Eight generations ago, her ancestor was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. Every subsequent generation in her family included rabbis until all of her male cousins refused to take up the rabbinical mantle. When she realized this, she was only 11 years old, but it was then that Shifra Penzias declared she was going to be a rabbi and carry on the familial legacy. She was not going to let the chain be broken.
That decision has taken her from New Jersey to New York, to Jerusalem, to Cincinnati, back to Boston and finally to Seattle, where Penzias has just accepted her second rabbinical post at Congregation Kol Shalom, a Reform temple on Bainbridge Island. She serves the congregation on a part-time basis and is the first ordained rabbi ever for the 20-year-old congregation.
Penzias is also a new mother. Taking care of 3-month-old Kaima Weiss-Penzias, she has her hands full with parenting and teaching, but welcomes the opportunity to serve the Island community. Kol Shalom has welcomed her with excitement, gratitude and anticipation, and for them the fit between the members and Penzias couldn’t be more perfect.
“She has the depth of knowledge, she is personable, she can sing, she plays guitar and she just really fits in,” said Val Torrens, who has been with the congregation since the 1980s and is currently serving in her fourth year as temple president. “In only two years our school has doubled its enrollment, and this last Shabbat we had nine people sign up for our first-ever adult B’nai Mitzvah class. We’re delighted.”
Penzias earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology and taught in public schools in Santa Cruz, Calif., before deciding to enter the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College. Led by the examples and memories from her own childhood, Penzias recalls the love and commitment of her own family’s rabbi back in Highland Park, N.J., where she grew up. Those experiences are molding her personal ambitions for leadership.
“It was such a community of faith built on such a moral foundation and he would be there for you in times of trouble,” said Penzias, recalling his dedication with a tear or two. “This [kind of leader] is such an important thing. I got my degree in sociology because I am more interested in the social problem aspects of the pulpit. I knew I wanted a job where I could make the world a better place.”
Penzias served for three years at a small congregation in New Jersey before moving to Boston, where she enrolled in a doctoral program to study Jewish thought and mysticism. There she fell in love and moved to Seattle to marry and raise her family.
“I was a rabbi in this small, almost rural congregation in New Jersey and I loved the work but it was very lonely out there,” said Penzias about her first position as a rabbi. “I entered the Ph.D. program in September of 1999 and I’m still studying in the program. Right now, I have a group of girls who come to my house for a biblical Hebrew class. I still teach. I do a lot of formal teaching.”
This new mom’s teaching career is part time for now and a perfect match for Kol Shalom, which could only afford a part-time rabbi. Penzias will go Bainbridge Island two weekends every month through May, officiating at Friday night and Saturday morning services and leading Saturday morning Torah study.
“They are a nice group of people,” said Penzias. “They are a very small and a very bright group of people. They like to sing a lot and they’re very enthusiastic.”
Not interested in confining herself to one label or group, Penzias, who was ordained in the Reform movement, is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle and likes to get around town and experience a different Jewish settings.
“Every now and then I drop in on the Chabad-Lubavitch or Congregation Eitz Or. I think of myself, not as a Reform Jew, but rather as a Jew. I like the term post-denominational Jew.”