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Jewish Journal

Educator realizing lifelong dream to become rabbi

by Rachel Heller

May 10, 2011 | 6:13 pm

HUC-JIR School of Rabbinical Studies Director Dvora Weisberg will be ordained as a rabbi with the rabbinical class of 2011. Photo courtesy HUC

HUC-JIR School of Rabbinical Studies Director Dvora Weisberg will be ordained as a rabbi with the rabbinical class of 2011. Photo courtesy HUC

Dvora Weisberg doesn’t think she’s had any unfair advantages over her fellow rabbinical students graduating from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) this month. Well, maybe a few.

“I do have a considerable number of years over most of the other students,” Weisberg, 51, admitted recently.

That, and she’s also the director of HUC-JIR’s School of Rabbinical Studies.

On May 15, Weisberg will be ordained as a rabbi through the program she oversees, graduating as a member of the rabbinical class of 2011 alongside a dozen of her pupils-cum-classmates in a ceremony at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. For the longtime educator, her ordination will mark the fulfillment of a dream almost four decades in the making.

Weisberg, who has directed the rabbinical school at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus for the past two years, said she’s proud to have reached this milestone in her career. 

“It’s very exciting — I’m excited to be ordained,” she said. “It has been interesting trying to balance these different roles. It’s a really unique way to grow into a job.”

Simultaneously managing the Reform rabbinical school and studying in its curriculum has meant a full schedule of office work, homework and teaching — sometimes going from professor to classmate in the course of a single morning. But from her vantage point near the finish line, Weisberg said it was worth it.

“There comes a point in a person’s life when you look past how busy you are and realize that if there’s something you really want to do, you should just do it,” she said. “It got to a point where I thought, ‘I should just go ahead with this.’ ”

After all, becoming a rabbi was something she’d wanted to do since she was 16.

It started with a love of the Hebrew language. Weisberg told an educator she wanted to be a Hebrew teacher and was given a challenge as a response: Why stop there when you could be a rabbi?

But the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where she wanted to study, was not yet accepting female rabbinical students when she graduated from Brandeis University in 1981. So she pursued her master’s and doctorate there in Talmud and rabbinics instead.

Along the way, she got married, had two children and — when JTS began training female rabbis — applied again to the rabbinical school. Despite being accepted, however, she didn’t want to change her course of study mid-degree.

“I moved toward [ordination] a number of times, but it never quite worked out” between building a family and a teaching career, she said. “It didn’t seem to fit into a schedule — it would always be taking away from something else.”

When Weisberg joined the HUC-JIR faculty as an assistant professor 10 years ago, she again considered the possibility. But it wasn’t until HUC-JIR President Rabbi David Ellenson encouraged her that she took the plunge.

Ellenson will be brimming with “pride and nachas” when he confers the title of rabbi upon Weisberg on May 15, he said.

“I am overjoyed that Dvora has completed this step on a journey she was destined to take decades ago,” he added. “She has such tremendous spiritual depth and combines that with a profound knowledge of Jewish rabbinical tradition. The rabbinical school has flourished under her leadership. It’s only fitting that she will now also bear the title of rabbi.”

Weisberg and the HUC-JIR faculty took steps to avoid a conflict of interest on the director’s part. Although certain thorny situations couldn’t be sidestepped — such as co-teaching the ordination seminar she was required, as a student, to take — “at least I didn’t have to grade my own papers,” she said with a chuckle.

And while she made sure to secure paid internships for the other students, she herself took an unpaid one at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.

At first, Weisberg was concerned her studies would take too much time away from her students, but she now feels her going to school was beneficial for them. “It’s an affirming experience for students to see their director experience what they’re experiencing directly,” she said. “I was not just sitting in an office, but learning alongside them. The students have been incredibly supportive and enthusiastic.”

Sometimes Weisberg contemplates how her life might have been different if she’d had the chance to go to rabbinical school earlier. But she doesn’t dwell on it too much.

“I feel that I’ve had a really amazing career,” she said. “I love what I do — I love teaching Talmud. I’m not sorry I chose the course I took. I’ve been given this gift that I’ve suddenly gotten the opportunity to grow in a new direction right where I am. It has been an incredible blessing.”

At the ordination ceremony, Weisberg will introduce her class and give a short talk on what it means to be ordained. “I’m really going to focus for the first hour and 45 minutes on being the director, and then I’m going to spend the last 10 minutes being a student,” she said. During those 10 minutes, she added, “I’ll probably cry — but I always do.” 

Her family will watch her graduate from HUC-JIR the following day, including her 21-year-old son — who will have graduated from USC, right across the street, three days earlier.

Now that she’s finally becoming a rabbi, Weisberg has another set of questions to consider.

“A lot of people have asked me, ‘What’s going to be different?’ ” she said. “I think that I may think about things in a more multi-dimensional way; the experience of having gone to rabbinical school while directing one really deepens your appreciation of rabbinic education. But this decision wasn’t about changing my work. This has been a journey of introspection and growth, and thinking about how being a rabbi might shape my work from now on.

“What will this be like? I don’t know — I’ve never been a rabbi before.”

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