By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – As a third year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Jessica Dell’Era spent part of the last school year as a student rabbi at The Emanuel Synagogue.
She travelled to West Hartford one weekend a month to lead services for both children and adults and to deliver divrei Torah (words of Torah).
Now in her fourth year, Dell’Era is once again serving as a student rabbi at Emanuel as part of JTS’s Jack and Pearl Resnick Internship program.
All fourth-year JTS rabbinical students participate in the Resnick internship, usually spending 15 hours a week at a synagogue in the greater New York area. But Covid-19 has changed all that. This year, several JTS students are interning at synagogues outside of New York for the first time, gaining important experience remotely.
“JTS students have had internships at congregations in the New York area for a long time,” says Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, associate dean of the JTS Rabbinical School and the director of its field study. “What’s new is that we’ve never been able to place these particular types of interns in a place like [Emanuel Synagogue] because they have to go every single week; it’s a 400-hour internship during the year. This probably wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for COVID; it just would have added cost to travel. If it were just a regular year, our students would probably do [home] hospitality and stay in someone’s house, but nobody wants anyone staying in their houses now. She could have taken the train, which isn’t so expensive, but now, people don’t want to take public transportation.”
Dell’Era began her new virtual internship at Emanuel in mid-July after the retirement of Cantor Sanford Cohn. In addition to her previous role at the synagogue, which she continues, she has become more involved in lifecycle activities, attends staff and committee meetings, and learns from her mentor, Rabbi David Small.
“Last year Jessica was with Emanuel for select weekends; this year she is working with us every week both weekday, holidays and Shabbat. Jessica is a welcome and impactful contributor to our leadership Team,” says Rabbi David Small, spiritual leader of The Emanuel Synagogue. “She views each aspect of Jewish life with a fresh and meaningful perspective. Whether she is leading a new song or a tune for a prayer, or a story or teaching from Jewish tradition, Jessica finds a way to help people connect.”
A native of Marin County, California, Jessica Dell’Era grew up in a family that was Catholic but, as she describes it, “totally secular.”
“We nominally celebrated Christmas and Easter but there was zero religious content,” she explains. “I always had a sense of something beyond myself, but I literally didn’t have the language to articulate it.”
As an undergrad at Pomona College in Southern California, her two best friends were Jewish, and she would often listen to their long talks, and sometimes their arguments, about Judaism.
“I listened to what they were saying, and the more I learned about Judaism from them, I found that it was really in line with what I had figured out in my own internal value system,” she says.
That fall she went to Hillel with her friends during Sukkot, and soon after another Jewish friend invited her to a Shabbat dinner at Hillel.
“It just resonated with me in a way that nothing else ever had. It was really surprising, you know? The music and the sort of intentionality of it, and the community of wonderful people…I started coming with my friends regularly,” she recalls. “Nobody challenged me about why I was there and who I was…I was really thankful that nobody pushed me at that point because I probably would have run.”
She went on to attend graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley, studying education.
“I really missed Judaism. I missed the rhythm of Shabbat,” she explains.
She got a list of local Jewish congregations and, starting from the top, began going to services. The first congregation she found unfriendly and the second one was not for her either.
The third one, Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, California was the charm.
“I sat in the corner in the back by myself, and someone immediately came over to me and introduced himself: ‘Hi, I’m Andy. This is my wife Sarah and our daughter. Can we sit with you tonight?’”
Dell’Era became a regular at the synagogue…but no one there knew she wasn’t Jewish.
At a Simchat Torah service, when she refused to carry the Torah or have an aliyah, Rabbi Mark Bloom asked what was wrong.
“You’re so knowledgeable and engaged, I don’t understand why you can’t hold the scroll,” he said.
“Because I’m not Jewish,” she answered – then added, “But I want to be Jewish.
“We need to talk about that,” said the shocked rabbi.
From there it was a fairly short journey to conversion.
Already able to read Hebrew after learning it at Hillel services in college, she began studying by taking an introduction to Judaism class. Nine months later, she underwent conversion.
Rabbi Bloom, who had become a mentor, suggested she join the local Jewish Federation’s Young Adult Leadership Initiative, where she developed leadership skills and learned more about the Jewish community. He also began asking her to do parts of the Shabbat service, and she began teaching at the Hebrew school and tutoring b’nai mitzvah students.
After finishing graduate school Dell’Era worked as a bilingual elementary school teacher for Spanish-speaking students at a California public school for nine years.
She often thought about becoming a rabbi but felt she wasn’t prepared for such an undertaking after taking a peek at the JTS website. But after a difficult romantic break-up, and starting to burn out in her role as a public school teacher, she reconsidered the idea.
“I said, okay, what do I really want to be doing with my life? Becoming a rabbi was still in my brain somewhere,” she recalls.
She applied to JTS and was accepted. She spent a year studying at The Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and attended a summer course at JTS to catch up with the other rabbinical students.
She began her first stint as student rabbi at The Emanuel Synagogue during the High Holidays.
“Literally my first day at Emanuel was almost exactly a year ago – on the first day of Rosh Hashanah – and I led the family service,” she says. “I was super intimidated; I didn’t really know what to expect. But I immediately felt at ease in the community, and the people there were very supportive.”
From then on, every month, Dell’Era would travel to West Hartford to lead a participatory musical Shabbat service. She led a learner’s service on Shabbat mornings and then led the children’s service. She delivered the d’var Torah at many Shabbat morning services and taught Torah study sessions, and some adult education.
During those weekends she stayed at the homes of different congregants.
Then Covid hit – and Dell’Era’s duties at Emanuel became virtual.
After a break during the month of June, she began her Resnick internship at Emanuel in July. (She may also begin work at the University of Hartford Hillel as part of a JTS program working to engage millennials, but that is still in the planning stages.)
“It’s great to be in a place like The Emanuel Synagogue; a community that’s well established, and where you know people are relatively engaged and involved. It’s a place that I can get a lot of experience. The really valuable part is that you’re supposed to be more integrated into the internal workings of the organization so I’m going to staff meetings and committee meetings,” Dell’Era says
“Rabbi Small’s mentorship and modeling is very valuable, but I’m also learning from Barbara Fink, the education director; [the office staff] and the ritual director, Moshe Pinchover, and about all of the sort of other things that are going on behind the scenes. It’s all very, very valuable.”
And Emanuel is benefitting from Jessica’s experience, as well.
“Jessica is most interested in teachings and experiences that help us make sense of our lives, weather challenges, make peace where there is conflict and create a better world. Her intellectual, musical, organizational and interpersonal abilities help bring the experience of being Jewish to life,” says Small.
“Her beautiful voice and hopeful yet challenging messages lift our spirits and encourage us to try to be the best humans we can be. In the times we are living in, this is a true gift.”