When Rabbi Jessica Wainer was growing up, she always wanted to be a doctor.
The majority of her family worked in the medical field, and that was her dream too - until she studied abroad in Jerusalem and interned at a rabbinical school. "Through that program, I realized that what interested me in medicine was the people side of things - being able to help people through situations and walking with people in all their journeys in life," she said. "I realized I could find much more of that in the rabbinate, so I decided to go to rabbinical school."
After attending Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati - the rabbinical school she interned with in Israel - and serving congregations in West Virginia, Michigan, Kentucky, and Ohio, she found a position in the exurbs of Washington, DC. Now, she has moved from Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston, VA, where she was the Associate Rabbi and Director of Congregational Learning, back to her hometown.
Wainer, who grew up in Oak Park, has taken a position as the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim of DuPage County, which she was thrilled to begin in early July.
She was inspired to return because of the opportunity to rekindle old friendships and "build connections with the larger Jewish community of Chicago." Wainer sees Chicago as a "very heimish community, down to earth, where everybody knows everybody, and people are willing to help and make sure everything gets done." She looks forward to building a "relational-style rabbinate" along with Rabbi Andrea Cosnowsky, Etz Chaim's Senior Rabbi.
"The more I learned about the congregation, the more I thought it would be a really good fit for me and my rabbinate," said Wainer, and she is eager to hit the ground running. She described her priority as "building relationships with as many people as possible, getting to know and understand them, and working together in partnership" to create an enjoyable synagogue experience.
She hopes to build on Etz Chaim's social justice work and missions of inclusion and diversity. Additionally, she will bring her experience producing programs for her congregation in Virginia during the pandemic to build inventive programs to appeal to new and old members.
As a rabbi, Wainer had to reframe her training to come up with innovative ideas: "A lot of times in the Jewish world we think about recreating the wheel, and in the pandemic we were creating the wheel, since it had never been done before," she said.
Wainer explored how to forge meaningful experiences without singing as a group, or even gathering in the same room, developing her sense of creativity to rise to the challenge. She now hopes to meet a new challenge in her new role: What is the best way to serve the entire Jewish community, if different people have different comfort levels with in-person services and events?
"I want to provide equal access to Judaism through online and in-person access points," said Wainer, who is also eager to "get to know the Chicago community as it is now," as the pandemic wanes.
"Coming out of the pandemic, a lot of people are exploring what they want from their Judaism and finding congregations that fit them," Wainer said. She wants to get to know people in the community who haven't yet found their place and help them to do so.