Dawn Rose is entering her third year as the Rabbi at Temple Emanuel of the Merrimack Valley, located in Lowell. Her life is a fascinating story, from her Baptist upbringing on a ranch in California, to experiences at both the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Reconsructionist Rabbinical College, to her Rabbinic ordination in 2003, to her role as a Rabbi-librarian-educator in Manhattan, and finally to the old mill town of Lowell. With a firm commitment to social justice, ethical living, and spirituality, Rabbi Rose is hard at work fostering a warm and welcoming community on the banks of the Merrimack River northwest of Boston.
What inspired you to become a Rabbi?
When I was in my 20s, I was living in San Francisco when the AIDS epidemic hit. I felt, all of the sudden, like the world was shifting under my feet and I needed to respond. I knew that my great-grandfather had been Jewish, so I started to look into it and decided that Judaism was for me. I knew the day after I converted that I wanted to be a Rabbi.
How long did that take?
Only 18 years! While I started out at the Jewish Theological Seminary, it became evident that it was going to be very difficult for me to become a Rabbi as a gay woman there. After a few years I decided to leave the Rabbinical school and pursue a PhD in Jewish Philosophy at JTS, which I completed successfully. After that, I was the Director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and much later on, in 2003, I was finally ordained by the Academy of Jewish Religion.
That’s quite a journey.
Your prior post was at the Park Avenue Jewish Center in Manhattan. What was it like moving to an old mill town in the Merrimack Valley?
It was certainly a big change. But it’s a very exciting time to be here in Lowell.
Much like Lowell itself, the Jewish community here is undergoing a renaissance. There used to be three thriving synagogues in Lowell… now it’s just us. We are a small temple, but one that is firmly committed to social action and interfaith outreach. We have a core of passionate and committed congregants, some of whom come from as far away as Cambridge. Although Lowell is so close to Boston, there is a certain isolation that people up here feel from the Jewish community there. I’m trying to get us more connected to the grid that is Jewish Boston and involve us more in the Jewish community, but also maintain some of our autonomy and independent spirit.
What do find most rewarding about being in Lowell?
We work very hard to make strong connections to the city of Lowell and other clergy in the city. At my recent installation, there were over a dozen members of the Greater Lowell Interfaith Alliance in attendance, including a Muslim cleric who performed the g’lilah honor at the ceremony. It’s one of countless examples of why Lowell is such a great place to be. It’s a city where I can live happily as a lesbian with a family, a city with such a rich history and working-class identity, and a place where we can make strong and meaningful connections to our brothers and sisters of other faiths.
Your background in academia must give you some great ideas for teaching adults and writing.
Absolutely. I love teaching adults. Two of my more popular classes are “Koran for Jews” and “Kabbalah.” I am also writing, on and off, a book that deals with Kabbalah, interfaith relations, and good and evil.
What is your vision for the next five years at Emanuel?
I would be thrilled to see continued growth and an influx of young families and children, and a constant exploration of the possibilities of spiritual and intellectual growth for our congregants.
It sounds like you’re in the right place.
I am. I am blessed to have a wonderful partner, two beautiful girls, a great congregation, talented and committed lay leadership, and to be living in such a warm and inclusive community.