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Meet the First Rabbi to Lead a Unitarian Universalist Congregation

Susan Katz Miller interviews Rabbi Chava Bahle

Note: A version of this Q&A also appeared on The Huffington Post.

Rabbi Chava Bahle (photo by Beryl Striewski)

Recently, a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in northern Michigan selected Rabbi Chava Bahle to serve as their new leader. While other rabbis have worked in UU congregations before, this is apparently the first time a rabbi will lead a UU community. I knew that Rabbi Chava has been on the forefront of clergy working with interfaith families. And as the Jewish author of a book from a UU publisher, I was particularly interested in hearing about Rabbi Chava’s journey so far, and her thoughts on leading a UU community.

Susan Katz Miller: I know your selection did not come out of the blue. Tell us about your history with this particular UU congregation.

Rabbi Chava Bahle: For both the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse (UUCGT) and for me, this was a relationship-based process. They were not seeking a rabbi “in general.” I have lived in northern Michigan for just over 20 years. Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher, the UUCGT’s first minister, is my dear friend. I got to know her community and its deep commitment to social justice and interfaith welcoming. I would often “guest preach” when Rev. Belcher and her successors were away or on vacation. The local Jewish congregation I founded and the UUCGT often worked side by side on issues of social justice. Over the 20 years of guest preaching and partnering in social justice work, the UUCGT and I formed an ongoing bond with each other.

I was contacted some months ago by the Ministerial Search Committee, and we spent time discussing the meaning of this possibility—a non-Unitarian Universalist, and a rabbi no less, serving a congregation with a strong UU identity. I also spoke in discernment with other UU leaders, and with several rabbinic colleagues during that time—exploring the meaning of this from Jewish and UU points of view.

Once we felt we had talked through the implications and reached a place of joy, the public process began! A Candidating Week is announced—preaching two successive Sundays and many (many, many) meetings with committees, the board, constituent groups and individuals the week in between. In our case, we offered extra opportunities to ask questions, since this is, to say the least, an unusual candidacy. The process allowed for discerning conversation on both our parts. After the second Sunday of preaching, I left the building, and the membership voted by secret ballot. My candidacy was affirmed with just over 96% of the community saying “yes”!

SKM: On the morning of your selection, you used some metaphors from Jewish texts in describing this historic moment. Tell us about that.

RCB: My Candidating Week began on Martin Luther King Day weekend, the start of the 30 Days of Love, the period between MLK Day and Valentine’s Day, when UUs around the world celebrate “standing on the side of love,” a campaign supporting LGBTQ people and families, economic and racial justice, immigration reform and other calls for a more equitable society for all people. One of Dr. King’s central metaphors was the story of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt, through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  The Exodus metaphor of a passage into new territory—the unknown—a journey that requires courage and vision spoke to me for the day of our decision. I wove texts of Exodus with midrashic texts to ask four questions: How do we ordinary people awaken hope, faith and courage, and are we ready to take a bold step even if we cannot yet know what will happen, or if the waters will part for us? How do we hold a focus on the positive core of who we have been and are yet to be? How do we with love and kindness move past the idea of creating an “other”? And can we cultivate a deep sense of joy while doing the work of repairing the world?  Because of the tzitzit [fringes] on my prayer shawl I titled the sermon “Religion on the Fringe.”

SKM: What do you find most inspiring about UU principles and practices?

RCB: The seven core principles of Unitarian Universalism speak deeply to my heart – beginning with the inherent worth and dignity of each person, creating a just and equitable society based on that worth, and recognizing the interconnected web of life of which we are a part (both the human family and our planet home)—these ideals are a shared starting point for the repair of the world. Seeing ideals in action at the UUCGT is a great inspiration. Further, having visited other UU congregations, I have always felt a warm welcome as a stranger walking through the door. The most often mentioned commandment in Torah is “you shall not wrong the stranger.” Put in positive terms, this means we aspire to a place where there is no “other”—UU congregations do this incredibly well. Additionally the spirit of inquiry and intellect are profoundly inspiring to me.

SKM: How do you see your background and preparation as a rabbi as leading up to your work in a UU congregation?

RCB: Let’s go back to the journey metaphor. I was raised in a strongly Jewish-identified home with every part of our lives infused with Yiddishkeit, from Shabbes to tzedakah, holidays to tikkun olam. I was raised Reform where I learned commitment to the prophetic vision of social justice and the place of the intellect in Jewish engagement. I studied for a year at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College where I learned to think deeply about the whole of evolving Jewish civilization and where I chanced to meet Reb Zalman. From there I studied at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism where I learned to broaden the scope of my Jewish thinking and reading and—above all—to create a culture of welcome, egalitarianism and true interfaith honoring. I received a private smicha from a bet din of rabbis across denominations and finally found my home in Jewish Renewal, where I received a second smicha from the Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal’s Smicha Program. Later I was ordained as a Maggid (Jewish inspirational preacher and story teller) in the lineage of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, by Reb Yitzchak Buxbaum; I fell in love with the warmth of Chassidut and the power of story. Learning never ends.

I have been deeply inspired by teachers from other traditions as well—Buddhist, Hindu and Christian teachings have touched my heart and soul, and these are also part of the fabric of my rabbinate.

From prophetic social justice vision, deep spirituality and a culture of welcome—all this finds a loving home in Jewish Renewal. The OHALAH Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal, our professional association, is a trans-denominational group of rabbis, cantors and rabbinic pastors committed to exploring and renewing Jewish spirit, klal Yisrael and tikkun olam. My choice to serve this UU congregation is not everyone’s cup of tea, but even where my Renewal colleagues question, it has been done in a spirit of true inquiry and respect.

