Ma’ayan Sands has lived a life steeped in Judaism. A mother of four and a grandmother, the Brookline native dedicated her decades-long career to creating innovative Jewish educational programs that are now national models.
Elias Matthew Herb is a lifelong outdoor enthusiast with roots in New Mexico. Over the years, he’s worked in the Southwest as a beekeeper, river guide and leader of conservation and wilderness projects for youth.
Vera Martina Broekhuysen, who grew up in Cambridge performing in choruses and dreaming of being a singer, was about to embark on a career in health care.
While the three are from different generations and religious backgrounds, their paths came together half a dozen years ago as students at Hebrew College’s Rabbinical and Cantorial Studies programs.
On Sunday, June 5, the trio were among a group of eight women and men ordained by Hebrew College – two as cantors and six as rabbis – at a two-hour ceremony at Temple Reyim in Newton that was both solemn and celebratory.
“On a day so joyous and filled with pride, we also focus on the concept of humility,” Rabbi Daniel Lehmann said in his opening remarks, referring to Moses, known as the first rabbi who is revered for his humility. Lehmann, president of Hebrew College, said that these newly ordained rabbis are beginning their religious leadership roles at a time when traditional hierarchical Jewish institutions hold less sway than in the past. “We need to walk among the people,” he said, drawing a parallel with the week’s Torah portion from Leviticus when G-d promised to be among his people.
The ordination capped five or six years of studies, a lengthy process that included mastery of Hebrew and a course of religious studies that builds relationships and a sense of community, according to Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, dean of the college’s rabbinical school.
The broad range of students at Hebrew College’s rabbinical school is a reflection of today’s Jewish community, according to Rabbi Dan Judson, the rabbinical school’s director of professional development and placement.
“This is a time to have diverse voices in the rabbinate and to reach out to people who may not have come into mainstream Jewish institutional life, synagogues, day schools and Hillels,” Judson observed.
“At our pluralistic rabbinical school, students are forced to think deeply and honestly about their religious choices,” Cohen Anisfeld told the Journal. There’s a sense of honesty that is being cultivated. “Students may challenge each other… gently,” she added.
“To be in a community of people who have radically different relationships with Judaism, is far more trying than I had imagined,” said newly ordained Rabbi Herb in a phone conversation after the ceremony. On a lighter note, he said that jokes were one way to make it work.
Herb’s teenage daughter made note of his humor in writing part of the blessing read at the ordination. “May you become the world’s greatest comedian farmer rabbi,” she wrote.
“The wilderness experience is at the heart of my spiritual journey,” Rabbi Herb said. Combining Judaism and nature is growing more popular, he observed, and there are now many opportunities across the country, from Jewish farm schools to Jewish environmental programs, including Hazon, he said.
Rabbi Herb will begin a new position as rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom, a reconstructionist congregation in Salem, Oregon. While it’s not his primary role, he hopes to introduce some nature and wilderness programs at the congregation, he said.
At Hebrew College’s School of Jewish Music, newly ordained cantor Broekhuysen was exposed to Jewish nusach, the rich musical tradition of chanting prayer that varies based on the time of day and different seasons and holidays. While there are musical forms that are prescribed, there is enormous freedom to improvise, as in jazz, she discovered. She also didn’t expect to become a drummer, an experience she was offered by one of her teachers.
Broekhuysen, who grew up in Cambridge, will be the cantor at Temple Emanu-el, a Reform congregation in Haverhill. She enjoys engaging congregants in singing and prayer and she anticipates combining a judicious mix of familiar tunes with some new melodies.
Rabbi Sands was sixty years old when she entered rabbinical school. After her second year, she faced a diagnosis of breast cancer, she revealed in a phone conversation. “It was nothing but a blessing,” she said, noting the irony that most people don’t see cancer in that light. The experience brought her closer to G-d in ways that she had not experienced before, she said.
“A big part of my rabbinate, of me walking through the world, is to help people see the divine spark in themselves, to value themselves in the image of G-d,” she said.
In her new role, Rabbi Sands hopes to continue to help others discover connections with their Jewish values. “Most people who have rejected Judaism don’t know what they’ve rejected,” she commented. “My goal, as a person and a rabbi, is to create an ‘aha’ moment.” Through conversation, she hopes others discover “reasons to be proud of being Jewish based on Jewish values.”
Other Hebrew College ordainees were Cantor Sarah Ilana Bolts; Rabbi Shahar Decassares Colt, who will be director of congregation learning at Dorshei Tzedek in Newton; Rabbi Nathan Evan DeGroot, who will be assistant rabbi at IKAR in Los Angeles; Rabbi Rebekah Anne Goldman, who will be the rabbi at Congregation Emek Shalom, in Farmington Valley, Connecticut; and Rabbi Jamie Benado Kotler.