The Interview: Rabbi Rebecca Reice

Rabbi Rebecca Reice

I have always enjoyed doing interviews, and maintain a Wordpress blog dedicated to several I’ve done over the years, The Odd Interview. For the latest installment, I decided to interview my rabbi. I’ve known Rabbi Reice for several years and have always known her to have interesting, thought-provoking things to say both on and off the bimah (the Jewish pulpit), and I had a few things I wanted to ask, so hey, how about engaging her in a bit of focused conversation? And why not, like it would kill you to do this? Like you have something else better to do? After all, I might even learn a few things and so, gentle reader, might you.

By way of a brief bio: A native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Rebecca Reice serves as the Senior Rabbi and Director of Education at the Reform Jewish Congregation Shir Ami in Cedar Park, Texas, a suburb of Austin. She originally came to Austin to study at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and later, during her rabbinical studies, served as a Chaplain Intern at Brackenridge and Dell Children’s hospitals there. After further studies in Israel and Los Angeles and performing various rabbinical and educational services at congregations in California, Montana, and Kansas, Rabbi Reice returned to Austin in June of 2015. In January of 2016 she began to serve at Shir Ami, where she was formally installed as the permanent rabbi in November of 2017.

Our conversation ranged from the efficacy of prayer and the factuality of the stories in the Hebrew Bible to the effects of the pandemic on her and her fellow rabbis, to the recent, much-covered incident at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, on January 15, 2022, when Reform Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker (a friend of Rabbi Reice’s) and three congregants were held hostage by an armed man for 11 hours before escaping.

Rabbi Reice is a thoughtful person who chooses her words carefully — she is, after all, a rabbi — and I hope that my questions and her answers will provide some food for thought for you as well. The interview was conducted over Zoom on January 26, 2022 and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: With the never-ending pandemic and the extreme political polarization on top of it, how stressful has it been for you and your fellow rabbis over the past couple of years, and how do you manage to stay sane?

Rabbi Reice: Thank you. That’s a really important and very kind question. It has been profoundly stressful. I can speak as a former Membership and Outreach Vice President for the Women’s Rabbinic Network; I’m not on that board right now, but I was for a year and a half. I talked to a lot of people, and I know congregations across the country were seeing membership drop, whether people were dying or people were leaving, moving across the country. We literally saw that in our congregation; we went from 76 member families to 60 from December 2020 to this moment in January of ’22. But that was after January of ’21 (when) there were nine folks that died; one was a congregant and everyone else was someone precious to one of our congregants.

That was profound, that level of grief and trying to help everyone, and that sets aside all of the anxiety over presumably being disabled or killed by this virus, which had been high anxiety for a long time. If you remember, in January of ’21 someone in my age group, and even as an educator, was not yet eligible for a vaccine, so going to help out at a funeral of someone who died of COVID was anxiety producing. But I knew it was important to be there, not only for the deceased but for the mourners. So I went, and I wore a mask the whole time even though it was outside because I had no other protection to offer to other people and none other to offer to myself.

But when the freeze came [the Texas freeze and power crisis of February 2021], I also recently learned to call it Snovid…that particular Sunday, I believe, where the power had gone out at my house at 2 a.m., that night was supposed to be a memorial minyan for the grandson of a congregant who had died of an opioid overdose. That would have been the youngest person for whom I would have led a memorial minyan since I had been Rabbi of the Congregation, over the course of five years. And also, a potential suicide and part of a larger, can we call it an epidemic of opioid death in America, is it fair to say?

It was a compounding level of stressors, a compounding level of grief, a compounding level of trauma. Because I had just been working with folks through nine different deaths; this was part of the grieving process of one of those nine, but at the same time I couldn’t gather with the family in person and actually offer the hug that I wanted to be able to offer, because when someone is crying I find it very difficult not to be able to, at the very least, lay a hand on their shoulder and offer them a tissue.

So only to be able to counsel over Zoom or over the phone is already an extra stressor on my human soul, not even just my rabbi role, and to layer on top the grief, which I have to say to you, Wes, as someone who has lost dear folks, Chanukah is always going to be hard for me because that’s my father’s yahrtzeit. So coming into January, my grief is already raw, and then to meet it with everyone else’s grief, and now in the middle of February — the deceased was finally released from the coroner to actually be able to be buried, so we were able to have rituals, and so this was Shiva following the burial, even though he had died in January, but now it’s COVID so I can’t hug the mourner. It’s a tragic opioid death, possible suicide, no one will ever truly know, so, complicated grief; and now there’s no power coming into my house, so my cellphone actually didn’t work for the first six or 12 hours of that day. I couldn’t even reach out to our administrator or to the mourners until late in the day to say there’s no power at my house, there’s no light that I could (use to) light my face if I could get my phone to run Zoom…and at that point I think my house was down already to 43 degrees.

