Rabbi Faryn Believes Judaism Will Never Stop Evolving

By on November 29, 2023

When Rabbi Faryn was telling me about a moment of deep spirituality, an incredible glow of light colored her hands golden for those minutes. I was struck by that (likely) serendipity because it only emphasized something that was already there. Faryn, the new rabbi of Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco, has a glowing aura about her, and when she speaks, you want to listen.

Over Zoom, we discussed Reconstructionist Judaism, the power of dance, becoming a rabbi, and the challenge of navigating heavy moments. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jason: Faryn! What was it like growing up in a small town in Vermont with very few Jews?

Faryn: I feel like that’s actually what drew me close to my Judaism because there weren’t a lot of us. There was a single non-denominational synagogue a few towns over that covered a large geographic radius. It was so communally run and intergenerational that it felt like a family. I think that experience, and feeling special and distinct as a Jew, was part of what made me love Judaism so much.

Jumping ahead a few decades, what brought you to the Bay?

Around 2015, I’d been living in Israel-Palestine organizing for justice and peace and had come back in the midst of a flare of violence. I wanted to study with Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, who was teaching a Jewish path of nonviolence here. Back then, it felt rarer to find spaces for deep spiritual work that were also oriented toward justice.

Was there a specific moment that propelled you toward becoming a rabbi?

Rabbi Lynn was starting an ordination program in her lineage and I joined. I was really wary of becoming a rabbi then! I just wanted to study. Later on, I started doing spiritual leadership and youth education, and leading minyans when I realized all the things I was doing are what a rabbi does! If I became a rabbi, I could take time to ground that work with more knowledge and direction, and that’s when I applied to rabbinical school.

What made you wary?

I don’t remember what my wariness was then, but I know what it is now. I love Judaism and I love Jewish people, but sometimes having to be a leader to an incredibly traumatized people is painful and challenging. I think we’re feeling that in this moment of collective trauma response to what’s happening in Israel; it’s a lot of responsibility to hold. Being a rabbi requires a decentering of self in serving the whole, and that requires not always speaking for yourself, but speaking for a larger community.

How are you handling this difficult moment?

First and foremost, I’ve been looking out for the community I’m serving, which is Or Shalom, and making sure everyone in our community is okay. One of the reasons I chose Or Shalom is because of their beautiful vision to truly welcome people across political difference. I was so heartened by that quality, which feels rare.

In this moment of tension, when it feels like our lives and even Judaism itself is on the line, how do we listen to one another and care for one another across a huge political divide? The people in our community have so much care and love for one another that it feels possible.

Independently from the synagogue, there’s a new collective emerging called Rabbis for Ceasefire, which has helped me to feel grounded and held in this moment.

I know Or Shalom is a Reconstructionist community. Can you give me a quick primer on that movement?

Reconstructionists believe Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. Judaism has never been stagnant; it’s always been growing and changing in connection with surrounding cultures, and that’s both a historical fact and a mission. We too can be the stewards of building a Judaism for our contemporary era, and we need to find a Judaism that’s spiritually, politically, and emotionally meaningful for our people now.

What are some of your off-bima interests?

I’ve been a dancer for a lot of my life. I grew up with arthritis so I was interested in sports as a kid, but they weren’t very accessible to me. I still had limitations when I danced, but it felt like it gave me permission to be in my body and I’ve gained a lot of range of motion that I didn’t have prior. Dance is a way of expressing myself and letting out what I hold inside.

Any favorite happenings for young Jewish adults in San Francisco?

Or Shalom has a young adult group! It’s a really sweet and supportive space for socializing and spirituality. Anyone can go. We try to do a Shabbat dinner monthly and we’re going to also try an after-services affinity space for young adults on Friday nights. Hat tip to the wonderful Zvika Krieger at Chochmat HaLev for that idea.

Now, onto our in-house Proust Questionnaire. Tell me a book, movie, play, piece of music, or art that you recently enjoyed?

My serious answer: a friend of mine was in a beautiful play through Golden Thread, which is a Middle Eastern and Arab theater company in San Francisco. I really loved seeing them uplifted as an Arab Jew as part of the Reorient Festival.

My silly answer: You’re So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah. That movie led to such lively debates within the rabbinic community about the representation of the rabbi in that movie—whether they liked or disliked the representation was all anyone could talk about!

What’s the best-kept secret in the Bay?

When I first moved here, I lived in Albany right by Albany Hill Park. It’s not necessarily a destination that so many people go to but it has 360-degree views of the Bay. There used to be a giant cross up there, which led to debate, and it was eventually torn down.

What’s a recent time you felt a spiritual connection?

I went to DC a few weeks ago to pray and call on Congress and President Biden for a ceasefire. There were 400 Jews, including about 25 rabbis in the Capitol building rotunda, and we sang “Lo Yisa Goy,” a song about nation not lifting up sword against nation. The power of all of us singing made the entire space shake and reverberate. Near the very end when there was just a minyan or two of rabbis left, we decided to start davening mincha, the afternoon prayer, and then recited the Mourner’s Kaddish as the police slowly took our minyan away one by one. It felt so spiritually profound to be in the Capitol and deeply Jewish, calling for peace and justice.
GatherBay Profiles is our interview series spotlighting the vast array of community members doing rad things! Released twice per month, the series aspires to celebrate GatherBay’s greatest treasure—the people around us. Want to be profiled? Email info@gatherbay.org.