life in the ghetto. Meyer played Halina, the sister of Szpilman, who was played by Adrian Brody; Brody won an Oscar for his performance.

Months before production of the film began, Meyer’s sister learned that Polanski would be directing a film based on the original memoir. “She was like, ‘You should go read the book and you should go be in the film,’ and then we laughed,” Meyer recalled. “And then I read the book. It’s a hard book to read and the way he described his little sister, I felt so very connected.”

As part of becoming the character of Halina, Meyer began living in the Jewish community of Warsaw. She learned what life was like in Warsaw before, during and after the Holocaust. “The experience ended up being much more of a Jewish experience than a cinema experience for me. It also planted the seed for me leaving and becoming a rabbi,” Meyer said.

The film was met with tremendous praise from critics and won three Academy Awards. Meyer was poised for a career in acting, but decided to pursue religion, saying that it felt more meaningful than the vapid world of Hollywood. Her role in “The Pianist” is what she says ultimately drew her into Judaism and led her to become a rabbi.

She studied at Hebrew College in Boston, where she was ordained a rabbi. She likened the college to a trade school, with a curriculum based on learning to manage and plan events, developing fundraising skills and studying biblical works. During her final year at the college she accepted the position of co-rabbi at Romemu.

Romemu meets at the West End Presbyterian Church on 106th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. From Monday through Friday, the building serves as a church for a local Christian community and on Friday and Saturday, it serves the Jewish congregation of Romemu.

The prayer hall is large enough to accommodate over a hundred people. In the front of the room is a large stage with an organ, which Romemu rarely uses for its services. Red carpet lines the floor, running through the aisles, matching the red cushions on the seats. Bright portraits of angels decorate the walls of the prayer room and Christian icons, one of a pauper clinging to Mary and another of an anchor, are embedded in the stained glass windows.

Services are led by Meyer and Ingber, the founder of Romemu. Both rabbis lead the congregation in prayers that are mostly sung. The rabbis are also accompanied by a small band, usually two guitarists, a pianist and a bongo beater.

Elliot Bickoff, an attorney living on the Upper West Side, has attended services at Romemu on many occasions over the past three years. His parents, his brother and his sister-in-law, are members of the congregation. Bickoff said his family enjoys the service because the congregation participates so enthusiastically.

“It has all the elements of a service but certainly a more heightened level of participation, spirituality and songs,” said Bickoff, who added that he thinks highly of the rabbis and is often impressed by Meyer. “She has a level of focus and intensity that she puts into the service that you can tell that she’s being lifted to another level.”

The service at Romemu is untraditional. Meyer couldn’t label what branch of Judaism the temple belongs to but said that most attendees identify it as “Renewal.” On the front door of the temple hangs a sign that reads, “All are welcome!” Both Jews and non-Jews attend each service; Blacks and Asians sit together with Jews from different backgrounds. Men and women sit side by side, which differs from the Orthodox and Conservative  branches of Judaism that separate men and women by section.

Prayers are recited in both English and Hebrew and the inclusion of the feminine voice is ever-present in prayer, as are prayers for the matriarchs of Judaism; in traditional Conservative and Orthodox sects, prayer books mostly include prayers for the patriarchs of Judaism.

Inclusion of the feminine voice is done to empower women in the audience, Meyer said. “The feminine God language gave me a whole different access and relationship. It transformed something in my body and in my soul to something I hadn’t had before. To be able to connect with a divine feminist,” Meyer said, “has been very empowering.”

Women rabbis are a relatively recent phenomenon. The first female rabbi, Regina Jonas, was ordained in Berlin in 1935. In 1981, Sally Priesand became the first woman to be ordained a rabbi in America. As of 2012, nearly 600 members of the reformed Central Conference of American Rabbis were women, according to Among the conservative Rabbinical Assembly, 300 members are women.

Many of the first women rabbis were rejected by congregations. Today the branches of Judaism outside the Conservative wing are more willing to accept female rabbis, but Meyer has still faced some critics.

“I met people who were like, ‘What kind of people would go to a synagogue where a woman is the rabbi?’” Meyer said in reference to a Jewish community in North London. “It was still foreign, I was like an alien. Even in Israel.”

Being unwed has also led to some awkward encounters. Men attending services have occasionally approached Meyer asking about her dating life and commenting on her appearance. “There’s the importance of very clear boundaries, especially in a place like Romemu, where everyone is hugging,” Meyer said sternly.

Meyer teaches classes, helps plan events and raise funds, jobs that are typical for all female rabbis.

Her performing as a cantor is uncommon outside of Reform Judaism; many congregations prohibit women from leading services because Jewish law forbids men from listening to women singing. The Central Synagogue in midtown Manhattan also has a female cantor who assists in leading prayers. The temple’s senior rabbi is also a female; born of a Jewish father and Buddhist mother.

Meyer also works with non-Jews who are converting to Judaism, which is untraditional outside of Reform because Judaism is not very accepting of converts. Some branches of Judaism don’t accept converts at all; the few conservative branches that do make the process arduous.

The presence of female rabbis provides women with a community leader who they can freely speak with. “There are women in the community who have said I want to talk to you because I need to speak to a woman about this,” Meyer said. “Somebody who was just thinking about issues of fertility came to me because she didn’t feel comfortable speaking with a male rabbi.”

Romemu’s clergy and community coordinator, Vanessa Ward, has worked with Meyer for several months. “Rabbi Jessica regularly provides pastoral counseling and comfort to those in need, both within and outside of our community,” Ward said. “Her warmth, kindness, compassion and sensitivity make her particularly well suited for leadership.”