At Detroit’s Temple Beth El, Rabbi Megan Brudney speaks to her generation…and mine

I was so taken with what Rabbi Megan Brudney said on Rosh Hashanah, I wanted to share it with you. First some background…

From Athens, GA, “home of the Georgia Bulldog,” Megan grew up in a Reform Jewish home. Her family belonged to a small temple—“the entirety of the Jewish community.” At 15, Megan attended her first Jewish youth group event. “300 Jewish teens all seemed to know each other. They ran screaming across the room to see old friends.”

Megan was one of 4 from Athens; they only knew each other.

When the excited group settled down, they joined in singing the Motzi (blessing over bread). “It blew my mind,” Megan recalls. “Somehow we had all learned it and all ended up in that conference room on that day.”

Megan returned home to become a v.p. of the Athens chapter of NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth). She stayed involved during high school. In college, as a counselor at Harlam summer camp, she learned to song lead and play guitar. As a student at Duke, she led services and songs on Friday nights at the Hillel building. By the time she graduated, the Reform minyan (meeting of Jews for worship) had grown from 2 or 3 to 15 regular attendees.

Friends suggested she become a rabbi. Megan wasn’t convinced. “It seemed too much like the path of least resistance.” She moved to D.C. and held jobs with two different non-profits. She signed up for an email about Jewish affairs. When she realized reading those bulletins was “the best part” of her day, she surrendered.

Megan was accepted into Hebrew Union College. She spent her first year in Jerusalem and another in Tel Aviv. She finished her studies at the L.A. campus and was ordained last May 15. “We wore grand white robes and tallises (prayer shawls). We walked down the aisle passing our professors—this brilliant faculty who cared so much about us and about Judaism. I started to cry. The school photographer told us to smile for the group picture. I’m the only one in the shot who’s crying.”

Megan had interned at smaller temples in Seattle and worked as a spiritual counselor at Beit T’Shuvah, a rehab center for Jewish addicts in L.A. When it came time to apply for her first job, the placement process was “tense.” On the first round, all synagogues convened in NYC for 3 days of interviews every hour on the hour. There she met outgoing Jordan Wortheimer, “grandson of the great Rabbi Hertz” and current president of Temple Beth El.

(Personal aside: My grandfather, David Wilkus, was TBE president when Dr. Hertz arrived in 1953. Dr. Hertz led the temple for many years and married Burton and me. Political aside: in 1959, Rabbi Hertz visited the USSR on a secret mission for President Eisenhower. He reported on treatment of Soviet Jewry in preparation for Ike’s upcoming summit with Khruschev.)

“I loved the long history of Temple Beth El,” Megan says. “I felt chemistry with Jordan and (senior rabbi) Mark Miller.” The next step in the hiring process was call backs, 2 days later, at 8am. “You just hope the synagogues you liked like you.” 3 weeks of site visits and more interviews followed.

The final step, the offer occurs at the same time, same day for all rabbinical hopefuls. Prospects have one hour to say yes or no. “From my first interview at Temple Beth El, when I started my tour, I knew it was right. I wanted to be here so badly. I was so thankful to get that call.”

Now several months into her first assistant rabbi position, Megan, 32, is happy with her choice. “The High Holidays were unbelievable. To officiate in a place as big and beautiful and grand as the main sanctuary, with Rabbi Miller and with Cantor Rachel, was amazing. I had only worked and worshipped in much smaller places. Never such a soaring sanctuary looking out at about 1400 people.”

Her installation was another highlight. Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, founding rabbi of the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle, where Megan interned for 2 years, came to help install (officially welcome) her at a Friday night service. So did her mom and dad, brothers, sister-in-law and niece, and her aunt from California.

Megan finds highlights in her daily work as well. One day, back in November, she started out at a breakfast meeting with a lay leader from TBE’s young family group. When she got to temple, she went into every Early Childhood Center classroom to sing and tell stories (which she does every week). Next she visited a sick temple member in the hospital, then did a double baby naming. That night she taught an adult ed session in a private home.

“When I went to bed that night, I thought: Wow! I got to interact as a rabbi across the age spectrum. What a banner day.”

The first female rabbi in North America was ordained in 1972. Women now represent the majority of rabbinical students.

And now for the insight I mentioned earlier…

I enjoyed Megan’s ability to interpret ancient scripture in a contemporary light. The haftarah is a series of readings from the book of Prophets in the Hebrew Bible. At services, Rabbi Brudney spoke about that week’s portion, on Chanah from First Samuel.

“Chanah’s the protagonist, the star, one of two wives of Elkanah. The other wife has several children. Chanah struggles with infertility, a plight familiar to many of us. Every year Elkanah’s whole family would pile into the old station wagon and go to the special temple in Shiloh to sacrifice and pray. Chanah hated these trips because her sister-wife was mean to her.

“Also, like many of us when we see a friend in pain, Chanah’s husband would say well-meaning but insensitive things such as, ‘Am I not better than ten sons?’ That’s the point I want to take from the story. It’s hard to be with a person who’s suffering, to be really present and know what to say.”

The shofar, an ancient musical instrument made from a ram’s horn, is blown on the High Holy Days. Rabbi Brudney said, “The call of the shofar relates to the sound of suffering. It’s based on the cry of a mother in the bible who learns her son has been killed. It’s an expression of absolute brokenness.

“Our obligation is to listen. To stand in solemn attention and hear the pain without flinching, without responding, without changing the subject.”

I’ve heard the mournful sound of the shofar many times. I thought it a novelty, a sign that services were almost over, that dinner—breaking the fast—awaited.

Rabbi Brudney concluded with a message we can all appreciate…
“As we move into 5777, I want to bless us with the ability to truly, simply hear the pain of others. Whether they are people like you or unlike you, to hear the voices of people who are suffering. And to let them tell their story. Without interruption, without judgment, without attempts to cheer them up. To listen with the respect and awe with which we greet our shofar.”

Thanks for the wisdom, Megan. And brucha haba’ah. Welcome.

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