Local | Mind, Body & Spirit

Tucson rabbi’s spiritual path rooted in arts

Rabbi Sandra Wortzel
Rabbi Sandra Wortzel

It was easy for Sandra Wortzel to identify as Jewish growing up in New York City. It took years for her spiritual journey to sway her into becoming a rabbi.

“I grew up completely secular,” Wortzel, 58, told the AJP. “My brother became a Bar Mitzvah but that’s it” as far as synagogue was concerned. Her paternal grandparents, who were immigrants from Romania and Russia, identified with the Workmen’s Circle and its socialist influences; her maternal grandparents were Orthodox Russian Jews who wanted, she says, to be assimilated. “Most of my friends growing up were secular Jews. I was surrounded by Yiddishkeit, or Jewish way of life. I went to Jewish sleep-away camp. We went to the Catskills every summer. We always had fabulous Passover Seders.”

But Wortzel had never been to a High Holiday service until she met her second husband, Tucson dentist Kenneth M. Wortzel, 22 years ago. She has a 25-year-old daughter, Marni, from a previous marriage and two stepsons.

“Kenny grew up Conservative but shifted to Reform,” says Wortzel. “He was very involved with Congregation Cha­verim in September 1991. He brought me to a Kol Nidre service. It was one of the most heart-opening, deepest experiences I’ve had spiritually. It opened me up to Judaism. I never imagined Judaism that way.”

Her spiritual life previously “was deeply enmeshed in the arts,” especially through dance. Wortzel received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Arizona and a master’s degree in expressive arts therapy in 1983 from Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass. Then she returned to Tucson and started her arts therapy practice. In 1999, she started the Center for Expressive Arts Therapy on Fort Lowell Road, where her husband also has his dental office. Until 2007, she says, “I continued helping people discover themselves through the arts.”

Wortzel became a Bat Mitzvah at age 50 at Congregation Chaverim in December 2004. Her mentor was Chaverim’s Rabbi Stephanie Aaron. She also studied Judaism with Amy Hirshberg Lederman and through the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning.

“I had an epiphany on the bima. I had really fallen in love with Judaism,” says Wortzel. “Something deep went through me. It was like lightning struck. I needed to do something more with my Jewish education but I didn’t know what.”

Her mother and grandmother had both died prior to her Bat Mitzvah. As she moved through her grief, “Out of the blue, I said to my husband, ‘would it completely freak you out if I became a rabbi?’ He laughed and said, ‘That would be perfect for you.’”

Finding the Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal distance learning program in 2008 turned out to be “perfect” for Wortzel. “I didn’t want to leave Tucson,” she says. “I felt as if I had been plucked from my expressive arts community of many years and dropped into the midst of a rollicking Jewish arts community, welcoming me with song, dance, story and visual beauty, which felt so familiar and comfortable.” She was ordained as a Jewish spiritual director in January 2012, and as a rabbinic pastor the following January. As part of her rabbinic training, Wortzel completed Aleph’s two-year clinical requirement, interning at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging, the UA Hillel Foundation, Casa de la Luz hospice and San Francisco General Hospital.

“I brought my whole skill set forward, integrating everything I know” to work with individuals and small groups, says Wortzel. “My focus is to be available to the unaffiliated, to officiate at lifecycle rituals and lead Shabbat services in elder communities. I am also very interested in being a part-time hospice or Jewish community chaplain.” Wortzel and her husband are members of Congregation M’kor Hayim.

Her practice with individuals involves “spiritual direction,” she says, not psychotherapy. “I would refer them to a therapist.” If a person is disassociated from their Judaism, “I would take off from whatever spiritual practices they have. I may do guided imagery, teach them about Mussar [based on Jewish ethics] or help them develop a prayer practice,” explains Wortzel. “We may or may not integrate the arts. We may do movement together, use songs or psalms, or make up our own.”

Clients “may or may not believe in God,” she says. “We go from whatever place they’re at,” discussing God or the meaning of life and the age-old question of “Why am I here?” Wortzel and a client meet monthly, usually with assignments to do in between, which could be as simple as being out in nature. “Whatever will enhance their spiritual connection,” says Wortzel, “whatever that may be for them.”