Tradition of Change
Rabbi Chaya Bender on leading the B’nai Israel Congregation
CHAYA BENDER is the new rabbi at B’nai Israel Congregation, one of two synagogues in Wilmington led by female clergy.
“It was an act of divine providence that my wife Emily and our dog Isaiah are in Wilmington. On our second road trip to North Carolina sitting in a café in Boone, we imagined living here within five years.” When COVID-19 hit Greenwich, Connecticut and life seemed uncertain, Bender found the open position at B’nai Israel. “Just looking at the website, we fell in love with the B’nai Israel Congregation. It was full of opportunities to help those in need. We fell in love with the people. And since moving here in July, we fell in love with the town.”
Rabbi Bender studied Mesoamerican archaeology with minors in Near Eastern Judaic studies and women and gender studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts followed by six years at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, achieving a masters in Jewish education.
During this time, she completed rotations at multiple Jewish camps, a Jewish nonprofit, three Hebrew schools, and a synagogue.
Yet her biggest influence was a woman named Ida Washington.
“She’s a hero to me. I did not have the easiest of childhoods and her home was always safe,” she says. “She was the granddaughter of a slave who shared stories of resilience and love of family. Ida was deeply spiritual and planted the seeds of religion’s power to heal.”
Bender loves the warmth and acceptance of her new congregation.
“It’s small. In Yiddish, we call it hemish or homey.”
Some outside of her community question the authenticity of a female rabbi.
“I don’t treat these people any differently,” she says. “I hope through my interactions, they will see I am just as qualified to be a rabbi as any man.”
Bender plans to grow her congregation through improved quality of programs, schools, and services using flexibility and lightheartedness.
“Through my education and experience, I learned flexibility, not taking things too personally when plans need last-minute changes. I learned to be playful,” Rabbi Bender says.
And she will rely on word of mouth as her biggest ally.
“Our Hebrew school will be free this year with individualized lessons to help every student succeed which I hope will entice new families to join,” she says.
Bender’s volunteers are working on website updates, new social media platforms, and providing positive messages for outreach.
The list of reasons to join her congregation is long: religious services; holiday celebrations; premarital and bereavement counseling; adult education; and social actions including preparing and serving meals at Good Shepherd Center; sisterhood book clubs; and men’s outreach.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused physical community isolation, Bender has been working hard to be socially close through streamed services, social events over Zoom, and individual calls.
“My goal is to connect to others, have them connect to me, and to allow for points of connection to help all of us feel less isolated,” Bender says.
The motto of Conservative Judaism is tradition and change which Bender says is “realizing that Judaism has a tradition of change.”
She adds, “We hold onto things that are core to our religion while realizing as people adapt, so does Judaism. In 2020, we need to work hard to make sure everyone –age; ability; race; ethnicity; gender expression; sexual orientation; socioeconomic status; marital status – feels welcome.”
Bender says she decided to become a rabbi because she knew what it feels like to have religion used against you or to invalidate your family structure.
“As a married lesbian, I do not see my family as anything less than a family. My wife is my soul mate and our house is a sanctuary,” she says. “I want to fight for those who feel outside of the community for any reason.”
B’nai Israel recently posted a banner outside of the synagogue. It depicts a diverse group of people holding hands and says “Love your neighbor as yourself” in both Hebrew and English.
Bender concludes, “B’shalom.” Go in peace.
To view more of photographer Terah Wilson’s work, go to terahwilson.com.
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