Rabbi Cassi Kail
I was sixteen when I first heard the call to be a rabbi. I held onto my guitar as I stepped into my grandmother’s nursing home. Though her Alzheimer’s disease made it difficult for us to share meaningful conversations, I hoped that we could connect through the Jewish music of her youth. As she slumped in her chair, I began to play, unsure of what would happen. Miraculously, she sat up, her eyes aglow, as she joined me in song. I felt transported to another place and time, recalling the days when my grandmother’s music filled our Seders and holiday celebrations. Soon, the empty social hall filled to capacity as previously subdued residents engaged in joyful music. Family members smiled at loved ones with tears in their eyes. We sang for a long time, not wanting the moment to end. As I left the building, I marveled at how profoundly spiritual the experience had been.
This was the moment I knew I needed to be a rabbi. I was called to support Jews on their personal journeys, and to foster Jewish community. Years later, when I was in seminary I had an opportunity to do just that.
My husband and I had recently moved to an up and coming neighborhood in Queens. The once traditional Greek neighborhood of Astoria was suddenly facing an influx of people in their 20’s and 30’s. There was no local Jewish temple catering to this demographic. Personally, I yearned for a local Jewish community I could call home. The more I spoke to others the more convinced I became there was a need for an egalitarian minyan. A friend and I decided to open our homes to Jews in their 20’s and 30’s for a Shabbat dinner, unsure of who might walk through the door. Slowly, we got to know each member of our new Jewish community. Quickly, the Wandering Jews of Astoria became an ever-growing family, expanding well beyond our wildest expectations.
I recently received a call from a woman who had found a home at the Wandering Jews of Astoria. She had made life-long friendships and even met her husband at a Shabbat dinner. When her daughter was born, she explained that she knew she needed to call me. She wanted me to welcome her daughter into the covenant, surrounded by her family, friends, and members of the Wandering Jews. We crafted a creative ritual, wrapping her baby in a tallit and shower her with blessings.
I have been blessed to bring many babies into the covenant, to be present with people during some of the most important moments of their lives. When “people relate to each other authentically and humanly,” Martin Buber once wrote, “God is the electricity that surges between them.” Each time I officiate a wedding for a loving couple, bless a newborn baby, celebrate with Bnai Mitzvah, or welcome a Jew by choice into the covenant, I feel that electricity. I am humbled and fulfilled by my role in celebrating these sacred occasions. I consider it an honor to sit with people during times of loss and uncertainty. Just as I often find comfort and guidance from the wisdom of Jewish tradition, I strive to help others connect to Jewish prayer, and to find themselves in the narrative of Torah.
As my rabbinate has matured, my love of Judaism has grown exponentially. Finding rich connections between Jewish teachings and the modern human experience, I am exhilarated by the challenge of translating our tradition in ways that individuals find compelling. As I teach, I find that Rabbi Hanina’s words from the Talmud ring true, “I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students, I have learned the most.” Although I am often the teacher, I gain some of the greatest insights from my students. According to Pesikta De Rav Kehana, there is a reason that God reveals the Ten Commandments in the presence of the entire Israelite community, in Exodus 19. Each and every person received the Torah in their own way, based on their personal experiences, talents, and insights. Each individual has a personal Torah to teach. When people express and live their Torah, the entire community is richer for it. I strive to not only teach Torah but to encourage every member of the community to share their personal Torah, as well.
I make it a priority to caffeinate Jews wherever I go, in order to understand and uplift their Torah. Through regular meetings with congregants and community members, I learn individuals’ narratives, drives, and entrance ways into to the richness of Jewish tradition. These relationships give me the opportunity to collaborate with and empower leaders to create exciting new initiatives, from starting a temple band to offering cooking classes, Shabbat hikes, Havdalah dinners, and a year-long initiative of study and activism focused on welcoming the stranger. My personal relationships with congregants have enabled me to bring people in. Each of these opportunities has not only allowed people to explore Judaism in a way that feels personally authentic and exciting but to find community with others who feel the same.
I believe all people share a human yearning for community, for meaning, and for having a positive impact on the world in which we live. Whether in the nursing home, my living room, the soup kitchen, synagogue, or beyond, I have been blessed to share holy moments with others as we navigate this quest together. The relationships we have formed have helped me to become a better rabbi, Jew, and human being. As I look to the future, I hope to continue to develop deep relationships, recognizing the sacred opportunities along the way.
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