Jewish Journal


June 24, 2004

Olins Reaches Out to Teens, Pet Owners


When Maggie died, the Goodman family turned to Rabbi Sally Olins for comfort. As she had at other times of tragedy in the past, Olins helped them in their healing, composing prayers and blessings and crafting a stone memorial marker.

Olins, rabbi of the Conservative Temple B'nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, encouraged them to share memories of Maggie -- how she jumped up on the bed every morning or how she loved to stick her head out the car window.

Maggie, a wheaten terrier, had been part of their family for 14 years, and Olins understood that moving on would take guidance and strength.

"It was very helpful to have a rabbi help us grieve and to understand what we were going through, because she has that feeling toward pets," said Vicky Goodman, who with her husband Chip raised Maggie with their two daughters.

A few months ago, Olins founded Pets at Rest, a business through which she has already helped a small handful of people memorialize their beloved creatures through prayers, eulogies and memorial books.

"People need to stop to say 'Thank you, God, for the pleasure this creature has brought into our life,'" Olins said.

But Olins understands that pet memorials are not part of her rabbinic duties. She keeps Pets at Rest separate from B'nai Hayim, where Olins has been for 15 years (though her 15-year-old Lhasa Apso, Kelev, sits under her desk on weekdays).

Olins, a petite grandmother of two with stylish flare, exudes an air of hip approachability.

As the 10th woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi who this year became the first woman ever appointed a regional president of the Rabbinic Assembly, Olins doesn't ignore the challenges of being a woman on the bimah.

She wears a clerical robe every Shabbat, she said, which has neutralized the "What is she wearing?" distraction.

Olins was waiting in the wings throughout the 1970s and '80s as the Conservative movement struggled with the question of whether to ordain women.

With teaching credentials and a master's in kinesiology from UCLA, and an interest in modern dance, Olins taught in Los Angeles public schools and opened the fine arts department at Westlake School for Girls in the 1960s. In 1972, Olins founded The Firm Company in Westwood, a nationally recognized business that taught dance exercise to about 600 women a week for 13 years.

But throughout that time, Olins was also pursuing her dream to become a rabbi, one she held ever since she would walk to shul with her Grandpa John in Cincinnati when she was 9, before she moved to Beverly Hills.

She got her master's in Jewish philosophy at the University of Judaism, and stayed on to take courses in the rabbinic school even before ordination for women was approved in 1986.

Soon after that decision, at 38, Olins began commuting to New York to work toward ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary. With her husband's law practice in Los Angeles and her daughter about to graduate high school, Olins spent four days a week in New York and three days in Los Angeles studying with local rabbis and interning at B'nai Hayim. She kept that schedule for three years and was ordained in 1989.

Olins' fierce determination to become a rabbi still comes through in the energy she puts into her work at B'nai Hayim, a 220-family congregation set into the woodsy streets just south of Ventura Boulevard.

The services she conducts with Cantor Mark Gomberg are interactive and her sermons current and relevant, members say, with Olins conducting Phil Donahue-like discussions on ethical questions during Friday night services.

"When my husband and I moved to the Valley we did all this temple shopping, and when Rabbi Sally started her banter with the cantor, we could not believe how fun it was and how lively," said Beth Laski, who joined last year.

Olins teaches each bar and bat mitzvah student herself. She has four confirmation classes, since two of her classes refused to graduate when their required two years were completed.

On Thursday nights, she has 20 teens to her house to eat pizza and watch "Friends" on DVD.

"We take segments of 'Friends' and count how many ways they break the Ten Commandments," Olins said. "You better believe they watch 'Friends' in a new light."

Olins hopes that program like these help her members understand that Judaism can be central to their lives, as it is for her.

"Some day I'll be dead and gone and they will remember that it was fun with me, that I wore jeans and that we ate pizza and studied together," Olins said. "And when it comes to making a decision of who to marry, their sense of Jewish identity will be so strong, and maybe I'll have played a part in that."

For Pets at Rest, call (818) 388-8867. For B'nai Hayim, call (818) 788-4664.

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