By Shira Rosner
It is the Jewish Sabbath, and Sara Zacharia is hosting a meal as she has done many times before. Her guests include her friends and her mother, who flew all the way from Brooklyn to be with her in her home in Los Angeles. On the table, challah bread, potato kugel (a kind of savory pudding), chicken, hummus (a paste made from chickpeas and sesame) and gefilte fish (a loaf made of ground white-fish) are all presented. Shabbat songs are sung and words of Torah are spoken. It’s a typical Friday night, except that it’s not. In just three days, Sara will be ordained as a rabbi. This Friday night is a celebration of that milestone and a celebration of all that Sara has persevered through in her life.
Rabbi Zacharia is no stranger to challenges. She questioned and left Judaism in her mid-twenties. Her father did not speak to her for a year as a result of that. She had also endured a failed marriage and battled cancer while raising her daughter alone. With each hardship, Rabbi Zacharia channeled her inner strength to overcome these obstacles, remaining true to herself all the while.
Born to an ultra-Orthodox family in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Rabbi Zacharia, now 63, attended all girls’ schools and was required to adhere to the rules of modesty. That meant wearing long skirts that covered her legs, blouses that covered her collarbone and arms and tight braids to contain her wild and vibrant red hair. Her first co-ed schooling experience was at Brooklyn College, where she did a double major in Jewish Studies and Speech Pathology and Audiology and received a Masters of Science in Audiology after that. For the next ten years she was an audiologist, evaluating and helping people with hearing loss and related issues, in New York, New Jersey and even in Israel.
Then she came home and everything changed.
At 25 years old, Rabbi Zacharia started to question her religious observance and her connection to the ultra-Orthodox community. Disillusioned with its rigidity, narrow mindedness and traditions that were steeped in reward and punishment, she left the community at 27 years old, and married her now ex-husband who also had left Judaism and became a staunch atheist.
Then, while living in San Diego, ten years after she left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world, Rabbi Zacharia rediscovered her desire for Judaism. Realizing that her husband would not support her in her transition back to her faith, she ended the marriage and became an educator in Reform and Conservative synagogues.
Then with encouragement from others, Rabbi Zacharia decided to pursue the Rabbinate.
“From the time I started teaching and engaging with students and their parents and Rabbis and cantors who I met, everybody would often say ‘Why aren’t you a rabbi?’” she recalls with a smile. Her response was that the men in her family were rabbis and for her to become a rabbi would be a whole different headspace.
She decided she would go for it anyway.
“I did a nighttime prayer, a meditation and I said to God, ‘I have an eight year old in tow. Everything has to be easy’ because if there was any stop I wasn’t going to do it. I was raising her, I needed to make a living, I needed to know what I was doing with my life.”
Fortunately, it was easy.
For five years, Rabbi Zacharia attended the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles where she had clinical and pastoral training in addition to intensive studying of the Jewish bible and other books in and out of the Jewish canon.
The hardest part was integrating her love of Torah from her ultra-Orthodox upbringing to her newly-founded egalitarian and conservative viewpoints. Another hardship was her father passing away before she returned to Judaism, let alone before she became a rabbi.
“I ask for mechila (forgiveness) every time I visit his grave” she says.
Rabbi Zacharia’s mother would often question her and tell her that she just didn’t understand what she was doing. Rabbi Zacharia soon accepted that she didn’t need her mother’s approval and that her mother didn’t need to understand her choices. All her mother needed to know was that her daughter was a good mother and a good person.
Her mother, however, clad in a wig, long skirt and stockings, did attend Rabbi Zacharia’s ordination held at the Conservative Rabbinic school that she studied in for the past five years. To ensure her mother’s comfort in the mixed-seated ceremony, Rabbi Zacharia had her female friends sit on both sides of her mother as she watched her daughter be ordained in front of the Conservative school and community, with three rabbis present to serve as witnesses during the ceremony.
Now, 18 years later as a Conservative rabbi, Rabbi Zacharia’s hope for Judaism is that it can be welcoming to all denominations and that questions can be asked without fear of being rebuked or called a heretic. Starting this year as the first female rabbi and senior Jewish educator at Queens College Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, Rabbi Zacharia wants to engage with the students and let them know that she takes care of Jewish souls and cares deeply about the Jewish community.
University of Minnesota’s Hillel rabbi, Rabbi Ryan Dulkin, a longtime friend of Rabbi Zacharia, who is in his mid-forties, can attest that she is doing good for others.
“Sara is like family” he says. “She is one of the most passionate persons around in terms of Torah, spirituality and teaching what she knows. She cares about the substance of Torah and her students and that’s an amazing combination and she’s a faithful person in her relationship to God and to people.”
When Rabbi Zacharia speaks about God, she says that her connection to God is one of deep spirituality. As for those who judge her for being a rabbi, a job that traditionally has been held by men, she says “Take it up with God, only she can judge me.”
Uri Cohen, 38, the executive director of Queens College Hillel, is proud to have brought Rabbi Zacharia in.
He says that he is glad that Hillel encourages roles for Jewish women but that it’s groundbreaking that the organization now has a terrific resource representing the non-Orthodox community.
“Rabbi Sara is incredibly qualified, wise and has a lot to offer to students on campus. She has different approaches to Judaism that can enrich Jewish life here.”
As for Rabbi Zacharia, the petite, red-haired rabbi, she acknowledges that her life is complicated but realizes that she is living her true self.
“I believe I’ve gone through everything to be able to teach it and to be that authentic person, which everything I’ve gone through ends up being there for a reason. I just have to figure out the Torah I want to teach through it because everything for me goes through the lens of teaching.”