By Joanne Palmer
Originally published in the Jewish Standard on August 1, 2019.
Rabbi Leiah Moser (‘17) is the rabbi of Reconstructionist Beth Israel and the assistant rabbi at Temple Israel and JCC in RIdgewood.
Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Israel meets at Temple Israel and JCC in Ridgewood.
It’s not just a rented space, though. It’s a much deeper relationship than that. Beth Israel is both a separate institution and a full part of the larger shul.
As its name makes clear, Congregation Beth Israel is a member of the Reconstructionist movement. Temple Israel is proudly Conservative. Although the two movements share some history — the Reconstructionist movement’s architect, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, taught for decades at the Conservative movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary — they are distinctly different.
The two shuls hold separate services, but they meet for kiddush, they share children’s services and a Hebrew school, and they hold many classes, discussions, and programs together. Members of each are encouraged to explore the other; differences and similarities dance together.
On the practical level, it’s about sharing spaces, expenses, and support services. It’s partially about logistics. The relationship began there — but it doesn’t end there.
“I think that it’s the wave of the future,” Beth Israel’s rabbi, Leiah Moser, said. Of course there are benefits to sharing infrastructure and expenses, but way beyond that, it embodies a deep truth. “I believe very strongly in the idea of Jewish peoplehood,” Rabbi Moser said. “There are different strains of Judaism, different approaches, but underlying all of that we all belong to the same people. We are all part of the same civilization. There is something very validating and fulfilling about being part of a community where we understand that.”
A new Orthodox girls’ yeshiva high school, Na’aleh, is housed in the building as well; it’s there on weekdays. Starting next year, the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies will meet there on Sundays.
Although the extent of the sharing varies by institution — Na’aleh only rents classrooms — still “sharing space and resources ultimately fosters a better understanding of Jewish people,” Rabbi Moser said.
Rabbi Moser is both the leader of Beth Israel and the assistant rabbi of Temple Israel, where she works with its leader, the whole institution’s senior rabbi, Dr. David J. Fine. It’s a complicated arrangement — and by all accounts, it works.
Rabbi Moser’s path to the rabbinate is no less intricate — and no less unexpected.
She was born in Indiana in 1982, to a family that moved a great deal, and to parents with whom she still is very close. “My father’s family were all farmers in Crawfordsville, Indiana, near Lafayette,” she said. Purdue University is in Lafayette, and that’s where her father, Kevin Moser, went to college. “During college, he essentially moved out to a plot of land in the forest, built a cabin, and worked his way through school, living on his own, baking his own bread and growing his own tofu,” she said.
Kevin and his wife, Noreen, met at work, and had two children, Rabbi Moser and her younger sister. Kevin Moser became a horticulturalist; when the future Rabbi Moser was just a few months old, the family moved to Saudi Arabia and stayed there for a year and a half. “At the time, the Saudi government was figuring out how to diversify their economy beyond oil,” Rabbi Moser said. “One idea someone had was setting up hydroponic greenhouses in the desert.” That’s where Kevin Moser came in. “There’s a picture of me as a baby, sitting in a sand box in the middle of a vast Arabian desert,” she said.
The family moved next to Athens, Georgia, where her father worked for a seed company; next, Kevin got a promotion, which entailed the family’s move to Geneva, Illinois, near Naperville, where Rabbi Moser went to middle school and then high school. She went to North Central College in Naperville. “I entered with the idea of majoring in radio and communications,” she said. “But then I switched to a double major — philosophy and Japanese. Which is how I ended up in Japan.”
Excuse me, Rabbi Moser. You what?
She slowed down.
“I finished college, and went to the University of Chicago for a year, for an interdisciplinary master’s program, with the idea of being an academic,” she said. “But I had become disillusioned with the endeavor of academic philosophy.” It was too cold, too formal, too disengaged from actual life, and the questions that a real person would ask.
“I had spent a good chunk of my teenage and young adult years trying to assemble some sort of schema for understanding the world and getting some sort of ethical orientation within it,” Rabbi Moser said. “I had spent a long time studying philosophy, hoping that it could give me some answers to the basic questions — Why am I alive? And why do I continue to be alive?
“Unfortunately, the deeper I got into studying philosophy, the more I realized that academic philosophy as a discipline is not necessarily oriented to providing those answers.”
As she confronted that dead end, though, she rallied. “My partner and I had just gotten married, and we decided that in lieu of a honeymoon, we would get jobs teaching English.”
In Japan, that is.
