As Rabbi Rachel Kaplan Marks succeeds Rabbi Michael Weinberg at Temple Beth Israel in Skokie, her first priority is meeting the congregation and "really getting to know them: to hear their stories, learn what draws them in-- and perhaps what keeps them from being drawn in closer," she said. "What are the issues and values most important to them? I look forward to diving in and building relationships."
But Rabbi Marks already feels close connections to Temple Beth Israel. "My dad's family were members," the Buffalo Grove native said. "My uncle was bar mitzvahed there. I spent many summers as a young camper, then counselor and ultimately faculty member at Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute (the Reform Movement's summer camp in Oconomowoc, WI); Temple Beth Israel has always had a strong presence there. Rabbi Weinberg and (Temple Educator) Lori Sagarin spent summers there. Many congregation members were deeply involved with the camp.
"I've always felt an affinity for this congregation," she said. "From a distance, I admired the way they take Judaism seriously-but not necessarily themselves."
When Rabbi Weinberg announced his retirement, Rabbi Marks wrestled whether she should "throw her hat in the ring" after six years serving as Associate Rabbi and Director of Congregational Learning at Congregation Shalom in Milwaukee. "This felt like a dream job. I had to at least go for it," she said.
Rabbi Marks received a Bachelor of Arts in Jewish Studies from Indiana University. She was drawn to the rabbinate, she said, after being immersed as a youth in the Jewish community and being inspired by rabbis who were her role models for the way their brought their authentic selves to their positions. "I couldn't imagine doing any other work," she said. "I feel really fortunate and blessed to be able to combine learning, spirituality, community and a love of Israel every day."
She cites Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus as an inspiration, who once answered a query as to why she became a woman rabbi: "A woman is who I am, and I wanted to be a rabbi."
"I stand on the shoulders of the women who came before me," Rabbi Marks said.
Leaving Congregation Shalom "was really hard," she said, "and at the same time, the draw to come to this synagogue was strong. This was a place where we could put down roots. We had always said to ourselves that we wanted to end up in a synagogue that we would have wanted to join even if I wasn't a congregational rabbi. Temple Beth Israel totally is that.
"My husband, Albert and I have a four-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. I feel so incredibly fortunate to raise them in the context of this particular community."
For several months leading up to her assuming the post on July 1, Rabbi Marks met weekly with Rabbi Weinberg. "I've asked him to share even a fraction of his wisdom and institutional knowledge," she said.
As the country re-opens, Rabbi Marks expresses optimism about her new congregation being able to come together, strengthened by the "hard-earned lessons" from the pandemic. In Milwaukee, she said, she experienced first-hand "the resilience of the human experience" and the primal need to connect. "What was incredible," she observed, "was seniors in our congregation who previously had a phobia of going online wanting to figure out how to use Zoom because they need that community.
"This is an interesting time to begin my work with this congregation," she added. "Though job one will be getting to know the congregants, I am also focused on helping to merge and shape whatever this next normal looks like."