‘A good place’
Chico’s Congregation Beth Israel officially welcomes its new rabbi
Last summer, while seeking to succeed Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan as the religious leader of Congregation Beth Israel, Rabbi Sara Abrams started seeing signs that Chico would be in her future.
Not Mount Sinai-like signs—divine light, stone tablets—but the harbingers that prompt a spiritual person to feel the draw of destiny.
Abrams had been unfamiliar with Chico, having spent three years in Westchester County, N.Y., following her ordination in Southern California. Yet, soon after submitting her application to Congregation Beth Israel, she opened a closet in her synagogue and uncovered a stash of ChicoBags.
Then, during a phone call to her father in Madison, Wis., in which they were speaking about the opportunity in Chico, he got a call that his caller ID said was from … Chico. (Turned out to be a long-ago acquaintance calling coincidentally.)
An hour later, Abrams heard from the Chico synogogue. She flew out for an on-site evaluation, got the job and began Aug. 1. Last Friday night (Feb. 24), Congregation Beth Israel held a formal installation ceremony during Sabbath services.
Why Chico? Besides the opening—offering her the chance to become a head rabbi for the first time, back on the West Coast—Abrams found, and finds, here a confluence of benefits and prospects.
“I said, ‘This is going to be a good place, a place where you can grow and you can grow the community,’” Abrams told the CN&R the morning of her installation. “Part of why I wanted to be a solo rabbi in a small congregation is you really get to know everyone and you feel very attached and connected to your work….
“In a place like Chico, you have to get to know your fellow clergy—already there are so many great interfaith connections I have made; I’ve been able to be on the radio. You get to be involved in things that in a big city you simply wouldn’t [and wouldn’t] have the opportunity to effect change in the same way.”
Abrams’ mentor, Rabbi Laura Geller, has no doubt Abrams will make an impact. Geller is the third American woman ordained as a rabbi and currently serves as Rabbi Emerita at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, where she and Abrams worked together.
Geller spoke with the CN&R after the installation, where in front of a full sanctuary (around 150 attendees) she officiated with Congregation Beth Israel’s former interim rabbi, David Zaslow of Ashland, Ore.
“Rabbi Sara Abrams is the real deal,” Geller said. “She’s an extraordinary teacher—I know because I’ve studied with her—and as I said in my remarks [during the service], praying with her really has cracked open my heart and made my spirit soar; that doesn’t happen all that often. This community should know that they are very blessed to have a presence like Rabbi Abrams, and the possibility of the partnerships and collaborations that will happen because of a leader like this can have real implications for the whole community.
“It is the job of a rabbi to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Together with other religious, interfaith and integral colleagues, whatever the issues are that people in this community struggle with, she will be part of that struggle, ready to lead and ready to partner.”
Abrams’ first sermon, “Turning 40 in the Promised Land,” shed further light on being lured to this region. As she told her new congregation Aug. 5: “In the last month of my 39th year, I started my journey to Chico, ‘the bread bowl,’ to Butte County, ‘the land of wealth and beauty,’ and most of all to a community whose hands and hearts move in rhythm together.”
The number 40 holds significance in Judaism, both Geller and Abrams explained, from Moses leading the Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness to the 40 measures of water in a ritual bath. Interestingly, Geller has been a rabbi 40 years.
So, for Abrams, taking this step as she turned 40 holds deep meaning.
“Forty is a magical number,” she said, “because once you’ve lived 40 years, you’ve finished with your youth, and then you have the opportunity to grow and cultivate and strengthen your purpose and the purpose of those around you.
“The great thing about the Promised Land is it’s fertile. When people ask me what I like about Chico, [I tell them that] it’s a fertile place, and anything can be grown in the soil—and that means anything can be grown otherwise. There’s a phrase ‘as above, so below’ … to live in a place where such bounty can appear means that community can reconnect, that community can grow, that community can see themselves in new spiritually aware ways.”
Abrams’ congregants hope to grow with her long-term, as expressed multiple times during the installation. The ceremonial portions had a wedding theme; Zaslow asked the rabbi and her congregation to exchange vows.
“I see myself here for the unforeseeable future,” Abrams said. “There’s a lot to be done here, so I look forward to doing it.”