Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum knows of only one other female African-American rabbi in the country. That puts South Jersey on the cutting edge.
On July 1, Berenbaum became the rabbi and educational director for Temple Har Zion in Mount Holly, N.J. The spiritual leader previously worked at the Reconstructionist congregation Shir Hadash in Milwaukee.
Berenbaum grew up in Massachusetts with Southern Baptist parents, yet was drawn to practice Jewish traditions.
“When I was about 11, I started keeping Shabbat on Saturdays instead of Sundays and celebrating the new year in September. I didn’t know any of that was particularly Jewish,” she said, yet she felt compelled to do so.
In college at Tufts University, Berenbaum’s passion for Judaism exploded. She added a major in Judaic studies to her course load for clinical psychology and, since then, has remained a practicing Jew.
“Judaism chose me,” she said simply.
She received her rabbinic ordination and master’s degree in Jewish education from Hebrew College in Boston in 2013, holding a strong interest in the Jewish Renewal movement that values chanting and music in a back-to-the-roots approach to Judaism.
Temple Har Zion, though traditionally Conservative, had embraced a Jewish Renewal attitude for years under longtime Rabbi Richard Simon. When Simon retired in January, the synagogue’s rabbinical search committee endeavored to find a rabbi with a passion for both traditional and Renewal prayer.
Laura Markowitz, now president of Temple Har Zion, served as chair of the six-person committee.
“We invited three finalists to come to our synagogue and lead services,” she said of the search. The response to Berenbaum was overwhelmingly positive. “People love her. She leads beautiful services.”
Markowitz said the hiring was welcomed by almost everyone in the intimate congregation, which has just 80 families.
“When you have a rabbi for 32 years, change is change,” she conceded, but since Berenbaum arrived, Shabbat attendance has increased, as has synagogue membership.
For Berenbaum, it was the perfect job.
“I was hoping to find a job in the Philadelphia area because my husband’s parents are in Elkins Park. My parents are from New Jersey, and I still have family here.”
She had a baby in December, which added to the desire to live closer to family, as did a health scare from her mother.
Berenbaum noted that what she most enjoys about her job is the chance to embrace new Jews into the community.
“I am thrilled to be able to welcome people who had felt disconnected and disengaged from Judaism, welcoming in families that felt marginalized by the Jewish community [like] interracial couples with mixed-race children looking to send them to Hebrew school,” she said.
The education-minded rabbi will also serve as Temple Har Zion’s educational director, a title that excites her.
“It’s important to educate the children holistically,” she said, “to help them integrate Judaism into their lives and view the world with a Jewish lens.”
She is one of the few black female rabbis in the world. The first black female rabbi in history officially recognized and ordained was reportedly in 2009. That rabbi, Alysa Stanton, made international headlines for leading a Reform congregation in North Carolina, although she stopped working there in 2011.
According to a 2014 Pew Forum survey, 2 percent of Jews in the United States described themselves as black, although the Institute for Jewish and Community Outreach in San Francisco found in 2003 that at least 20 percent of the U.S. Jewish population is black, Asian, Latino or mixed race.
Regardless of specific demographic numbers, Berenbaum remains optimistic about her future with Temple Har Zion.
“I’m grateful for the fact that I am young,” she said with a laugh. “I couldn’t possibly do everything I want to do in a short period of time.”