Cheryl Klein took “a more circuitous path” to rabbinic ordination than your typical rabbi.
Klein, 59, who has been the lay cantor at Congregation Dor Hadash since 1986, has been involved with many of the trappings of the rabbinate since she was a child. She remembers loving Hebrew school, which she attended at the Hebrew Institute, particularly enjoying Chumash and Ivrit classes. “I had this very strong Yiddish neshama,” said Klein. “And I wore it boldly.”
Klein became involved with Jewish education early while she was still cementing her own. At 12, she began practicing for her bat mitzvah and said that she picked up the trope [the musical cantillation notes for reading the Torah] “like it was second nature.” She was such a natural at it that Solomon Abrams, an educator and later director at the Hebrew Institute at the time, asked her if she would tutor some of the other children in her class who were struggling with the intricate words and sounds. Klein agreed and enjoyed tutoring so much that she continued to do it for the next 34 years.
The romance with Jewish education continued for Klein, and she went on to teach in a more official capacity, serving as principal for “a couple of different religious schools” and also serving as an educator and administrator at the School of Advanced Jewish Studies (now called J Line).
As a young woman contemplating her career path in the 1970s, she said it didn’t occur to her to think about ordination. Women in the United States were only just beginning to receive smicha (ordination) at that time, the first being Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972. So for Klein, ordination was so new that she didn’t’ even consider it as an option. Later, between raising her children, teaching and her cantorial responsibilities, “life just didn’t take me in that direction.”
So it wasn’t until her children were adults and she was reflecting on what she’d accomplished so far that Klein realized how much she wanted to be ordained. Klein said that when she broached the topic with her husband, he told her, “Go for it.”
After looking around, Klein enrolled in Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk, an online smicha program. The program appealed to her for several reasons. First, it’s a nondenominational program, and, as Klein put it, “I’m not big into labels.” Though her congregation, Dor Hadash, is Reconstructionist, Klein eschews that, or any other, label, describing herself as merely a “traditional Jew.”
The other element that attracted her to the program: it was structured for people who were choosing ordination a bit later in life, “people who have been working in Jewish service for 20, 25 years.” Not your typical room full of young men in white shirts and black pants. All of the studying took place at home, making it easy to fit in around work and family.
The teachers at Adath Wolkowisk design a curriculum for each individual student based on his or her learning needs. While preparing for ordination, Klein studied a wide variety of subjects. Some, like the laws and bylaws as broken down in the Talmud, are what one would expect from an ordination program. Klein remembers a particularly tricky section discussing the rules of bein hashmashot, the time between sunset and true night, the precise determining of which is the linchpin in several laws. These sorts of topics are expected for a rabbinical student, who must have more than passing familiarity with many of the rulings and exceptions. But Klein also studied Jewish literature and medieval Jewish philosophy in preparation for her final examination.
Having passed her ordination exam, Klein said that she feels “very blessed, very humbled.” She hopes that her achievement sends a positive message to people, that they realize “learning never ceases. Don’t let age be a barrier for striving toward what you want out of life. It’s never too late.”
Klein said that although she officially became a rabbi on June 23, she plans to continue on as lay cantor of her congregation for the foreseeable future. She enjoys her job there, encouraging the congregants to sing along to the prayers. But, she said, even though she has no immediate plans for what she’ll do with her ordination, she did use her smicha in an official capacity just three days after receiving it. On June 26, her son got married in New York, and Klein officiated under the chuppah.
Masha Shollar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.