An Interview with the Powerhouse Duo Behind Modern Ritual
One thing that brings me joy each week is logging into Instagram to see what this rabbi and rabbi-to-be are up to. Sam and Rena are the brilliant minds behind the insanely popular Instagram handle @modern_ritual. It has been said that connecting over social media is incomparable to in real life, but Sam and Rena have managed to defy all odds. Modern Ritual is my go-to resource for learning Jewish takes on modern day issues like the border crisis, Ashkenormativity, and LGBTQ equity to name just a few. Recently, they even polled their followers to create brand new blessings for Pride!
Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to meet up with Sam and Rena in-between their studies at Hebrew Union College in New York City. They generously and thoughtfully answered questions about Judaism that I’d always wanted to ask, but didn’t always feel comfortable asking. Sam, Rena, and Modern Ritual are the future of Judaism, and I’m so honored to share our conversation with you today!
First, a little background...
SAM: I grew up in an incredible Jewish community that is not affiliated with any major movement. My dad was raised in a Jewish family and my mom was not. They made a decision early on that their kids would be raised Jewish, and so I grew up in this community that was radically accepting. I always thought being a rabbi would just be way too hard. People are emotional, you have to deal with death, and so I started thinking of everything that I could do instead. In college I studied community health, and did some health policy research after college.
For a long time, I really felt like Jewish spaces were not for me because I didn’t grow up in Jewish day school. I had this incredible Jewish community, but I didn’t know who the Jewish characters were, and I was never sure about the blessings. I thought going to rabbinical school would be a way to really feel like this tradition was mine and I was a part of it. Through experiences with really incredible Jewish mentors, I began to feel more like I belonged in Jewish spaces. Enough people had really invited me in, which is what we’re trying to do at Modern Ritual— helping people to know that “This Jewish space is for me, Judaism is for me.” It doesn’t matter if you have an incredibly rich Jewish background or if you feel like there’s so much you want to know, Judaism is for you.
RENA: Both of my parents are rabbis. When I was nine years old, we moved in right next door to the synagogue and much of my childhood was spent sitting in the back of the room during Jewish rituals in a vibrant, liberal Jewish community.
I attended public school in Seattle, which might be the most atheist, non-religious part of the country! I didn’t have any friends who were any kind of religion, so I was everyone’s crazy, religious friend. All of my friends would always say, “Religion doesn’t make any sense, it’s so dumb and old fashioned. Why do you do all of the things?” And so it was always my job to be a translator of what we were doing. Eventually, I realized that I was kind of good at it! It was amazing practice from such a young age— translating Judaism into ideas and language that people could understand. I really loved it.
Because of my parents I had this unique, behind the scenes view of all of the amazing work that rabbis do. Most of the time, you see a rabbi at synagogue or at a wedding or lifecycle event. But I saw how my parents were doing everything under the sun— traveling and talking to the most interesting people, visiting people’s homes, and getting up in the middle of the night to be with sick people. Everybody would always come up to me and say, “You’re going to become a rabbi," which I think was because I was the best behaved of my siblings at Hebrew school. But I always said, “No I’m not. You don’t know me, don’t tell me what I’m going to be.”
On deciding to become a rabbi…
SAM: For me, it’s a collection of moments. I truly was terrified for my bat mitzvah, mostly because I did not want to speak in front of people. In the end, I was so proud of the work that I had done. At that time, I don’t think I knew I wanted to be a rabbi but I knew deep down that I wanted to have that experience again.
When I was in high school and college, I experienced loss with friends and classmates— it was devastating. Saying kaddish and being part of a Jewish community (I felt so welcomed into Tufts Hillel) brought me so much comfort in those years. Perhaps if it weren’t for those experiences, I would have stayed in the public health world. I’m sure I would have enjoyed a different career, but I LOVE this. I really feel that it chose me.
RENA: For me, it was a very specific moment. When I was about 14 years old, I was sitting in the back of the car while my mom was grocery shopping. Then I had this thought that just popped into my head: “I’m going to be a rabbi.” And then I backpedaled and tried to deny it! I thought, “This is so embarrassing, you can’t tell anybody that you had this thought,” and so I didn’t for eight years.
It was really important for me to do this in my own way, to create my own path and not follow the exact footsteps of my parents. This is also why Modern Ritual has been such a huge blessing for me, because it’s been such a creative way of approaching organized Judaism from a different perspective and being able to take all of the wisdom that I grew up with and share it with a really large group of people. Towards the end of college, I finally started admitting that I wanted to be a rabbi. I went to Brandeis and for the first half, I rebelled against my Jewish upbringing by not going to Hillel. I didn’t do any of the organized Jewish events because I just wanted to explore other things.
