Hillel Norry says his children get around explaining “all the weird things” he does, such as teaching Taekwondo, posting YouTube vegan cooking videos, and visiting prisoners in jail, by simply stating, “He’s a rabbi.”
Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., after public high school and on to Brandeis University with an eye towards an academic career, Norry recalls, “It was only after an extended trip to Jerusalem that I decided rabbinical school was the way to combine academics with spirituality.”
Following the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he taught after ordination, he led a congregation in Manhattan before coming to Atlanta’s Congregation Shearith Israel in 2002. Then, after 13 years as its senior rabbi, he decided, “While I loved being a teacher, spiritual guide and caretaker of congregants, I was ready for a change.”
Just how much change? Norry’s story is rooted and routed by his grandparents Ruth and Sol Singer, who were Jewish Atlanta leaders, combined with Mom Sharon Norry’s craftsmanship in the Judaic arts.
While carrying on traditions, he has a self-deprecating attitude about being a typical (astrological) Taurus. “I have strong opinions. Once I sink my teeth in, I don’t give up lightly. My children make fun of me for taking things too seriously. We make fun of each other. I can dish it out and I can take it. They all have their own personal approach to Jewish living but are not heading towards the rabbinate.”
He started studying Taekwondo more than 10 years ago when his kids began lessons at Atlanta’s United Tae Kwon Do. He was impressed by the master, and became a black belt, (now third-degree) working towards the title of master as a fourth degree. He has been an instructor for four years, teaching children and adults.
“There are so many spiritual, physical and mental benefits to martial arts like discipline, self-defense and confidence, balance, respect for others, focus, concentration, flexibility, and a deeper understanding of who I am and of what I am capable. It also helps define and reach significant goals, both on and off the mat. There are many connections to Judaism, … I am working on writing a book about that very topic.”
Norry characterized his grandparents, the Singers, as practical dreamers, undeterred and with a deep concern for the people. He said they gave of themselves with humility, confidence, wisdom and Southern charm. “They taught me to speak my mind loudly and clearly, and to listen openly and with love for others in my heart. They also taught me to give. If you have more, they would say, ‘then you give more’.”
His mom married young at 19, launched her three boys, then returned to the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she learned her crafts: weaving, lace, knitting, sculpture, sewing and dyeing. She was known for her keepsake Judaica such as ark curtains, Torah covers, and hundreds of tallit. “We had her art just naturally around our house. These tallit were hand woven, hand tied and meticulously designed. When she died in 2002, three generations of my family had their own. She was a perfectionist and specialized in old-fashioned looms. I also have a solid white one for the high holidays.”
Five years ago, the DeKalb County Sheriff visited Shearith Israel to meet the members after services. Later Norry got a call asking if he would be the Jewish community liaison and a jail chaplain. “I had never done anything like that, but I made fast friends with the lead chaplain, and continue to find it meaningful and rewarding. I visit both Jewish and non-Jewish inmates, provide Jewish literature to those who ask for it, streamline the process for getting kosher meals, and help the Jewish residents celebrate holidays. It is very important work, and I enjoy it.”
He became interested in vegetarian eating after reading John Robbins’ book “Diet for a New America.” It was compelling and offered vegetarianism as a way to have a positive health impact on both the environment and animals. “I began by eliminating meat, gave up fish 10 years later, eggs and dairy 10 years subsequently. A slow and steady move toward a vegan diet equals care for oneself, the world and for G-d’s creatures and creation as the pillars of Jewish vegan eating.”
Norry thinks that being vegan begins with the psychological benefit of knowing one’s diet is under one’s control, where food originated, how it got to the plate, reducing the suffering of G-d’s sentient creatures. It’s beneficial for heart health, reducing risk of digestive tract cancers, improving digestion, and providing optimal nutrition and energy. He believes his best dish is vegan paella.
Overcoming negative ideas about eating vegan, he said, “Some think it’s restrictive, or difficult, but it is neither of those things. We live in a golden age of vegan foods and options. The only thing I don’t eat is animals. Vegan eating is liberating, uplifting, healthy. I can’t imagine eating any other way. “
Check out Norry’s YouTube videos, including The Vegan Pantry, and how to make polenta, Rustic Pesto Tofu and Carrot Hot Dogs.
Here are two of his recipes:
Southern Fried Tofu
Egg replacer (I use Bob’s Red Mill)
Salt (a pinch for each tofu brick you
Pepper (a lot, always a lot)
Oil for frying
Rest the tofu on several layers of paper towels and gently press the tops with paper towels. The goal is to keep the shape of the tofu and remove as much water as possible, so be gentle. Break the bricks of tofu into smaller, rough shapes, 8 to 10 per brick. Prepare the egg replacer in a large bowl and mix the salt and pepper with the white flour in a pie plate. Heat the oil. Dredge the tofu in the egg replacer, then in flour to coat completely. Fry in small batches till golden. Drain on paper towel.
No ‘Hock’ Collard Greens
Collard greens (organic is better)
Garlic to taste (more is better),
Apple cider vinegar (I use Bragg
Bragg Liquid Aminos (available in
grocery store and health food store)
Fresh squeezed lemon juice
Fresh ground pepper (a lot)
Liquid smoke (optional, a teaspoon
for the whole pot)
Remove the hard spine of the collards. Stack the leaves, roll like a cigar, and cut into very thin strips (chiffonade). In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat, add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Add the fresh ground pepper, vinegar and liquid aminos. Stir together. Add the collards and cook until they are soft. The greens will reduce in size significantly and give some liquid to the mix. Add the optional liquid smoke. Add more vinegar and aminos (or even a little vegetable broth) if you need more liquid, or to taste. Add the lemon juice, and more pepper at the end.