“These words and blessings alone don’t remove the pain of unexpected twists and turns, but they remind us (that) we aren’t alone.”
With those words, Rabbi Jenna Shaw concluded Hill Havurah’s Yom Kippur sermon on Sept. 25th before a packed audience at a church at 212 East Capitol St. NE. Hill Havurah has seen major changes over the past 20 years. Rabbi Jenna, whose pronouns are they/them, is simply the latest.
Rabbi Jenna does not match the stereotypical image of a rabbi. They are not an older man, possessing a fringe of hair atop his face and a wispy beard below. They are just 29 years old, fresh out of rabbinical school and queer. After completing an internship at Hill Havurah begun in 2020, they are now the High Holiday Assistant Rabbi for the Capitol Hill congregation. They join a congregation led by a woman and welcoming to all.
Becoming Rabbi Jenna
This spring The Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Boston officially ordained Rabbi Jenna. They now live in DC full-time, working for T’ruah – a foundation focused on rabbi and cantor-led social justice.
Judaism was not always a big part of Rabbi Jenna’s life. They were raised in a Jewish family in Chicago. “Growing up, Judaism didn’t meet a lot of my needs,” the Rabbi said. “In fact, it was isolating and didn’t feel like a space where I felt comfortable.” There was little indication that Jenna would become a rabbi.
In high school things started to change. Rabbi Jenna became involved in a local chapter of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO), an organization for Jewish teens.
Finding a new, welcoming Jewish community lit a spark in Rabbi Jenna. They also became interested in a potential rabbinical career. “I realized that I loved Judaism, and that it was both a tool for empowerment and could be a tool for justice,” Rabbi Jenna said.
Their Jewish studies class at American University, Rabbi Jenna recalls, was a key moment. They recall reading a short story called If Only I Had Been Born a Kosher Chicken by Brandeis University professor Jyl Felman. The story, not a particularly positive take on Judaism, compares a girl getting ready for her bat mitzvah to a chicken getting ready to be slaughtered for Shabbat. This jarring image is employed to suggest that modern Judaism has become more focused on appearance than actual meaning. Suddenly, Rabbi Jenna knew they wanted to be a rabbi. Making Judaism a more welcoming space, contrary to the feeling of isolation they had felt as a Jewish child, would be their calling.
Coming to the Hill
In 2020, Hill Havurah’s job posting for an intern caught Jenna’s eye. Hill Havurah Rabbi Hannah Spiro was expected to give birth right around the High Holidays. She required help leading services.
Her connection with Jenna Shaw was an instantaneous, Spiro said. “As soon as I met them [Rabbi Jenna] on Zoom for their interview,” said Spiro, “it was clear that they were a sparkling personality, a very warm and thoughtful soul, and a beautiful fit for a community as Jewishly diverse as Hill Havurah.”
Rabbi Jenna remembers being very nervous before her first Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the first of the High Holidays. “It was really my first opportunity to be Rabbi . . . I remember after the first services, the nerves went away because I felt like the community was just able to support me and hold me,” they recalled.
Rabbi Jenna’s nervousness has evaporated three years later. “It’s funny, my parents come for the High Holidays, and they frequently will talk about how it’s unlike anywhere else they’ve been to,” they related. “It’s just so welcoming and loving, and it’s been amazing for me to see how Hill Havurah has grown over the three years I’ve been there.”
A Growing Community
The Hill Havurah’s membership has nearly doubled, since Rabbi Hannah arrived in 2016. The growth has been even greater in Havurah youth programs. Yavenah – the Sunday Hebrew school – has tripled in students and has expanded from kindergarten through sixth grade to include pre-K through seventh grade. The congregation’s Jewish school, Gan Shalom, has grown as well, blossoming from a morning-only nursery to a full-time preschool.
Rapid expansion brings more complexity.
“The community has always been really diverse,” Spiro said. She attributes this to the fact that most members prefer joining a geographically closer congregation rather than traveling to the Northwest or the suburbs. People, in other words, do not choose Hill Havurah because it aligns the most with their religious views, but out of convenience. “
But, of course, the more people you have, the more differences come up,” added Spiro.
Differences are challenging, but Rabbi Hannah and Rabbi Jenna are committed to making their community accessible and welcoming. “I love being able to meet with kids and teens in moments of growth and development,” Rabbi Jenna said, “particularly students who haven’t necessarily been the focus; mental disabilities or other disabilities.”
As a non-binary person, Rabbi Jenna understands especially well the challenges diversity brings. “I think people have many perceptions of what a Rabbi is,” they reflected. “I think, for me, my queerness has put me in a place where I’ve had to think a lot about power and I’m really mindful of how much power and authority I have. I also think with power and authority comes responsibility and I think my queerness has made me grapple with those questions in ways that I think a lot of people who aren’t queer don’t have to.”
Rabbi Hannah and Rabbi Jenna believe they complement each other well. Rabbi Hannah prefers social emotional sermons. Rabbi Jenna discusses politics. Differences like that have allowed the two to expand their repertoires as rabbis and widen their ideas. “It’s been really fun to have her as a thought partner,” said Rabbi Jenna about Spiro.
It’s clear that the Havurah is in great hands for years to come. Rabbi Jenna plans to keep supporting Jewish activism at T’ruah and to keep leading High Holiday services alongside Rabbi Hannah.
By all indications, Hill Havurah will continue to be a staple of Capitol Hill Jewish life and as welcoming as ever.
Theo Weller is an 11th-grade student at School Without Walls High School, as well as a lifelong Capitol Hill resident. In addition to his internship at the Hill Rag, he writes for his school newspaper, The Rookery. Reach him at Theo@hillrag.com