According to Rabbi Vivian Mayer, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s vision of successful rabbinic training includes not only imparting knowledge to its students, but also “touching their hearts.”
To that end, the college recently hired Mayer to serve as director of both its Mekhinah Program and its Bet Midrash. As Tamar Kamionkowski, academic dean of the college, explains: “Vivie brings a wonderful and unique combination of expertise in traditional text study, a deep commitment to and involvement in Jewish life, a broad base of Jewish knowledge, and 10 years of pulpit work.”
The Mekhinah program that Mayer will direct provides intensive training to students who, in the college’s view, have much potential but need more grounding in Jewish traditions and/or language. “It’s not knowledge, it’s how to use that knowledge appropriately that makes a leader,” says Kamionkowski.
The program includes a survey course that examines Jewish traditions, language training and a davening workshop. Roughly 40 percent to 50 percent of the institution’s rabbinic students go through the program.
Sticking to Her Roots
Mayer’s own roots lie in a modern Orthodox community in Queens, N.Y. She attended a yeshiva day school through high school, where her curriculum was the same as for boys, except it did not include Talmud study. She is Shomer Shabbat.
For several years, Mayer lived on a religious kibbutz in Israel. There, she taught prospective converts under the auspices of Shlomo Goren, the former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel.
Based on her own experiences, Mayer began to view Judaism as an evolving civilization developed in response to different historical realities. After returning to the United States, she met Steven Sager, rabbi of the Conservative Beth El synagogue in Durham, N.C.
Sager, a graduate of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, introduced Mayer to the works of Mordecai Kaplan, who pioneered Reconstructionism, based on his detailed analysis of Judaism as a civilization.
In Kaplan’s view, “the past has a vote, not a veto.”
“They may decide not to follow the tradition”– for example, to provide equal access to women — but, Mayer says, “for the past to have a vote, people must be familiar with it.” RRC developed the Mekhina program to ensure that grounding.
Says Mayer: “I love Jewish practice; I love tradition. I don’t see any contradiction between committed practice and Reconstructionism.”
Mayer brought that love of both traditional and contemporary Jewish practice to her 10 years as rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Danbury, Conn.
“I loved the [time I spent] in the pulpit,” she recalls. Much to the dismay of her congregants, she felt she had gained what she could from the experience. Now she looks forward to shaping future Jewish leaders.
Mayer will teach the Mekhinah survey course — which she taught as a student at the college — as well as rabbinic Hebrew.
Her other hat is as director of the college’s Bet Midrash, a new position designed to help orient students to informal text study.
Kamionkowski describes the goal as providing a bridge, in response to needs felt by faculty and students. Faculty, she says, were frustrated with classroom time limits. Students also sought additional study opportunities, attests Kamionkowski.
The director’s responsibilities will vary, the dean explains, sometimes assisting with course work, sometimes complementing it by helping students explore texts outside of class.
“A lot of people come with the experience of studying alone,” adds Mayer. Hevruta study — or studying with their peers — is new for them.
In Mayer’s view, “the college is saying that the informal relationships students forge over Torah study are a key part of becoming a rabbi.”