Rabbi Yael Ridberg
Helping to Engage and Inspire Urban Jews
A few days after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, several of Rabbi Yael Ridberg’s congregants became deeply disturbed by comments made by some of the survivors implying that God chose whom to help and whom to let die.
In response, Ridberg, who last year was promoted from associate to senior rabbi of West End Synagogue in Manhattan, said: “I don’t believe in a God that would take this person but not that person.” She also suggested that God was there throughout the crisis—in the self-sacrifice of the 343 firefighters who perished, in co-workers who helped one another down stairwells, and on the streets of midtown, where strangers shared cell phones with strangers.
In New York City’s darkest hour, Ridberg subjugated her own shock in order to focus on the 280 families in her congregation. “I had one mission,” she says. “I was leading a community.”
Those leadership skills are evident at West End and beyond. Although only 33, Ridberg is already helping to inspire the larger Jewish world as a member of the executive committees of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, the Rabbinic Council of the New Israel Fund, and several other organizations. She has also contributed to the Reconstructionist movement’s Guide to Jewish Practice.
Regardless of venue or circumstance, Ridberg sees each encounter as holding an opportunity to learn something that will help her become a better rabbi. This approach enables her to effectively engage people at every stage of the life cycle, from children learning the aleph-bet, to the Judaism professors who are members of her congregation, to people on their deathbeds, to the grief-stricken families they leave behind.
One of her core missions, she says, is to help Jews everywhere embrace Judaism’s relevance and potential. “I don’t think it’s inevitable that future generations of Jews should feel disenfranchised from their heritage or uninterested in the future” of Judaism, she says.
The seeds of her commitment were planted early by her parents and grandparents. “And all along I’ve had wonderful teachers, whether they knew they were teaching me or not—teachers at my Jewish day school, counselors at camp, authors whose books I read.”
In 1990, after earning a bachelor’s degree in communication arts and women’s studies, Ridberg thought about entering the rabbinate but hesitated. She didn’t consider herself a scholar and didn’t come from a highly observant background, attributes that she assumed were prerequisites for the job. At the same time, though, she was starting to see more clearly how Jewish history, text, and wisdom “connect us to the past and hold the potential to transform the future.” Believing she had something to contribute to that transformation, Ridberg enrolled in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), where her energy, ideas, leadership skills, and level of involvement made people take notice.
One of those people was Donald Shapiro, a former president at West End Synagogue, who was then serving as chairman of the RRC board of directors. He would eventually recruit her to his own congregation.
There, Ridberg’s “sermons and ‘talk-back sessions’ are always thought provoking,” says Shapiro’s wife, Arlene, a former West End treasurer. And Ridberg is helping to transform the synagogue by offering ideas with blueprints for putting them into action, Donald Shapiro adds.
Perhaps most important, Ridberg’s effectiveness comes to bear in those small, raw moments of truly connecting with another human being—“the place,” she says, “where Jewish tradition imagines the indwelling presence of God.”—Robin K. Levinson
Robin K. Levinson is an award-winning journalist, author, and freelance writer and editor. She lives in Hamilton, N.J.