Meet Amelia, Jewish Rav of the Week!

by Samuel Milligan / November 22, 2023

The GatherDC blog strives to present a holistic portrait of the DMV’s Jewish community, sharing a wide variety of Jewish voices and perspectives. If you have a 20- or 30-something to nominate as our Jewish Person of the Week or for a Spotted in Jewish DMV feature, please email us!

Meet Rav Amelia Wolf of Congregation Etz Hayim! We met at Arlington’s Northside Social to talk about Jewish climate advocacy, the overlap of science fiction and Torah, and how LGBTQ+ Jews are adopting, adapting, and creating Jewish tradition. So, join us over carrot cake lattes and a whole bunch of off-mic book recommendations to meet Rav Amelia!

Samuel: You joined Congregation Etz Hayim in July. What was the moment here in Arlington where you realized this could be home?

Amelia: The very first one I had was leaving a Zoom interview. Someone was like: Oh, you’re in a good mood. And people usually aren’t in a good mood after a Zoom call! But there was something about the ease of interaction, the friendliness, the openness, that put me in a good mood. It was a green flag. 

Then, my wife and I came to visit. I was so focused on performance that it was hard to evaluate the feel of things, so I was leaning on her. Do you feel scrutinized? Do you feel welcome? And she really liked the shul and Arlington, which was so important. [Congregation Etz Hayim] asked me to give a talk on “Big Tent Judaism.” People disagreed with each other and me with such respect and kindness. They asked questions. They participated. That was another sign that this is a great place; people are not too shy to disagree with each other, but are doing so while respecting the best in one another. We’re losing that a lot, in this country and around the world. It was another moment when I thought to myself: This is a very good place.

But, it wasn’t until I said yes that I knew it was right. It was the feeling after I said yes. I thought I’d feel scared or thrilled, and instead I felt like I had a home I was going to, not just a job. 

Samuel: What is really resonating for you Jewishly right now? 

Amelia: Shabbat. It’s the cliche answer, but I hold onto it with both hands. I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about what Shabbat is to me when I have to be “on” for Shabbat. I can no longer say I’m not working on Shabbat when I am there to lead my congregation. There’s a clarity, though, in figuring out how I am still keeping the essence of Shabbat. One thing is: no emails! I’m joking, but it’s very real. I don’t use my phone or computer. I have to be completely present wherever I am. Yes, I am “on” in the morning, but I’m with people. 

Then, in the afternoon, that time is completely mine. And my wife’s. And my cat’s. But, I can nap, or read, and there’s no part of me that feels like I need to be checking emails or preparing something. I can be cut off from capitalist-driven hustle culture feelings. I really want American, 21st-century Jews – but also everybody – to learn something from that. 

Samuel: You’ve talked in the past about Jewish climate advocacy. What does that look like for you? 

Amelia: I had the opportunity to intern with Dayenu in rabbinical school. To me, climate advocacy is the most insistent overlap between social justice advocacy and divine obligation straight from God. Humanity and God demand that we keep the Earth as a place where we can all live. It is the existential issue for everyone. For people who focus on Jewish continuity, it is the Jewish continuity – the human continuity – issue, too. 

I’ve heard from people who ask why I don’t work on behalf of the climate “just” as a person, instead of [specifically] as a Jew. I think we should all be working on [climate change] as human beings; regardless of what attachments we have, this is going to come for all of us.

But, if I give up on the Jewish need for [climate action], if I believe – which I don’t – that Jewish culture, civilization, text, religion, faith, and people don’t have something to say from our tradition about this, then that is saying that all of Judaism doesn’t care about the Earth, the world, and humanity. Which is ridiculous! That would be a reason to drop Judaism. If you thought your religion, your God, your people, your faith, your civilization – however you define Jewishness – doesn’t care if we continue to live on this Earth, then what is the point of anything that we’ve cared about? 

