Let’s be honest. It’s not always easy to find germane insight in ancient writings, especially if you’re a lay scholar. While exploring historic biblical texts may not appear on the surface to offer any relevance to our complicated 21st century reality, as Rabbi Minna Bromberg has discovered throughout her career, there are still many lessons to be learned through the messages and meanings of these long ago writings.
Rabbi Bromberg grew up in Sag Harbor and is a teacher at heart. She’s also an activist and singer, and for the last seven years has lived in Israel with her husband, Rabbi Alan Abrams, and now, their two young children, Bernice, 5, and Matar Nissim, 2. But this Sunday, January 9, Rabbi Bromberg will return to Sag Harbor, if only in virtual form, to lead a Zoom workshop for Temple Adas Israel focusing on feminine energy and the empowerment of women in a world in which their contributions are often overlooked.
Titled “Miriam’s Song: Leaders Sing Their Way to Change,” in this free, two-hour session Rabbi Bromberg will use text, discussion, meditation and small group reflection to explore several approaches to the “Song of the Sea,” a poem that appears in the Book of Exodus. The poem was said to have been sung after the Israelites’ safe crossing of the Red Sea, which then destroyed the Egyptian army and the text in question, from the weekly Torah portion “B’shalach,” offers a model of courage in weathering challenging times.
Rabbi Bromberg explains that Miriam was Moses’ older sister and according to biblical writings, was instrumental in helping the Israelites survive their escape from Egypt.
“There’s a legend that Miriam provided water for the people when they were wandering 40 years in the desert,” Rabbi Bromberg said. “It comes from an interpretation in the Book of Exodus where Miriam dies. In the very next verse, the people have no water. It’s been interpreted in rabbinical tradition that Miriam had a well that would follow her and spring up wherever she went — and at the same time, she’s not given the same weight. Her voice is not heard as loudly and clearly as that of Moses.”
Rabbi Bromberg adds that “The Song of the Sea” is a long passage of rabbinical poetry which Moses is described as singing. But she notes that Biblical scholars seem to think that a second, shorter version of the song offered by Miriam might actually be the older of the two.
“The one that gets the attention is the longer song of Moses. But what makes Miriam a model of feminine leadership is that when Moses sings, he says ‘I will sing to God,’” Rabbi Bromberg said. “But Miriam says ‘Let us sing,’ meaning including everyone.
“As a broader framing, when we look at the Jewish perspective it’s important to look at it in the context of the way it’s been interpreted and wrestled with over 2,000 years,” she added.
Like Miriam in the text, looking to find the way and establish her own unique voice is not an unfamiliar role for Rabbi Bromberg, who recalls being an outlier as a Jewish child growing up in Sag Harbor.
“I think one thing that was wonderful and challenging about being Jewish in Sag Harbor at the time was the fact that my brother and I were just about the only Jewish kids in the school district,” said Rabbi Bromberg. “The good piece of that sense of what I would say is ‘marginalization’ is that I had a lot of freedom in terms of what being Jewish meant to me. It also meant that I felt refuge at the synagogue.
“Small towns can be challenging places to feel different,” she added. “But I think being in a synagogue community allowed me to have a sense of how to make sense of that.”
Part of the growth process for Rabbi Bromberg involved leaving her hometown while she was still a teenager. Instead of graduating from Pierson High School with the rest of the class of 1990, Bromberg attended Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts, where high school students embark early on their college track. Later, she taught environmental education on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and eventually relocated to Evanston, Illinois to pursue advanced degrees at Northwestern University.
“I thought I was going to be a sociology professor,” said Bromberg who earned her graduate degree and Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern and did her doctoral dissertation on identity construction in interfaith couples. “I think that sociology drove me to religion, by which I mean that it was clear to me that my own needs around meaning-making were not going to be met in the social sciences. Though I didn’t know what that meant yet.”
It was at a Chicago synagogue during those years that Bromberg began leading prayer services and found her true calling.
“I was a singer and played guitar as a singer/songwriter, and the congregation had a service that embraced it,” she said. “As happened for a lot of people, 9/11 was a kind of reckoning in terms of what I was doing in my life. It made it clear to me that I needed religion as well as social sciences to deal with all these things that didn’t make sense in the world. Not that religion offered answers, but it provided a framework.”
On the Saturday following the 9/11 attacks, Bromberg recalls that she was leading Shabbat services at the synagogue when her future suddenly came into sharp focus.
“I was thinking ‘Do I really want to be a graduate student in sociology?’ I had had a bad meeting with my advisor. A congregant came up to me after the service and said ‘I think you missed your calling. We don’t need another sociologist, we need you,’” Bromberg recalled. “I think that heightened the emotion and search for meaning.”
After wrestling with the notion of whether she should pursue becoming a rabbi or a cantor, Bromberg opted on the former after discovering Hebrew College, a pluralistic rabbinical school that had recently opened in Boston.
“It really was definitely the right place for me and pluralism was important to me,” said Bromberg, who was ordained in 2010. “And it was also about just wanting to be in a space that values the creation of the learning community.”
Building community and bringing meaning from Judaism into the lives of people today has continued to be a guiding mission for Rabbi Bromberg. Among her many roles is that of founder and president of Fat Torah, an organization that deals with weight stigma and is dedicated to building inclusive communities for every human body.
“It’s about using our tradition as a way of creating the kind of change we want to see in the world,” Bromberg said of her work. “It’s certainly about how the voices that haven’t been centered have something to teach us about what it means to be marginalized and how the entire society benefits when those people are given their voice.”
And though this Sunday’s workshop through Temple Adas Israel deals with issues related to the biblical Miriam and feminine power, Rabbi Bromberg stresses that it’s a program that everyone can find beneficial.
“I’ve done similar workshops in the past. People of all genders have attended and I feel they have definitely had something to learn,” said Rabbi Bromberg. “I think part of what I want to be doing is empowering people to do their own meaning-making, so that way it’s also relevant for people who are not Jewish.
“The key word is belonging and how do we create communities of belonging, especially when we also want those communities to be diverse? Conformity is one kind of potential belonging, but will it work in what is hopefully a more diverse society and community?” she asked. “What creates a true sense of belonging for all people? How can we sing together, not just in formal leadership, but all that we can take on, using our own voices in ways that create that sense of everyone belonging?
“All genders, all faiths or no faith at all. The real goal is to have a connection with the ancient text and the sense of it as being available to us as a resource for wholeness healing.”
“Miriam’s Song: Leaders Sing Their Way to Change” will be offered via Zoom through Sag Harbor’s Temple Adas Israel on Sunday, January 9, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. All are welcome. To register for this event, search Rabbi Minna Bromberg at eventbrite.com.