So it was so much trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget it. I won’t forget his name, I won’t forget the names of the mourners that I was working with, and I won’t forget the feeling of helplessness that I couldn’t help them, because I couldn’t even help myself. Horrifying.

Wow.

So coming out of that, we had two board members resign in March and then another two resigned in the High Holiday season, but between that our administrator resigned and we transitioned to a new website without a project manager. So I also used to sit up in the middle of the summer trying to make the website everything you and I wanted it to be. [Side note: At that time I, your interviewer, was serving on the congregation’s board of trustees as VP of Marketing and was involved in transitioning Shir Ami over to a new website and website host.]

Because I had so much anxiety, I focused it on, well, we can’t get anyone into the building, so our website is our building right now and it needs to be beautiful and welcoming and legible. So even though it should never have been me who built the forward-facing part of our website, it was. And I know I’m not the only rabbi who did wildly out-of-our role jobs during the pandemic because our administrator really should have been doing that, but (she) was in the process of moving house and resigned the job, and never did that. Like, who was going to do that in our community if I didn’t step up?

I had so much stress and trauma at that time I couldn’t even imagine. I defaulted into superwoman and just trying to do everything. I don’t believe that my struggles are unique, and I do know rabbis, even rabbis in Texas, who following these two pandemic years are quitting the rabbinate. Because we have not only been holding our grief and trauma, not just the grief and trauma of our families but (that) of our board members and our congregants and their loved ones, all of the people we could not visit in the hospital, all of the hands we could not hold in the retirement home, all of the limitations of pizza parties that would bring the teenagers together, are all gone. And it was initially so hard to spark joy online that we had members leave just because they didn’t like the screen anymore.

Yeah. Everybody’s tired of Zoom and screens and masks and everything.

Well, hang on, I didn’t answer your first question because you were asking how did we get through. We talked to each other a lot. For instance, when my friend Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker was being held hostage, I had rabbi friends calling me from around the country, and also family and friends, texting, texting, texting…I was counseling other people, they were counseling me. For me, it was the leaning on each other and the sharing [that got us through]. We had rabbis who were offering to give sermons over Zoom for rabbis who weren’t able to take sick leave for COVID or weren’t able to take maternity or paternity leave because everything was at home. So we had people in the pulpit (and) also people who were retired offering to help out. We also started in the Women’s Rabbinic Network having Koach [Hebrew for Strength] connection groups and having these small group meetings of just open sharing. Sometimes those conversations were really dark, because the thing that had happened to the chaplain with the COVID patient was horrifying, and then we just sat with each other’s horror. But sometimes also it was getting together for a trivia night and goofing off, and that stuff was really important, too.

Apropos of the situation with Rabbi Charlie in Colleyville, on the one hand you have people blaming Pakistani Muslim extremists and terrorists and on the other hand, on the Left you have progressive rabbis warning against having armed guards at the temple, lest Jews of color be turned away and/or be “triggered” by guns. Is there an internal debate going on among the rabbis and congregation presidents about the best ways to keep the synagogues and congregants safe? Shooter drills? Courses in self-defense? Should the rabbis be packing heat on the bimah? What are your thoughts on this whole very complicated situation?

I do not want to set anyone on fire by saying this, but I have to own my own trauma and I have to not adopt the trauma of others. So, for me, a marked police car often means safety and protection. However, for other people it means something very different. It just so happens that during the pandemic there are so few spare police left in our city that we can’t actually get police protection on our building anymore. So we have contracted with private security, and the people who come are sheriffs and sheriff’s deputies and so on, fully trained people, but their car isn’t a police car. I am dismayed that our local law enforcement is so depleted that they’re not able to offer that former resource that we paid for as in the past. I am also grateful that we established a registration process for in-person worship that is helpful for contact tracing with this disease, but I also believe it’s useful for contact tracing in other matters. (It’s) good to know who was where at what point.