I believe my journey—like the Jewish journey through many lands and epochs—holds its integrity through roots and wings: a seeking heart. This aspect of seeking and friendly inquiry, and our shared 20 year history, is a great fit for this UU congregation.

SKM: What do you see as the convergences, common ground, and distinctions between UU and forms of progressive Judaism such as Jewish Renewal? And how will you honor or navigate the synergies and points of difference in your work?

RCB: I see common ground in a set of core values, the love of learning, and eagerness to heal to the world, ‘though we have come to these from different points of origin. The UUCGT loves exploring world wisdom, celebrates music and powerful story telling, works for social justice, and many seem drawn to grappling with ideas of spirituality. Also there is a sense of joy! Here I can support and lead the community.

I feel cautious about the idea of convergence. They will remain, and I support them in, being a strongly identified UU community and part of the UUA. I remain strongly committed to Judaism and Jewish Renewal. Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal rather than a creedal tradition. In this context, having a congregation’s spiritual leader from a different background can be a great strength. It is the work of the spiritual leader of the congregation to inspire, engage, and call upon the congregants to explore and develop their own beliefs and help motivate them to live their values. I can do that from my own strong base as a rabbi.

For the years that I have preached and taught here and in other non-Jewish settings, the navigation comes from the heart, from having integrity and also respect and openness to one another. Exactly what that will look like as this relationship progresses, we will determine together through shared learning, discernment, experimentation and honest conversation. There is no road map to follow. We step into this journey with the strengths of where we have been and the full faith of co-creating the community going forward.

SKM: Tell us a little bit about your work with interfaith Jewish and Catholic couples in Chicago. Did that work prepare you for working in a UU context? And do you plan to continue that work?

RCB: The Chicago Interfaith Family School ( was founded 20 years ago by two visionary leaders, Rabbi Allen Secher and Fr. John Cusick. Out of their deep friendship and shared experience of working with interfaith couples, and the strong desire of those families to raise children in both the Catholic and Jewish traditions, they assisted a small group of couples in creating the Family School. As co-clergy with Fr. John, Fr. Tom Hurley and emeritus Reb Allen, I am incredibly proud to serve that community. I do plan to continue my relationship with Family School, although my travel to Chicago will be reduced.

In truth the Family School is a different model than the one here at the UUCGT. The Family School is committed to raising children, and supporting families, who are “both/and”—deeply committed specifically to Jewish and Catholic heritages, life cycles and education. While Unitarian Universalism shares the idea of bringing people from distinct cultures together, each congregation draws upon these and other traditions to create its own unique Unitarian Universalist identity.

For years and with great regularity, I have been teaching and preaching in both Jewish and non-Jewish contexts. This has been the real preparation for becoming the Rabbi of the UUCGT. I have learned grounding in my own tradition, and a sensitivity to the use of language, context and knowledge about traditions that differ from my own. I think this will serve my new congregation well.

SKM: How do you answer those who are saying that rabbis should be serving the Jewish people?

RCB: I am so glad you asked this. In part, I agree. Where we disagree is about (a) whether all rabbis should focus on only Jewish people and (b) what it means to serve the Jewish people. I have long been a servant for people of all backgrounds—that is part of my vocation. By being in the world, trying to be the best, most loving exemplar I can be to all people, I believe I am fulfilling my mission as a rabbi and by extension serving the well-being and fate of the Jewish people by building loving bridges. In my heart I believe this calling is my basheret [meant to be]. It is not every rabbi’s call to sojourn in this way, and that is healthy: diversity is necessary in every living system. As Reb Zalman might say, the liver shouldn’t be trying to convince the heart to be a liver. We all have a function in creating a vibrant system. I am excited and delighted to serve this new community.

SKM: The religious press in America is filled with stories about rise in the religious “nones,” and the decline in affiliation with traditional religious institutions. And yet, your selection has galvanized one UU community and apparently already created a surge in membership there. Do you see your work with this UU community as a unique set of circumstances that may never occur elsewhere, or as an inspiration for the interfaith future?

RCB: Time will tell on this important question. I don’t foresee there being a big run of rabbis to UU pulpits! I am delighted that the local community is seeing membership growth before I even start next fall, because it says that a UU congregation with a committed spiritual leader has great potential, even in a rural area like northern Michigan.

The implication for the so-called “nones”—a term I reject because it does not aptly name the positive longing I see in them—is that it is possible to make a place in spiritual community that speaks to their hearts and minds, asks of them commitment to friendly exploration and allows room for a range of answers in a shared congregational experience.

My experience with interfaith families, questioning spiritual seekers and others is that the calling of the heart for belonging, peace, harmony and love, and the desire of the mind for inquiry, seeking truth and making sense of the world, require community.  While there is much we can do on our own, the human desire for community, for shared experience, for fellow travelers on the way, is powerful and necessary.

I think this relationship has the potential to model how a community can be an “incubator” for love, peace and justice in the world across boundaries.


KATZMILLER-Credit-StephanieWilliamsSusan Katz Miller is a former Newsweek reporter and former US correspondent for New Scientist. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Conde Nast Traveler, Moment, and other publications. She blogs on interfaith families for The Huffington Post and Her book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press. She lives in the Washington, DC, area with her husband and two interfaith teenagers.