A Reform rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi were my mentors, my guides and my inspirations to become a rabbi.
Rabbi Joseph Weizenbaum, z’l, the Reform rabbi of my youth, my bat mitzvah, and my teenage understanding of Judaism, was certainly the rabbi who led the way, who motivated me and encouraged me on my path to the rabbinate. These moments drew me in: Rabbi Weizenbaum and I are in the desert between Nogales and Green Valley, helping to bring an El Salvadorian family to sanctuary, when three men on horseback literally ride over the ridge toward us. I fumble with my words, heart pounding beyond the walls of my chest, while Rabbi Joe faces off with the men (probably drug smugglers) and we go on our way, secure in the power of the mitzvah: pikuach nefesh, saving a life.
I am with Rabbi Weizenbaum in his office. He hands me a well-thumbed book that seems to be losing pages. “I want you to have this. It is already my third rabbi’s manual, and now it is yours.” I used that fading manual until I could barely see the Hebrew or the English words on the pages, but he was still there guiding me, showing me how to be strong for people in pain, loving for a couple under the chuppah, brave for justice and able to interact with Torah as a modern Jew who follows this teaching by Ben Bag-Bag, a disciple of Rabbi Hillel: “Turn it [the Torah] over and over, for it contains everything. Keep your eyes riveted to it. Spend yourself in its study. Never budge from it, for there is no better way of life than that.”
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Reb Zalman, z’l, gave me my first niggun, a wordless melody; he taught me to daven, to pray. He taught me the power and depth of stories. Reb Zalman told us, “When the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe was old and paralyzed, his daughter would often help him in various ways. One day, while she assisted with his tefillin, he asked for a mirror to see if the tefillin on his forehead was straight. When seeing his reflection in the mirror he said, “That’s me, I’m a davener (one who prays).” Reb Zalman concluded by saying, “That’s what I, Zalman, am too — a davener.” Davenen is living the liturgical life in the presence of HaShem. It is connecting with the ohr zarua, the seed of light at our core. It is tying the words on the page of prayer to our lives and our experiences. When we daven, we link our individual lives with the Divine Source of consciousness and conscience, with the root of our visions and our insight; davening points us to the Shoresh HaShoreshim, the Root of all Roots, HaShem, the Source of all Being and Becoming, G-d.
Reb Zalman looked deeply into my being and said, “Hadassah Rachel, I am listening to your neshamah (soul). You must not hesitate any longer; it is time to journey to Poland. His words moved me to what was the beginning of many journeys to the camps, to remember, to vow to make the world a place free of prejudice, intolerance, bigotry, violence and hatred. That is an integral part of my work not only as a rabbi, but as a Jew.
Rabbi Stephanie Aaron is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chaverim.