Samuel: How has your identity as a queer woman shaped your personal religious practice? 

Amelia: It used to make everything harder, in some ways. I remember not being able to imagine what my wedding or Jewish community would look like because I didn’t think there was a traditional Jewish wedding full of the traditional Jewish community that could be mine. Now, thank God, I’ve found the opposite to be true. But, for a while, I wasn’t sure where there was room for me. 

Once I realized that there was room, and that I didn’t have to exhaust myself fighting to scratch that space out – people did that before me, and I am indebted to them – I realized I could devote my energy to thinking about what I wanted that space to look like. It’s encouraged me to be far more conscious about what choices I make and how Jewish ritual and law apply to my life, to my relationship. For some people, it’s default; they don’t need to rethink or create, or don’t feel like they have the freedom to do so, because this is what their parents did, or this is how it has been modeled for them.

Because some of [the Jewish tradition] is new, it’s given me, my wife, and other queer Jews that I know and love the opportunity to say: I want to think critically about this and either adopt or adapt what’s already there. Or, say: This isn’t going to work for us, I’m going to create something new. Either way, it gives us freedom.

Also, this isn’t often talked about outside of Orthodox Jewish communities, but the laws and frameworks around menstruation and mikvah are something I’m interested and passionate about. Those laws have never been thought to apply to a relationship like mine. I want to encourage people to think about how that could apply to their lives. They could be straight and want to talk about it, too. People in non-Orthodox communities just don’t necessarily talk about mikvah, menstruation, and their bodies; I want to provide room for that, because there’s a lot to be learned and discussed there. 

Rav Amelia at a Purim celebration!

Samuel: What is something else you wish that more people would ask you about?

Amelia: I think Torah and science fiction and fantasy have a lot to say to each other. In an overarching, deep way – and I feel passionate about this when it comes to fiction and stories in general – there is a difference between what is “true” and what is factual. Sometimes, incredible truths about the world are best found in stories, in fiction. In science fiction or fantasy, your imagination is in overdrive, you’re applying your experience of the real world and creating a whole new world out of that. You can say things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to say. I see it in Torah, too. There is a lot in the Torah that I don’t take literally. But, even if I don’t think X, Y, or Z factually happened, some of the truest words in the universe are still in there.

I’m really into text study. There are a lot of ways to do it, and people can gain the tools to do it. It takes hard work. But, we have this idea that so much of Jewish learning is behind locked doors, or it’s only for men, or only for straight people, or only for people in yeshiva, or only for people with the ability to spend tons of money on books…none of that is true. It might take hard work, but barriers are lowering every day to be able to study, and I always want to help with that. 

Samuel: What is something you’re bad at?

Amelia: I am not good at pulling a tune out of nothing. If someone starts a tune, I can keep it. But, when someone is like “Oh, you should use this tune for this prayer” and I haven’t heard [the tune] immediately before…it’s gone.

Samuel: You can invite any three people – living, dead, real, fictional, whoever – to Shabbat dinner. Who are you inviting and why? 

Amelia: One: a random person who was there for the Revelation on Mt. Sinai. I’d want to hear from them what it was like, what they actually heard from God, and what the essence of the commandments they received were. 

Two: my Zayde (my mother’s father), of blessed memory. I would love one more meal with him to learn from him. And, I want him to see how right he was in his guidance to me and how with his help I was able to build up a life based on it. 

Three: Yalta. She was a figure in the Talmud, the daughter of the leader of the Jewish community in Babylonia and wife of a prominent rabbi, that has a reputation in the text for taking matters into her own hand and demanding – sometimes, angrily – to be recognized and heard. One time, she destroyed the hundreds of casks of wine in her household after a guest insulted her by saying women shouldn’t drink from the ritual wine blessed after the grace after meals. Honestly I would just love to get to know her.

Samuel: Last one. Finish the sentence: When Jews of the DMV gather…

Amelia: I’m still new. I want to find out!

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