Congregation Or Hadash convened its diverse community Jan. 30 by Zoom in a Brit Kehillah, a communal covenant, to officially welcome its new spiritual leader Rabbi Lauren Henderson.
The South Carolina rabbi has been serving as Or Hadash’s rabbi since founding rabbis Analia Bortz and Mario Karpuj moved to Israel in July.
The celebration, Henderson’s installation, attracted 160 participants and fell in time for Havdalah. This was the first time in its 18-year history that Or Hadash engaged in a Brit Kehillah celebration, according to Gail Duner, synagogue president.
“There is no formal or ritual or liturgy that we have to use to define this event,” according to Duner, who was also an active member in the rabbi search committee. “Instead, the congregation decided that the best way is to bring the community together to sing and to learn.”
The Zoom chat room was embellished with messages of love and blessings, welcoming the new rabbi and her husband Joel.
The online ceremony began with members of the synagogue singing to the tunes of “Layehudim,” followed by a collective Havdalah prayer led by Henderson, as she stood on the bimah of the synagogue, along with her husband, Joel, her mother and Duner.
Those who participated in the installation via Zoom lit their candle, smelled the fragrance of the spices, blessed and drank their wine from their homes.
Throughout the installation, Duner welcomed several guests who played pivotal roles in Henderson’s life: close friends, mentors, and teachers from rabbinical school and Mishkan Chicago, a spiritual community in which she spent years learning. Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, a close friend and a mentor from Mishkan, spoke of her admiration for Henderson, saying how in love she was with the Atlanta community, and that during Henderson’s time spent in Chicago, “she was working and flexing her Jewish wings, so she can come back to her native roots in the South, thus fulfilling her dream of becoming a rabbi.”
Henderson’s smile could not be ignored as she listened to the kind words bestowed upon her, such as from Rabbi Mychal Springer, who has been her mentor and teacher, among others. “May the smile that you have invade your satisfaction and foster it and everyone around. May you always be able to access that smile.”
That smile remained as Henderson was greeted by Or Hadash congregants, board members, and other guests such as Eric Robbins, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. “What we need from you more than anything, we need spirituality, we need connection through this musical endowment,” Robbins said, referring to the synagogue’s musical use of their program. “We are going to get out of this pandemic very soon. We’re going to sing together and pray together, and I know you have an incredible way to do that.”
Henderson didn’t come from a substantial religious lineage. In fact, she defines her religious voyage by immeasurable hours of reading, learning from the Torah and tikkun olam, repairing of the world. Henderson admits that her lack of traditional background gave her the stamina to immerse herself in hours of endless biblical texts, cover-to-cover, because all she really wanted is “to reclaim the religion as hers and own it for the first time,” she said.
“Or Hadash and I have found one another and there was no other word but beshert [destiny], to describe what it felt like over that weekend just over a year ago.” Henderson met the congregation for the first time at the end of February 2020 and signed a three-year contract April 1.
During last month’s program, Henderson emphasized the significance of familiarizing herself with each individual within the community. “We will continue to discover more about one another through asking questions, telling stories, so that we can co-create this next chapter of the evolution of Or Hadash. Our work is to continue to create a community of warmth and light so that every person that walks through these doors will know deep inside that they are loved, valued and seen and known. …Our world needs this now. It takes all of us to share it.”
The week following the installation, Rabbi Henderson shared with the AJT some of her goals for her new Atlanta community. “Above all, I think my congregation hopes and expects that I’ll be a presence in their everyday lives and a witness in key moments of celebration and struggle, when they or their family members are sick or dying. … I think they also expect me to inspire and challenge them, to connect them to sources of wisdom and inspiration and tradition that will help to ground them in difficult moments and to lift them up.”
As with COVID-19, AJT was curious to discover ways that she would lead her congregation from the darkness of this pandemic. As a newly installed rabbi, leading hundreds of people, “like Moses, Aaron and Miriam,” as some referred to her during the ceremony, there is a slight curiosity as to how she would handle her role during the pandemic.
Heydemann compared Henderson to Moses, “an organizer and a strategist who led an entire community, and Miriam, who without her, the Israelites would be demoralized from lack of spirituality.”
Henderson offered her perspective. “I really hope and pray that this first year is the hardest year I ever have as a rabbi, and it’s all smooth sailing from here! Certainly, starting off without being able to gather together in the normal ways has been incredibly challenging for all of us.
“My predecessors at Or Hadash, Rabbi Analia and Rabbi Mario, built this beautiful kehillah with the partnership of so many visionary leaders, and going from two legendary rabbis to a new spiritual leader is a big change – even without the intervention of COVID! So much change has been thrust upon us, and the challenge is managing the change that we are forced into and the change that we have control over, while maintaining our core identity and stability.”