“There is a fairly booming industry, because English is a required course in Japanese schools,” she continued. A lot of Japanese parents sign their children up for afterschool courses in conversational American English. And some of those schools are not well run, she soon learned.
But before it all collapsed, “my partner discovered Judaism.”
Rabbi Moser was not born Jewish. Her father’s family “was some mix of various Protestant and evangelical backgrounds,” she said. “My grandmother on that side is very devout in that faith, and my father reacted against it. I did not identify as Christian. I went to a Methodist church for two years in middle school, and at the end of that time I had a feeling that something about it wasn’t right, so I stopped.”
Because she had been raised in an almost entirely non-religious household, she said, “I had not considered religion as a way to answer my questions. I considered the idea of believing in God to be kind of stupid.
“But I was growing dissatisfied with the answers that philosophy was providing me.” And the questions hadn’t stopped.
Meanwhile, “my partner had brought a book by Rabbi Irwin Kula to Japan,” Rabbi Moser said. The book was “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life.” “I’d heard him interviewed by Terri Gross on ‘Fresh Air,’ on NPR.” She found the interview interesting, but “I had no intention of reading the book. I wasn’t interested in religion.
“But finally I read the book.” The program that had sent her to Japan “went suddenly and spectacularly bankrupt,” and she was pretty much marooned there for a while, before things got sorted out enough for her to go home. “I read it out of sheer boredom, because I’d run out of other things to read.
“So I’m reading the book, and he is talking about growing up Jewish, and living in Jewish spaces, and in some uncanny way I recognize it. It feels like I am connecting to it in a way that I shouldn’t be, because that is not the life I grew up with.
“I’d had some contact with various religions. Because I had relatives who were Christian I’d spent some time in a church, and there were other folks I was connected to who had belonged to a Unitarian church, and others followed some variety of pagan faiths, but I had not been much exposed to Judaism before.
“But I read Kula’s book, and the more I read the more I recognized that it felt homelike, although it was nothing like the home in which I was raised.”
It made her reconsider her dismissal of the possibility of there being a God.
“I had explored a fairly wide patch of the approaches different smart people have developed about the meaning of life, and how we should live. The one patch I had not really given a chance was what if we live in a universe with a God in it. The idea of a God-filled universe was not something that I had given a chance. So I kind of stopped for a moment, and opened that door and peeked through it.”
And then something changed. The door opened by itself. “I had an encounter with God when I was in Japan.”
“I can’t really describe it in words,” Rabbi Moser said. She tried, haltingly. “I was like turning around and realizing that someone had been standing behind me the whole time. Well, hi!”
That was that. Her life was turned inside out. “I felt very strongly that I wanted to find out how to become Jewish.”
Rabbi Moser and her then-wife went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Rabbi Moser went to work for her father. He’d “long ago started a company designing software for horticulture,” she said. His company — first called Plant Wear, then the Corymb Group — was created because “inventory is hard” for greenhouses and seed companies, she said. Seeds have to be shipped at the right time in the year, at the right time in their cycle, to places and through places that affect their growth cycles. For seed companies, timing is everything. Kevin Moser’s software helped companies plan, taking their own specific climates and needs into consideration.
There is an active Jewish community in Tulsa, Rabbi Moser said. She joined it; she became active in the local Conservative synagogue, Congregation B’nai Emunah, and grew close to its rabbi, Mark Fitzerman. She studied hard. “Once I find a body of detailed knowledge that I’m interested in, I keep going,” she said. After a great deal of study, she converted, with a bet din headed by Rabbi Fitzerman. “Then I had an adult bar mitzvah, I started leading services when the rabbi wasn’t around, I started leading a study group for people in the process of converting,” she said. “I took over the library.” All of that work except for the library was as a volunteer. “Somewhere through all of that, I realized that becoming a rabbi would be a good thing to do,” she said. “I was about 28 when I started rabbinical school.”
Before that, she spent a summer at the Conservative movement’s Conservative Yeshiva, a non-degree-granting Torah lishma institution — it offers study for its own thrilling, life-altering sake — at the Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem.
“It was amazing,” she said. “It was a very difficult summer. My grandfather passed away, so it was the first funeral I performed as a Jew — and he wasn’t Jewish. But he hadn’t belonged to a church for a long time, and he was religious. My mom asked me to do it. It made sense to her. She thought, ‘We need someone religious to do a funeral. My child is the one religious person in the family.’”
Her parents were fine about her conversion after some initial discomfort, she said. “My father was dismayed because he had always thought of me as a rational person. So he was a little weirded out by my becoming religious. And my mother was nervous, worrying if I’d still be connected to the family.
