From the lab to the bimah

When people ask Rabbi Michelle Fisher how she found herself in rabbinical school after studying chemistry at Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she often responds with this joke: “You mean not all rabbis study chemistry before going into the rabbinate?”

Fisher was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2002. This summer, she moved to Walnut Creek to work as the rabbi at Congregation B’nai Shalom. She succeeds Rabbi Gordon Freeman, who served the congregation for 38 years and retired in June 2006.

The synagogue conducted a two-year search for Freeman’s replacement, said Rayna Arnold, president. They were picky. Their first search yielded no one they particularly liked, so they waited and tried again. Fisher seemed like a natural follow-up to Freeman’s leadership style.

“Rabbi Freeman led us to find our own voices in Judaism, and we felt like Rabbi Fisher would continue that and add even more to it,” said Arnold.

She was drawn to B’nai Shalom as much as they were to her. The congregants’ involvement was particularly appealing, including sharing responsibility for the weekly d’var torah (sermon). Instead of only the rabbi delivering the sermon, congregants take turns.

“The congregation expects that there will be participation from everyone, that the rabbi is not the only source of knowledge for living Judaism — everybody is,” she said.

Fisher grew up in Albany, N.Y., attending a Conservative synagogue and youth group events. In college at Princeton, she got involved with Hillel. Her Hillel director was the first person to plant the Should-I-be-a-rabbi? seed.

“When she suggested I’d make a great rabbi, I started laughing. I thought it was hilarious,” she recalled. “My Jewish identity was completely strong, but I felt I couldn’t be a rabbi. I always thought I was going to be a scientist. So I listed all the reasons I couldn’t go to rabbinical school and she never brought it up again.”

Before applying to get a doctorate in chemistry, Fisher decided to spend one year studying at Pardes, an egalitarian, multi-denominational Jewish study center in Jerusalem. “I loved everything I was doing. I loved it,” she said. “And I decided I was going to be a chemist.”

So she returned to the United States and began working on a graduate and doctorate in chemistry at MIT. “I got there and I realized it wasn’t going to inspire me 30 years down the line,” she said. “Even if I was lucky enough to discover the cure for cancer, I would never know the people whose lives I’d changed.”

After being ordained at JTS, she worked as a U.S. Navy chaplain and an assistant rabbi at Har Shalom, a congregation in Potomac, Md.

And since moving to the sunny, humidity-free East Bay, Fisher jokes she’s living in Gan Eden (Garden of Eden).

Despite all the changes throughout the past five years of her life, Fisher still holds on to what she learned as a student in the sciences.

“In the lab in graduate school, I’d take a natural compound, break it down into its component parts, and figure out how to build it back synthetically,” she said. “I do the same thing with the Talmud. I take an argument from the page, break it down into the different parts the rabbis discuss, and build it backup to be a message for everyone today.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.