A family bat mitzvah leads to a career as a rabbi


When Rabbi Jenni Greenspan was a child, her family attended a relative’s bat mitzvah ceremony. It was one of the first times she said she really engaged with the Jewish faith due to her more secular upbringing, being from an interfaith family with a father who was not Jewish and a mother who was not very involved in religion. Despite the fact that she was very young at the time, the experience changed her life forever.

Rabbi Jenni Greenspan (Courtesy)

“My sister had a very normal reaction of screaming and crying during the services since she was about 2 years old,” recalled Greenspan, 35. “But I was completely enraptured — just fascinated by the music and the Hebrew and the connection I could see.”

It was that fateful service that led her to pursue religious work and eventually become the new rabbi at the Conservative Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Md. She took on the job in July, when she and her husband, Brad Greenspan, relocated to the area.

Greenspan grew up in Southern California in the San Fernando Valley region. After that initial bat mitzvah experience, she began attending Hebrew school in third grade in nearby Northridge, Calif., and discovered that her parents were learning as much as she was from the program.

“I didn’t know all of that [Judaism] when I arrived in class,” said Greenspan. “But I started bringing things home to my parents, which is how I learned that even kids can teach their families. Slowly, my parents’ observance started to grow, and we got more involved.”

This culminated in her father converting to Judaism, as the temple her family attended did not allow non-Jews to stand on the bimah.

Though her involvement with religion grew steadily during her childhood, Greenspan did not decide she wanted to become a rabbi until she graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and found herself missing her Jewish community.

That point in her life, she explained, “was when I first started seeing women rabbis as role models. The young-adults program that I went to was run by a woman who was a rabbinical student at the time. And I went on a women’s retreat with my mom and met some really phenomenal women educators there. It kind of solidified that [being a rabbi] was a possibility.”

‘Opportunities to engage’

Greenspan enrolled in the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2014, graduating as an ordained rabbi in 2019. She served as the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, Ind. Then she started looking for a Conservative community where she could serve as a rabbi, which is what led her to Beth Shalom.

As someone who was largely secular until she developed her own interest in religious education, Greenspan is in a unique position as a rabbi and leader.

“One of the things I learned from my own upbringing is that engagement in Jewish life and tradition can come at any stage,” she said. “One of my goals here at Beth Shalom is to create opportunities to engage with people of all different ages, whether they’re someone who has a strong Jewish education and background or not.”

Greenspan said that she wants to encourage more Jewish learning among congregants at Beth Shalom. The synagogue’s adult-education program starts within the month, with the rabbi stating that she wants to create more art-based classes for the curriculum. She also plans to participate in the Howard County “Day of Learning” on Nov. 20.

“There will be a fair amount happening, and I’m looking forward to everything that’s going on as a new rabbi in the community,” said Greenspan. “We want to make programs for families with kids of all ages and for adults of all backgrounds. Those are some of my biggest dreams and hopes here.”

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