We have worked hard over the years to make sure that there is light in the parking lot. The church [that Shir Ami shares its building with] has added security cameras outside the building during the pandemic, and that is only to the good as far as I can tell — of course, only to the good in retrospect, like the security cameras that helped capture the arsonist who set our sister congregation in Austin on fire on Halloween of 2021.

Are the other congregations in the area having similar problems in terms of finding security?

I don’t know. A lot of the congregations I’m talking to are on the campus at the JCC [the Jewish Community Center in Austin], so they don’t have to do that because they have a Security Director on the campus. But with the church, yes, we are having similar issues and this is how we’re partnering with each other. We’re thinking also about tornadoes, not only active shooters. And shatterproof glass is good against both.

[I discuss people’s use and abuse of the words “grief” and “grieving” in regards to the pandemic and elsewhere, sparked by a Twitter user’s reaction to a couple of her favorite Austin restaurants closing due to fire and the owner’s retirement.]

I took exception to people using the word “grief” regarding a restaurant’s closing — you can’t compare it to the death of your father or wife or your best friend. When a restaurant closes, you don’t have a funeral for the restaurant.

Correct. But you do have a little pity party for all of the memories. We’ll use the Hebrew word l’havdil [to differentiate],acknowledging that there’s a profound difference between the loss of a person and the loss of a restaurant.

I think there needs to be a better word in English for (your feelings) when a restaurant closes, or your political candidate loses a race.

I would just say it’s a loss. Because there are things that happened in my life, parts of my story, that happened only between me and my father. We used to go backpacking and hiking and doing camping once a year following the divorce (of my parents); over the course of 10 years we did that for big stretches, profound experiences I had out in the woods with my father, and now that he’s dead I’m the only one who knows that part of my story.

No one will remember writing term papers with me at Magnolia Cafe [on Lake Austin Boulevard], because all of those servers are gone, all of those booths and those — you know what I’m talking about, they had contact paper under the Plexiglas of the table, all the funky booths, like the whole ethos of it, my early young adulthood is dead and the place I spent it is gone. So I grieve for myself, not for the restaurant.

After my first wife Donna died it occurred to me that I was the only one on Earth left who remembered our life together when it was just the two of us, and I was grieving the loss of her memories that I could have access to.

Yes, and for me, the smell, the sight, being in the place could bring back so much of that. I want to again say l’havdil, but there’s an incredible amount of energy in the Talmud around lost property, and if you can read between the lines, the rabbis are grieving the Temple. They are grieving the loss of a thing that the ones who are talking about it never actually even had, because there are so many generations after the year 70 CE that their teacher remembers something, and their teacher’s teacher remembers something, but they’ve lost it. And it’s forever changed them as a people.

There’s an old saying that whenever an old person dies it’s like a library burning down.

And there is such a thing as “Torah people…”

I’ve got three questions that have to do with Judaism; these are just things that I was wondering about. Here’s the first one: If Judaism is about our relationship with each other, where does God fit into the equation? And why do we have all this constant praising of God in the machzor [High Holy Day prayer book]? Is God so much of an insecure, sociopathic narcissist that he needs all this praise all the time, like a Donald Trump in the sky?

I have two very different responses. It says in the Kaddish — and I know you have said Kaddish Yatom, the Mourner’s Kaddish — it says that God is above all of these things. [She puts the prayer on the screen] It says “above all blessings and song, praise the nechemata comfort…beyond all earthly words. So that’s how we describe God, as beyond all of that. My big revelation in my year of saying Kaddish for my father is that I was saying all of that as a reminder to myself that I need kol birchata v’shirata tuch b’chata v’nechemata. I need blessing in my life, I need song in my life, I enjoy praise, sharing it and receiving it in my life, and comfort means the world to me. It was about me, and I was learning something about myself when I was speaking about the Holy One, Melech mal’chey ha m’lachim [King of King of Kings, as God is called in Aleinu L’Shabeiach].

So the Kaddish is not a prayer about the deceased. The prayer is for the benefit of the mourner, which is why it’s called the Mourner’s Kaddish.

I think so. It definitely gave me something to do when I was grieving. So often in grief there’s nothing to do, so it was something to focus on, to show up for minyan in the morning and the evening, where they did afternoon/evening prayer services, where there were times to stand up and say, actually, Kaddish D’Rabbanan, the Rabbi’s Kaddish — that one gives me even more comfort than the other ones because it blesses all learners and teachers of Torah and wishes us health and wealth and good things, and it’s really beautiful — if you know Aramaic (laughs).

