For Rabbi Rena Singer, there is magic in blending the old and the new. "A matcha latte and women's Torah commentary-those things don't have to be separate," she said.
Singer, incoming Assistant Rabbi at Temple Sholom in Chicago, applies this same dual perspective to "Modern Ritual," the Jewish educational Instagram platform she started three years ago with friend and fellow millennial Rabbi Samantha Frank.
"We were getting so much incredible information about Judaism in rabbinical school," she said. "We wanted to think about how we could get that information out there, and also help portray a Judaism that people could see themselves in and that looks like the rest of people's lives. Instagram was an exciting way to figure out how to do that."
The approach worked. Modern Ritual has garnered an impressive 15,000 followers. Images juxtaposing familiar Jewish symbols with elements of modern life, underscored by relevant and thought-provoking captions, regularly engage followers. Picture brightly colored fruit smoothies in mason jars shining alongside a freshly baked challah or worn siddur filled with ancient prayers.
Jewish millennials have been gobbling it up, and Singer plans to bring her unique insight to continue building community and connection, both in-person and virtually. "She has a wisdom that goes beyond age and goes beyond platforms," said Temple Sholom's new Senior Rabbi Shoshanah Conover. "She knows how to translate that wisdom through everything she does, including Modern Ritual."
Growing up in Seattle, the daughter of two reform rabbis, Singer has known since childhood the power of the Jewish community. "I got an incredible inside view from a very young age into different ways Jews and the Jewish community can show up for each other in times that are difficult and times that are joyous," she said.
Singer acknowledges that a combination of factors, including the current global health crisis, social justice movement, and pervasiveness of technology, affect young Jews and their ability and interest to engage with religion. "For the younger millennial generation, the word "community" has lost a lot of its meaning," she said. "Especially with the coronavirus and with a lot of the things that have happened with Black Lives Matter, people really want to feel connected and feel like they are a part of something, but they don't often know where to start."
Already providing spiritual support and connection before the pandemic, Modern Ritual was poised to help followers navigate our constantly changing world. "We didn't have to shift too much because we were already doing what a lot of the Jewish world was forced to switch to online. We accidentally prepared for this," she said.
Singer aims to continue dispelling stereotypes and breaking down barriers common to Judaism. "A lot of people don't really understand what a rabbi does in the day to day," she said. "I'm really excited to fuse my daily life as a rabbi at Temple Sholom and say here are things I did today. This is how a baby naming works and this is how you choose a Hebrew name."
Blending her full-time professional rabbinic role and her Instagram presence, Singer will keep providing beautiful and engaging Jewish content through the Modern Ritual account, serving up spiritual nourishment to thousands of followers. But, ironically, she considers her new pulpit at Temple Sholom to be the more groundbreaking one.
"I think that trying to build in-person, sustainable communities," she said, "that help bring meaning to people's lives is the most radical, innovative thing you can do."
Leslie Hill Hirschfeld is a freelance writer living in the northern suburbs of Chicago.