Breaking the glass ceiling: Temple Beth-El’s Senior Rabbi Sarah Mack

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Sarah Mack is the senior rabbi at Temple-Beth El, in Providence, where she has served since 2003, upon her ordination from the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Mack also spent a year studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Mack has served as the president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, in addition to being a board member of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, the Chaplaincy Center, the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island, and the Center for Reconciliation. She is also on the executive committee of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty.

A Seattle native, Rabbi Mack lives in Providence with her husband, Jeffrey Isaacs, sons Liam, 12, and Jackson, 9, and their dog Pippa and cat Bosco, both rescues.

Jewish Rhode Island recently caught up with Rabbi Mack to discuss her new role as senior rabbi at Temple Beth-El, which began in November, as well as her involvement in social justice and practicing Judaism during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are excerpts from the interview, which was conducted by email:  

Did your childhood influence your decision to become a rabbi?  

I grew up in a Reform congregation and was involved in Reform youth groups and camps, and all of that very much influenced my decision to become a rabbi.

How has your time at Beth-El prepared you for being senior rabbi, and what are you looking forward to in your new role? 

My career is anomalous in having spent the entirety of it at Beth-El. That is an incredible gift! Having the relationships and foundation, having served the congregation for 17-plus years, I am thrilled to be able to continue to walk with our members through joy and sorrow.

Longevity in a congregation means that I have the joy of officiating marriages for past students, and get to witness as some of my first B’nai Mitzvah students become parents and babies I have named are called to the Torah as B’nai Mitzvah.

The role of senior rabbi involves things I was already doing, and it is a delight to do them formally in this new capacity. It is exciting to work with our wonderful team to build a vision for the future.

Taking over in the middle of a pandemic poses its own challenges, and also possibilities.

I am fortunate to have received the very best rabbinic mentoring anyone could have. Rabbi [Leslie] Gutterman has been a guide and a friend. As I look forward to serving Beth-El into the future, it is with a great deal of humility knowing that there are big shoes to fill.  Following Les Gutterman and Rabbi William Braude is incredibly humbling, and I am abundantly aware of that mantle.

There has never been a woman who has served as senior rabbi of one of the larger congregations in Rhode Island. It is a moment to celebrate as we see glass ceilings breaking in all facets of leadership.

Temple Beth-El has a rich history that is the basis for all we do, and at the same time [it] is open to transformation and change. That is the most exciting thing for me entering the senior rabbi position – to honor our past and dream of how we can best serve 21st-century Reform Jewry. 

I am grateful for our exceptional lay leadership, who have wisdom and vision as partners in this unprecedented moment to “turn into the spin” and try new things that are not without risk. 

 You were a 2019-2020 American Jewish World Service Global Justice Fellow. How will this fellowship influence your role at Beth-El?

The American Jewish World Service [a program designed to inspire, educate and train American rabbis to become advocates for human rights and U.S. policy] does incredible work around the world. The fellowship was an extraordinary opportunity to learn about advocacy and social justice both locally and internationally.

The trip to Guatemala with the fellowship was the last time I traveled before the pandemic, and it was a transformative eight days of learning from AJWS; their grantees who are working for justice have much to teach us about hope and the long game and finding joy amidst the struggle.

It was also a blessing to get to know wonderful colleagues from around the nation and across movements, and the AJWS’ staff, who are themselves powerful advocates for justice and teachers of Torah. As an institution, their attentiveness to mission and values is impressive and instructive.

Why are social-justice issues important to you as a rabbi and a Jewish woman?

My social-justice involvement in Rhode Island has grown out of the relationships made throughout the years. The interfaith coalition, marriage equality, clergy against gun violence, religious coalition for choice – all are composed of stellar colleagues across faith traditions working for justice.

The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom [an interfaith organization to promote relationships between Jewish and Muslim women] is the same story.  As an organization, it has a wonderful model of dialogue that is based upon the premise that you can disagree and still love someone.  That model is important in a climate as divided as ours.

How can we create more inclusive environments in Jewish spaces?

I think the way forward in creating inclusive spaces is to promote connections and conversation.  To know each other provides a foundation to tackle challenges.  Representation also matters.  Making sure we have an eye to diversity in everything we do is important.

How did being president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island impact the way you view our Jewish community?

Serving as the president of the BOR gave me the joy of getting to know a broad swath of the R.I. Jewish community, as well as faith leaders across the state. The size of our state means that we can know each other and have access to our state leaders, and that is a blessing.

After the tragedy in Pittsburgh, I was incredibly touched by the outpouring of support for the Jewish community from every corner of Rhode Island. 

Is there anything unique about practicing Judaism in Rhode Island that you enjoy?

I love the porousness of our communities. There is rarely a celebration or a funeral where you don’t know someone in the congregation. Walking on Shabbat means being able to offer greetings to folks from every corner of Jewish life.

I really missed tashlikh this year. That exemplifies the spirit of Jewish life in Rhode Island for me – a way to celebrate with friends and neighbors across denominations and congregations.

The collaboration and partnership of colleagues in working to bolster Judaism in the Ocean State (without an eye toward competition) has always been a joy. I am grateful to be surrounded by colleagues who have become dear friends over the years.

How do you stay connected to your congregation during COVID-19? Are there any facets of Judaism that can thrive in a pandemic?

COVID-19 has a way of distilling everything down to its essence.  It is true of any ritual moment, and even holiday and Shabbat celebrations. It has forced us to really intentionally consider what that is, and to build on it.  I think that will serve us well post-COVID. 

While so much of our faith is about communal connection, we have found ways to do that in this moment that I suspect will carry forward. We have stayed connected to the community not only through Zoom, but also through the good old-fashioned phone call, something that transcends time as an effective connector. 

How have you found peace during this trying year?

I find peace with my family. We have found new rhythms and routines that include pets and hiking and being outdoors with friends, and I am grateful. A daily run has also been crucial to my well-being.

I also really appreciate the seasons and how they manifest in my garden. Planting is a great metaphor for the work I do, and never fails to give me hope.

HANNAH ALTMAN (haltman@jewishallianceri.org) is the content producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.