Featured photo: Grace Gleason, rabbi at Beth David Synagogue in Greensboro (courtesy photo)
Grace Gleason is Beth David Synagogue’s first female and youngest rabbi in its 80 year history. After graduating from rabbinical school in New York last July, she moved to Greensboro to take on her first full-time pulpit at 31 years old. In our conversation, Gleason spoke about how her identity impacts the way she leads her congregation and what role Judaism plays in creating safe spaces for all. Learn more about Beth David Synagogue at bethdavidsynagogue.org or follow them on Instagram @bethdavidsynagogue
This conversation has been edited and shortened for clarity.
Tell me a little bit about your faith background. Were you always heavily involved in Judaism?
I was not the typical conservative rabbi. And when I say ‘conservative,’ it’s not reflecting politically conservative. It means traditional in Hebrew, more religiously traditional; that’s what conservative is referring to. It’s rather unfortunate that that’s the name of our movement but it’s been around for 100 years.
I grew up in a nonreligious family even though my parents were spiritual. My dad is Irish Catholic and my mom is Jewish.
And then my mom died when I was a kid and her sister is Orthodox. She introduced me to the ultra religious Jewish world in Illinois. That was the seed of my interest in Judaism.
Also, seeing the beauty of Shabbat, Passover and Hanukkah sparked my curiosity as a kid. So I didn’t grow up fully in the Jewish community. It wasn’t until later that I reconnected with it.
Tell me about that period of reconnection.
I fell in love with Jewish text study in school and started taking that on in my own time. I really fell in love with it. I had a wonderful rabbi who was a queer woman and I had an epiphany that I could do that. It’s not unheard of. That was 10 years ago. I knew I needed to learn Hebrew so I devoted myself to study and went to rabbinical school.
How did learning from a non stereotypical rabbi influence your understanding of Judaism and faith?
So I had kind of been on the periphery of Orthodox communities. There’s a really central text that a lot of Jewish culture is based on called the Talmud. It’s known for being this really difficult text and really hard to understand. But then I met this rabbi when I was in college and the class that she was teaching was Talmud for beginners.
Her approach was that you just needed to know the alphabet and you can learn this really difficult esoteric text in the original language.
Her pedagogy was really, really powerful. Her class was a room full of mostly intergenerational queer people and we were all memorizing this ancient text and really taking ownership of it, discussing it and knowing it from front to back. And she told us that the pedagogy of this text belongs to you even if you don’t fit the typical profile. That this was our shared Jewish ownership and that it’s full of riches and it’s for all of us. That was a very liberatory community.
How does your own identity now influence the way you teach and think about Judaism?
It influences how I think about my role as the rabbi and what I’m doing. I also have the perspective of someone for whom going to synagogue or being involved in Jewish life wasn’t super appealing or spiritually nourishing to me in the past. It felt really far away and very esoteric. It felt soulless and like I didn’t know what was going on.
Taking that class was the moment where I realized that there is so much spirituality within Judaism. And part of my hope is to bring that to my synagogue. To say that sitting in synagogue is not for everyone and making the experience of showing up to synagogue one that is really full of spiritual nourishment that people are seeking in their lives.
How do you do that in practice?
We are approaching the high holidays: We have our New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and then Yom Kippur, which is our day of reflection and asking for forgiveness. Those holidays are right in a row in the fall. As I’m thinking about those holidays and how we’re going to observe them, I’m bringing in spirituality by asking the question for every prayer: What does this have to do with what people are experiencing on a day to day basis in their own spiritual life? I’m pausing to frame what we’re doing in a way that responds to that, that says, ‘This is what we’re doing and why.’
We’ve seen an increase in anti-Jewish hate over the last decade. How do you confront that within your work?
There hasn’t been an incident since I’ve been here, but I know that there have been in the past. We’re definitely more conscious of it and security is something that we’re thinking about. I think my personal thought is that we’re in this climate where white supremacist groups are really emboldened. It’s not just directed at the Jewish community. It’s directed at queer people, trans people, probably the majority of people. One of my goals and one of the ways that we can be stronger is to build solidarity with other communities and recognize that we are in it together. Our strength is in solidarity. I think sometimes we have a tendency to isolate ourselves as a Jewish community and I want to push past those patterns of isolation. I want to say I’m proud to be Jewish and not be controlled by fear here in Greensboro and the world.
You talked about how it’s not just the Jewish community that’s faced hate but also the LGBTQ+ community. How is your congregation working to be a safe space for all?
On a small scale, one of my goals is that through my personal relationships with the young people in our community, that every trans kid who walks through our doors feels safe and celebrated. It’s just about recognizing how a synagogue or church functions as a third space that’s not school or home where they can find refuge or just to have another place to feel safe and celebrated and welcome. It can be through small things like having a sticker on our doors that says “Safe Zone LGBTQ+.”
I also think there’s so much resource within our tradition of celebrating queer people. There’s also a lot of horrible things in our tradition that we shouldn’t hide from, but the way Judaism has changed so much, rethinking the law and reinterpreting it, I think there’s a lot of space within Judaism to celebrate people.
In a time where fewer people identify as religious, why do you think Judaism could be the right fit for some?
Also in certain pockets of culture now, it’s actually very countercultural to be religious and be progressive. I think that there are so many wonderful things about this community that I think really responds to what a lot of people are facing right now.
Judaism is a religion that values questions more highly than answers. We are constantly engaged in critical thinking. The name Israel is yisra-el, which means the one who wrestles with God. Pure belief is not necessary to be Jewish, but a commitment to wrestling with life’s questions is.
In this weird phase of Covid, this is a radical act of countering isolation and choosing to be in community, to be in a congregation and choosing to be in intergenerational community.
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