But I actually don’t think that God needs any of this. I actually think that it is a full crafting in our tradition of a gratitude practice — that we can always find something to be grateful for, even if it’s just the traditional words written in the book, to say, “Wow. Morning happened. There is light. Thank you.” That, I think, is the structure. It’s not actually about God, it’s about gratitude. Now, going back to the first question, can you say it again?

If Judaism is about our relationship with each other, how do we relate to each other, treat each other while we’re here on Earth?

So there is a Chassidic master who said that God’s name is on the face of the other person that you’re looking at, because here’s a yud, and here’s a yud, and here’s a line [gestures to each of her eyes and draws a line down the middle of her nose]. And that makes an aleph — that’s how you write an aleph, a yud and a vav and a yud — that’s how a scribe writes an aleph, and it’s this whole thing signifying God’s name, that this power of 26, the yud being 10, the yud being 10 and the vav being 6, that’s equivalent to the value in gematria [the practice of assigning numerical values to names, words and phrases] of yud-hay-vav-hay, of 10 and 5 and 6 and 10 is 26, just like yud, yud and vav is 26. And so literally every person that you see that has some kind of dot-dot-line on their face is bearing this name right back at you in a hidden way. I like this a lot, because this is simply a reminder that there is something holy within the person with whom you speak.

And it’s just a reminder, just like tzitzit [the fringes on a prayer shawl] could be a reminder, that literally looking at each other, that’s not a beggar, that’s a person; that’s not a teacher, that’s a person; that’s not a pilot, that’s a person. And a person has infinite value.

On my wall I have a Hebrew calendar that I got from a cemetery in New Jersey last year; every month has a different Hebrew letter artistically rendered, and it goes into great detail about the meanings behind the letters.

You can go deep and spiritual just with the aleph-bet. A hundred percent true.

I know we’ve had discussions before about how effective prayer is, and sometimes it’s not effective. When I get into certain moods, I just think it’s like a placebo to make people think that they’re doing something to help. I guess I’m asking you, what good is prayer beyond (being) a feel-good placebo? Do you think it actually has the power to heal the sick and to encourage good outcomes for what you want?

I do think that the core power in prayer is to serve as a reminder for what the Jewish tradition says we need to be doing with our time. There’s a good example of this — in our Amidah, the second blessing is called G’vurot, Power, right, like a gibur is a hero, this is the plural — so if we’re looking at the heroism of God or some such, God’s infinite power, this would be the thing you were asking about, right? — that we say b’rachamim rabim, in great compassion — sameach noflim, that you would support the fallen, that you are rofay cholim, that you heal the sick, that you are matir asurim, that you free the captive, and um kayaim emunato l’shanay afar, the most mysterious word in this prayer, keeping faith, literally, with those who sleep in the afar, in the topsoil, in the dust.

And there is just every part of that that is our human responsibility. We need to be compassionate to each other. We need to support the folks around us who are having trouble standing on their own — literally, catch you when you’re having a wobble, and perhaps metaphorically in some other way. We maybe don’t heal the sick as doctors, we’re not all of us Jewish doctors, but it does say in our tradition that when you visit someone who is sick, you take away one-sixtieth of their illness, their suffering. So we can still visit and send cards and make phone calls, like it’s a reminder we’ve gotta do that.

So theoretically if 60 people visit the sick person, they’ll get healed?

I love that you asked that, but you do know how math works and if you multiply one-sixtieth 60 times you do not reach, actually, that number 1. You get close, but you don’t get there. You will never fully cure an illness by (a) visit, but imagine how good an extrovert would feel having 60 people come over. Like, that would work for me. We also have introverts in our community for whom that would be like ‘whoa, no, but you can send me 60 letters, I’ll see if I want to give you a phone call.’

So prayer is not actually a wish-fulfillment thing, like a basketball player thanking God for helping him win the championship.

I think that sometimes it feels magically that way, like I sent out a call for prayer for Charlie and for his congregants and 15 minutes later they were out of the building. Did our combined prayers, with the prayers of everyone that Shabbat who prayed, affect his release?

Well, you really can never know, can you.

Right, I don’t know that, so I’m not willing to tell you, Wes, that prayer doesn’t work. I won’t say that. What I will say is, find how it does work. Does it just remind you of stuff that would be good that you should probably do? Does it make you feel better, like you said? Does it let you reach a place inside yourself that says, ooh, I’m actually sadder than I realized, maybe I need to talk to my therapist? Like, is it literally a time set aside for self-reflection that helps you to know yourself better? Then I’d say that prayer works.

