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Healy Slakman: Living with Curiosity, Boldness, and a Sense of Awe

By Fran Dauth

The Micah committee named to search for Debra Winter’s replacement as Director of Spiritual Arts was not looking to add another rabbi to the staff. But in the end, the committee did add a rabbi—and far more. Healy Slakman “was everything we were looking for—and more. Her voice is gorgeous, her guitar playing beautiful. She exudes warmth and enthusiasm when she’s on the bima,” said Jodi Enda, the co-chair of the search committee. 

“And while we did not start out looking for another rabbi, the fact that she soon will be ordained means that Healy will engage fully in the temple’s intellectual and philosophical pursuits as well as in its musical endeavors,” Enda said.  She thought it was safe to say on behalf of all the search committee members that when Healy accepted the job offer, “we felt as if we’d struck gold.”

Below are the answers Healy Slakman, Micah’s newly appointed Director of Spiritual Arts, gave to questions the Vine posed to her while she prepared her rabbinic dissertation at Hebrew Union College. You might say they prove Enda is right about striking gold.

Where did you grow up (oh, and how old are you)?

Born to a couple of restless wandering Jews, I grew up all over the place. Early childhood in San Francisco, youth in St. Louis, teenage years in Atlanta. I continued the restless legacy and moved to St. Petersburg, Florida; Jerusalem for a bit; and finally, Brooklyn. Amidst the moving and readjusting, a constant in my life was spending each summer in Ramla, Israel, where my dad’s family lives. I am 28.

Is there a story behind your first name?

My name is Hebrew. Healy Shir (איה יל ריש (means she is my song/she is to me a song). Music and song obviously ended up being a huge part of my life and spirit…very lucky guess, if you ask me.

Where did you do your undergraduate studies? What was your major?

I went to college at a small liberal arts school in St Petersburg, Florida called Eckerd College. It’s an interesting place. Elie Wiesel was secretly a professor there every winter term. And there was an environmental scuba diving club called “Scubi Jew.” I studied business administration with minors in finance and visual arts. I know it’s an unusual combination.

When were you a rabbinic intern at Micah? What primarily did you do while at Micah and did any of it affect your studies?

I was a rabbinic intern at Micah during the summer of 2021. I learned from and with the clergy team, learned about Micah’s history and community, led services and rituals, spent time with amazing people, worked on the Elul project, etc. I was inspired to be a part of a community curious about authenticity, learning, and building contemporary Jewish life together, and energized to discover that Micah people really believe that things matter. I was compelled by the energy paired with commitment, and by the seriousness paired with flexibility and openness. The time I spent at Micah was a totally revitalizing and formative experience on my path to the rabbinate and I learned a lot about thinking deeply and engaging honestly.

Tell me a little bit about your family. I am intrigued by your description of a Sephardic-Ashkenazi-Israeli-American home.

My mom comes from a relatively assimilated, midwestern American, Russian/Romanian Jewish family. My dad comes from a relatively traditional, Tunisian Sephardic family that immigrated to a development town in Israel during the ‘50s and ‘60s. I strive to explore and embody both of these origin stories in my Jewish interests and practices. And my identity has been totally influenced by fusions, contradictions, and negotiations between multiple traditions, melodies, flavors, and sensibilities from different parts of the Jewish world.

When did you know you wanted to be a rabbi?

That’s a hard question I am not sure how to answer. Thinking about, doing, learning, and exploring Judaism has always been an essential part of who I am. And I am so excited to continue in the context of intentional Jewish community.

Music is clearly an interest. Tell us why it is important to you spiritually.

Music is such an important thread in Judaism. From mourning to celebrating, music has the capacity to ground us in tradition and/ or help us forge completely new paths. And I think that music can help us feel connected to something bigger while simultaneously feeling more grounded in ourselves. There are so many spiritual opportunities that can grow from being present in a musical moment—from listening, to meditating, to contributing, to thinking, to sharing.

When developing my conception of spirituality, and when I reflect upon experiences that have helped me feel connected to something bigger as well as myself, I think of dancing and singing in community. I think of cramped sweaty spaces, voices coming together, catching eyes, holding breath, silence after song, harmony, joy and sadness all cultivated together. The power of witnessing, creating, and sharing energy in the context of song reminds me of God’s unity on one hand, and my own capacity to both feel it and contribute to it on the other. Music helps me feel present and engaged in the truth and mystery moment.

One aside: I [Fran Dauth] am quite taken by your “Sex Workers and Farts” piece, published online last year by BE’CHOL LASHON, an organization that believes diversity is a crucial part of Judaism. What kind of reaction did it get?

I often find myself in conversations about how to make Judaism “accessible,” “relevant,” or “edgy.” The more I learn about our rituals, texts, and stories, the more I realize we really don’t need to make Judaism anything. It already is. Our traditions are fundamentally intriguing, deep, and expansive, and for me a big part of being a rabbi is exploring the riches of our tradition with others. We have certain quotes that are popular and widely circulated, and I am interested in bringing to the forefront the fact that there are so many other incredible passages.

For example, I wrote the “Sex Workers and Farts” piece to draw attention to a lesser known but shocking, debatably funny, and totally powerful story in the Talmud (all in the context of exploring the high holiday themes of forgiveness and ego). I got all sorts of reactions. Mostly, people were surprised to learn that the Talmud contains fascinating, creative, and far-fetched stories. People were also excited to delve deeper into a story that doesn’t shy away from topics that are often seen as taboo—potentially and a little extra thrilling and freeing.

I know from my friend Google that you are an accomplished cook. How did that start? I sense an interest in Tunisian food, am I right?

I love cooking and learning about Jewish food. Over the past years I’ve become really interested in learning all sorts of Jewish cooking traditions. I’m especially interested in Jewish North African food because I am inspired by my grandmother (Savta Geisel) who (like many women) builds Jewish community and engages in tradition through cooking. I think many dishes can be understood as cultural artifacts that tell the story of communities through textures and flavors. Food stands at the juncture between past and present, absence and endurance, conjuring into existence people and events long gone, while simultaneously taking on sensibilities of the present moment.

And Jewish foods uniquely tell a story of Judaism that’s not only intellectual but embodied. For example, almost every family has a special recipe for chicken soup, reflecting diverse expressions of Jewish identity from region to region, but also, I suggest, the universal Jewish value of warmth, nurturing, and healing of body and soul. Also, while classical Jewish religious literature (law, commentary, mystical texts) is often produced by and attributed to men, Jewish recipes represent the work of women, community members who are always present but rarely canonized.

Music, food, writing are interests — are there others, like travel?

Music, food, writing, painting, running. And yes, I love to travel. I love being outside and having adventures. And I value learning about and connecting with people, places, cultures and stories. To me, being in relationship with God means being in relationship with life, and living my own with curiosity, boldness, and a sense of awe.

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of the Vine.

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