New Sinai rabbi looks for God in human connections

While other kids practiced piano, Andrea Fisher practiced being a rabbi.

"When I was young I used to play temple instead of house," Fisher says. "While in third grade I taught everyone in my Cleveland neighborhood the Sh'ma. I loved the idea of becoming a rabbi."

Now she's no longer just practicing. On July 1, Oakland's Temple Sinai appointed her its second rabbi, supplementing the services and programming of Rabbi Steve Chester. Her appointment is sponsored by the Koret Foundation.

Chester looks forward to gaining a peer who, he says, "will bring more programming so the community will be better served. Personally, let me say I am very excited.

"I was immediately struck by her warmth, sensitivity and her ability to listen and ask questions," he says. "Our temple is very privileged to have someone of her caliber."

Fisher's goals include developing programs for single parents, new programs for senior citizens and parent-child b'nai mitzvah programs that give parents greater understanding about what their children are learning and experiencing.

She also wants to focus on the needs of Jews who are developmentally delayed.

"The mentally challenged are not sufficiently addressed by the Jewish population," Fisher, 27, says.

"My one dream is to reach developmentally delayed by helping to train caregivers how to provide care. I also hope to use the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to get things going nationally."

While Fisher, who recently completed her studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has served as student rabbi in Arkansas and Atlanta, Temple Sinai represents her first professional position. Among her activities as a student rabbi, she supplied pastoral care at a funeral home and a Jewish hospital in Cincinnati, and at a home for the aged in Louisville, Ky.

A graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, she has long been involved in Jewish education, Reform movement activities and social action. In the summer of 1996, she was a legislative assistant at the UAHC's Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., where she helped coordinate the rebuilding of burned Southern churches.

As a rabbi, Fisher feels the most important part of her day is "finding God in human connections, knowing that God put us in this universe together.

"Once I was working with a woman with whom I was close to who was going through a family transition. I started with a prayer and she ended it. We were holding hands and when I looked at her hands clasped with mine I could not tell whose was whose."

For Fisher, intimate contact and guidance with the community is both the most rewarding and most difficult function of being a rabbi. While working as a student rabbi at the Weil Funeral Home in Cincinnati from 1995 to 1997, she found that "pastoral care for families in mourning was one of the hardest experiences. I mostly just try to find out how to be present — to be there — for them."

While living in Boston as a young girl, her rabbi, Cary Yates, introduced Fisher to "what it meant to be Jewish everywhere in one's life."

Today, she says, "I don't see a boundary between secular and religious life. For example, when I am eating breakfast, I consider it a holy act because I say a blessing before it.

"I like to see congregants be Jewish everywhere. That is the appeal of this congregation — this community lives Judaism."

She says the primary role of the rabbi is to act as an "information keeper who knows how to access our tradition.

"I have been given the gift of the most ancient tradition and religion today. Those first rabbis were geniuses. The events of today just confirm that the sages of the Torah knew what they were talking about," Fisher says.

Moments where such ancient wisdom comes to life make being a rabbi special for Fisher.

"In Genesis it says when God created trees, also included was the capability within the trees to reproduce themselves. I just came back from a backpacking trip in Yosemite. When I see the buds forming on the ground in the mountains, as it says in the Torah, I know that God is there."