“So when it was clear to my mother that I was still part of the family and when it was clear to my father that it didn’t mean that I was going to become some kind of religious fundamentalist, they both came around.”
She met her first Reconstructionist Jews while she was in Fuchsberg, and she liked them, Rabbi Moser said. So when it was time to think about rabbinical school, she considered its seminary, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, seriously.
The logical choice for her would have been JTS, she said, given her connections to the Conservative movement. But she had a few problems with that choice. “I had some serious questions about the Conservative movement’s approach to halacha,” she said. She found the movement’s understanding of Torah as “essentially a constitution that we have no way of amending, but it started to feel more like a construction to me,” she said. “If we believe that Torah is a construction of human beings in conversation with God, then theoretically, just as human society changes and adapts over time, so should Torah.”
That meant that the Reconstructionist movement’s greater flexibility seemed more rational to her. “I was very interested in Kaplan’s approach to Judaism as an evolving religious civilization, and the idea that it is a manifestation of Jews and what we believe and how we believe, not the other way around. It is not that we are Torah, and therefore we are Jews. It is more that we are Jews, and therefore there is Torah.”
Also, she said, “at the time, JTS was not accepting LGBT students.” That did not feel comfortable to her.
It was a hard choice, she said. “On the one hand, I really respect the level of commitment of the Conservative movement. I like that it continues to try to uphold and develop communal norms. Because of my evolving approach to the nature of where those communal norms come from — and the LGBT thing — I decided to go to the Reconstructionist college. I’ve probably been happier as a quote unquote traditionalist or observant Reconstructionist than I would have been as a more radical or more loosey-goosey rabbi.”
That means that her finding a home inside a Reconstructionist synagogue inside a Conservative synagogue is perfect. “It feels like home,” she confirmed.
There was another huge shift in Rabbi Moser’s life, one that an alert reader might have suspected when noting that Rabbi Moser became an adult bar mitzvah. She’s also transgender. “I came out toward the end of my first year of rabbinical school,” she said. “When I came back to the second year of rabbinical school, I came back with my new name, living full time as a woman. It was a stage in a process that was ongoing for some time.
“It was like becoming Jewish,” she continued. “There had been a big Jewish-shaped hole in my life, and an instant of recognition, and then there could be no other answer but to go and do it.
“In the same way, I had been struggling with issues of gender my entire life.
“Here’s the thing,” she explained. “I had always assumed, based on my personal experience, that every man, secretly, deep down in his heart, knew that he had been dealt a terrible hand by fate. I believed that actually that was the reason for all the misogyny and mistreatment of women. Jealousy.
“The thing that proved it to be otherwise to me was meeting a transman, because there being such a thing as a transman completely disproves that theory.” In other words, if all men secretly wanted to be women, if all men felt cheated because they were not born women, it would not be possible for someone to be born female but transition to becoming a man.
“Once the theory was disproved, it opened a set of hard questions for me. If all men don’t feel that way, why do I? Perhaps it is because I am not a man?”
Once she asked herself that question, she realized the truth of the answer, and was compelled to follow that truth. “If you need something for your entire life, and then suddenly the barrier between it and you vanishes, then you are going to have to rush toward it,” she said.
What does she make of all the huge changes she’s undergone? “There is a thing in software development called a dependency,” she said. “In order to write this piece of code, you have to have another piece of code over there.
“I have a nesting chain of dependencies,” she said. “In order to come out as trans, I had to have a community within which I could come out as trans. And I also had to have a concept of salvation, because without that, the whole endeavor is nonexistent.” Salvation is “the belief that the really seriously life- and soul-threatening problems that face us have a solution in this world,” she explained. “The Israelites were living in slavery for a couple of hundred years, and during that time their lives were miserable, but we live in a world with a concept of salvation. Just because salvation doesn’t always come, that doesn’t mean that it never comes. Sometimes there is a gap in the clouds. Sometimes we can experience salvation. I did.”
Her nesting dependencies began with her conversion. “In order for any of the others to happen, I had to become Jewish,” she said. “I needed the concept of salvation and a community that I felt a close connection to. I wouldn’t have been able to find the courage to come out and to transition if I hadn’t believed on some level that God was going to be with me.
“And if I hadn’t transitioned, I wouldn’t have met Ross, and I wouldn’t have become a stepparent. I find that transition to becoming a parent on par with the other two.”
Some explanation — Rabbi Moser was divorced and she is remarried. Her partner — her term of choice — is Ross Mattio; he converted to Judaism, and he has four children. “I have awesome stepkids,” Rabbi Moser said. “I never thought I would be a parent — and suddenly I’m the parent of four.” (The youngest is about to start high school, and the oldest is finishing college.)
