New assistant rabbi brings soulful song to Beth Sholom

We were about halfway through the erev Rosh Hashanah service a few years ago, when Dorothy A. Richman began to sing. Clearly, this wasn't a song meant for us to join in. She started quietly, eyes closed, swaying just a bit. Those of us in the sanctuary were immediately captivated, but as they say, we hadn't heard nothin' yet. Toward the end, she let out a wail like I've never heard from any rabbi or cantor. Not in a synagogue. Not anywhere.

Deeply bluesy and oh so soulful, as if it were ripping out of her heart and then ripping into mine, as well as that of everyone else there. She's not a large woman, but the power of her voice was exponentially bigger than she was. If you had any doubts before, hearing that holy crescendo in shul on Rosh Hashanah could only make you believe that you were truly in the presence of the divine.

Richman didn't know it, but my friends and I in New York looked forward to "that song" — having no idea what it was — as part of our High Holy Day experience for the next few years. And she didn't disappoint us. As long as she attended rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, she led one of its smaller High Holy Day services together with a colleague and even for two years after, doing "that song" both on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Funny then, that I had to move to San Francisco to learn that she was singing Psalm 27, which is recited throughout the month of Elul, in the preparation period for the High Holy Days. And that while she enjoys singing non-Jewish music too, it is the Jewish texts that inspire her musically.

Richman is the new assistant rabbi at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom.

The Conservative rabbi never had any formal musical training, but as a college student she sang a bit in bars with a friend. "I don't know when I began singing, but I do know when other people began listening to me," she said in a recent interview, referring to her college days.

When she began studying for the rabbinate, it wasn't a conscious thing, she said, but the more she studied Jewish texts, she would sometimes intuitively hear music accompanying certain passages in her head.

"Learning Hebrew and Jewish texts has been like learning a language which is mine," she said, calling Hebrew "the language of my soul." It seemed natural to her that so much of what comes out of her in this way, does indeed sound like soul music.

In the case of Psalm 27, as she recited the words in English — "God is my light and salvation, who will I fear, God is the strength of my life and how could I be terrified" — she said, "It seemed to me a Gospel song, about love and faith and your relationship with God."

Richman, 30, grew up in Newport News, Va. While her family was active in their Conservative synagogue, her parents did not observe Shabbat or keep kosher in the way that she does now. And when she decided to go to rabbinical school, "they were shocked," she said. But like any good Jewish parents, "Now they're very proud."

After college, she went to Israel. She found that she loved studying Jewish texts and stayed for two years. "I wanted the experience of deeper study and deeper religious practice, and knew that rabbinical school was the best place to do that," she said.

She never really had any kind of epiphany.

"I don't see myself as called, I see myself as commanded," she said. "I don't see what I do as so much different than what I do as a Jew; it's just that I do it professionally. And I feel commanded to continue my studying and share the fruits of that with others."

After being ordained in May 1999, Richman spent one month in Honduras with American Jewish World Service. There, she helped to build an irrigation ditch and rebuild houses, in response to Hurricane Mitch, which had devastated the developing country.

She and the other Jewish volunteers lived as a tiny Jewish community. But beyond that, "It was important for me to do this program right after I graduated because I felt I needed to put into tangible practice all my ideals that had inspired me and had been the core of my Jewish values. It was very powerful to put my books down and pick up a shovel and see that as part of the same mission."

She also has a unique claim to fame: She posed holding a Torah with tefillin strapped around her head and forearms for celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz's book "Women." The picture was taken while she was in her first year at JTS.

Richman moved to San Francisco last fall. Though she had no job lined up, she knew she wanted to live here. She had spent one summer in an internship at Mount Zion Medical Center, plus she has a sister and close friend here. Last year, she worked as an interim rabbi at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, while the synagogue conducted a search for a permanent leader.

She began coming to Beth Sholom, and she filled in for Rabbi Alan Lew while he was on a book tour. It turned out that Beth Sholom, which has grown tremendously, was in need of an assistant rabbi for the first time.

Richman was hired specifically to work with the young adults and to build up that constituency even further.

She is hoping to expand the sports league, social programming and social action, and is even talking about leading a social service trip to Central America in the spring.

While Richman had planned to stay in San Francisco whether she'd found a congregational job or not, she feels her new job is a good fit. "Rabbi Lew is such a presence spiritually, and socially active and pastorally," she said. "I'm very lucky to be able to learn with him and to be in this place."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."