Rabbi Raachel Jurovics often uses the humble metaphor of a cockroach to explain the focus on interfaith understanding that is central to her form of Judaism.
“There are so many different species of them,” says Jurovics, who became a rabbi in her 50s through the Jewish Renewal movement. “How can one think that a divine creator would go to the trouble of inventing thousands of species of cockroach but only one path to the divine?”
Jurovics, rabbi of Raleigh’s Yavneh Jewish Renewal Community, has worked for years to lead people of different faiths toward a better understanding of one another and their spirituality. Jurovics has led interfaith trips and programs, acquainted others with Jewish traditions and stood alongside colleagues of different religions in pursuit of social change.
This month, she started a two-year term as president of the Association of Rabbis/Cantors for Jewish Renewal, a group of about 300 members from across the world devoted to keeping the Jewish faith vibrant through deep reflection and interaction with other faiths.
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Her impact locally stretches beyond the world of religion, says the Rev. Joseph Ward, who hosted Yavneh for a year as pastor of West Raleigh Presbyterian Church. She’s also been active in community service, serving on everything from the ethics committees of local hospitals to the boards of interfaith organizations devoted to such causes as curbing violence and supporting families affected by AIDS.
“She is brilliant and passionate and has a very strong sense of civic responsibility that leads her to all kinds of causes from educational to political and spiritual,” says Ward, who also traveled with Jurovics to tour Holocaust sites with a group pulled from Jewish and Christian congregations.
“If our religious leadership isn’t modeling these things, how can we expect to make any progress in the world?”
‘A divine put-up-or-shut-up moment’
Jurovics had considered becoming a rabbi since she was a child, when women couldn’t yet lead Jewish congregations. Born in Kansas City but raised in Los Angeles, her elders would praise her for her knowledge of religious texts.
“They would pat me on my head and say, ‘Too bad you aren’t a boy or you could be a rabbi,’ ” she says.
Instead, she applied her skill at interpreting the written word to the academic world, earning a Ph.D. in English at the University of California at Los Angeles.
By the time she graduated, women were permitted to be rabbis, but when she inquired, she was told that, at 31, she was too old to undertake the long regimen of study. It was 1976, and she says the shorter career track expected of rabbis at that time played a role.
So she started a business with a colleague focused on corporate communication and for several decades traveled the country working with business people to improve their writing skills.
Her family moved to the Triangle in 1983 with her husband’s job at IBM, and to escape the pollution, traffic and violence in Los Angeles.
Throughout this time, she was active with various congregations in both California and North Carolina, serving in organizations within her synagogues and in the larger community.
After she took a break from work in the 1990s to deal with a health issue, she decided to make her faith and community work more central to her daily life.
She took a job as a program director with the Temple Beth Or synagogue, and soon after she ran across some information about a seminary for Jewish Renewal rabbis. The movement was seeking to train rabbis that might not fit the traditional mold, many of them coming from other careers.
“As soon as I stumbled across that information, in the subordinate clause of a much longer sentence, I contacted the seminary and applied,” she says. “It was kind of a divine put-up-or-shut-up moment.”
She was ordained in 2003, and stayed at Beth Or as an associate rabbi until 2010, when she started Yavneh, still the area’s only synagogue devoted entirely to the renewal form of Judaism.
“I felt that would add something to the spiritual mix,” she says.
‘Pulling from the same river’
Renewal is not a separate denomination within Judaism, but a strain that runs through its conservative, reform and orthodox denominations. Renewal elements also are prominent in the Reconstructionist Movement of Judaism.
Founded in 1962, Renewal serves as a kind of “spiritual laboratory” that helps find the forms of religious practice that are most inspiring to participants, from elements of mysticism to a focus on gender equality.
The movement also seeks to explore faith through close contact with other denominations. Jurovics’ own openness to a variety of faiths came partly from her father, an attorney who she says “reveled in human diversity.”
“Divinity is like this great river flowing underground,” she says. “Each religion has its own well, its own rituals and practices and vocabulary, but they’re all pulling from the same river.”
When she first got to Raleigh, she was part of the speaker’s bureau, which helped her make contact with a wide variety of local leaders, and she led many interfaith programs before starting her own congregation, which now numbers 60 families with an outer circle of nearly 500 people.
The group meets in an Episcopal church, with no plans to build its own – “There’s no need to pour more concrete on the planet,” Jurovics says – and its members include Jews and non-Jews. Children are trained in Hebrew in partnership with an Orthodox congregation, Sha'arei Israel, where she teaches once a month.
Outreach across faiths is central to her congregation, which has hosted forums and programs in partnership with groups of different faiths over the years.
Over the next several months, her congregation is hosting “Wednesday Wisdom” sessions, open to the public and featuring speakers from area churches on topics such as connections between Buddhism and Judaism and a session on interpreting Islam.
Other events held in the fall help introduce Christians to the Jewish High Holy Days.
Her interfaith work also has an activist side. Jurovics was among the religious leaders who spoke during the “Moral Monday” protests at the state legislature in 2013, and she has united with people of other faiths for social justice causes.
As for her role as president of the international association devoted to renewal, Jurovics says she’s looking forward to helping the organization, whose founder died two years ago, move forward in new and sometimes unexpected directions.
“We’re exploring the growing edge of Jewish spiritual life, and there’s more than one leaf on that edge,” she says. “No one knows what Judaism will look like in 100 years, but we want to find a way to keep it vibrant.”
This story has been corrected: Rabbi Jurovics was not among those arrested at Moral Monday events; she was among the religious leaders who spoke at the gatherings.
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Rabbi Raachel Nathan Jurovics
Born: 1945, Kansas City, Mo.
Career: Rabbi, Yavneh Jewish Renewal Community
Education: B.A. and Ph.D. in English, UCLA
Family: Husband Steve; children Toby and Nicole; two grandchildren
If you go: The next Wednesday Wisdom event will be 7:30-9 p.m. on Feb. 10 at Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh. Learn more at www.yavneh-raleigh.org/wednesday-wisdom-series.html.