Shelly Barnathan, the new associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Am Israel, is no stranger to the Penn Vally synagogue.
Growing up as a girl in an Orthodox home in Baltimore, becoming a rabbi never crossed Shelly Barnathan’s mind. But, after 22 years as a member of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, she has now moved to the other side of the bimah — in July, she was appointed the synagogue’s associate rabbi and education director.
“I just feel very lucky and very blessed to be where I am,” Barnathan said.
She went to Hebrew school at Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue in Baltimore, and described her siddur as a “good friend.” Judaism always had an added importance in her life because her parents, Louis and Irma Pretsfelder, were Holocaust survivors. Her late father, who was from Fürth, Germany, came to the United States at the age of 16, in 1933, after witnessing one of the early Nazi marches in Nuremberg.
“My father said that seeing the Nazis, in their uniforms and straight lines, was like seeing ‘ants invading his town’ and he knew that it was time to leave Germany,” Barnathan said.
Her mother saw her synagogue in Marburg set ablaze. Nine months later, during Kristallnacht. Irma left Germany in August 1939, just a few weeks before World War II broke out. She and her parents went to England, where her parents were interned as “enemy aliens” on the Isle of Man, and Irma lived a non-Jewish life there with a family. She then immigrated to America in 1946, a few weeks before Thanksgiving.
Barnathan obtained her masters in education from the University of Pennsylvania in 1977 and taught science, French, Spanish and German for 33 years in Philadelphia.
“I love languages; it’s my passion,” she said.
Her family did not belong to a synagogue for years, until it was time for her oldest daughter Julia to attend Hebrew school. Barnathan said she and her husband, Elliot, fell in love with the warm atmosphere at Beth Am Israel and liked that it was egalitarian. In addition to her close friend, Lorraine Barol, introducing them to the shul, another draw was Rabbi Marc Margolius. Margolius, now the rabbi at West End Synagogue in Manhattan, welcomed them to the synagogue and made them feel at home.
“I thought he was one of the members,” Barnathan said.
As she got more involved in synagogue life, her love for Judaism returned. For the past 16 years, she has taught Melody and Meaning of Prayer to adults and has also served on the religious and education committees.
An example of her deepening involvement at Beth Am Israel can be found in how she helped change its Hebrew school culture. Hebrew school was normally held on Sundays and Thursdays at the shul, but like many synagogues there was a struggle to get kids to go on Sundays. Barnathan knew things needed to change and, as part of the education committee, helped switch it from Sundays to Saturdays, reasoning that families would be there for Shabbat and wouldn’t just be dropping their children off.
“Clearly, my Jewish center was still present,” she said. “It was always in my blood.”
Ultimately, that Jewish center led her to the conclusion that she needed to mesh her love of teaching and her need to give back to the community. In 2010, she enrolled at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. She found attending school to be a bit easier because of her Orthodox background. At RRC, she discovered she was uniquely suited to be at such an aptly named institution for her needs. “I was reconstructing my Judaism since I was young,” she said. “I knew I wanted my next career to be something Jewish.”
All along, she wanted to work at Beth Am Israel, with her ultimate goal to become a rabbi there. Things worked in her favor shortly after her June graduation when former education director Robin Kahn left in the spring and Rabbi David Ackerman hired Barnathan as the new associate rabbi and education director.
“The timing was just right,” she said.
As Orthodox Jews, her parents were initially skeptical of her being a rabbi, although they warmed up to the idea and ultimately were supportive of her decision. However, her childhood Hebrew school teacher, Arnold Potler, was not surprised.
“He said, ‘Shelly I knew you would’ ” become a rabbi, she recalled. “ ‘Of all the students, I knew you would.’ ”
Barnathan has a lot on her plate. In her first few months, she has met with numerous students and found out their likes and dislikes, including that one boy enjoys breakdancing, which she hopes to incorporate into learning.
“I feel like my first job has been relationships,” she said. “I’m still teaching and I’m able to meet the needs of my soul. I feel very supported.”
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