How Zoom Judaism led me to train as a rabbi

Anna Dyson from Leeds is now a student at a transdenominational rabbinic academy in California


In her early 20s Anna Dyson had been talking about entering the rabbinate. But her aspiration might never have become a possibility had it not been for lockdown.

When Jewish communal life migrated online after the outbreak of the pandemic, “the world opened up to me,” the mother of three from Leeds recalled. And that eventually brought her to where she is now, as a distance student at the Academy of Jewish Religion California (AJRCA) in Los Angeles, a rabbinic training academy of a kind not found in the UK since it is neither Orthodox or Progressive but calls itself “transdenominational”.

Dyson grew up “bouncing on my dad’s knee in the front row of Finchley Reform Synagogue [FRS]”, became northern fieldworker for the Reform youth movement RSY-Netzer and relocated in 2003 after “I met and fell in love with a man from Leeds”.

Although having considered the rabbinate, she said, “It didn’t feel like the right time” when she was younger. “My belief is everything is for a reason and the more you allow life to happen, the more it becomes clear that life is happening in that way.”

But she did embark on a synagogue career as youth and community development worker for Sinai, the Reform congregation in Leeds. After starting a family - her twin sons and daughter are now teenagers - she became a social action volunteer, launching a project called ToastLoveCoffee, which began as a pop-up and then ran as a cafe on the high street until Covid. “It was a space for people in the city, particularly welcoming to newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees… For me it was a Jewish project but…not institutionally Jewish, it was an expression of my Jewish values in the world.”

Under lockdown, “I retreated back into my Jewish learning”, she said. “Living in Leeds, it used to feel the only option for me was my local Reform synagogue. I would stream FRS [pre-Covid] but it felt very detached. Suddenly with everything being on Zoom, it was wonderful to feel equal with everyone else. We were all zooming in. And FRS, there’s a lovely community of FRS Zoomers still on a Friday night for services. FRS has done that so brilliantly to include people who physically can’t be in the building.”

As the idea of rabbinic training returned, she began looking for somewhere accessible while she remained Leeds-based.

When she and her online study partner, Rabbi Marcia Plumb - former rabbi of several London shuls but now in Boston - were “googling around” for suitable institutions, both came up with the pluralist “Academy of Jewish Religion”. But while Rabbi Plumb’s online search landed on AJR in New York, Dyson found AJR in Los Angeles and she was instantly enchanted by the website. “It was colourful, it was post-denominational, it was inclusive and inviting.”

AJRCA was originally founded as a branch of the New York institution in 2001 but went its separate ways. In 2013, it was the first seminary to appoint an Orthodox woman, Dr Tamar Frankiel, as its head and its faculty includes the Sephardi Talmudist, Rabbi Haim Ovadia.

“I was looking for something that is imagining a Judaism that is serving the 21st century,” she said. “Of course, that was pre-October 7, which has changed a lot in my mind and in the Jewish world obviously.”

Although she did come across an online course that promised to make her “Rabbi Anna Dyson” in a year, she wanted something that “was deep and academically rigorous” as well as encouraging creativity and innovation. And so after first enrolling for online classes at AJRCA in August 2022, she joined its rabbinic programme a year later.

The institution is geared towards more mature, part-time students, and while an eight-hour time distance might sometimes pose a challenge for the institution’s only British recruit, she is able to study virtually. AJCRA has also been flexible about whether she need attend all three annual in-person gatherings but she did make it to California for her first retreat - a test since she is “a nervous traveller”.

“The ruach [spirit] was unbelievable. It was uplifting and positive and especially post October 7 to immerse myself in that environment was such a gift,” she said.

AJRCA trains chaplains and cantors as well as rabbis and the singing at the retreat was “amazing. It was the frst time apart from Yom Kippur I had davened shacharit, minchah and maariv in one day and we took our time with it.”

Everyone has their own piece of Torah in their pocket

Out in Los Angeles, she also had the chance to visit over Shabbat one of the new independent minyanim which are not denominationally tied that have sprung up in the USA over the past couple of decades, Ikar led by Rabbi Sharon Brous (a visitor to Limmud UK a few years ago). “I aspire to bring some of her magic over here,” Dyson said.

As an example of the academy’s pluralism, she said her current course on Jewish lifecycle rituals uses textbooks from both traditional and Progressive textbooks.

Illustrating its creative approach, she said that during a two-week intensive on what makes for authentic Jewish living today, one of the leaders, Neshama Carlebach (the musician daughter of Shlomo Carlebach) said that “everyone has their own piece of Torah in their pocket” and invited each participant to produce their own. “It was a very personal spiritual journey where by the end of the it, I had my piece of Torah which will inform any platform on which I speak as a student rabbi, or rabbi. It helped deepen my articulation of what I believe.”

While AJR is pluralist and has Orthodox faculty, it probably suits more “Progressive-minded” students, she said.

Among its students she has experienced a diversity which is not so available in the UK. Her retreat roommate was a Malaysian woman whose spiritual search led her to Judaism. A friend is Jenni Asher, who studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and is due to be the first black woman ordained as a cantor.

“The tapestry of different people’s stories where we all share the same passion for the deep wisdom and spiritual connection of Judaism is really special,” she said.

Where her studies take her she does not know yet. But she feels many British Jewish institutions are not operating at their optimum - FRS is an outstanding exception and JW3 she thinks is doing “a pretty good job”. She would like to “offer something new” as she did with the cafe.

In the meantime, Bradford City Council engages her as a Jewish tutor in local schools, hosting visits to the local Reform synagogue. She is also the Jewish chaplain for Bradford University. “We don’t know if there are any Jewish students or staff,” she said, “but if there are, they can contact me.”

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