New Walnut Creek rabbi offers recipes to stir the soul

Rabbi Rachel Miller hopes that she can offer her new congregation not only chicken soup for the soul but also a little for their stomachs as well.

Miller's favorite thing to cook is chicken soup from her grandmother's recipe, which has been passed down through the generations.

It includes chicken, celery, carrots, onion, salt, pepper and garlic. She cooks it for three or four hours, puts it in the refrigerator and next day skims the shmaltz to use in the matzah balls.

"The matzah balls can be made with any mix, substituting shmaltz for oil," she says. "They must be cooked in broth. Otherwise, they'll be flavorless."

And much like the tradition of passing down recipes, Miller has plans for passing down a thing or two to the newest generation.

She began working for Conservative Congregation B'nai Shalom in Walnut Creek early last month, filling in as spiritual leader for Rabbi Gordon Freeman while he is on sabbatical through August.

But Miller is also taking on a more long-term role at the synagogue. She is the new educational director, marking the first time that B'nai Shalom has had a rabbi filling the position.

Miller sees that as a step in the right direction. "I can help build a vision. I can offer background, skills and text."

Her new career seems a far cry from her undergraduate days at University of Southern California, where she pursued film theory and history after growing up in a Conservative home in Las Vegas.

She switched directions for a number of reasons.

"I have a lot of friends in the film industry, and I find that it doesn't treat people very well," she says.

Describing herself as a people person, she decided she wasn't suitable for a life as a film historian or theorist. "I couldn't imagine myself sitting in dark theaters then going to work in an office and writing articles that people may or may not read, even if it is great writing."

She also became intrigued with Judaism, and went on to study at the University of Judaism's Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies in Bel Air. She was ordained in May.

She has served as a social action director at Camp Ramah in Ojai and then became an educator for the Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles for the past two years, while she was completing her studies.

Her next move brought her to the Bay Area. Working for Congregation Beth David in Saratoga as a student rabbi, she helped to coordinate its High Holy Days events, adding more educational programs for the Conservative synagogue's older kids.

Now at B'nai Shalom, Miller was planning to find a place in Walnut Creek relatively close to the shul. But thanks to one of the board members who is a real estate agent, she is living in an apartment that is within walking distance.

Miller says she loves to do hands-on work. She also likes a challenge.

Although she "always found Judaism accessible on a personal level," she didn't experience it as intellectually stimulating. That changed when she began serving as an editorial assistant to Rabbi Jane Litman, who was working with Rabbi Debra Orenstein on their two-volume "Lifecycles" books, published by Jewish Lights. (Litman is now rabbi-educator at Temple Beth El in Berkeley.)

"It gave me an introduction to the cultural aspect of Jewish reality that fascinated me and motivated me," she says.

Now she's prepared to fascinate and motivate the next generation of Jewish students. She would like B'nai Shalom's religious education program for children to look at the issue of individual identity, which Miller sees as an important aspect of growing up Jewish.

In addition, the curriculum will focus more on history and not so much on Israel. "We learn about ourselves from our communal past."

She also wants to expand the adult education, providing more in-depth knowledge in Jewish law and philosophy.

Besides handling education, Miller is also leading Shabbat services in Freeman's absence. She is also on call for funeral services not only at B'nai Shalom but also at Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom while Rabbi Stuart Kelman, is on vacation.

Miller first heard about the opening at B'nai Shalom from Sarah Freeman, the rabbi's daughter. The two met while studying at the University of Judaism. Freeman had taught at B'nai Shalom and had only rave reviews about the experience.

Miller says that the community has been very welcoming.

"Lay leaders pop by, call on the phone to check in, see if I need anything — advice, support."

When Miller's not dreaming of educating kids, she's dreaming of cooking. Just the other day, she was home alone and made herself an entire Shabbat dinner.

"I love hosting people, sharing Shabbat and cooking for others."

Although she eats mainly salads when she's on her own, when given the chance to have guests for dinner, she goes all out.

"I am a hard-core Shabbat evening chicken person," she claims. One of her specialties is what she calls "Grandma's Chicken." But of utmost importance is making sure that the meal includes chocolate and tea.

Miller also enjoys walking and hiking. She likes to write poetry, paint and do collages, and she is a self-proclaimed museum junkie.

Miller claims that when people meet her, they are surprised to find a rabbi who is so enthusiastic and approachable. It's important to her that a rabbi isn't a stranger to the children of a synagogue.

"I am looking to inspire kids and their families for lifelong Jewish learning and discovery," she says.