Rabbi Jan Uhrbach is at morning and evening services every day at the East 55th Street Conservative Synagogue. That she’s the first and only woman rabbi to lead a Manhattan shul with a daily minyan is one of her many distinctive steps in a distinguished and unusual rabbinic path.
The 44-year-old rabbi, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2003, joined the 150-member, 101-year-old synagogue this fall, after their leader of 40 years, Rabbi Reuven Siegel, retired.
The newly painted walls and not-yet-full bookshelves in Rabbi Uhrbach’s study at the back of the shul’s first floor are a pale backdrop to her vivid, soulful and powerful presence. She speaks about her plans and vision with an intelligence and intensity that hints of her background: She’s a Harvard-trained lawyer, a former partner in a large New York law firm who won awards throughout her rabbinical training and now teaches at JTS.
“I see my rabbinate as really focused on depth — taking the existing community and the new community that’s attracted to what we’re offering to a new level of depth in engaging with the Torah, in their prayer lives, in connections with each other,” she says. “There are a fair number of people looking for a deeper message — an opportunity to encounter each other, God and themselves in a more profound way.”
She hopes to accomplish this through teaching and by creating a prayer environment that’s conducive to service of the heart. In the synagogue’s January newsletter, she suggests, “Ideally, prayer involves a radical reorientation of our consciousness, raising out sights to nobler visions, enabling us to see ourselves and our concerns from the Divine perspective, even if only for a moment.”
“Services, then are not themselves prayer, any more than schools and lesson plans can be said to be learning. Prayer is something else, something internal, individual, an opening or shifting in the heart and soul. Prayer is an adventure,” she writes.
Talking about influences on her Jewish life and rabbinate, she mentions Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, where she was a longtime member, and the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
“I’m drawn to rabbis and thinkers always struggling on the edge of things, whose thinking is shaped by the combination of confrontation and conciliation of radically different world views,” she explains.
“For me that conciliation and conflict comes from a strong secular education that’s highly intellectual and rational, and the side of me that’s basically chasidic — not that I come from a chasidic background — but the texts that move me most are often from the hasidic tradition.”
Rabbi Uhrbach has been serving as founding rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons since December 1998 and will continue that role. During the summer months she’ll stay on Long Island and will be in Manhattan for the rest of the year. A JTS rabbinic intern will work with her in both places, and the communities will be linked in terms of membership, programming and distance learning.
Amid talk of mergers between congregations, hers is a new model: a linkage between two like-minded communities in different locations, where the rabbi, along with some congregants, shift places. In looking to grow the membership of East 55th Street, she’s looking toward empty nesters moving back to the city, single people and young families.
Rabbi Uhrbach grew up in Oceanside, L.I., and went to the Hebrew school of her Reform synagogue for three months before quitting. After graduating from Yale and Harvard Law School, she clerked for Federal District Judge Kimba M. Wood. She then joined Satterlee Stephens Burke & Burke, and was named a partner in January 1996. While she was happy practicing law, she felt it “was a great outlet for my intellect, but my emotional and religious life were checked at the door.”
In 1993, she “happened to wander into BJ” and began a self-directed course in Jewish study, learning Hebrew and studying texts, inspired in part by a sense of shame that she had such a good education but knew so little about her own tradition. She discovered that the philosophy she had developed for herself was actually a Jewish theology.
“When I decided to go into the rabbinate, it was very much with a sense of gratitude that I had found an entry point for myself. Rabbi Roly Matalon and the BJ community played a big role in my being drawn in. I remember very early on thinking that I could do this for someone else.”
Since arriving at East 55th Street, she’s introduced a more participatory Shabbat service, which she leads along with the cantor. The shul has recently begun a relationship with a homeless shelter, along with the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, and they’ve expanded their bikur cholim efforts.