Congregation’s new leader will be Barolsky | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Congregation’s new leader will be Barolsky

Rabbi Jessica Barolsky would most certainly never have wished for cancer, but there’s no denying the silver lining. 

The new spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun connected more deeply with her congregation because of it. The Maryland native stayed in town, put down roots, and now, starting July 1, she will be the Reform synagogue’s new lead rabbi. Rabbi Marc Berkson is retiring.  

Sometimes a young rabbi comes to town for a few years, serves under a more experienced rabbi, and then leaves to lead a congregation elsewhere. It’s a normal trajectory. It was Barolsky’s path, or at least it was supposed to be. 

“I started in 2011, as the assistant and an associate rabbi, and director of lifelong learning in 2016. I had been interviewing and looking for a job somewhere else, as rabbis often do. I was going to be rabbi of my own congregation, and I had been offered a position on the east coast.” 

Then, everything changed in 2016: “I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I turned down that job. We stayed put.” 

“Our roots in Milwaukee grew a whole lot deeper that year as I went through a lot of treatment, just in terms of people bringing us meals, driving me to the hospital, taking care of our kids.” 

She wasn’t working and “got to know the community in a whole different way.”  

“I’m certainly not grateful for the diagnosis. That was an adventure I never wanted. I’m so grateful for the perspective that it’s given me.” 

Barolsky’s community roots have included getting active. She is the board chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation and co-president of the Family Teacher Organization of Milwaukee Jewish Day School. She volunteers at the Jewish Community Pantry and is a mentor for ABCD: After Breast Cancer Diagnosis. 

She taught at Milwaukee Jewish Day School, at “a school that I absolutely love …. Both my kids are there.” 

In her new role, Barolsky, like any spiritual leader, wants to attract new families and help everyone feel welcome. She also thinks about how a synagogue can connect post-pandemic. She said she knows there are still people who are concerned about being with large groups and the culture has changed with what can be offered and accomplished online. 

Barolsky has filled in twice for Berkson’s six-month sabbaticals, but now she’s permanent as spiritual leader for the congregation, staying in town with her husband Michael.  

“I’m really honored and touched to be able to spend this to be able to spend the time going forward with so many families that I know, and that I don’t know yet, and just be with people on their journeys,” Barolsky said.  

“This congregation has been in so many ways for me and for my family, our home.”