This summer Rabbi Sari Laufer joins the Stephen Wise Temple and Schools family as our Director of Congregational Engagement. Rabbi Laufer’s responsibilities will include oversight of our Center for Youth Engagement as well as working with lifelong learners in our community.

A graduate of Northwestern University and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion here in Los Angeles, Rabbi Laufer comes to Wise from Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. Rabbi Laufer was selected for the PEER program through Synagogue Transformation and Renewal, for the inaugural year of the Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leadership through UJA-Federation of New York, and was a member of the second cohort of CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship.

Happening@Wise connected with Rabbi Laufer in advance of her joining the Wise family.

Q: What inspired you to become a Rabbi and Jewish educator?

A: Books! When I was 8 years old, my grandfather died. And amongst many important memories forged around that time — my understanding ofshiva, for example, I remember meeting with my rabbi to tell stories about my grandfather. I was not close with my rabbi, not then and not later; he was a rather imposing figure. But he had an office full of books, and as a reader (then and now!), I was transfixed. I didn’t know what I wanted to be in that moment, but I knew I wanted to get to have an office with lots of books. At 13, a trip to Israel cemented my connection to the idea of Jewish peoplehood, the experience of living in Jewish time and speaking Jewish language(s), and my love of Israel. College gave me an academic curiosity, and a door into my spiritual life. But in the end, I wanted to be surrounded by learning — books, yes, but also the people with whom and from whom I learn everyday. To me, being a teacher — a rabbi, an educator, a parent–is about being open to learning all around. So, I love having all my books around me, but even more I love being surrounded by people and relationship–learning dynamically and together.

Q: In your role with Wise, you will be an educator for students of all ages. What are the differences between child, teen, and adult learners? What are the similarities?

A: There is a great rabbinic saying, from our teacher — Hillel the sage. In speaking about classroom behavior (though he didn’t know to call it that), he said: Ein ha-bayshan lomed, one who is ashamed/embarrassed will not learn. One of the things I love about teaching our youngest learners is that they generally don’t have that shame or embarrassment; I know from my own 3.5-year-old that he will ask ANYTHING! It’s harder for us as we get older to ask questions to which we think we “should” know the answer, or questions that seems silly or obvious. Most of us also get more cynical as we age; Abraham Joshua Heschel, in speaking of wonder, often spoke about the way that children engage with the world — we tend to lose that sense as we get older, but it is an incredible perch from which to learn. Working with children, I think our jobs is to support that wonder; for teens and adults, we need to nurture it — to create the spaces and opportunities where we are willing and able to access it. I think that, on some level, we are all asking the same questions about meaning-making, about the Divine, about the world around us, whether we are 8, 18, or 80. It’s just our comfort with asking, and with not knowing the answers, that changes as we get older.

Q: You’re a blogger and active social media citizen. How can new, changing modes of communication help us engage with our Jewish values?

A: Every year on Yom Kippur I am struck by how many of the sins for which we need to atone are centered around speech. I love the ease of communication that the internet creates, the ability to connect both with loved ones far away and with total strangers. But, that ease can sometimes be a false one, valences can often be lost in an online medium, and the relative anonymity of the web can, I find, tempt our lesser selves towards behavior we would not tolerate IRL

[in real life]. So, on that level, I think these changing modes of communications are a constant check-in on our Jewish values of respectful dialogue, empathy, and v’ahavta l-re’echa kamocha, loving our neighbor as ourselves. But, I also love the way that the internet allows us into conversations of which we would probably not be a part if we were only talking to the people we see and encounter on a daily basis. One of the reasons that I love the Talmud so much is that it is a record of conversations like this — across centuries and locations. It imagines a conversation that could not take place in real life, but in doing so, it opens up entirely new lines of dialogue and new ways of seeing a question, a challenge, or an opportunity. I see the internet similarly; my Twitter feed is filled with people I would never encounter regularly, and I think it has given me a much broader perspective on society and on the world; it also makes me very aware of the language I use, knowing that for some people, I might be one of the few (or only) Jewish voices they encounter regularly.

Q: What was your experience with Rabbis Without Borders like?

A: Boundary-pushing! When I teach about the book of Leviticus (the one we’re in right now!), I teach a lot about borders and boundaries; what are the demarcations in our life that feel porous, where we allow parts to seep in from one to the other? And, what are the boundaries—where are the lines we draw and really don’t cross. What’s in, what’s out? Rabbis Without Borders pushed me to think a lot about those questions in terms of Jewish life, community, and practice. It was also a chance to be with creative, dynamic, and interesting colleagues—many of whom are very different from me, which is a chance I take as often as I can!

Q: As an “aspiring epicure,” what are your culinary goals?

A: Other than to get my son to move beyond the carb/cheese continuum? I should clarify that I am the executive chef in the house; Ben is the chef de cuisine, so I imagine and inquire and Ben executes and actually cooks! I like to read about food and imagine how to adapt it for our dietary needs — Ben is the amazing, amazing chef in the house! He’s creative in that way; I like to bake, and love to bake with Kobi (and Orli soon enough).

My goals tend to be restaurant-based; my Bullet Journal (ask me about that sometime!) always has a list of restaurants that I want to try. Speaking of which, if anyone in the Wise community wants to help us get in to N’Naka….my birthday is coming up!

Q: VERY leading question: how excited are you to come back to Los Angeles?

A: I think Randy Newman said it better than I ever could:

Roll down the window, put down the top

Crank up the Beach Boys, baby

Don’t let the music stop

We’re gonna ride it till

We just can’t ride it no more

“From the South Bay to the Valley

From the West Side to the East Side

Everybody’s very happy

‘Cause the sun is shining all the time

Looks like another perfect day

I love L.A. (we love it)

I love L.A. (we love it)