Dancer-rabbi becomes Renewal minyans rabbi-chaver

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Diane Elliot wanted to be a dancer, to move her audience through movement.

And she did. Then, after years of a successful dance and theater career, she wanted to move her audience in a different way.

So she became a rabbi.

This summer, Elliot became the newest rabbi-chaver, or “teacher among peers,’ at the Aquarian Minyan, the oldest Renewal congregation in the Bay Area. She is the first person to have an official title with the Minyan in about six years.

Elliot is a soft-spoken, thoughtful woman who wears colorful silk blouses and a bright kippah. She smiles often and speaks enthusiastically about her second career as a rabbi.

She grew up in a Reform family in suburban Chicago. After high school, she pursued a career in the performing arts, working in theaters in New York City and Minneapolis and teaching and performing in Canada, Hungary and France.

Eventually, Elliot’s interest in movement grew beyond the stage, and in 1987, she became certified in body-mind centering, which uses movement as a form of psychological healing.

She also became interested in Buddhist meditation, which indirectly drew her back into Judaism via a Renewal chavurah.

“It hooked me back into my camp experience — there was a lot of singing and dancing,” she recalled.

She met Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank at a subsequent shabbaton and “knew something was calling me, but didn’t know what it was.” Wolfe-Blank, who died in 1998, took Elliot under his wing, inviting her to Seattle to learn from him and his chavurah. (Ironically, Wolfe-Blank served as the rabbi-chaver at the Aquarian Minyan for 15 years.)

The death of her mentor shook her up. “I had never experienced a death like that,’ she said. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.” An astrologer advised her to go to San Diego. So she moved.

Soon after, she got connected to the local Renewal congregations. One congregant told her about a new rabbinic school in Los Angeles, one that would ordain Renewal rabbis.

“The next thing I knew, I was applying for rabbinic school,” she said.

She knew no Hebrew when she was accepted. She also had never had a bat mitzvah, something she corrected within a month of enrolling in the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Her friends in San Diego, Seattle and the Twin Cities helped pay for her tuition — $80,000 for six years.

“I learned to understand that a rabbi is created by the community,” she said. “In this situation, people had a stake in my rabbinate. They saw me grow. They made me.”

In 2003, Elliot met Rabbi Burt Jacobson, founder of Kehilla Community Synagogue. They maintained a long-distance relationship for three years. After Elliot was ordained one year ago, she moved to the East Bay to be closer to Jacobson.

She connected with the Aquarian Minyan when its members asked her to help plan its High Holy Days services. She made a good impression said longtime member and co-founder, Barry Barkin.

“She’s completely self-revealing, incredibly honest and spiritually in tune with our community,” he said.

The “chaver” suffix, Barkin said, emphasizes that the Minyan is not a rabbi-centered community, even when it has a rabbi helping lead the way.

Elliot feels great about that. In fact, she calls her post at the Aquarian Minyan a “betrothal period.”

“Diane chose to call it that, and God-willing, we’ll find the resources to go from betrothal to a long-term marriage,” Barkin said. “Already, Diane has gathered remnants of our community, making connections with everyone who has been part of us, building bridges home. She’s so natural at reaching out and helping people hear one another.”

Meanwhile, Elliot hasn’t forgotten her dancing roots. At the recent national Kallah for Jewish Renewal in New Mexico, Elliot led a Shabbat service integrating prayer, meditation and movement, encouraging hundreds of people to set down their prayer books and dance.

“I wanted to guide people through a service that would help them see how much the body and movement is related to davening, to healing,” she said.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.