Ordained as rabbis during a pandemic, they’re finding a path in rural Wisconsin 

 

In the 1800s, much of organized Reform Judaism was founded at the renowned Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati. It’s where Reform movement co-founder Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise famously made things happen.  

In the modern era, it’s in this building that a rabbi lays hands on the shoulders of a rabbinical candidate. In this moment, a student from the nearby Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion is ordained a rabbi. 

Except for during a pandemic. 

“It’s a really historic moment for us. That did not get to happen. We did it over Zoom,” said Rabbi Natalie Louise Shribman, ordained in May 2020.  

Shribman and her fiancé, Rabbi Benjamin Altshuler, were ordained together during the ongoing worldwide struggle with COVID-19, giving them an offbeat start as new rabbis. After seeing many opportunities to serve the Jewish people disappear, they’re grateful to have found roles – in and around Wausau. 

Altshuler said there will be an in-person ceremony, currently scheduled for May 8, 2021. “We are rabbis but will have to wait until it is safe for the ritual and ceremonial designations,” he said.  

Serving an Iowa synagogue from Wausau  

“We met our first year of school in Jerusalem,” said Shribman, referring to the period in Israel that’s typical for rabbinical students. “We were classmates. Just like any other students, we met. We became friends. It was kind of a slow progression.” 

Altshuler is from the suburbs of Chicago and spent many summers at the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute summer camp. Shribman, of Pittsburgh, had never been to Wisconsin before moving here for Altshuler’s new role as spiritual leader of Mt Sinai Congregation in Wausau 

It’s notoriously a challenge for coupled Jewish professionals to find contemporaneous opportunities in the same city. This challenge was exacerbated for the two rabbis, just like so many aspects of life outside the rabbinical world that have also faced new obstacles during the pandemic. Organizations that indicated genuine interest in Altshuler or Shribman, or even both at once, ultimately backed out, citing a sudden change of plans because of an uncertain economic future. 

Then, Altshuler connected with the Wausau shul. 

“It was a little bit unusual to meet the congregation through a series of Zoom meetings,” he said. But it worked. After Altshuler was offered the spot, the couple moved to Weston, minutes from Wausau, without ever having been to the area. A sales representative for their apartment provided a FaceTime tour.  

Meanwhile, Shribman agreed to serve part time for Temple Beth El in Iowa. 

“They’ve been really nice and welcoming,” Shribman said, having started Aug. 1, by way of Zoom. “We’re sending each family a package of High Holy Day materials,” she said, along with a letter from her. 

She plans to travel to Dubuque, three-and-a-half hours away from Wausau, to record some things for the High Holidays inside the synagogue. She’s also happy to be starting full time as a chaplain resident for the Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, an hour-and-a-half from Wausau. 

But she also admits that coming to rural Wisconsin during a pandemic has been a “lonely” experience.  

Altshuler has been heading into the Mt Sinai Congregation building most weekdays during business hours. 

It’s been suggested I could do the work from my laptop at home,” he said. 

But he feels it’s important to show that there’s still Jewish life during the pandemic.  

“My car is here,” he said. “I’m here.” 

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About the laying of hands 

The laying of hands, also called smicha, is the ritual of conveying rabbinic status, a tradition that is traced back to Moses empowering Joshua to follow his leadership. The ritual is not unique to the Reform movement.