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Rabbi Judy Greenfeld Offers Some Surprising Truths & Wisdom on What It Means to Be Spiritually Connected Regardless of Religion

The female rabbi and cantor aims to connect us in an age of separation: “God is both out there and deep in each of us–it is our vitality.”

She isn’t just the spiritual leader of Nachshon Minyan, the alternative congregation she founded in Encino, California. Rabbi/Cantor Judy Greenfeld is also a connector through whatever medium she can find. She has performed solo as a cantor at Krakow’s Philharmonic Hall in Poland and has released two CDs; she has lectured and taught movement and prayer at retreats and synagogues around the United States; and she has co-authored two books with Dr. Tamar Frankiel, which offer a new approach to Jewish prayer through movement and meditation.

Back in Los Angeles, her work continues whether she’s counseling couples, encouraging teens or singing for her many congregants. Homegirl Talk wanted to find out what this “relationship rabbi” has to say about what it’s like being a female rabbi, the importance of music and movement, and how you can connect with others of different religions and your own spiritual side even if you’ve been disillusioned by your faith… or lack thereof.

On your site, you mention that your goal is to “reach out to those who have felt disconnected from Judaism or for whom it seems to have little relevance to their lives.” What do you do differently to help people get reacquainted with their Jewish faith?

Nachshon’s approach to disconnected Jewish individuals is based on a genuine curiosity concerning their experiences growing up Jewish. I wonder if they were turned off by the same things that turned me off in my Jewish education, left me empty after my father’s death, contributed to making me feel like I did not speak the same language. My approach to Judaism is deeply spiritual and personal and non-judgemental. I don’t claim to know everything and do everything perfectly. I am a strong leader, but I allow each person the dignity of discovering where they fit into their Jewish heritage, or not. I am fascinated with the many misconceptions and negativity about Judaism that are harbored based on one unfortunate experience. I feel that the real goal is to bring them a sense of peace and wonder with the religion they have been born into.

In addition to advising your congregation members on everything from divorce and relationships to communicating with teenage children, do you ever work with people who do not follow the Jewish faith? 

Yes, I have worked and taught many people from other faiths. It is a gift to learn about the different approaches and paths to Holiness. I have led many individuals through conversion, but never try to convert them or convince them that Judaism is the only true faith. I have deep reverence for those who follow healthy sacred paths.

Do you provide advice based solely on Biblical principles? What if someone doesn’t even believe in God?

I feel it is my duty to teach “what Judaism” has to say on all subjects. I hesitate to give advice; rather, I present many choices and viewpoints and I encourage each individual to choose. This is the only way to really help an individual grow. Otherwise, I am not allowing that individual to take full responsibility for his/her choices.

I have many congregants who don’t believe in God. I looooove working with them. Usually, I don’t believe in the God they don’t believe in either. God talk is crucial for people who are blocked from connecting to religion. The Bible, the prayers in the siddur and psalm can be very misleading and refer to a God “out there” or that can make miracles happen or that can punish us. This idea of God is very disappointing and doesn’t stand the test of challenges or time. God is both out there and deep in each of us–it is our vitality.

My job is to update and educate each individual towards understanding God as more of a “force of goodness, nourishment and strength.” The first thing I try to do is to find something they do believe in and go from there.

Rabbi Judy Greenfeld - Photo by Remy Haynes
Rabbi Judy Greenfeld – Photo by Remy Haynes

Tell us about being a female rabbi. Is this becoming more common? What have been the challenges, if any, when it comes to being a woman in your position?

Female rabbis are becoming more and more common in the Conservative and Reform movement. I think this is due in part to many factors. One is that there are more seminaries that accept women and that will bend their schedules to accommodate the realities of women. Two, I believe the job openings for rabbis may not be as lucrative for some men, and therefore women were more willing to accept less pay. I am both Rabbi and Cantor for this very reason. Synagogues, especially the smaller ones, are unable to pay full salaries to both a rabbi and cantor.

Would you consider yourself a feminist? How do you interpret what the Old Testament says about the role of women within family and society and how that relates to women in the 21st century?

I don’t know if I would be considered a feminist. It depends on how you define feminist. I am not a radical;  but I do believe in women’s rights. I believe in just treatment of all people. We must take into account that the Old Testament set up gender roles to have a balance of tasks and labor in society. It worked back then because the goal was to “create a great nation” and have babies. As a result, women did not live as long as they do today and were exhausted from childbirth and child rearing. Their role was to create a sacred home, and nurture and care for the needs of everyone.

