By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Reni Dickman, a Reform-ordained rabbi, was inspired by many things to become a Jewish spiritual leader — her parents, her rabbi, her temple, her camp, her youth group. Equally important, prayer became instrumental in her life.
“Aha moments” kept happening that ultimately made the decision for her to enter the rabbinate, she said. “There were moments when I would watch my religious teachers or camp counselors or hear beautiful Jewish music, and think, you know, I want to be that.”
The Evanston resident, who served for 13 years as rabbi of Sinai Temple in Michigan City, was recently named executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, the first woman to hold the position.
Rabbi Sidney M. Helbraun, president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Northbrook, describes Dickman, 47, as “very good at reaching out to others and bringing the community together. She is outgoing, dynamic and a thoughtful rabbi.”
The Chicago Board of Rabbis brings together 200 rabbis representing the Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform streams of Jewish life.
In that role, she said, she will help provide opportunities for rabbis to continue learning, to come together and share experiences and ideas that support one another.
“My first goal is to do a lot of listening to rabbis about what they’re seeing, what they’re experiencing,” she said.
Dickman also represents the Board of Rabbis on the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago. “It’s this incredible group of clergy from all different faith groups and we share what our faith communities are doing and work on the issues we are facing. We have each other’s backs and we learn together.”
The role of rabbis in people’s lives is shifting, she says. “Some people have really warm feelings toward the rabbis they grew up with, all the way to the other end of the spectrum which are people who didn’t enjoy their Jewish education growing up.
“There are some people who wouldn’t think of having a wedding without a rabbi and there are lots of people who are asking their best friends to do their weddings. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t have a positive feeling towards rabbis, it means they don’t have a relationship with one.
“Rabbis are not the only portals into Jewish life,” Dickman said, “but there are so many other portals now. I call them entrepreneurial Jewish experiments and when rabbis are able to plug into those emerging communities, I think they’re able to build important bridges and meet people where they are at.”
Are rabbis less relevant with so much reliance on technology and the availability of Jewish information on the Internet? “That’s an important question and it is true in some ways. We’re no longer the main repositories of Jewish knowledge. But we still have our primary goal which is relationship building. You can’t build a personal relationship with a website or app. You can get a lot of knowledge, but that’s not going to give you community or someone to be with in the most critical moments of your life. I think you still need someone to help you figure out how to apply all of that information to your own life. Rabbis can be good at helping people take all that knowledge and figure out how it’s going to work in their own life.”
There is an uptick in loneliness and anxiety, Dickman continued. “Those are the issues that I think being a part of a community and having a relationship with a rabbi can help ameliorate.”
The question of why she decided to become a rabbi is two-fold: Why did she decide to pursue a Jewish life in a meaningful and serious way and then how did she decide that she wanted to help people in a professional way.
“I think for rabbis those questions overlap because our decision to live serious Jewish lives comes from such a love of Jewish life that we want to share that with other people and help empower other people to do this.”
Dickman grew up with a rabbi who influenced her deeply, Rabbi Mark Shapiro, who is now rabbi emeritus of B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim. She met other inspiring rabbis through the Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute and other Jewish youth programs. “I just so admired the rabbis that I knew growing up. I thought it would be a meaningful life, which it has been.”
Dickman studied at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and in New York. Her education included a year at Hebrew University and one at Drisha, a woman’s yeshiva.
There were no obstacles in being a woman studying for the rabbinate, she said. “There’s been a lot being researched right now about the experience of women in the rabbinate some of it quite troubling,” she said, referring to cases of sexual harassment. “But I will say personally no doors have been shut to me that I know of.
“I was so fortunate to be surrounded by so many role models, and that,” she said, “you can’t get when you’re just reading online.”
The Chicago Board of Rabbis can be reached at 312-444-2896 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.