By MYRON LOVE
Rebecca Chess credits their home congregation – Temple Shalom – with starting their Jewish spiritual journey that is leading them to a life as a rabbi.
“I really appreciate that my parents (Jim Chess and Karyn Glass) chose to become members of Temple Shalom,” says Chess who came out as Queer in 2016 and non-binary a couple of years ago. “I had often felt ostracized, that I didn’t fit in. At Temple Shalom, there is a sense that everyone is welcome.”
Chess grew up in River Heights where they were initially a student at Brock Corydon School’s Hebrew Bilingual program. They finished their elementary schooling at Montrose School and attended high school at St. Mary’s Academy.
Chess left Winnipeg in 2013 for university in Toronto. “It was important for me to leave home to grow and learn who I was as a person,” they say. “I really loved being in Toronto. I enjoyed the freedom to explore who I was and what I wanted to be.”
Chess observes that they didn’t try to connect with a Jewish community while in their first two years of study at the University of Toronto. In third year, however, they were attracted to a new Hillel rabbi who helped return them to their personal spiritual quest.
“We began working together to reach out to other Jewish members of the LGBTQ2IA community,” Chess recalls. “We started a discussion group called Rainbow Jews in order to create a supportive Jewish community for us, a community based on Jewish tradition in an effort to heal the sense of alienation. Many of us had experienced a lot of pain growing up in Jewish communities that were not inclusive.
“That experience through Hillel refreshed my love of community.”
While at university, Chess was also involved in the theatre community. Following graduation (with a major in English Literature and minor in Jewish Studies), they chose to pursue a career in film as a producer’s assistant.
“It was grueling work, really stressful,” they recall. “There was a lot of yelling. After nine or ten months, I began questioning if this was what I really wanted to do. About that time, my best friend went into the hospital. While looking around the office, I began to think about my values, what impact I wanted to have in the world and if film could fulfill them
“The next day, I Googled how to become a rabbi.”
They further contacted their Hillel rabbi for direction.
“As I had grown up at Temple Shalom, I decided to seek ordination through the Reform Movement, “ they say.
In 2019 they began their rabbinic studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus. Chess explains that the path to ordination is a five-year program with the first year spent studying in Israel. They spent last year in Jerusalem.
“I made a pact with myself to go to Israel with an open mind,” Chess says. I found the country to be amazing. The country is beautiful and enriching. I was challenged by the complexity of the society. It was a blessing to be in a place where I could engage in Judaism without having to deal with the conflict of living Jewishly in a non-Jewish society.”
Chess adds that they also often found it trying. “There is also a lot that needs to change,” they comment. “I left Israel with a sense of responsibility for the challenges that need to be addressed.”
This year, Chess was supposed to be beginning their studies state-side at the LA campus. Due to Covid, however, they have been back home in Winnipeg for the past few months and, as with many students, learning online via Zoom.
“The plan is hopefully to be in LA next year,” they note.
One of the requirements of the HUC program is that rabbinical students – beginning in second year – gain first-hand pulpit experience through becoming visiting rabbis for small North American congregations – a program from which Temple Shalom has benefitted when the congregation has been between rabbis.
Chess’s congregation is Shir Ami – with about 60 family units – in Castro Valley, California. “It has been a nice experience serving the congregation online,” they note. “There are also advantages to being in contact this way – rather than just going out to the community one weekend a month. Although the congregation can’t have Torah services, I am just a click away on Zoom for anyone who wants to contact me.
“For example, I have a bat-mitzvah student I am able to work with every second week online.”
Over Yom Tov, Chess assisted Temple Shalom’s Rabbi Allan Finkel and Cantor Len Udow in leading Sukkot services.
“I am surprised at how much I enjoy studying Torah,” they say. “I feel an ancestral connection, that I am part of a long line of students studying Mishna and Talmud.
“I have found my place and am excited about what is still to come.”