Okay, last question. Is it generally accepted, and I believe it is at least among Reform Rabbis, that the Torah stories are basically fiction, and if so, why do Jewish scholars ascribe so much importance to understanding the Torah and the Talmud? Is it just considered to be like a framework or a scaffolding to hold the much more important Commentaries, and maybe it’s really beside the point whether there actually was a Moses who freed his people from Egypt, or a Noah who built an ark, or a Queen Esther?

I probably should teach a class about this, I have so much to say, but let me say:

Reform Jews believe that the entirety of the Hebrew Bible was divinely inspired but written by human beings. The Talmud is some totally other, absolutely rabbinic project, and when they tell me that they fought a demon or were in a graveyard listening to two ghosts talking about crop predictions for next year, and they know when the crops are going to fail and when the crops are going to succeed — that’s in Berachot, I can find the citation for you — do I believe that someone was in a (graveyard) getting his crop predictions from ghosts? I mean, maybe late at night on Shavuot, I don’t know, like when it’s chatzot and the heavens are supposed to open, like maybe I’m into that, but most of the time I am the daughter of a professor of biology for 38 years, and I think that when your body dies your soul goes back to God and you’re not going to hang around the world haunting and having crop prediction conversations. But Judaism also believes in bodily resurrection and the returning of the soul to the body, so this is why there is so much anxiety over organ donation, and why it is so important that I am a member of the halachic organ donation society. Because I do believe that we should be donating our organs, if we can, and making life better in this world for people who are still moving around and affecting action in it.

Is the Bible a bunch of gobbledygook? Absolutely not. It has been changing the world since quill was first put to claf [the prepared skin of a kosher animal]. The story of the Exodus has not led us to find a single pottery shard from some presumably millions of people leaving Egypt in that time period and going a certain route that we sort of understand where they would have been walking. No pottery shards, that’s weird. You would find some pottery shards, wouldn’t you? So then I’m supposed to say to you, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

But what I want to say to you is: There were literally Jews in the Pale of Settlement in Europe who told each other this story at Passover and believed they would become free one day. And there were African slaves in America who learned this story and used it in a process of some of them freeing themselves, and others working to free each other. It has become true over the millennia.

Did it happen then? I don’t know. Did it make me believe that any time I was in a situation of narrowness, because mitzrayim [the Hebrew word for Egypt] means narrowness, that there might be a wide expanse beyond this narrow time? Yeah! It made me believe that, and that belief has carried me through some really dark times, to actually be able to hold hope. And I think hope is real. So, the stories, they help us learn something about ourselves. That’s literally why we read them in a cycle every single year.

I will never hear Parshat Yitro the same way as when my twin cousins read it at Beth Shalom last week. It’ll never come at me that way again. Because last year I heard two girls in our congregation read it, and it was totally different, and before that it was totally different again, and I know it’ll be different next year. Not just because the girls might read a different part of the portion, or the reader will change, but literally because I continue to change. And I think it is actually powerful that we have structures that give stability in our life. And I think our cycle of reading scripture and our cycle of daily prayer provides a structure on which to play, to grow — call it a jungle gym if you need it, call it a china shop if you need it, but this is something that has kept our people going over the course of (approximately) 2500 years of exile [since 586 BCE]. To revive our holy language and make it modern and real, so that now there isn’t just hashmal that Ezekiel saw coming off of a chariot but that’s electricity — like, there’s literally now a Biblical word that means electricity that didn’t used to, and there’s also a beautiful Hebrew word called glida that means ice cream, that I’m a big fan of. So we have become a people who understand the power of chidush, the power of renewal. We understand it so deeply that the name of any given month is a chodesh. Chodesh is a month. And deeply ingrained in that is the idea of renewal, chidush.And “we are an ever-dying people,” that’s a famous quotation — I will say we are an ever-renewing people.

Along with Broadway musical theater.

Amen!

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Journalist/writer; ex-expat; vaudeville, punk & cabaret aficionado; father of 2; remarried widower. I ask questions, tell stories, rinse & repeat.

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Wes Eichenwald

Wes Eichenwald

Journalist/writer; ex-expat; vaudeville, punk & cabaret aficionado; father of 2; remarried widower. I ask questions, tell stories, rinse & repeat.

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