Building Interfaith Understanding: A Conversation with Rabbi Jennifer Hartman

by Becca Buse

During a thirty-minute conversation with Rabbi Jennifer Hartman, I learned about the passion for youth work and storytelling that she has had ever since she was young. Her favorite part of being a rabbi at Temple Israel is how the role changes and morphs according to the needs of her community. Whether it is a time of joy or sorrow, her role is to help families wherever their needs are. She shared more about her faith and how she believes Judaism “has something to say that is important.” I look forward to continuing learning about Judaism in Minnesota when I have a conversation with Brian Zakem in the coming weeks. 

When asked to share a turning point in her religious faith, she shared how choosing to become a rabbi was a significant moment. Rabbi Hartman grew up a daughter of clergy, and only considered becoming clergy herself later in life. As a junior in college, she was involved in interfaith work and spoke with a minister on her campus who encouraged her to choose to continue studying her faith in rabbinical school. She then dedicated five years of schooling to study theology to become a rabbi. Becoming a rabbi was a way for her to express Judaism. 

Rabbi Hartman explained to me the difference between a rabbi and a priest, since I was unfamiliar with the role of a rabbi. She explained how Reform Judaism does not have a hierarchy. She told me her role as a rabbi allows her to share a knowledge base with her Jewish community at Temple Israel. She does not see herself as a higher being, or having a closer connection to God than other members at her congregation. Instead, she has a larger knowledge base due to her education. She sees her role as akin to a doctor who studies medicine, or a lawyer who studies law.  

Later, when asked what her favorite verse from the Torah was, she chose Deuteronomy 30:19, that speaks of choosing life. Before explaining why it is her favorite, she wanted to clarify that the phrase does not refer to any recent political jargon on abortion or life, but instead to truly living each day to its fullest potential. This is a lovely reminder at this difficult time, during a pandemic, a tumultuous election year, and among uprisings for social justice. Rabbi Hartman reminds us that we must “choose life” each and every day. In Jewish tradition, this verse comes at the new year, during Yom Kippur. She also related the verse to taking risks, such as studying abroad. In her own life, Rabbi Hartman placed herself in a new situation by studying abroad in Israel and Greece. Later in life, she took the risk to move to Minneapolis to work at Temple Israel in 2011. She loves her role as a clergy member at Temple Israel and the Jewish Community in Minnesota.

When asked to share what she would like other Minnesotans to know about Judaism, she stated that she wished people were more aware of Jewish holidays and tradition. She shared how she works very hard to help her community members take work and school off during Jewish holidays. Growing up in Cleveland, Rabbi Hartman lived in a place where many people practiced Judaism, but here in Minnesota, practicing Jews are not as recognized. It has taken more effort to educate non-Jewish community members so they understand why her community needs holidays off. 

There is a lot more explaining to do here in Minnesota when you are Jewish, compared to other communities in the United States. She spends time educating youth on how to speak to their teachers to ask for time off, or community members to ask for work off. 

We also spoke about how Judaism is a minority religion in the U.S., something that is often overlooked. I learned from Rabbi Hartman that Temple Israel is over 150 years old. It was founded in 1878. In the 1920s-50s, during the World Wars, Minneapolis was an epicenter for anti-Semitism. It shocked me to hear about anti-Semitism, but also did not surprise me. In a time of worldwide anti-Semitism, of course there was hatred across the U.S., including here in Minnesota. Knowing this about our past can help us reconcile and heal with our neighbors. One step of healing could be to become intentional about Jewish holidays and traditions in the coming year. 

Here are a the holidays coming up this week and in the new year of 2021:

Hanukkah (Festival of Lights), December 10-18, 2020
Purim, February 25-26, 2021
Passover (no work the final two days), March 27-April 4, 2021
Shavout (Feast of weeks, Pentecost), May 16-18, 2021
Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), September 6-8, 2021
Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement, most holy day), September 15-16, 2021
Sukkot (Festival of Booths), September 20-27, 2021

**Shabbat, weekly from Friday at sunset to Saturday evening

Finally, to end our conversation, I asked Rabbi Hartman to share a moment of interfaith solidarity. She shared about a moment during an event against hate that took place this past summer. Rabbi Zimmerman seamlessly allowed Muslim community members to leave and pray during this event. She was impressed by the ability to accommodate multiple faith traditions and beliefs. Rabbi Hartman brings up a lovely point, that we should be able to adapt events to be inviting for all faith traditions and world beliefs. It does not take very much effort to create inclusive spaces for all. 

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