Those stepchildren have changed her life, she said.
Rabbi Moser also is a musician. “I used to make electronic music with my friends in high school,” she said; she and her best friend, Emily Mills — now a writer, musician, and political activist in Madison, Wisconsin — had a band called Tumor Necrosis Factor. “It was the 90s,” she said, semi-apologetically. “None of us had decent equipment, so we would make music on someone’s old PC.
“I have found that the interface of computers and music is where it’s at for me.”
Rabbi Moser plays electronic music at Friday night services, for “the monthly synth pop Shabbat. It’s me up there leading a musical service with my gear as the source of the music.
“I set my gear up on the bimah, and we just rock out,” she said; the rest of the month, the services are more standard, but there’s always music. “I feel like there really is no point to get together to pray without singing,” she said. “Rhythm is tied into the pulse of the body,” she said, quoting the Jewish mystic Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. “The best way to achieve physical, mental, and spiritual health is to sing and dance. That opens the gates inside, lets us grab the bitterness and sadness in our lives, take them kicking and screaming into the circle of dancers, and translate it into some kind of joy.”
Rabbi Moser also has written a young adult fantasy novel, “Magical Princess Harriet: Chessed: World of Compassion.” “I love the genre,” she said. “I don’t think I have ever met a transperson who wasn’t into fantasy and science fiction. You have to be able to imagine yourself out of the stuckness that you’re in.”
The main character, Harriet, is “a transgender Jewish girl in middle school,” Rabbi Moser said. “It was a lot of fun to write.”
Part of the impetus for the book was a philosophical reaction to the concept that fantasy is an inherently Christian genre, “essentially tied to a nostalgic romantic conception of the Middle Ages.” Jews have no reason to be nostalgic for the Middle Ages — a period we barely survived — “but I am a huge aficionado of Jewish mysticism and the aggadic parts of the Talmud. All sorts of fantasy are happening there,” she said. “We operate on the 19th century belief that Judaism always has been a rationalist religion, but really it has many fantastical elements.”
The other reason for the book was “I was transitioning at the time, and it felt really cool to write a young adult novel featuring a trans protagonist who is absolutely invested in her Judaism,” Rabbi Moser said. “Harriet belongs to a progressive shul; as a result of a merger, it’s called Beth Hillel Beth Shammai.”
That’s a funny name. That’s not accidental. “This probably is characteristic of my approach to the rabbinate,” Rabbi Moser said. “I am dealing with very serious stuff, and we should absolutely take seriously the demands that God and our tradition place on us. The only way that we can do it in a way that will not make us crazy is through using laughter and fun. We cannot take ourselves too seriously.”
That’s a deeply Jewish response, she added. “Jews have demonstrated over and over again throughout several thousand years of history that one way to live under sometimes intolerable conditions was to make fun of your oppressor and then get back to the religious business of living.”
When she looks at all the changes she’s been through, she rejects some of the currently popular understandings of those changes. “If I take seriously the idea that there is God, and that God is involved in the world, then I have to believe that I wasn’t born into the wrong body or the wrong culture,” she said. “I have to be born the way that I was in order to come to the place that I am now.
“Ultimately, it is a mystery. It has not been vouchsafed to us to know.”
Temple Israel’s Rabbi Fine feels that the arrangement with Beth Israel, now five years old, is working out wonderfully, and he’s particularly glad to be working with Rabbi Moser. “She’s so intelligent, and she has such broad life experience,” he said. She “brings a tremendous amount of depth. She shares her encounter with the Jewish tradition, and it is a mature and sophisticated encounter.
“She is incredibly learned, and seeks to find a way to bring the relevance of that learning to Jewish life.
“She also teaches in areas that I never thought of teaching — a mussar course that studies ethics passages from the Zohar. She is able to open a whole area of Jewish learning that is outside my comfort zone.”
The two communities do a great deal together, he said, as the Reconstructionists come to know the Conservatives better and better. There is one membership form for people joining now; they are asked to tell with which community they will affiliate, so that the information can go to the movement. Dues that Temple Israel and JCC pays to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and that Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Israel pays to the Reconstructionist movement. That’s representative of their arrangement in general; separate but together, divided formally in some ways but together emotionally and also technically in many others, both sides secure in their identity and therefore able to merge and split and merge again at will and on demand.
Or, to put it more simply, in Rabbi Fine’s words, “We are thrilled to have Rabbi Leiah and her husband as part of the community.”