How I Made It

Raysh Weiss, Congregational Rabbi

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How I Made It community builders: Rabbi Raysh Weiss wears a kippah and smiles at the camera
Rabbi Raysh Weiss; Halifax

Let’s say we’ve just met at a cocktail party. How would you describe, in a nutshell, what you do?

I’m a congregational rabbi, working to build community through education, personal counselling and social activism. I’m also married to a fellow rabbi/musician, and we have a daughter. We all love music, comedy and all manner of artistic and intellectual expression.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

Strap in—this is a long answer! For undergrad, I attended Northwestern University, where I studied comparative literature, philosophy and radio/television/film; I then did a Fulbright in Germany in ethnomusicology and was based at Potsdam University. Following that, I completed a PhD in cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and finally my rabbinic ordination is from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)

Because I was a student for so long, I also worked for pay during my years of study. My first paying gigs were with WildKatz!, the Klezmer band I founded and led in college. I also worked as an event videographer.

What was your BIG break? How did you land it?

I grew up in a Jewish denomination that does not permit women to serve as clergy or lead ritual services, but I knew I wanted to be a rabbi from the age of 11. So I decided to secretly learn how to chant Torah (something women in my community of origin were not allowed to do publicly, in front of men) and organize my own bat mitzvah outside of the community. At the time, my sister closest in age was attending university on the east coast, and I coordinated with some friends of hers to have my bat mitzvah in their student community. Actually pulling off my own egalitarian bat mitzvah was a major coup and paved the way for the rest of my spiritual and professional life.

Describe the moment in which you first realized, I think this is actually going to work out?

My bat mitzvah! But I think going to university was another major turning point. I was so thrilled to be free to explore a diversity of fields, ideas and perspectives. Both university and grad school were immensely liberating learning experiences and very much informed the kind of rabbi I wanted to be—a rabbi who can speak many languages, both literally and figuratively.  And founding my own independent spiritual community (the Uptown Havurah) during my time as a doctoral candidate in Minneapolis was another formative moment for me, both spiritually and professionally. What was at first simply inviting some friends over for Friday night dinner and some prayers quickly evolved into something much bigger. We formed a wonderful group of twenty- and thirty-somethings who would meet at each other’s apartments for potlucks, prayer, and eventually learning and social activism, as well.

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

Try to live close to work—at least as a parent, I love being able to see my daughter without delay after a long day of work. Also, walking or cycling to work is fantastic!

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

Dress up as someone else to sell who you are (for interviews).

Did you deal with barriers in your field because you are a woman? If so, what were they?

Yes. There were a couple of times during my pregnancy when I was turned down for jobs with the sole explanation being the employer did not want to grant maternity leave.

What’s the worst stereotype you’ve heard about millennials at work?

I’m going to answer this one in relation to my work. Millennials are commonly portrayed as refraining from formally joining religious brick-and-mortar institutions (and there is some truth to this trend), but these observations miss the larger picture: millennials are every bit as spiritually-oriented as their parents, if not more—they just channel their energies differently.

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