There aren’t many places that Rory Katz, 31, hasn’t been. Katz, a fifth-year student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, currently serves as the rabbi at Chevrei Tzedek in Baltimore, but she’s spent extensive time in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Israel and Nepal, working for synagogues, schools and social justice organizations.
As she enters her final year of school, she spoke to the JT about how she made the decision to become a rabbi, the formation of her Jewish identity, and the importance of seeing a female rabbi in action.
When did you know you wanted to be a rabbi?
I started thinking about it in college. I went to Vassar College — that was the first time I really knew a rabbi who was a woman. Growing up, I just didn’t have any role models. My archetype of a rabbi [was a man] with a beard and a deep voice, who’s always comfortable with being in front of the room and always has the right answer. You know, in my imagination, that’s what a rabbi was, and that wasn’t ever something that I felt like I was going to be. But then I saw someone model a different type of rabbi.
And I always knew that community building was really important to me, and I really admired the way that happened at my Hillel in college. That just planted a seed.
Why did you go to Nepal?
I felt like the world was so big and I didn’t know anything. I didn’t want to just go to the next town over. I didn’t know anything about Nepal and that was why I chose it.
When I was in college and found out that there was an opportunity to go back, to learn more and to unpack my experience through this organization called the School for International Training, and I could study specifically culture and development, I jumped on the opportunity. And, in an interesting way, that semester in Nepal played a really key role for me in the development of my Jewish identity. All of a sudden, I was missing a part of my life that I’d taken for granted up to that point.
Also, there are things that Judaism has strikingly in common with Hinduism and Buddhism, at least the way they’re practiced in Nepal, in that they’re both very ritual-based religions where people do things on specific days, and don’t always know why it’s a custom.
The fact that you have that rhythm to the year, and that there are different moods and different textures and aesthetics associated with different times of the year and specific days, I think seeing it through the lens of a different religion made me really kind of appreciate and honor my own religion, to a deeper level.
You’re an alum of Avodah, the Jewish service corps, and the American Jewish World Service Global Justice Fellowship, which trains rabbis to advocate for human rights. How did those experiences shape you?
Avodah exposed me to the amazing diversity of Jewish religious organizations and communities of Chicago and it was really an ideal place for figuring out how I wanted to be Jewish. It helped with the process of starting to see rabbis as human beings instead of supernatural beings, which I had a little bit in my head.
My experience in the Global Justice Fellowship was during my first year of rabbinical school. It was a fellowship for rabbinical students specifically in order to learn more about how you could have an impact on global justice issues.
So for me, as somebody for whom the global justice piece came before my commitment to serving the Jewish community, it was a really perfect opportunity to feel oriented in the kind of rabbinate that I wanted to pursue.