State Assembly picks a rabbi as its chaplain

SACRAMENTO — Mariachi music drifted down the halls to celebrate the inauguration of the 1999 legislature that swept the Democrats back into control of both the legislative and executive branch after 16 years.

The faces congratulating the new legislators last month reflected a stronger multicultural presence in California's state capital. Also, their choice of a new general chaplain of the state assembly, Rabbi Mona Alfi, also marked a departure from the norm.

"I feel incredibly honored to be only the second woman to have this position," said Alfi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Sacramento. She will serve the Assembly for a two-year term.

The last female Assembly chaplain, Michal Bourne, was one of the first women ordained as a rabbi in 1979 and also a graduate of Alfi's alma matter, Hebrew Union College.

Alfi said she plans to "draw on every Jewish source I know" when she opens the state assembly on Mondays and Thursdays. She's already researching choice passages from the Hebrew prayerbook, the book of Psalms and the Talmud.

During the inaugural ceremonies, she said, "The people ask of us to have the courage to do those things that they themselves sometimes do not want to do, or are afraid to do. But things, that they know, must be done in the name of what is right.

"As we embark on this sacred journey, we ask the Holy One of Blessing to always guide our steps with wisdom and compassion and to bless us with tolerance and patience for all of God's creatures."

She also noted that she has been sworn as the legislature is celebrating its sesquicentennial, or 150th annual anniversary, at the same time that B'nai Israel is marking its sesquicentennial.

Alfi's appointment came as a result of an invocation she gave in August 1998 to honor women's equality day. Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa noticed her performance and filed it away for future reference.

However, Alfi had another reason to be happy at her inauguration.

"One particular thrill for me was to look out at the audience and see a member of my congregation, Darrell Steinberg, installed as a representative."

Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who was elected in November, said he, in turn, was thrilled to see the rabbi.

"I take special pride in her election as assembly chaplain because she is my rabbi," he said. "I have known her for a short time, but I can see she's a very intelligent, insightful person, who's going to help bring some perspective to the beginning of our deliberations in the Assembly."