After giving birth to her first child, Rabbi Reni Dickman's pediatrician imparted three words to her: "Sleep begets sleep." That means that if your child sleeps better, he'll sleep more.
Dickman has translated that successful formula into her career as a rabbi, too. "If people are having positive Jewish experiences, they'll want more of them," she said. "I see it as a 'yes and…' If someone has an 'aha' moment that Judaism has something to say to them, they'll seek out more of those moments. Positive Jewish experiences beget more Jewish experiences."
An Evanston resident, Dickman has lived by the "yes and…" philosophy (borrowed from improv comedy) throughout her career and now brings that wisdom to her new dual role as the Executive Vice President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and the Senior Educator of JUF, which she started July 1.
"Rabbi Dickman is bright, articulate, thoughtful, visionary, and an extremely talented teacher," said Rabbi Sidney M. Helbraun, the new president of Chicago Board of Rabbis and spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Northbrook. "She will do a great job of reaching out to our community of rabbis and help us move forward in a changing Jewish world and a changing rabbinic world. Given the fact that the nature of the position has shifted, we believe that she will be an outstanding educator at JUF as well. I'm looking forward to working with her and carrying on the legacy that Rabbi Balinsky nurtured."
Dickman is the first woman ever to serve in this position. She acknowledges that while it's challenging these days to navigate how much gender is supposed to matter, she feels honored to have been selected for this role. "It's exciting to me that women are now welcome to have a position like this and that the search committee saw in me someone who could bring new ideas," she said. "This is bigger than me--I don't feel like I need to prove that women can do this, but I do feel I can represent women in the rabbinate and women in Jewish life."
In the newly designed professional role, Dickman will split her time between directing the Chicago Board of Rabbis (a position previously held by Rabbi Michael Balinsky) and serving on the JUF Education staff, heading up the new Jewish and Israel education initiative.
Dickman is excited to help her colleagues "grow in various ways-personally, professionally, and Jewishly" and she hopes to help make "Judaism accessible, compelling, and relevant" to them.
As for the Chicago Board of Rabbis--which brings together almost 200 rabbis representing the Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Reform streams of Jewish life--she believes her comfort in multi-denominational Jewish spaces will be an asset to her new role. Dickman--a Reform-ordained rabbi--has studied at an Orthodox yeshiva for women, belonged to a Conservative congregation, headed a Reform congregation, and she and her husband sent their children to a Reconstructionist preschool and now to an intentionally pluralistic Jewish day school. Most recently, she was the director of InterfaithFamily Chicago, which empowers people in interfaith relationships to engage in Jewish life.
"I'm honored to serve the rabbis of Chicago, to support them, and to create opportunities for them to continue learning," she said. "I would love for the Chicago Board of Rabbis to be a think tank for rabbis to discuss best practices and explore new ideas."
She added that all Jewish communal professionals--including rabbis--must meet people where they are along their Jewish journeys. "The Jewish community is changing and we have to be responsive to that as rabbis," she said. "To be part of those conversations is exciting."
Growing up, the Chicago native says that besides her parents, two of her greatest Jewish influences which inspired her career in the rabbinate were Jewish camp (OSRUI)--particularly the friendships and community it fostered for her--and her mentor, Rabbi Mark Shapiro, her cousin who at the time presided over her childhood synagogue, Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim. "He spoke to life's most important questions," she said. "He made Judaism seem essential-if you want to be wise, you should pursue this life."
And so she did.
She was one of those unique kids who loved Hebrew school, "a testament to the teachers who were enthusiastic and made it fun." That love for Hebrew and for teaching carried into her adult life, where she taught Judaic Studies at both Chicago Jewish Day School and what is now Rochelle Zell Jewish High School.
While juggling her teaching career, she would also commute from Chicago to her part-time pulpit at a congregation in Michigan City, Ind., near where her parents had a second home. She hopes to bring that sense of an intimate Jewish community to the larger Chicago Jewish community in her new role.
"How can we create that small Jewish community feel here?" she said. "It's like Cheers , where everybody knows your name. People want that and I have faith that from that comfort zone, people will seek out more."
The Chicago Board of Rabbis is a partner in serving our community, supported by the Jewish United Fund.