Tiferet Berenbaum, 34, one of the few female African American rabbis in the United States, arrived in July at Temple Har Zion in Mount Holly after a lifelong spiritual journey from her parents’ Southern Baptist roots.
Her childhood Sundays in a Boston church and her teenage experience at a friend’s bat mitzvah were religiously different but equally powerful guideposts on her winding path from Christianity to Judaism and her ordination as a rabbi.
“Even as a child, I was looking for an authentic experience,” said Berenbaum, who first found one at Southern Baptist church services in Boston, during her suburban Brookline childhood.
“I loved what’s called the Holy Ghost,” she said. “People would feel the Holy Spirit and jump up. The music was playing really fast and someone would shout out and people would shout back and run up and down the aisles and jump up on the pews.
“I was sitting there in the pews,” she said, “listening to the sermons or reading the Bible, looking for a way to authentically connect. Watching other people have authentic moments was satisfying for me.”
But she didn’t find her own authentic moment until she went to the friend’s bat mitzvah.
“I remember the first time I saw the Torah come out,” she said. “I was mesmerized. The whole congregation stood. As the Torah procession went around, people rushed from the pews to touch it, kiss it, wanting to be near the Torah. And I wanted a relationship with the Torah. I wanted to rush and embrace it.”
But she couldn’t. “A friend said, ‘You’re not allowed to do that. That’s for Jews only.’ I felt very excluded at that moment. I carried away that moment of exclusion and that desire to touch the Torah.”
Before committing to Judaism, Berenbaum gave her Christian family roots one more try. She went to a church near Tufts University, where she was studying Judaism and psychology, to meet the pastor.
“When I walked in, a woman said, ‘Can I help you?’” Berenbaum said. “Her attitude was so unfriendly and accusatory that I said, ‘No,’ and walked out the door.”
When she thought about it later, Berenbaum realized that the incident had a surprising result. “We’re all angels,” she said. “We’re all doing the work of God in the world. That was that woman’s role in that moment. Her role was to shift my path. I wanted to have an authentic experience, and I didn’t see a way to have it in the church.”
The more she studied Judaism at Tufts, the more she knew, “I had a Jewish soul that got lost somewhere and I was coming home,” she said. “I just had to wake it up.”
In the spring of 2002, Berenbaum went to her mother and said, “Mom, I think I’m Jewish. I want to convert to Judaism.”
Far from being surprised, her mother said, “We always knew you were Jewish.”
She converted in 2003, when she was a sophomore at Tufts, taught Hebrew school in Cambridge for two years, and eventually earned her master’s degree in Jewish education and her ordination as a rabbi in 2013 from Hebrew College in Boston.
She served as the rabbi at Reconstructionist Congregation Shir Hadash in Milwaukee from 2013 until last June, when she decided to return to the Northeast after her mother experienced a medical emergency.
Berenbaum said Temple Har Zion, which chose her from several candidates, is a transdenominational Jewish Renewal synagogue “in the spirit of the Conservative movement” that has the traditional elements of Judaism she loves.
Berenbaum said she’s proceeding slowly with her congregation of 100 because she succeeded Rabbi Richard Simon, who retired on July 1 after 32 years, and almost immediately began planning and preparing for September’s High Holy Days.
She said she needs to “reestablish the spirit of safety and security, because they don’t know me yet. I don’t want to just come in and change anything. That would be inauthentic to the legacy of the temple and the rabbi that came before me and the rabbis that came before him.”
She’s also mindful that mutual trust will eventually allow conversations about race, as it did in Milwaukee. “I’m not afraid to have those conversations as people get to know me,” she said. “I’m not afraid or offended when people ask questions, seeking understanding. I’m looking forward to it. Those kinds of conversations require trust and safety. I did just walk in the door.”
Deb Wolff, who has been a member of Temple Har Zion for over 20 years, said Berenbaum is a perfect fit for the small, eclectic synagogue.
“We choose not to affiliate with a particular denomination,” she said. “Our focus is really on helping people connect to their own path, and that’s what she brings. I think it’s her joy and her passion for all this that has been so important for us to see.
“We call ourselves the best-kept secret in Southern New Jersey,” Wolff said. “Everybody likes to say they’re warm and welcoming. We tend not to say it because we just do it. We give a hug when you walk in the door. We joke that we never use the front door because we always use the back door and everybody goes through the kitchen.”
Berenbaum married her longtime boyfriend, Joel Berenbaum, in 2014, and they are now the parents of a 10-month-old daughter, Gayla Bracha, which Berenbaum said means “revelation of God’s blessing” in Hebrew.
She said that while she builds trust with her congregation, one on one, she keeps studying the Torah, Hassidic literature, and ancient Kabbalah mysticism, looking for the revelation of God’s blessing in every aspect of daily life.
“I started a conversation with God when I was 11 years old,” she said, “and I haven’t stopped since.”