The story of how Allison Berry and Laura Abrasley came to be in what Abrasley affectionately described as “an arranged rabbinic marriage” is also the story of how a congregation entered into a deep and thoughtful search to identify their future rabbis. The two rabbis—the first women in the world to assume co-senior rabbinic roles together—recently sat down with JewishBoston to reflect on how they came to be what they see as a “hevruta,” or partnership together.
Berry came to Temple Shalom eight years ago as a part-time associate rabbi. At Brandeis University she majored in music and Jewish studies and thought she was on a path to become a cantor. She traced the beginning of that path to her childhood congregation in Framingham, where she was inspired by her female cantor. Her professional Jewish trajectory began as a family educator at Congregation Mishkan Tefilah. It was the place Berry realized she wanted to be a rabbi. While in rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College, she took on a variety of roles, including hospital chaplaincy. But the pulpit eventually called and she took the helm as a solo rabbi at a temple in Canton. “It was a small, lovely community,” Berry recalled. “But I did everything at the temple and eventually I needed to take time off to attend to my family.”
When Berry was ready to work outside of the home again, she heard that Temple Shalom was looking for a part-time associate rabbi and applied for the job. During her first two years at the temple, her portfolio included pastoral care and engaging with young families. Soon after, she became full-time at the temple when the longtime director of education stepped down and Berry became the rabbi for education. “Every year here my role has been different,” she said. “It has not only shifted and adapted to meet the community’s needs as things have evolved, but the community helped me to shape a career that has been meaningful to me and supportive of my family.”
Abrasley came to the rabbinate in midcareer. She grew up in Houston and described herself as “a poster child for the Reform movement. I went to summer camp [and] was active in youth group.” After graduating from Texas A&M University, Abrasley stepped into the role of youth director of Young Judaea. She eventually became the group’s regional director in Texas. After a number of years, she switched careers, which included a stint in the high-tech industry in Boston. However, the pull of Jewish communal life was strong and Abrasley left high-tech to become the youth educator at Temple Israel. There, she was strongly encouraged to go to rabbinical school. “I entered rabbinical school with a wife and a 9-month-old,” she said. “That first year we were in Israel, which is a great place to be with a kid.”
After rabbinical school Abrasley and her family moved to Los Angeles, where she earned a master’s degree in Jewish education. She enjoyed her Jewish education studies, “but I was clearly meant to be a pulpit rabbi.” She came back to the East Coast via Philadelphia, where she worked for a couple of years at a local temple. Wanting to return to Boston, she heard about Temple Shalom’s opening for an associate rabbi. That was in July 2015.
The chemistry—or as the two women describe it “the magic”—between them is palpable. It’s hard to believe they only first met at Temple Shalom and that their first experience as co-rabbis was last year after Rabbi Eric Gurvis stepped down after 18 years. “It was late in the cycle [to look for a rabbi before the High Holidays], and Allison and I were asked to lead in the interim,” Abrasley said. “At some point as Eric was winding down, the lay leadership thought the interim role needed to be longer and they needed to have a communal conversation about what was next in rabbinic leadership.” The two decided to apply for the job as co-applicants. “This is a horizontal hierarchy,” Abrasley continued. “We both knew we would be doing the 2017 High Holidays together. It was such a great opportunity for us to experiment about who we are as a team.”
Berry noted that she and Abrasley encouraged the congregation “to go through a process of discovering who it is. What are the community’s values? How can our leadership get us there?” The congregation participated in focus groups and took surveys, and the overall takeaway was that congregants wanted Temple Shalom to be a place of inclusion and “radical welcome.” The congregation also did not have to cast a wide net to realize the rabbis they needed to achieve their goals were already in place.
The Berry-Abrasley rabbinate is clearly based on inclusion of all people. For the two rabbis, that inclusion addresses everything from learning differences to the needs of interfaith families. “Radical inclusion is about building a culture of saying ‘yes’ as much as we possibly can,” Berry observed. Social justice, aging and mental health are among the issues they intend to address in the coming year. The rabbis note that Temple Shalom’s Sisterhood won a grant from Women of Reform Judaism to implement a mental health initiative. The rabbis are also planning a symposium in the winter to partner with people as they age. “It all goes back to inclusion, meeting people where they are and using Judaism as a lens to do that,” added Abrasley.
As for their partnership, the two women officially became co-senior rabbis on July 1. Rabbi Elaine Zecher, senior rabbi of Temple Israel, will install them on Nov. 16.
“There is so much mutual respect between us,” Berry said. Added Abrasley: “This is a gift I never expected—this gift of being in a collaborative partnership. We’re good hevruta partners.”