When Rebecca Sirbu ’94 was in rabbinical school, some of her professors made it clear they didn’t believe women belonged there. Over the past 15 years, Sirbu has been happily proving them wrong. Her career has taken her down some non-traditional paths, and these days she’s helping other rabbis blaze new trails for themselves and their congregations.
Since 2008, Sirbu has been the director of Rabbis Without Borders, a training program and rabbinic network for Jewish religious leaders run by Clal (Hebrew for “inclusive”), The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. She says her mission is as simple as it is groundbreaking: “Our goal is to use Jewish wisdom and tradition as a source for well being for anyone, anywhere,” she says. “We need rabbis who are able to serve an increasingly diverse population in innovative ways.”
The introductory yearlong program begins with what Sirbu calls “putting 20 of the best and brightest rabbis from across the denominational spectrum together in a room and asking them to leave all their stereotypes at the door.” Rabbis are offered workshops on the impact of politics, science and technology on religion.
The discussions that follow are transformative, Sirbu says. “Ninety percent of the rabbis we survey after they finish Rabbis Without Borders say they return to their communities speaking in ways that are more inclusive,” she says. “They say it has changed the ways they are teaching and how they are interacting with people inside and outside their synagogue.” After the first year of training, the rabbis continue to learn and challenge each other in the ongoing Rabbis Without Borders Network.
This theme of inclusion and innovation runs through Sirbu’s own journey to becoming a rabbi and the career path she has chosen since she was ordained. Her parents observed some Jewish holidays, but she rarely attended a synagogue growing up in Austin, TX. When she enrolled at Vassar, she decided to major in history, but gradually, her focus turned to the history of religion, particularly Judaism.
Sirbu first began to explore the idea of becoming a rabbi after she spent the spring semester of her junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and when she returned to campus, she decided write her senior thesis on the history of Jewish feminism. When she enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City the following year, however, she found it was a place where feminism wasn’t necessarily embraced. “Coming from Vassar, this was somewhat of a shock to me,” she says. “Women had been ordained as rabbis for more than a decade. I naively thought it was no longer an issue, but many of my professors articulated quite clearly to me that it was. My commitment to becoming a rabbi wavered a lot, not on the religious side but on the feminist side.”
Some of the seeds that would later grow to fruition at Rabbis Without Borders were planted in the work Sirbu did at her first job as a rabbi. After she was ordained in 2000, she served as a chaplain at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. ”It was emotionally difficult work,” she says, “but what I loved about it was that I was serving Jews and non-Jews alike. My goal was simply to help them, and I knew I was making a difference on a daily basis.”
Six months later, Sirbu found what she calls her “dream job” at the Jewish Community Center of Metro-West in West Orange, New Jersey. As director of the center’s health and healing center, Sirbu developed programs to help members and their families deal with terminal illness and other life challenges.. “I used Jewish meditation techniques to help these families during illnesses, bereavement and other stressful situations,” Sirbu says. “I was working in a non-denominational, pluralist setting, using my pastoral skills to impact the community in a meaningful way.”
When she was offered the job of director of Rabbis Without Borders, Sirbu saw it as an opportunity to use her skills to work with other rabbis on finding new ways to serve their congregations and larger communities. “Our goal is to help rabbis think of ways to serve not just within the walls of their synagogue but to share their ideas in a more public marketplace, to give them a more pluralist outlook,” she says.
Two rabbis who participated in Rabbis Without Borders say the program has profoundly expanded their pastoral horizons.
Fellow Vassar alum Andrew Jacobs ’92 says he was looking for ways to make his synagogue in Fort Lauderdale, FL more inclusive when he enrolled in the Rabbis Without Borders program in 2013. By the time he finished the training, he had crystallized his plan for “ISH,” an online Jewish ministry he runs with his wife, Cheryl, who is also a rabbi. ISH’s programs include podcasts on such topics as Jewish religious practices and traditions and email responses to questions about Judaism from both Jews and non-Jews.
Ruth Abusch-Magder, one of 20 rabbis to be chosen for the inaugural Rabbis Without Borders group in 2009, first met Sirbu when she served as an intern at the West Orange Jewish Community Center in 2004. She is currently rabbi in residence and director of education at Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based organization that serves Jews of color across the world. Abusch-Magder says Sirbu is ideally suited to lead Rabbis Without Borders.
“Rebecca has a wonderful pastoral presence – it’s amazing to watch her work,” she says. “She has that big Texas smile and generosity and a personal warmth that is captivating, but she also has a capacity to be no-nonsense, to do the work that needs to be done. Plus, she’s just plain, old smart; she knows a lot and has thought a lot about a lot of things. She’s a great model for what a rabbi ought to be.”
Sirbu says she is doing the exact work she wants to be doing, and she’s not hearing any of the objections she heard in rabbinical school. “There’s been no pushback; we’re at the cutting edge of the Jewish world right now,” she says. “A lot of people in the religious world are looking for ways to be more innovative in the way they connect with people in the 21st century, and that’s what we’re doing here, helping people connect.”
Sirbu says her Vassar education definitely taught her to “question the way things are done and to speak out if they’re not being done right. That’s something I’ve done my whole career and it’s led to my being a rabbi who is breaking through the stained glass ceiling.”