Temple Israel’s new rabbi
Temple Israel is so excited to welcome its first full-time female rabbi to the Rabbinic Team. We interviewed Rabbi Emma Gottlieb to get a sense of who she is as she starts what we hope will be a long association with us.
When did you know you wanted to become a rabbi?
Funnily enough, I didn’t decide to become a rabbi until my second year of cantorial studies at the Hebrew Union College (HUC), in NYC. I had planned to become a cantor from an early age (about 12 or 13) as I was very passionate about music, prayer and the Jewish community. At HUC however, I began to realise how important it was to me to also be able to study Torah, midrash and theology, in particular, and how much I loved to teach others. After a year or two, it was clear to me that the rabbinic programme was a better fit for me and I changed programmes. I’ve been very happy with the decision since and I still use much of what I learned in the cantorial programme when leading t’fillah and working in partnership to strengthen congregational approaches to engaging and participatory music.
Do you have a mentor or person who inspired you when you were younger?
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a plethora of rabbis and cantors in my life to inspire me. My father is a rabbi (Rabbi Danny Gottlieb, currently in San Francisco, CA) and so of course I have learned much from him over the years. When I was younger, I was particularly close to my cantor and as a teenager, I was very inspired by Rabbi Billy and Cantor Ellen Dreskin (in New York). In all honesty though, I couldn’t possibly list all of the rabbis and cantors who have inspired and taught throughout my life. I continue to be inspired by my friends and colleagues and I am so excited to have new South African colleagues now, to inspire and teach me as well!
What are any highlights you want to share of your rabbinic life until now?
Coming to Cape Town to be Temple Israel’s first full-time woman rabbi is a definite highlight and it’s hard to think of anything else I’ve done that’s quite as exciting as that! I am particularly proud of the years I spent as the Rabbi of Temple Beth David in Canton, MA. In each year of my rabbinate so far, however, the real highlights are the moments I am blessed to share with individuals in the most sacred moments of their lives — weddings and conversions, b’nai mitzvah, welcoming babies into the Jewish community — and even participating in the mitzvah of consoling the bereaved.
What is your favourite Jewish text at the moment?
My favourite Jewish text at the moment is Esa einei el h’harim — I lift my eyes to the mountains, from where does my help come? Every time I look out at the beautiful scenery of Cape Town, I hear these words and feel God’s presence as a powerful force in my life. The mountains here really have helped me to relate to the Psalmist(s) and to the awe that such nature can inspire in every age.
What are your aims or hopes for your work in Temple Israel?
I am very excited to think about creative ways of bringing Jewish experiences into public spaces, as a way to engage those less likely to come into shul. I’m excited to celebrate Shabbat on the beach or on a beautiful hike, and to study Jewish texts and ideas in cafes and parks and people’s homes. Opportunities for Jewish learning and engagement abound and can often be as meaningful out in nature or in cultural spaces as they are within the wall of our souls.
Cape Town is a long way from Toronto — what do you think will be similar and what different in your new city?
I am surprised at how similar the Progressive Jewish community in Cape Town is to the Reform communities in North America – we even use the same siddur with many of the same melodies! Of course, there are many differences between Cape Town and Toronto and I am just beginning to learn them all! So far, there have been lots of new words to learn (in Canada we call stop streets, ‘stop signs’ and robots are ‘traffic lights’ and that’s just for starters!). I am amazed at how friendly Capetonians are and of course, the weather and scenery are MUCH nicer here!
You didn’t fly over on your own — tell us about your fellow traveller.
I couldn’t leave Canada without bringing my dog Manny. While he is also adjusting to his new environment, he is enjoying the sunshine and getting to know our new Temple Israel family.