For the first time since she joined the Georgetown University community in 2011, Rabbi Rachel Gartner’s annual “Welcome Back” Shabbat on Aug. 28 did not occur in person on Georgetown’s campus. Instead, she found herself sitting in her Washington, D.C. home, watching Jewish Georgetown students from all over the world appear on her Zoom screen.
In light of the fear and uncertainty brought on by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Gartner began this year’s service with a reference to a famous teaching by Rebbe Nachman, an influential religious leader in the late 18th century. Translated from Hebrew, the quote reads, “The whole world is a narrow bridge, but the essence is not to allow oneself to become entirely fear.”
“The deep idea here is to acknowledge the disappointments but to remember that it is not the whole picture and to not totally identify with what’s bad but to invite yourself to open up beyond the narrowness and to walk ahead and to look around and see, what else is there too?” Gartner said in an interview with The Hoya. “The whole world is indeed a narrow bridge, but do not make oneself entirely afraid.”
Becoming a Rabbi
Gartner is no stranger to the feeling of religious introspection and wanting to reconnect with one’s faith. While she was quite religious as a child — growing up in a Jewish town in Long Island, having a bat mitzvah and leading services often — she lost touch with Judaism after discovering feminism as a teen and questioning whether or not a religion that seemed so rooted in male experiences was well suited for her.
“When I became a teenager and a feminist and started learning what some of the texts actually meant, I became a little bit more skeptical,” Gartner said in a 2014 interview with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. “I started wondering if such a religion — a product of male creativity and a by-product of male experience — could actually work for me.”
During her time at Barnard College, her non-Jewish boyfriend at the time prompted her to think more critically about her relationship with Judaism and how important the religion was to her identity.
After graduating college, she lived in Jerusalem, where she volunteered with different immigrant and women’s groups and explored the writings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, one of the founders of Reconstructionist Judaism. Rabbi Kaplan’s teachings explaining that religion plays an important role in living a meaningful and fulfilling life deeply moved her.
Gartner went on to attend the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa. Reconstructionist Judaism is a more modern, progressive movement that seeks to explore both the traditions of the past and the contemporary meanings of Jewish texts. After being raised by Reform Jewish parents, Gartner found herself drawn to this more progressive sect of Judaism, which seemed to complement and build upon traditional Jewish beliefs.
“It took the greatest in secular civilization as we knew it in America — things like egalitarianism and/or the striving towards ever-greater egalitarianism, LGBTQ rights, group decision making, those ideals — and put them in conversation with some of the deepest wisdom of Judaism,” Gartner said in an interview with The Hoya. “The treasures of each could work on the weak point of the other.”
However, while she understands that how she chooses to approach Judaism is important, Rabbi Gartner also acknowledges the importance of understanding many different approaches. Her first rabbinic job was at B’nei Jeshurun, a more conservative Jewish synagogue located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
“I’ve always had, like, a pluralist heart — a pluralist Jewish heart — in terms of being really interested in different approaches,” Gartner said.
Not until she found herself in the Midwest, when her husband took on a new job at Earlham College, a Quaker school in Indiana, did she begin to explore university religious life and interfaith experiences, taking on small rabbinic jobs on campus.
“I didn’t look for universities,” Gartner said. “I didn’t look for interfaith engagement. I just fell into it, and sometimes that’s how life works.”
Building a Robust Community
In 2011, Gartner not only became the director of Jewish life at Georgetown, but also its second-ever rabbi. When she arrived, the Jewish community was still in its nascent stage — she could barely gather a minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish people necessary for certain religious events.
At the time, the late Rabbi Harold White had been the rabbi at Georgetown for over 40 years, building the foundations for the Program for Jewish Civilization and pioneering work on interfaith dialogue. However, toward the end of his time at Georgetown, he was approaching his 80s, and the increasing age gap between him and the Jewish students meant a natural decline in engagement and a quieter Jewish community, according to Gartner.
Gartner made it her primary goal to build a larger, more tightknit Jewish community, beginning with a new strategy of engagement called the GUish Initiative. She created the GUish Student Engagement Internship so current students could engage with new students, introducing them to the Jewish community on campus. By reaching out more to students one-on-one or in small groups, they were able to gradually build up the Jewish community at Georgetown.
Gartner’s influence extends beyond building the GUish community. This semester, she is teaching a one-credit class, To Pray or Not to Pray? The course explores Judaism as a civilization and the religious foundations that shape Jewish life, and it is designed for people with all different levels of knowledge of and connections to Judaism, according to Gartner.
“People are always asking me, like, ‘What’s Judaism?’ or all the things that I’ve said before, but I’ve always been interested,” Gartner said. “This course, and all my courses, are meant to help empower people to know of what they speak.”
