Spotlight

Rabbi Miriam

 

When Rabbi Miriam finally told her parents she was going to convert to Judaism, they met her admission with confused curiosity. Reflecting on how they’d reacted, Miriam laughs, “For them, they were sort of just like – ‘Is she joining a cult?’” Fortunately, the idea had a chance to grow on them before Rabbi Miriam graduated from rabbinical school and made her spiritual beliefs a full-time profession. To their benefit, beyond their initial concern that their daughter might have been brainwashed, they took a genuine interest – if not in the religion itself, definitely in the question of what Judaism means for their daughter.

Rabbi Miriam describes her upbringing as a Northern-California/Massachusetts combo, but her proximity to San Francisco subculture had a big impact on her. Growing up in the San Francisco dot-com boom of the early 1990s, much of the city’s youth moved away from the hippie culture of times past into the gleaming promise of future technology. Rabbi Miriam’s friends in high school were proficient in programming languages, and she drifted towards a college major in computer science. Yet, one experience with Judaism in her high school years had a profound impact on her. One Shabbat morning, she’d found herself in a conservative synagogue with a Jewish friend. “The light was coming in through the windows, and the sounds of the prayers! And I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’” Coming from a family with no religious background to speak of, the experience was both novel and powerful. Her father had been brought up Catholic, but rankled under its overtures in his formative years, settling on a “choose-your-own-religion” approach for his own children. Considering that her father was initially hesitant about Rabbi Miriam’s conversion later in life, she comments, “I think he thought, ‘she’s going to make the same choice I did, to not be religious!’ So when I converted and became a rabbi, he was like, ‘Wait a second, this wasn’t the plan!’”

Rabbi Miriam didn’t immediately act on the impulse to convert. Her college career revolved around the syntax of speaking to computers. And while her studies in the field of computer science stimulated her, she quickly realized that many hours in a darkened room writing lines of programming code wasn’t how she envisioned her future. On the other hand, she loved to teach people how to do it. During her tenure as a teacher’s assistant, Rabbi Miriam remembers, “I used to have a lot of students come to me and burst out crying because they couldn’t figure it out. Which is kind of how spiritual counseling is sometimes!” Helping those students succeed despite struggles with complex problems fulfilled a natural yearning that eventually translated easily to her work at Beit T’Shuvah. At that time, she was inspired by her role as a teacher’s assistant to become a professor, and switched her focus to educational engineering.

Miriam graduated from college in 2007, but as she navigated various jobs as a research assistant, she began to realize the academic world was not as it seemed on the surface. Science as a professional career amounted to much more than pursuing the ideals of truth and enlightenment. In practice, it meant a lot of lobbying, ie, convincing people to pay for your work. And academia involved politics: to become a professor, you have to make the right friends. Everything seemed to be working against her, and in the space of that perceived misfortune, she had some time to reflect upon whether the path she’d chosen was her true destiny.

It had been eight years since her initial experience inside the Jewish synagogue, and Rabbi Miriam had already converted to Judaism. And she still really wanted to teach. Intuitively, her brain began suggesting to her, “Maybe I want to be a rabbi?” followed shortly thereafter by, “This is really weird! This is probably a terrible idea!” But her efforts to go in other directions eventually kept circling back to that odd desire to be a rabbi, and she eventually took heed. While her efforts to become a professor were muddled with obstacles and frustrations, her venture into rabbinical studies marked a transition so smooth that serendipity cemented her intentions. Even her computer science background worked in her favor. “Learning about computer science, you have all of this crazy detail, that you have to organize, this different language that you have to speak. So when I finally got to rabbinical school, and was studying the Talmud, I found that being able to organize my thinking really helped me study Talmud.”

The name Beit T’Shuvah kept passing through the grapevine, spoken by colleagues that included our own Chaplain Adam Siegal, and it came to Rabbi Miriam’s mind when the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies required its students to attend a practical class over winter break in 2015. She fell in love. “It was a type of Jewish spirituality that I’d been wanting without even knowing it,” she says fondly. Beit T’Shuvah’s unique brand of faith struck her as authentic – not in the sense of authentic orthodoxy, but rather of authentic sincerity, a quality Rabbi Miriam greatly values. After only one day here, Rabbi Miriam decided, “I don’t even know what I was looking for, but this is it!” She was determined to stay involved, and everyone she talked to told her the same thing: “You need to talk to Rabbi Mark.” Initially, Rabbi Miriam was hesitant, but she mustered up the courage and Rabbi Mark offered her an internship on the spot. She worked for Beit T’Shuvah periodically from that point on, generally in year-plus intervals, until she was finally hired on as a full-time staff member only recently.

Rabbi Miriam’s predilection for teaching has found a unique outlet in her work at Beit T’Shuvah, and as a spiritual advisor, she brings her own unique philosophy and unconventional story to the fore. One of the lessons she hopes to instill in her clients is “you are okay, and it’s a human mission to learn how to be yourself.” It’s a lesson based on personal experience for her. “Some humans seem to have a pretty easy time being who they are,” Rabbi Miriam says, describing how some children neatly align with their parent’s trajectories. “I’m like wow, I don’t understand that, that must be cool,” she adds humorously, without bitterness. Rabbi Miriam hopes that being an unconventional model for a rabbi will inspire others to be unconventional, too. She sees this element of herself as something that she has in common with her place of employment. At Beit T’Shuvah, she observes, “you can keep that identity as an outcast, and that connects you to the community!” She tells me, “Not everyone gets to have this experience, of opening the door to my job and feeling that I’m coming home.”