The new rabbi at the Rutland Jewish Center wants to provide meaningful, accessible and relevant connections between people and their Jewish faith. She also hopes people will not be confused by her title.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman is one of the few women rabbis in the United States ordained with that title.
She said it might not have much relevance to Americans who speak only English. But in 2010, the Hebrew Language Academy in Israel, which approves new words entering Hebrew, responded to a large number of progressive women rabbis who lived in Israel and weren’t comfortable with the Hebrew word, “Rav.”
Rav was a masculine word in Hebrew, which is a gendered language.
Stern- Kaufman was ordained in 2011. Her school, as an organization, had a discussion with some of the women who had asked for the new title and as a result, she chose to be ordained as a rabba.
In English it means the same thing, she said.
“I’m still a rabbi,” she said. “The English is a nongendered title. I prefer to use rabba because I think it expresses the evolution of the religion and the evolution of language that we now have a term for a woman rabbi. It’s a big deal.”
Stern-Kaufman, 52. grew up in Monsey, New York, until she went to college. After graduation, she worked as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist with children and families for 10 years. She went on to be a professional feng shui consultant for seven years.
She described the position as helping to create living and working environments that “hopefully were more harmonious and productive.”
“Then I would say my Jewish soul started knocking very loudly and I shifted, one last time, my focus,” she said. “My focus directly shifted to working with the Jewish people specifically in the realm of education and building community.”
Stern-Kaufman said the “consistent thread” that links together the three paths of her career is her work as a healer. In her current role, she wants to bring healing to Jewish communities.
“There are so many Jews that experienced their religious upbringing as something unpleasant and eventually became alienated from their spiritual heritage,” she said. “I believe this is in large part due to a profound lack of inspiring, healthy, meaningful education.”
As a rabbi, Stern- Kaufman hopes to “begin a process of re-education for Jews and non-Jews alike around the beautiful wisdom traditions that Judaism has to offer” and spiritual practices intended to create balance and peace.
After being in Berkshire County for 20 years, Stern- Kaufman said she found there was little room to find new opportunities to do her work before learning about the opening in Rutland.
Rabbi Doug Weber announced earlier this year he would retire from leading the Rutland Jewish Center after more than 12 years.
“I was looking for a community that was poised for change and I was looking to move to an environment that would have natural beauty and be a place that could feed my soul,” she said.
Stern-Kaufman said she had never been to Vermont and was “overcome by the beauty of this place.”
The Rutland Jewish Center is moving away from its Conservative affiliation and “interested in exploring innovation and progressive approaches to prayer and ritual and learning,” she added.
Stern-Kaufman described hergoalasbringing inspired, accessible, engaging prayer experiences for all ages and all backgrounds.
After arriving at the center at the beginning of the month, she said she is already working on expanding connections between the Rutland Jewish Center and the wider Rutland community.
Stern-Kaufman said that would include a stronger relationship with other members of the local faith community working together for “peace and inclusivity.”
In August, Weber said one of the challenges he saw facing the Rutland Jewish Center was the loss of young people. Vermont, as a state, has seen many young people moving away for college or job opportunities, but never returning to settle or raise a family.
“I believe that there is a great need for people to answer the call of the spirit and the call of the soul,” she said. “I think regardless of the age or the location, if the center, whatever it is, a church, a synagogue, a multispiritual life center, is providing meaningful and relevant spiritual nourishment to people of all ages, then people will come. I’m definitely of the ‘If you build it, they will come’ mentality.”
Stern-Kaufman would like to transform the synagogue into a resource.
“I believe that there are many people in this community, and in many communities, that would benefit from and are even seeking — they may not know it — but are seeking a meaningful community connection,” she said.
Stern- Kaufman and her husband, Stephen Kaufman, have two adult children.