As time has changed so have roles and challenges. Women live longer and have adjusted to the workforce and the workforce has adjusted to them. Women don’t have the pressure to have as many children and have more freedom to decide how to spend their time. As a result of synagogues’ engaging mothers and children and building schools into their space they gave women a reason to spend time at the temple. Whereas the synagogue was the realm of men, now men were too busy at work, less interested in socializing at the temple. The contemporary Jewish man moved away from the temple and onto the golf course to relax and socialize. This is a small cross section of what I have witnessed in upper middle class liberal Jewish homes.

I believe the reason Judaism is so successful is because it adapts to cultures and time periods. We are taught that just as the Constitution has amendments, so does the Torah have amendments to rulings. We must remember that with each millennia, new considerations are taken into account to what is religiously practiced [and] needed to uphold Jewish values.

You are also a cantor and you’ve taught movement and prayer at retreats and synagogues around the country. Why are movement and music important elements of faith and getting closer to God?

The most obvious answer to why people need movement in prayer or meditation or music is because it helps them feel something. As history fades so does the nostalgia of our grandparents; strong beliefs and stories about the “old country.” My congregation is American first, Jewish second. For Judaism to be relevant, especially for our children, they need to feel an “experience of Judaism.” This experience must involve being touched in  some way, sung or moved to. I see my goal as the one who finds people, places and things that can imprint them in a profound, lasting Jewish way. I believe this can only be done through engaging all five senses. There are vast educational studies on the different ways people learn: visually, orally, etc. Our challenge as clergy is to cover all those bases. Music and movement do just that.

You work with a lot of families. Tell us a bit about the idea that families who fight “right.” What are some practical steps for establishing rules to get through difficulties within the family?

I am assuming that when you say families who fight “right” you mean families that fight to build their relationships, not destroy them. The most important step I can suggest is to listen to one another and not react. This is very difficult because parents feel so responsible for their children–brothers and sisters feel they are a reflection of what it’s “supposed” to be like. There are no easy answers for getting through difficulties because they are getting more and more complex as we speak. But the best thing for families is to create Shabbat, or sacred time, where they can be safe. To see one another, accept one another and create a neutrality and focus on unique goodness of family. Just that one time a week, to reflect, to talk to each other, to be together, is very important.

I identify myself as a Christian, although as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more spiritually open and inclusive compared to how I used to think. Do you think it’s good to question one’s beliefs?

I think it is crucial to question one’s beliefs. I think openness and respect for other religions and beliefs is crucial for the health of our society. That said, it is crucial to know who you are and what you do believe in. It is crucial to back yourself in your beliefs and to create boundaries around what you value. It takes a lifetime of mistakes and work to accomplish this feat. The goal is to use every experience as a chance to learn, not fail or succeed.

When it comes to marriage, I’ve often seen that if someone is Jewish then the other person must convert. What do you think of interfaith marriages? What’s the key to making them work?

I believe, more in the past, when it came to marriage to a Jew, conversion was the deal breaker. This choice backfired on many Jewish families, where the spouse that converted either resented the choice or never really followed through and felt like an imposter. I know that this has changed, having taken many individuals through conversion. The conversion never takes place as a condition to marriage. I am not Orthodox, so I only speak for the more liberal-minded Jews.

I perform interfaith marriages because I believe it is the “key” moment for the convert to feel welcomed into the Jewish faith unconditionally. My job is to show them how beautiful and welcoming the Jewish community is, and that our values are the foundation of good healthy living. When they learn and are exposed to the relevant teachings of the Jewish people they are attracted on their own and grow to love and respect the traditions and rituals. This mutual respect and ability to find the similarities of values and religious beliefs is a crucial key to making the marriage work.

What are the questions couples should ask themselves before getting engaged?

The questions all couples need to ask themselves and each another is what their expectations and goals are for a successful marriage. Do they want children? Are they willing to re-ask this question every 10 years; to find new compromises? What are their shared dreams and what are the bottom-line deal breakers? What religion are they and what does the blend of those traditions look like?

What do you think are the primary challenges for people of different faiths to get along and find common ground? I think one of the primary challenges for people of different faiths is how to handle relatives and the nuclear family. How will they enforce their boundaries?  What will they enforce for their children? How will they compromise and let go of the fear and guilt they may feel for standing up for what they believe in?

What’s the one thing you’ve learned in life that you know for sure?

One thing that I know for sure: Life is filled with constant challenges. Life is about looking at the humanness in yourself and others. Always start with where you are strong. There are no skipping of steps or hiding things under the rug. We are always moving forward and if you can see all life experiences as a curriculum of learning, life will unfold with rich and wondrous meaning.

For more information, visit the official Nachshon Minyan website.

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Written by Mar Yvette

Mar Yvette is an on-air host, lifestyle expert, writer and editor with 10+ years of experience working with some of the world’s most recognized media companies.