Rabbi Avi Strausberg, of Temple of Aaron, focuses on adult education and finding creative ways to engage with the Jewish tradition
By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor
Rabbi Avi Strausberg, the director of congregational learning at Temple of Aaron Synagogue in St. Paul, traveled a winding road to the rabbinate.
Strausberg — a New Jersey native who grew up in a Conservative synagogue — made her way to the Twin Cities via the theater program at Northwestern University in Chicago, organic farming programs in New Zealand and Connecticut, and an egalitarian yeshiva in New York. There, she “fell in love with the process of learning,” and continued her studies at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem before enrolling in rabbinical school at the transdenominational Hebrew College in Boston.
In a recent interview at Temple of Aaron, Strausberg said her decision to go to rabbinical school was twofold: she craved more time for serious study, feeling like she had a “lifetime of learning to make up for,” and she had already been inspired by several “amazing teachers.”
“It got me really excited about teaching Jewish texts and teaching rabbinic material,” she said.
Strausberg came to St. Paul in July with her wife, Chana, and their infant son, Ori. The rabbi will be formally installed on Dec. 5.
In her role at Temple of Aaron, Strausberg is essentially an assistant rabbi — delivering sermons and officiating at lifecycle events — but she also focuses on adult education and leads the weekly Torah study.
“For me, it was just really the perfect blend of getting to do the teaching, the adult education, that I was excited about while still having the diversity of getting to write sermons and getting to meet with people,” Strausberg said. “It’s a really great blend of responsibilities.”
Strausberg describes herself as “transient,” which is evident in her journey to St. Paul. She began studying theater at Northwestern and pursued it professionally for a few years in Chicago after earning her degree. In between waitressing and working at Trader Joe’s, Strausberg co-founded a nonprofit theater company. But she soon realized that the “life of a struggling actor” was not for her.
“When I decided I wasn’t on the theater track anymore, the world was totally open to me,” she said.
She decided to spend a year in New Zealand, working with an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF); Strausberg said it’s an “awesome way to see the world.”
In return for working 10 hours a day on an organic farm, Strausberg received food and lodging. She later managed an organic grocery store in New Zealand and considered applying for residency there.
But she missed the organized Jewish communities of New York, New Jersey and Chicago, so she headed back to the United States. She then spent three months in Connecticut as part of the Adamah Fellowship, which brought together the concepts of organic farming, sustainability and Jewish environmentalism.
“I just had really great experiences of Jewish community,” Strausberg said. “And for me, it was a meaningful way to connect it to Judaism, through the root of sustainability and environmental values.”
From Connecticut, Strausberg moved to the Upper West Side of New York to study at Hadar, the egalitarian yeshiva, which was at the time in its first year of programming. The full-time, intensive curriculum included the study of Torah, Talmud and Mishna.
“I grew up Conservative and I grew up going to Hebrew school, but that was the first time that I had really studied Jewish texts seriously,” Strausberg said, adding that she enjoyed the “tradition of questioning, debate and dialogue.”
While at Hadar, Strausberg met her wife, Chana, a native Israeli who was spending just one year in the United States. As the relationship was new, Chana was not convinced to move to Boston with Strausberg, so Strausberg moved to Israel to study at Pardes. After a year, the couple returned to Boston, where Strausberg attended rabbinical school.
Chana plans to start a master’s program in the Twin Cities next year.
“She is really the perfect partner for me, she’s just made everything that I’ve been doing so complete,” Strausberg said. “She’s a perfect partner in life and also in learning. She’s very educated Jewishly, and I joke that even after years of being in rabbinical school, I feel like she’s my rabbi.”
Chana also created a collage of haiku Strausberg wrote that were inspired by a year of Torah portions, which hangs on Strausberg’s office wall. Strausberg now maintains a Daf Yomi [“daily page” of Talmud] blog in which she writes daily Talmudic haiku (inhaiku.wordpress.com); she is nearly four years into the seven-and-a-half-year project.
Strausberg hopes to incorporate her unique background and life experiences into her work at Temple of Aaron, including as a resource for the social justice committee on issues of sustainability. But she is most interested in finding ways to read and interact with the Jewish tradition in creative ways.
“I love the Torah for what it is, but…where’s the room for storytelling? What are the perspectives that we’re not hearing? What’s our role in telling the story, what’s our voice in the tradition?” Strausberg said. “In theater, we’re always interacting and in dialogue with the text, and that’s how I think about Jewish learning.”
And she is excited to be part of the long and rich history of Temple of Aaron.
“I found the community to be very welcoming and friendly and open,” Strausberg said. “Temple of Aaron is a community that has some families that have been here for five generations…the roots are just so deep… [The congregants] seem excited to invest in me, but in some ways, I’m a blip on their radar. They have a cultural history that they’re attached to and it’s a beautiful thing to see and be a part of.”
Rabbi Avi Strausberg will be formally installed during Shabbat services on Saturday, Dec. 5 at Temple of Aaron, 616 S. Mississippi River Blvd., St. Paul. Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, dean of the rabbinical school at Hebrew College, will assist with the installation.
For information, visit: www.templeofaaron.org.
(American Jewish World, 11.6.15)