Rabbi Chayva Lehrman  (Photo/Emma Goss)
Rabbi Chayva Lehrman (Photo/Emma Goss)

Chayva Lehrman, the new rabbi at newly merged Am Tikvah, has been dreaming of this day

Chayva Lehrman recalls a moment during her 2002 bat mitzvah, as she was leading the congregation in prayer, when she looked out at everyone and thought, “Oh my God, I could do this forever.”

The Los Altos native had a similar feeling a few years later, when she was on a summer Israel trip with her NFTY youth group, leading Friday evening services in Jerusalem with the sun setting over the Western Wall.

“I looked down, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’” Lehrman recalled.

Those were the moments, she says, when the seeds were planted, putting her on the path to become a rabbi.

Last month, Lehrman, 34, received her Reform rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Her rabbinic thesis was a Jewish annotation of part of the Quran.

On June 20, she began her new role as rabbi of Congregation Am Tikvah in San Francisco. She is the first rabbi to lead the Conservative-Reform congregation since the merger of congregations B’nai Emunah and Beth Israel Judea in 2020.

“Drawing from all the different denominations, and learning from them, is really important to me,” Lehrman said of leading Am Tikvah.

Lehrman already has a diverse background, having studied both Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism, and she recently held a rabbinic internship at Temple Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles.

Drawing from all the different denominations, and learning from them, is really important to me.

Lehrman grew up in Los Altos, where her family attended Reform Congregation Beth Am, and sang in the shul choir with her mother, Loree Farrar, every year during the High Holidays. (Her mother is a past synagogue president and  her younger brother, Gabriel, is a cantorial student who had an internship at Beth Am last summer.)

“‘Ashamnu’ was my thing,” Lehrman said of her favorite part of Yom Kippur services.

She went to middle school at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto and in high school was a Diller Teen Fellow. The 15-month program based in San Francisco teaches teens about identity, leadership, service and community building. She said the Diller trip to Israel — as well as learning under the late beloved educator Ilan Vitemberg — “changed my understanding of Israel and helped me grow as a person.”

Lehrman went on to study linguistics and the Middle East at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she was co-president of the Hillel chapter. One of her extracurricular interests at that time was learning Arabic.

“There’s an entire culture and community here that is totally inaccessible to me,” she recalled thinking when passing an Arabic sign in Israel. “Wouldn’t it be better if I could understand and relate?”

After taking classes at a local Arabic school, Lehrman was able to use her Arabic during a semester abroad in Amman, Jordan, where she lived with a blended Jordanian-Palestinian family with whom she still keeps in touch.

For spring break, she and some classmates visited the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, Egypt, where the Genizah, containing some of the most important historical documents in Jewish history, is housed.

“I walked into the Ben Ezra Synagogue and just broke down in tears,” Lehrman recalled. “[I] could not believe how deeply it hit me and how much I missed my Jewish community and my Jewish life.”

(Her experiences proved useful this past winter when she was a fellow at New Ground: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, a five-month program that brings together American Muslims and Jews to discuss misunderstandings about their two communities and learn conflict-navigation tools.)

After college, Lehrman worked as an intern for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, then worked as a staff assistant in the offices of Rep. Henry Waxman and as a program assistant in the U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington, D.C.

Around that time, Lehrman began getting interested in studying to become a rabbi. In 2017 she enrolled in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside Philadelphia, and a year later pivoted to Reform Judaism and transferred to HUC, where she not only became a rabbi but also got a concurrent master’s degree in Jewish nonprofit management.

For her rabbinic thesis,  Lehrman compared and contrasted the Quran’s origin myth — that men and women were created as a single soul, and they will find each other again — with a similar origin myth found in Genesis Rabbah in the Midrash. “And it turns out, there’s also a similar origin myth in Plato’s Symposium,” Lehrman said.

She describes the latest chapter of her life — being back home in the Bay Area and leading dual-affiliated Am Tikvah — as her perfect match.

“The interesting and tricky work will be where we start making decisions about what our services look like and what our synagogue policies are,” Lehrman said of the Conservative-Reform mix.

She added that she’s eager to partner with congregants “on figuring out who we are as a community, and what we want to say about ourselves.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.