Rabbi Hannah Dresner wants “to come to know my congregation and the culture of Jewish Vancouver, to understand what the needs are and draw from our great tradition.” (photo from Rabbi Hannah Dresner)
Vancouver’s Congregation Or Shalom welcomed Rabbi Hannah Dresner as its spiritual leader this summer, recruiting her from Berkeley, Calif., where she was working part-time for Congregation Netivot Shalom, teaching niggun and meditation, and traveling broadly to hold spiritual retreats.
Dresner, a mother of three who grew up in Springfield, Mass., was ordained in January 2014 and worked previously as a visual artist and professor of fine arts. At Northwestern University, she taught painting and visual aspects of directing for graduate students in theatre direction.
“My artwork has always had a spiritual content, but I felt I needed further enrichment in developing the content of my work,” she said of her decision to seek ordination in the Jewish Renewal movement. “I began to study, got caught up in the study of Chassidic texts and became very enchanted with the imagery and worldview. I see the resultant shift of my professional energy to the rabbinate as another aspect of being an artist. I’m building my life as a work of art, and this is just another way of reaching people in a more direct manner.”
Her spiritual leadership at Or Shalom comes at an important time, she added, because it follows the recent death of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of Jewish Renewal. Dresner has tremendous respect for the congregation’s founding rabbis, Daniel Siegel and Hanna Tiferet Siegel, and for Laura Duhan Kaplan, the rabbi who stepped back just over a year ago. “I consider them to be visionary people and I feel like, because of its strong rabbinical leadership in the past, Or Shalom is a community that’s primed and ripe for learning – head, heart, body and spirit,” said Dresner, who took over the congregation’s spiritual leadership from Louis Sutker, rabbi during the transition period.
Dresner grew up the child of a Frankfurt-born mother with an Orthodox background, and a father from the American Midwest, from a highly assimilated family. “Ours was a hybrid family that embraced an observant culture and engaged in a lot of social activism,” she noted.
She plans to develop Or Shalom’s musical davening program and Shabbat observance, to strengthen its b’nai mitzvah program, and to present varied adult education programs “that reach out not just to enrichment of our intellects but also offer points of entry that are more heart-centred.”
This fall, there is a midrash program on women in the Bible, beginning with the character of Tamar. Another new program is on spiritual eldering. “It will begin with a life review and talk about an evaluation of our lives, looking to the end of life with the perspective of wanting to live into our very fullest selves,” she said.
Dresner is also planning a davening laboratory where congregants can learn parts of the liturgy and practise their davening skills.
“As a rabbi, I think about Judaism as a treasure chest that speaks to all our human concerns,” she reflected. “I want to come to know my congregation and the culture of Jewish Vancouver, to understand what the needs are and draw from our great tradition – halachic, agadic, liturgical and Chassidic – in answering our real, current, human questions and concerns. I think these are very deep wells of wisdom that remain alive if we keep them alive.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.