Jewish leaders reflect on 10 years at Washington Hebrew Congregation

December 8, 2011

Editor’s Note: This weekend, three female clergy members, Cantor Susan Bortnick and Rabbis Susan N. Shankman and Joui Hessel, will mark 10 years of service to Washington Hebrew Congregation with a Decade of Devotion celebration. On Faith/Local asked each to reflect on what’s changed for them during this time period.

Cantor Susan Bortnick

In many ways, my role as Jewish cantor at Washington Hebrew Congregation is similar to the role of our other clergy.  I try to bring Judaism into my congregant’s lives in a way that is meaningful and relevant to their life experiences.  Much of this happens during “life cycle events.”  From joyous occasions such as a bris or a wedding, to sad moments during a funeral or a shiva, I have taken part in some of the defining moments in the lives of my congregants.  To care for a family in both times of joy and times of sorrow is extremely gratifying. 

 Having worked over a decade in one Jewish community has added another dimension to my experience by allowing me take part in many different events with the same family.  For one family, I participated in the b’nai mitzvah for their three boys and then confirmed them three years later, in addition to naming their sister.  For one couple, I converted the woman, then officiated at their wedding, and subsequently named both of their sons.  Despite that the fact that our congregation is so big, the breadth of my experience over these years has allowed me to connect with our families in a meaningful way.

 Being a cantor, however, also allows me to connect with our congregation in a very special way: by moving them spiritually with song.  Music and song play a central role in Judaism, for as the Psalms teach, “it is good to give thanks to God and sing praises to Your name.”  By leading the congregation in prayer and in song, we make our liturgy come to life, helping them connect to our God, our tradition, our community, and ourselves.  It is, all at once: rewarding, awesome, and humbling, to be part of this.

Rabbi Susan N. Shankman

A rabbi is a teacher of Torah, the sacred book that tells the story of the Jewish people.  We enhance that story every day as we interact and share in life’s continued unfolding.  It is through our common history and our personal stories that we connect with each other and find the threads that unite us.  Our stories link us to tradition, by reminding us of the relevance of Torah in the both the sacred and the seemingly mundane moments of life. 

Stories have the ability to entertain, explain, and inspire.  I have been inspired many times during the last 10 years by the stories the families of Washington Hebrew Congregation have shared with me at pivotal moments in their lives.  When a new baby is welcomed into a family, I hear the story of a name; upon saying goodbye to a cherished loved one, I hear the story of a life; standing under the chuppah, I hear the story of love, and celebrating a bar/bat mitzvah with a child before the Torah, I hear the story of our future. I hear stories in so many sacred times and spaces—with students in our Early Childhood Center and their parents, at Confirmation classes, in Torah Study, at hospital bedsides and at meetings and programs of our Sisterhood, Couples Club, and the Interfaith/Outreach and Community Issues/Social Action committees, as well as others with which I’ve had the honor to work in partnership.  At each of these moments, I find myself in awe of the moment, and of having the privilege to share in such a sacred moment of connection. 

Rabbi Chananiah taught in Pirke Avot, that when two sit together and exchange words of Torah, they cause God’s presence to dwell among us. In each moment I have shared with congregants, staff, and clergy of WHC, I have been blessed to sense God’s presence.  At such moments, I am inspired to continue this sacred work that will enable each of us to continue to add to our story.

Rabbi Joui Hessel

In over a decade as a rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation, I have found that the opportunities to share the highest of highs and the lowest of lows with people is sacred work, work entrusted to me. I am constantly in awe of those who allow me into their lives, those who are emotionally vulnerable, and permit me to share in their life’s tender and sweet moments.

A Rabbi’s life is like no other; there are days where we barely see our loved ones or close friends as we tend to those for whom we serve. There are days where we find ourselves in astonishing places: from Arlington National Cemetery or the White House, to the floor of the House to the bedside to the jail cell. One never knows what will come next. Rabbinic life exists upon an emotional roller coaster that dips and rolls that has its sudden jerks of movement up and down, and all around.

Through my focus on our religious school, I strive to deliver a meaningful and quality Jewish educational experience to our students and their families, as well as create opportunities for our families to share in sacred moments together. This mission is not easy, and one that requires constant care and nurturing in order to find success. The new programs I am able to execute help to establish this congregation as a sacred community that encourages long term relationships amongst its members, and with its clergy.

Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote, “Happiness in this world, when it comes, comes incidentally. Make it the object of pursuit, and it leads us a wild-goose chase, and is never attained. Follow some other object, and very possibly we may find that we have caught happiness without dreaming of it.” Indeed, I never could have imagined a life so rewarding and so richly fulfilling both personally and professionally. I am blessed to serve God, the Jewish People and the greater community.

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