By Laura Porter
LEOMINSTER – Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman, who became the rabbi at Congregation Agudat Achim in Leominster in August, brings a lifetime of thoughtful, eclectic experience to the pulpit, experience that infuses her rabbinate with compassion and creativity.
Stern-Kaufman succeeds Rabbi Alan Alpert, who retired this past summer after two decades at Agudat Achim.
Raised in Monsey, New York, Stern-Kaufman grew up in “a very diverse Jewish community that really had a sampling of every denomination during the time that I lived there,” she says. “I was already from very early on living in a world of plurality.”
She attended public school through fourth grade, but asked her parents, who were Conservative, if she could attend the Modern Orthodox yeshiva instead because she wanted to learn Torah and Hebrew. Indeed, the part of her that is “a spiritual seeker” emerged at an early age and has only grown throughout her journey, she says.
Modern Orthodoxy defined her own practice until she was in her early 20s, when she chose to “walk away from that community.”
She was unhappy about the way she had been treated as a young woman in that world and at the time was also “growing in my understanding of feminism and my own empowerment.”
During a subsequent career in social work, Stern-Kaufman concentrated on working with children and families, addressing in particular the physical and sexual abuse of children. She lived and worked first in Oregon and then went into private practice when she and her family moved to the Berkshires.
Raising her two young children, a son, Ariel, and daughter, Sophie (now 24 and 21), she chose to step away from social work but became fascinated with design and the practice of feng shui.
“After studying and training with several feng shui masters, I started to combine my social worker skills and feng shui work to help people create healing change in their lives,” she says. “We were working with the environment, through their own spaces. I loved that work.”
Gradually during this period, “my Jewish soul” began to speak up, she says, demanding attention after many years of dormancy. She began to daven again and to reconnect with prayer and the psalms, an informal process that “dramatically and quickly put me back on a very deep Jewish path” 13 years ago.
That path took her first into Jewish education and then to the pluralist Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, New York and to her ordination as rabbi in 2011.
She served first in the Berkshires, founding the Rimon Resource Center for Jewish Spirituality, which “offers the treasures of Jewish spiritual wisdom and traditions to any and all seekers, wherever they may be on their spiritual journey,” according to its mission statement. In 2015, Stern-Kaufman was named one of the The Forward’s most inspiring rabbis for the year as a result of her work at Rimon.
Here, according to one of her nominations for the honor, published in The Forward, she brought inclusive, creative Jewish spirituality” to the area, teaching classes in Talmud and Jewish mysticism, incorporating music and the environment into services and creating a chevra kadisha, or burial society. Her emphasis on “learning and [her] embrace of diversity” encouraged many to explore “the richness of the tradition.”
Last summer, Rabba Stern-Kaufman chose to come to Congregation Agudat-Achim because “they presented to me as a community that, while steeped in history and tradition, really had a changing congregation. They were interested in a spiritual leader who could help meet the spiritual needs of a much more diverse community than they had ever had before.”
The congregation sought someone innovative, creative and committed to inclusion, a trifecta that matched her own approach and skillset.
The lay leaders at Agudat Achim were honest and open about the shrinking size of the congregation, so common across the country. Acknowledging that pervasive challenge, Rabba Stern-Kaufman believes that “rifts between Jews and their Judaism” could be healed by presenting the breadth and depth of Jewish heritage in the context of “the amazing global world we live in and a more universal perspective.”
Her first few months, like any new endeavor, have been “crazy,” she says, as she has dedicated herself to learning the culture of the community as quickly as she can.
When she began in mid-August, the High Holidays were only a few weeks away and “I had an enormous amount to prepare,” she says. Part of that preparation was to incorporate her new ideas while remaining respectful of and open to congregational traditions.
The holidays, as well as special events over the past several months, have given her an opportunity to get to know the members of her new congregation.
Now that she is “beginning to breathe,” she is enjoying both “the people individually I’m serving and the community I’m serving. It’s very new and challenging and it’s been very positive.”