Who better to seek an answer to why this Passover is different than prior Passovers than a teacher, who at 50 years old, finds herself back as a student — seeking ordination as a rabbi.
For those who are unfamiliar, the word “why” is the first word in each of the Four Questions asked at the traditional Passover meal — or Seder. This year, the first night of the holiday is this Saturday; the tradition lasts for eight days.
And there are a lot of reasons to ask, and answer questions, starting with “why” this year.
Is Zoom a good thing to have in the Jewish religion and will it continue to be so in coming years?
Yes and yes, answered Jill Wright, who began teaching at age 23 and is currently a professor at Mount St. Antonio College in Walnut while she studies at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles.
She earned her doctorate in English, with a specialty in American literature and world drama, and was tenured at age 27. She teaches classes in composition and literature, multi-cultural literature and African-American literature.
“Zoom has become a very viable option for people for whom traveling to synagogue or sitting for long periods is difficult,” said the South Pasadena mother of two children. “Even for people who used to be in the habit of attending [Sabbath] service in person, Zoom has provided them with a respite that they craved: no rushing, no fighting to get dressed, eat dinner and arrive at services at the designated time.
“Some people have really enjoyed attending services from their living room couches, in their PJs, cuddling their family members in a more comfortable way,” Wright added. “Of course, when the world opens up, and it is possible to congregate as a community again, I believe people will be excited to be together. But we will never go back fully to what we used to consider ‘normal.’ I don’t think that Zoom will be a fallback position, but a new facet of what people consider to be ‘normal’ and ‘spiritual.’
“I don’t want to give up the traditions, just the rat race.”
She noted however that community should never be discounted.
“There has been a huge deficit in social, emotional connection [during the pandemic],” Wright said. “For those who live alone, this has been particularly difficult.”
Praying together as a congregation provides support in many ways.
“When we do Yahrzeit” — the prayer for the dead — “at our temple, other people rise in solidarity,” she said. “It is a physical way of standing in solidarity with others.”
This Passover is an especially good time to reinforce the themes of social justice, which were amplified by the events following the death of George Floyd last summer.
Wright noted that her temple has celebrated a second night social justice Seder which speaks to the lessons that Passover can teach in this area.
“We use the Haggadah as a guide to today’s problems,” she said, referring to the prayer book which provides the order of the Passover Seder and which also tells the story of Jewish slavery and deliverance from it in Egypt. “We use the holiday of Passover to support and to create justice and to find meaning in today’s world. For me, the most important thing about ritual is to make it relevant and meaningful for our lives today.”
Wright admits that she has always loved to study. She teaches classes in composition and literature, mostly Shakespeare, multi-cultural literature and African-American literature. Wright has also written a book called “Creating America on Stage: How Jewish Composers and Lyricists Pioneered American Musical Theater.”
But, she came to feel that as she neared age 50, she needed a new challenge — and a second career.
“It had been 17 years since I had gotten my Ph.D.,” she said. “I’d become intellectually staid, and I wasn’t pushing my boundaries by reading and thinking about new texts or ideas. I believe in life-long learning, and I love being a student.”
So, she entered the Academy for Jewish Religion, which ordains in rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and chaplains with a wide range of thought which she said ranges from fairly orthodox to humanistic. Wright said she wants to be a pulpit rabbi after she is ordained from the five-year program.
“My core belief is that all people are b’tzelem Elohim — made in the image of the divine,” she said. “To quote Maya Angelou: ‘We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.’ One of the driving forces behind my future rabbinate will be to unite people — all human beings — and not just those of the Jewish faith.
“Every day, our task is to pursue justice and peace,” Wright added, “and if we can build a more just and peaceful world for our children and their children, then we have lived wholly, and in a way that is holy.”
If she was looking for a challenge, she sure has one now. She had been teaching four classes a semester while taking three. This semester, she is teaching three composition classes while taking four at rabbinical school. That makes seven classes every six-day week.
“Saturday is the only day when I do not teach or learn. Ironic, right? What is supposed to be Sabbat” — the Sabbath — “or the day of rest is my busiest day of grading student essays and doing my own reading and writing to prepare for my classes,” she said.
Because of the pandemic, she does not now have to drive to either campus to meet classes, so driving time has become homework time, both for her and her children.
“We often sit down to work together, and I can help them with their homework every single day,” said Wright, who is married to an aeronautical engineer — this month they will celebrate their 19th anniversary.
She comes from what she describes as a reform Jewish background, where she went to Hebrew and Sunday school, Jewish Sunday school and was Bat Mitzvahed.
The decision to become a rabbi did not surprise Wright.
“I often said when I was young that I was either going to law school, to Broadway or to be a rabbi,” she said. “It was never off my radar. When I was a child, I would watch the rabbi and cantor and learn their parts.
“When I told people that I was going to rabbinical school, their first reaction was ‘what!’ Then, they would think and say, ‘That’s you,’” Wright added. “When I went back and told my 6th-grade teacher, she looked at me and said: ‘Of course you are.’”