On not knowing all the answers…
RENA: Towards the end of my time at Brandeis, I started becoming friends with people who are Modern Orthodox, and they started asking me all of these questions about Reform Judaism. We’d get into these arguments, and they’d say, “How can you just pick and choose the parts of Judaism that you like?” I realized that even though I had grown up with this really rich Jewish upbringing, there was so much about Judaism that I didn't know. So I went and spent a year at Yeshivat Hadar, which is a yeshiva on the Upper West Side — I think it’s the only one in the whole world where men and women are treated completely equally. You go there and you study the Talmud all day. It was my first time being in a place where I actually knew the least about Judaism. I felt like I knew nothing compared to anyone else, and couldn’t understand a single word that any of the rabbis or teachers were saying. I was so embarrassed to feel like I didn’t know enough.
That was a really important experience for me, of learning what it feels like to be in a Jewish space yet feel like you’re not enough or you don’t know anything or that your questions seem so basic. After that experience, I felt like I was ready to go to rabbinical school.
On diversity and inclusion in predominantly white Jewish spaces…
RENA: Every year at rabbinical school we have a few days called Yemei Iyun, which essentially means a day of an issue. All of our classes are cancelled and we choose one topic to study the entire day together as a school. The professors and students learn together. One recent topic was confronting racism within Jewish spaces. We started the day by hearing from two classmates who are Jews of color. They shared about their experiences in our school and in the wider Jewish world. Then Rabbi Angela Buchdahl came in and spoke about both the challenges and blessings of being a Jew of color, particularly in predominantly white Jewish spaces.
SAM: Rabbi Buchdahl’s lesson was like a masterclass on how to speak about a deeply, deeply important issue. One of the things that she kept reminding us of was that Jews know the heart of a stranger. Every year, we read the Exodus story and the Torah says that when the Jews are leaving Egypt, they go with an erev rav, which essentially means a mixed multitude. She spoke about really navigating the balance and the tension between affirming people in their Judaism, even if they don’t feel that connected, but perhaps they do feel connected when they have a bagel, for example. But also, that a bagel is so not enough. If it’s your food, perhaps it links you to your family’s history, but it doesn’t link you to the collective. She also spoke a lot about being a people of faith.
On disputing stigmas...
SAM: Today I think it’s really hard to be progressive and say that you have “faith” without making it seem like you hate gay people, for example.
RENA: One of our classmates talked about an incident in which a professor said something that was very ashkenormative. He said something like, “Oh, Jews do this.” And the student said, “Well actually, not all Jews do that, and you shouldn’t say that.” The professor just sort of shrugged it off, and nobody else said anything. It made me think about my role as a white Jew in these spaces, and how the burden of making corrections is usually on the only Jew of color in the room. We learned a lot on that day.
SAM: Rabbis and cantors have so far to go. In 2019, many of our classmates know to move away from ashkenormativity, and yet there are still classmates who might not understand why this is important. There’s also the reality of who’s in synagogue today, and the very real generational divide. It’s one thing to lovingly correct people whose mindsets may be a bit outdated, versus lovingly correcting a classmate. There are also the people who just don’t care anymore. Navigating that balance can be particularly hard in the Jewish institutional world and the synagogue world. For those reasons and more, Modern Ritual, being a young, online space, feels freeing to me. At the same time, sometimes we’re not as radical as we’d like to be or as many people who follow us would like us to be.
On Israel and the online Jewish identity…
RENA: I feel similarly a lot of the time, even though I have spent a lot of time studying Israel and lived there for 1.5 years. It’s a difficult topic to talk about.
SAM: When I was in college, I chose to never engage with Israel, because we never talked about it growing up. Every family is different. In my opinion, right now the loudest and the most well-financed voices are the “pro-Israel at all costs” voices, and we’re all just shouting at each other. There’s this book, Side by Side by Sami Adwan and Dan Bar-On that basically puts an Israeli history of the conflict, and specifically in 1948 when Israel became a state, right next to a Palestinian history, and you can read the two stories side by side. Both of those stories are true. It’s really hard to talk about Israel, and we do feel a responsibility to do so.
On confronting fear and taking ownership of our Judaism…
RENA: Because of my upbringing, I feel a very deep sense of ownership over my Judaism. It’s what I wish for everyone, but most people feel the opposite. They feel ashamed, fearful, and like they don’t know enough. One of our visions at Modern Ritual is to show people by example that it’s not about how much you know or what you think about “x'“ topic. Sometimes people totally disagree with us and call us out when we are wrong. There have been a few times when we put something out there and someone’s like, “Actually, that Jewish holiday is not in that month, it’s in a different month.” And we are rabbinical students! Of course being wrong is scary. But we need to be okay with it because that’s how we learn. Regardless of the subject, I think feeling ownership and lack of shame is the most important thing.
