After ten years as the spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai Israel in Danbury, CT, Rabbi Vivie Mayer, '96, joined the RRC faculty as director of the preparatory Mekhinah year and of the Bet Midrash, RRC's dynamic center for hevrutah — partnered study and communal Jewish learning. Mayer is the first to hold the position, which was new as of the 2006-07 academic year.
The creation of Mayer's new position addresses a core question that came out of faculty-student discussions at RRC: How can students attend to the sacred and interpersonal elements of their experience, alongside nuts-and-bolts issues such as what to study and for how long?
Mayer had to find a related balance in her position at B'nai Israel. "The activity of being a rabbi is really about being with people's hearts and in their lives. What they want is you. The fact that I do this through Torah and through Judaism — that's my particular language."
Mayer, who grew up modern Orthodox in Queens, NY, has a background in Jewish education and was drawn toward social work. It wasn't until her late 20s that she realized she could teach and counsel, while expressing her own passion for Torah, by becoming a rabbi. She entered RRC in 1989; as a student, she initiated and taught what is now the Learner's Minyan, a how-to course for Mekhinah-year students. She also taught the Jewish Traditions class, designing syllabi that integrated text study with learning Jewish practice.
Some 16 years later, Mayer teaches Jewish Traditions once again at RRC. In the Bet Midrash, she is available to help students master Hebrew language and interpret text. And she helps new generations of rabbis see how the technical knowledge they gain connects naturally with the spiritual depth they seek.
Mayer believes her role in the Bet Midrash evolves through her interactions with students. She describes the Bet Midrash as "a lively and animated scene where hevrutaot (study pairs) are engaged in inquiry, discussion and argument as they seek out the meaning embedded in the Bible, the Talmud and the codes of Jewish law."
"To me, it's one enterprise," Mayer says. "I find one of the ways to reach spirituality is through discipline. I'm drawn to that - to sit and study something. I never saw that as getting in the way of the spiritual part of it. I think text study is stage one."