Where to find her: On the bima at Temple Beth El
Transforming Jewish life into something engaging and meaningful is at the forefront of every Jewish communal professional’s mind. When Leah Elstein arrived in Tacoma three years ago, fresh out of cantorial school, to lead Temple Beth El’s music and religious education programs, she was faced with her first challenge.
“The committee that hired me sat down with me and said, ‘Our religious school doesn’t look like what we want it to look like….We want you to make the religious school a totally different place,’” she says.
In three short years, Elstein has started a high school program that has retained the preteen and teen contingent that typically drops out of congregational life after B’nai Mitzvah. This year, it expanded to include eighth graders, and each year includes a trip — so far to New York, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. “It’s something that our incoming 8th graders are super excited about,” Elstein says.
The program now has about 25 kids. “Considering we’re a 260-family congregation,” she says, that’s “not too shabby.”
After earning her bachelor’s in music, Elstein shipped out to Greenville, Miss., for Teach for America. She considers those years some of her most challenging.
“It was a good day if I didn’t cry,” she said. “My students had really difficult lives.”
Concurrently, Elstein enrolled in a music education master’s program at Delta State University. When her stint down South was up, she returned to her native Chicago to teach music at a private school, and to serve as a cantorial soloist, youth group adviser and music teacher at her synagogue.
“We had a new rabbi there at the time, and she kept saying, ‘I don’t know why you’re teaching. You need to go to HUC,’” Elstein recalls. “Finally it clicked: Why don’t I do this full time?”
So Elstein got into Hebrew Union College in New York, where she received her master’s of sacred music in 2009 and was invested as a cantor in 2010. Next thing she knew, she was en route to Tacoma.
“I moved to Tacoma three years ago completely single. I had no idea what life was going to look like one I got here,” she says. She dove into her new job. “That was my thing. I worked all the time.”
Then, one day, “my husband walked through the doors of the synagogue.” Though she says she was intrigued, she kept reminding herself, “this guy is a potential congregant!”
After running into each other several times, Elstein says a shidduch was made. “He was my bashert, and I was his, and it was pretty amazing,” she says. The couple married, and they’re expecting a baby girl in August.
Elstein brings “enthusiasm energy to everything she does here,” said Beth El’s Rabbi Bruce Kadden. “When she came, she took over both responsibilities of our music program and our religious education program, and has infused new life into both of them.”
Elstein has also resuscitated the preschool. Young parents who had previously been unengaged now come to the temple two Sundays a month for family learning.
“We want the parents to feel like they have a connection to the Jewish community,” Elstein says, whether they’re temple members or not. “Twenty kids and their parents enrolled this year.”
Given the small size of the community, Elstein is a proponent of helping kids of different grades identify with one another. She is also inspired by relational Judaism. Put forth in a book by Ron Wolfson, relational Judaism seeks to build and strengthen Jewish communal life by building relationships.
Most importantly, Elstein wants to build the kind of community she wants her own family to be a part of. “I’m looking forward to being part of the Tacoma community for the time to come,” she says.