New Shir Hadash rabbi took an atypical path

 

MILWAUKEE – There are rabbis who first go to college, follow up right away with rabbinical school and then head straight for pulpit life.

Not so for Rabbi Michal Woll. Not even close.

The next spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Hadash, 2717 E. Hampshire Ave., Milwaukee, will bring with her a whole fistful of diplomas and the experiences of a full life. She starts July 1, having already purchased a house with her husband in Shorewood.

They’re both from the Chicago area and they’ve got family in Chicago, so after years in rural Vermont and Arizona, this will be something of a homecoming to a Midwestern urban center.

“I love working with small communities,” the rabbi said in a phone interview. “I love the folks I’ve met at Shir.” She said she loves how they’re energetic and dedicated and that music is key for them, as it is for her. She calls it “a really nice fit.”

Woll, 53, earned an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering from Northwestern University in 1985; a master’s in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1987; a master’s in physical therapy from Northern Arizona University in 1998 and ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2007. She worked in the medical products industry from 1987 to 1996.

She said that as her personality has developed and changed over time, so have her interests.

The week she started physical therapy school, she was asked to sing for the high holidays as a lay cantor in Arizona. She did so and had an epiphany.

“Something happened on the bimah,” she said. ”I can’t even describe it. I got very emotional. You just know that wow, this is right.”

The tradition belongs to the people in a Reconstructionist synagogue, she said. There’s very little top-down in reconstruction. A rabbi is a connector, she said.

Woll is raising two children with her husband, Jon Sweeney, who is Catholic.  They married after she’d graduated from rabbinical school, at a time when such relationships were prohibited for rabbinical students in the Reconstructionist movement, she said. The movement has since relaxed that policy, she said.

“I’ve been in multiple communities with a non-Jewish husband,” she said, noting that she’s never had a problem. “He’s the perfect rabbinic spouse. He comes to everything.”

Sweeney, a writer, has authored more than two-dozen books. His bibliography is filled with books related to Catholicism and history.

Sweeney and the rabbi published a book together, “Mixed-Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century.” The book explores how interfaith relationships impact dating, weddings, holidays, raising children and family functions.

Woll will be the new half-time rabbi for Shir Hadash, replacing Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum.

Shir Hadash is located at Plymouth Church, 2717 E. Hampshire Ave., and may be reached at ShirMke.com or 414-297-9159.