SAM: A year ago we decided to write down what our guiding principles were, and one of them was, the Hebrew phrase lo lefached khal, which means, don’t be afraid at all. Sometimes it feels really risky to post something.
We also try to invite our followers into that process, and we try to be very thoughtful about the discourse that we model. Often someone will comment and say, “That’s now how it’s supposed to be done.” In that case we might say, “There are so many ways to do this. We can celebrate you, and that means you can also celebrate us.” Often the posts we’ve been most worried or nervous about do really well, or we get really inspired conversation going, not even with us, but between our followers, and that’s great!
On confronting false internalization…
RENA: The people in the bible were not white. They just weren’t. We don’t know what they looked like, we don’t know what their ethnicity was, but we know they weren’t European. I, too, think of them as white, because that is the image that our culture and language has put forth. Also, that God is a man. I think those are the two biggest internalizations that no matter how much I read and think about, those ideas have been internalized so deeply, and so part of Modern Ritual is also a call to people of our generation to create new art, language, stories, and children’s books so that our children won’t have that false internalization. The more of us who can pour our energy into depicting biblical characters who weren’t white, the better.
Images are so important and compelling, especially on Instagram! Putting out more images of diverse Jews is so important, and it’s something we are working on and know that we need to do more than we do now. This concept runs through almost every story of the Torah. The Torah inherently mistrusts power. One recurring theme is to see the truth in the minority or the marginalized. Whether it is Leah and Rachel, and Leah being the “less attractive” one who wasn’t first desired by Jacob, who then ends up giving birth to majority of the tribes of Israel, or the younger sibling overtaking the older sibling, Moses’ speech impediment, or the narrative of slavery. It’s a constant questioning of the mainstream definition of power and norms. There are so many examples of lifting up the people who, within that culture and society, weren’t seen as the majority.
SAM: I really want to emphasize that these biblical characters are very much archetypes. That’s how I would advise everyone to consider them. They are for each of us to superimpose our own looks and ethnic background on.
Identity has many layers of complexity, whether you’re in America or Israel, for example. Syrian Jews grew up with the same stories that we have. It’s just that American Judaism is primarily white, because it has historically been informed by the culture of Eastern Europe. Everyone’s Judaism is, by nature, formed by where they are.
RENA: We usually celebrate how enriching this is, but I think it can also mean that it takes on some of the negative things about those locations. I think the conversations around race in the Jewish world are relatively new.
SAM: They are very new.
RENA: Yes, they align with American conversations about race. It’s modern, but Jews are not immune to it. Israel specifically has a history of prioritizing white European Judaism as the norm and very clearly erasing other identities. There’s a book called How Jews Became White Folks. Because historically Jews were not considered white, that changed at a certain point in America. It documents the transition of Jews from being considered separate to being seen as white.
On the Divine Feminine…
Rena: I’m in a class on the Zohar, which was apparently was a mystical sex metaphor for God. It is where we get the concept of the Divine Feminine, and it was the most popular Jewish book of its time in 13th century Spain.
Sam: I would say that’s when the divine feminine became mainstream, but we do have images of the Divine Feminine post-Second Temple.
Rena: The Divine Feminine is just as much a part of Judaism as anything from the Talmud, which is the book of laws and conversations, or anything from the Shulchan Aruch, which is a later book of laws. It’s all part of Judaism and to see it as not Jewish, I would argue, would be a very narrow view of Judaism. Judaism has so many different iterations and practices. We can look into those pockets and mysteries for rituals and ways of thinking that are just as Jewishly authentic as lighting Shabbat candles and saying the Amidah, and all the other rituals we do.
Sam: A lot of the Judaism that we have inherited is also super patriarchal. The Torah mostly speaks in the masculine singular or the masculine plural. There are some things that the bible accepts as facts. There’s a lot of nuance, yet not a lot of information left for us to go back and confirm for sure.
One of the questions you asked was how can we do more rituals or create more space that affirm women? I think it’s important to invite everyone into all of the rituals. For example, lighting candles shouldn’t be just for women— it should be for anyone who wants to light a candle on any holiday, life cycle, or special occasion.
I think we also need to give women permission to trust ourselves and say, “This is how I want to observe this tradition.” I think we need to celebrate that, and give women and people of all genders the tools to understand what the holiday or ritual is about and give them permission to observe and interact with the holiday in whatever way is most meaningful to them.
Thank you so much, Sam and Rena for sharing your stories and wisdom with the Nourish Co. community. We are incredibly lucky to have leaders like you in both our present and future. Follow Sam and Rena on Instagram @modern_ritual!
To learn more about inclusion and diversity in Judaism, head to my interview with Rabbi Angela Buchdahl.