Previously, Rabbi Gartner also taught a class with Imam Yahya Hendi called Interfaith Dialogue, a course that is tied closely with one of the reasons she was attracted to a Jesuit institution — constantly being engaged in this interfaith experience.
“I think one of the things that drew me to Georgetown was that interface of the interfaith: That interfacing where you look someone in the eye and go, ‘What is this about for you? I’ve never met someone like you,’ and then you go, ‘Oh, I don’t know, actually let me think about it,’” Gartner said. “Because that was certainly what started me on my journey back towards really deep engagement.”
Jewish Life in a Pandemic
In her busy days during the pandemic, Rabbi Gartner looks forward to any opportunity she can get to take a break and interact with her community in a time when Jewish traditions have needed to take on different forms.
“All our endeavors this semester are geared simply to helping you connect to us, and more importantly to one another, with a dose of spirited, smart, relevant and accessible Judaism thrown in.”
The holiday of Sukkot, which took place from Oct. 2-9 this year, is a prime example. Sukkot consists of constructing a temporary outdoor dwelling — called a sukkah — in which guests are invited to eat, drink and celebrate. The holiday serves as an homage to the relationship between humans and nature.
While social distancing protocols prevented many Jews from being able to celebrate together as they normally would, this year’s Sukkot can be seen as a reminder of our relationships and deep connections with one another, according to Gartner.
“Even though we can’t go out in a sukkah and bring people into it, in some ways, perhaps this year that feeling of how holy our relationships are maybe more palpable than we’ve ever really slowed down to notice before,” Gartner said. “Sometimes we see what’s important to us most in its absence. For me, that’s a blessing that comes from this very difficult time.”
The Jewish community at Georgetown has also continued to gather virtually, both for big events like the Welcome Back Shabbat and for smaller weekly events, such as Gartner’s 4 p.m. “Monday Mincha Meditation.” This meditation is based on the Musar tradition, a lesser-known Jewish practice that was lost after the Holocaust, and focuses on the idea of Judaism as a more internal spiritual practice. The meditation serves as a virtual space for students to recenter and set intentions for the upcoming week.
The fact the Jewish community continues to come together during this time shows that physical interactions are not necessary to maintain interpersonal relationships, according to Gartner.
“Our structures, what we build physically in the material world is not what matters, but it is the people that sanctify space,” Gartner said. “It is what we do with each other that sanctifies life.”
Between all the innovative ways that people have adapted their routines, Gartner wonders what people will take away from this time. While she does acknowledge the difficulty of the isolation of this pandemic, she is optimistic about the future, given many people’s newfound desire to reconnect with religious traditions and communities.
“Finding more of a need in isolation, finding more of a quest for trying to figure out, what is this all about? How do I adjust? How do I cope? How do I make sense? Can I make sense?” Gartner said. “It’s sort of humbling and inspiring to see that in this moment so vividly.”
A Diverging Community
As the GUish community grew, individual beliefs began to diversify with varying political, social and worship opinions, making her original hopes of a cohesive community more difficult.
“I’ve had people say, ‘This is the most anti-Zionist Jewish community I’ve ever seen.’ And I’ve had students say, ‘This is the most Zionist Jewish community I’ve ever seen,’” Gartner said. “And I’ve had people say, ‘This is the most liberal,’ and others say, ‘This is the most conservative.’ And, ‘You use more Hebrew than any service I’ve ever had,’ ‘You use less Hebrew than any service God would ever want.’”
Gartner’s idea of what it means to be a vibrant Jewish community evolved from the size of services to the amount of engagement with individual students.
“We started to look at success not as how many people came to Shabbat, but how many people engaged in something Jewish that we supplied or we offered that is in their interest, or in their sets of interests or proclivities, political or social proclivities,” Gartner said. “We are a microcosm of the Jewish world, and we are a small microcosm. So it’s an interesting challenge—opportunity to figure it out.”
For Gartner, Judaism is not static, but rather a constant redefining of traditions within a community that is encompassing and accepting of everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs.
“Not everybody shares the religious beliefs, but the values that then are meant to infuse the civilization,” Gartner said. “My deepest desire for the Jewish community at Georgetown is that people can feel loved and cherished enough to be honest with their questions, their doubts, their politics, their concerns.”
No matter how the future unfolds, though, she will always be able to retreat to her Friday night Shabbat, grounding herself in her GUish community, virtually or in person.
She closed her “Welcome Back” Shabbat by reaffirming her hopes for the year: “May this time of Teshuvah — of return and turning — be growthful and fruitful as we turn to a new year, return to our community, and turn towards what we hope will be better times for all of us.”