Update: The original article was corrected on Sept. 29, 2019 to clarify information.
It’s unknown how many actors, producers and filmmakers listed on IMDb.com are rabbis, but there’s at least one.
In July, Rabbi Raysh Weiss joined Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Yardley — and her journey to the pulpit was one of many detours with stints in cinematography and academia.
Weiss, 35, grew up part of a Modern Orthodox community in Skokie, Illinois. As a youth, she was inspired to become a rabbi after attending the egalitarian Bat Mitzvah of a deaf family friend.
“That experience was the beginning of the rest of my life. It changed everything because it encouraged me to learn to read Torah on my own,” Weiss said. “The experience planted the seed in my head that there’s this other world out there, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
But long before rabbinical school, Weiss pursued other passions. At Northwestern University, she set out to explore philosophy, comparative literature and film — subject matter unavailable in her teenage years at Ida Crown Jewish Academy. In college, she worked on various short student films like Transformation? (2003), Love: The Movie (2004) and Pat Gets a Cat (2005).
Weiss described herself as a fan of experimental film and aimed to explore the taboo and tension of societal norms. In 2006, she wrote, directed and coproduced The King’s Daughter, a short film that follows the story of an 18-year-old torn between her desire to please her Orthodox community and a desire to live freely. While dreading an impending arranged marriage, the teen befriends an elderly, nonreligious woman at a nursing home who encourages her to choose her own path.
“I wanted to use film as a vehicle to serve God. Being able to use the lenses as a way to think about the human psyche and cut into issues of the heart,” Weiss said. “I never imagined myself as a full-time filmmaker for life. It seemed too precarious for me as a life choice. I didn’t think I was going to make it as an experimental filmmaker; it wasn’t my life goal as being a rabbi was. My life goal was always to be a rabbi.”
Weiss graduated in 2006 with a degree in comparative literary studies and media. While her sights were still set on the pulpit, it would have to wait.
She was accepted into the Fulbright Scholar Program. In Germany, she performed fieldwork in ethnomusicology, focusing on klezmer music in postwar Europe. Her research can be found in Three-Way Street: Jews, Germans, and the Transnational. The chapter she authored is titled “Klezmer in the New Germany: History, Identity, and Memory.”
Afterward, she pursued a doctorate in cultural studies and comparative literature from the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation was titled “Harbinger and Echo: the Soundscape of the Yiddish-American Film Musical.” And with her Ph.D. in hand, the timing was finally right for rabbinical school.
Weiss enrolled in the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. While there in 2015, she was named one of the Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36.” The school was also where she met her future husband, Rabbi Jonah Rank. They met at the first morning minyan Weiss attended at the school when he helped adjust her tefillin.
In 2016, Weiss was ordained and moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to serve as senior rabbi of Shaar Shalom Congregation. While it had been her dream to serve a remote community, Weiss admits it was difficult being away from friends and family.
“It was a hard pulpit. I won’t sugarcoat it, but it was also extremely rewarding,” Weiss said. “I was a one-woman show. I was the only full-time employee at my shul, which was essentially the face of Judaism east of Montreal. I was the custodian, secretary, executive director and funeral director. It was a lot of things rolled into one.”
After three years, the couple returned to the states so their children could attend Jewish day school.
Weiss takes over at Congregation Beth El for an interim rabbi who served for a year after Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg left. Meantime, her husband got work as education director at Kehilat HaNahar, a Reconstructionist congregation in New Hope.
Elizabeth Ravitch, one of the co-presidents at Congregation Beth El, said Weiss’ diverse background and many accomplishments at such a young age impressed the search committee.
Since her hiring, Weiss has reached out to each member family by phone to introduce herself and get to know them.
“She is phenomenal,” Ravitch said. “She has brought new life into our Shabbat services. She’s just really been a powerhouse.”
Weiss said her creative experiences is at the heart of her rabbinate and wants to celebrate the musical, visual and dramatic components of what it means to be spiritually alive. So far, she’s enjoyed her time with the congregation and feels welcomed.
“It is a young, energetic community with so much going on, with tremendous volunteerism, with real passion and vision and a real willingness to take risks. I like that they’re open to dreaming big, which I’m totally about,” Weiss said. “I absolutely love my new community. It’s a nurturing place to work and a fabulous community. I think we’re going to have a great time.”