Meet Rabbi Atara, Jewish Teacher of the Week!

by Samuel Milligan / May 29, 2024

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!

Rabbi Atara and I meet one warm, windy, and pollen-heavy spring afternoon at Colada Shop for iced coffee, a little sun, and a wonderful chat about her romance-driven journey to the DMV, how reading and religion relate, “marinating” in Talmud, navigating anger within a divine relationship, and the instinct to duck.

Atara reads aloud at her wedding.

Samuel: Thanks so much for joining me this afternoon! Tell me about what brought you to the DMV.

Rabbi Atara: Most proximately, my spouse. I grew up and went to college and rabbinical school in the New York area. By the time I graduated, I was pretty sure I wanted to work in a pluralistic community. I taught middle school for three years, and it was great, but I was open to a change. I met my spouse, who is a DC lifer, and I offered to be the one to move once we realized we were serious. I found my job [with the EDCJCC] way sooner than I thought I would, and it is exactly the type of pluralistic community work that I wanted to be doing. 

Atara and her husband.I’m really excited by the idea of working not just with a particular demographic but with a wide range of folks, and being able to bring those folks together in the same room. There’s so much wisdom to be gained from having different people in the room with different life experiences. It’s a little difficult to make that happen; everyone is coming in with different struggles about why it’s hard for them to engage. Younger folks are busy; older folks might have accessibility issues or just might not know what’s going on.

I’m finding that the way to go is by actually building relationships and then directly inviting people to be a part of something. I’m currently [Editor’s note: as of our interview a few weeks back!] teaching a Beginner’s Talmud class, which is so fun. It’s a range of people from their early 30s to 75. They’re engaging with each other. They’re in havruta [Editor’s note: the practice of studying with peer groups] with each other. It’s a community.

Samuel: What’s an aspiration of yours with your work at the EDCJCC?

Rabbi Atara: I’m working on trying to make an artist’s beit midrash [Editor’s note: a house of study] happen – a place where people could come in and engage with Jewish ideas and texts in ways that are meaningful for them, but also share ideas about creativity and artistic skills.

A watercolor of a mountain by Atara.

Samuel: Well, when you put that together, you have my email address. Let me know. I know you’re really interested in Talmud learning and broadening access to that study – tell me about that work. 

Rabbi Atara: For the past 2000 years, Talmud was studied, basically, by men within a particular tradition who had the financial resources to study it. I am wildly lucky to have grown up in a community where everybody started learning Talmud in 6th grade. I’m good at Talmud because I’ve marinated in it for 20 years; that’s not tenable for most people. But [Talmud study] is so good, and it’s the building blocks of our tradition! Everybody who wants should have access to that, to the original of that text and see where our traditions come from – and be the arbiter of their own traditions and practice. 

In recent years, a lot has happened to open [Talmud study] up. One is the translation that went free online on Sefaria. Two, people of all backgrounds have realized: Hey, it’s kind of cool to do traditional things in my own way. So maybe I’m not super affiliated, but I can have a Shabbat practice and ideas about kashrut. That’s so cool. Third, there are places opening up that make that accessibility possible. I’m thinking of places like SVARA, which is a radical Queer yeshiva.

Atara reading in front of a window. I’m having a really good time giving people those tools and seeing people be able to recite passages of the Talmud in their own voice. It is different, because it is that person reciting those words; it is coming alive in a new way. 

Samuel: What else feels particularly important right now in your Jewish life?

Rabbi Atara: Like many Jews, I’m trying to navigate a relationship with prayer right now in a post-October 7th world. It’s a challenge point; I’m mad at God right now, and it is hard to come forward in a relationship when you’re really angry. It’s easier to just not engage in the relationship, which is true for people in all sorts of relationships. In lieu of that, I’ve been really leaning into Torah study, learning and teaching Torah, and leaning into texts that explore some of the big questions that might help me get back into a prayer space. 

I don’t know what to do with that anger, and I have a lot of meta feelings about that anger. The mature thing to do would be to talk about it and actually address the issue. I know other people do that – Hey, God, I’m angry right now! But it’s a lot of work, and I’m struggling to show up right now. 

Samuel: Switching gears. What does your dream DMV day look like?

Atara with her husband at the Kennedy Center..Rabbi Atara: I wake up and have a cup of coffee. My husband, Jon, makes coffee and is very into it. He weighs the beans.

Samuel: Is that a Covid-era hobby? I had friends who got into coffee the way other people got into sourdough. 

Rabbi Atara: It’s a marriage thing – we were able to register for fancy stuff. [My husband] is just better in the mornings than me, and I think he feels a little bit smug about it and being able to take care of me, but I love it, and he loves it, so it’s great. So, coffee, then I go to barre class – sometimes Jill Biden is there, which feels so DC. Then, Jon and I go to compost at the Dupont Circle farmer’s market, get brunch, and browse Kramer’s for a while. In the afternoon, we take a walk because it is really pretty just walking around DC – I mean, the allergies are killer, but it’s pleasant to just walk places. Then, we go to a 2000s music throwback party at the 9:30 Club.

Samuel: Is that the Killers? Britney Spears? My Chemical Romance? What kind of 2000s music are we talking?

Rabbi Atara: I want to reenact my bat mitzvah. Not the feelings – but Usher, early Beyonce, that type of stuff. I don’t actually want to relive my bat mitzvah. God forbid. But I really like dancing to the classic songs of my youth.

Atara dances at her wedding

Samuel: What’s something you’re bad at?

Rabbi Atara: Any sport that involves a ball. I have a healthy fear of projectiles and don’t feel the need to get over my instinct to duck. 

Samuel: What is something you’re obsessed with?

Rabbi Atara: Genre fiction. I love fantasy, romance, science fiction. I’m a very character- and plot-driven reader.

Samuel: Does that resonate Jewishly with you at all? 

Rabbi Atara: I’ve been thinking about this – with genre fiction, I think that reading imaginatively helps you think religiously. Like, C.S. Lewis, who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia – I read Narnia before I knew what Christianity was, so I read it and was like: This is great! I didn’t realize that Aslan was Jesus because I didn’t know who Jesus was – [Lewis] was this religious thinker who was writing fantasy, and in a certain way I see the rabbis building worlds themselves. It has different resonances for them, but the capacity to imagine helps religious thinking, and reading in general just helps you be empathetic.

Samuel: You can invite any three people to Shabbat dinner. Who are you bringing?

Rabbi Atara: I want to invite my grandfather, who passed away right before [Covid] lockdown. I hadn’t started dating Jon yet, and I’d really want him to meet Jon. They both love opera and fancy clothes and I feel like they’d really hit it off. I’d also like to talk to one of the dudes from the closing of the Talmud, just to ask: What is happening? Who was doing what? Because it’s a little unclear how the Talmud was finally ended, and I want to talk to someone to figure out what their project was and why they were doing this. And then, [I’d invite] Joan Nathan. I love cooking and I would love nothing more than to make matzo ball soup and for her to tell me it is good. That would make me really happy.

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

Rabbi Atara: Right now, they have so much angst. But God-willing, they will have some really great conversations with each other to help with that.

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