When she was growing up in suburban Detroit, it never occurred to Debra Newman Kamin that she would one day become a Rabbi.
That was largely because at that time, the job of conservative rabbi was exclusively a male role.
But in 1985, after she had graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Judaic Studies and spent three years studying in Israel, the Jewish Theological Seminary—the rabbinical school of Conservative Judaism—started to accept women. Newman Kamin returned to the States to begin her rabbinic studies.
It wasn’t so much a calling as synchronicity, she recalls. “It was a question of remarkably being in the right place at the exact right time. I truly had the sense of a path unfolding before me.”
Newman Kamin graduated from JTS in 1990 and took the position of Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Am Yisrael in Northfield. In 1994, she became their sole rabbi, and the first woman to lead a Conservative temple in the Chicago-land area. After 18 years in that role, she is one of the long-standing female pulpit rabbis in the Conservative movement.
“My faith is in the cosmic nature of the Jewish people,” she shares. “I believe in the spirituality of imperfection. The Torah reminds us that our ancestors were flawed people, sometimes deeply so.”
But Newman Kamin finds something liberating in that idea. “I know it’s clichéd, but we learn from our mistakes. Perfection is not the answer; it’s the journey that we take as we learn about our history, and ourselves,” she says.
One of the Rabbi’s favorite quotes comes from French philosopher—and Jesuit priest—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.”
She explains, “In some other traditions, in a spiritual com- munity, one may be separated from daily life. But Judaism insists that you have to be on the spiritual path in the midst of your life, your family, your work—it’s messy. But that is the true life we live, as children, parents, spouses, co-workers; it’s hard to do, but we as Jews believe we can’t conceive of spiritual life without real-life intrusions. The message is not to separate yourself from the community; we’re all on the journey together.”
Rabbi Newman Kamin shares her journey with husband Daniel Kamin, an adjunct professor at DePaul University, and children Shai, Zachary and Charlotte.