by Susan Josephs
Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt will never forget the summer after her first year of rabbinical school, when she served as a chaplain at NYU’s hospital. Called in one night to minister to a dying patient, “I was beyond terrified and when I got there, he had already died,” she recalls. “It was only me and his family and I thought to myself, ‘I need to hold these people’s hands and be present for them.’”
Convinced from that night on that she had chosen the right career path, Holtzblatt also became deeply committed to making Judaism relevant to 21st century Jews. Named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” in 2016 by The Forward, the 39-year-old spiritual leader has spent the past five years creating groundbreaking programs and services that draw thousands of people to Adas Israel Congregation, Washington D.C.’s largest Conservative synagogue. Passionate about “giving people real tools to be their best selves,” she currently spearheads the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington, which repeatedly has been listed in the Slingshot Guide to top innovative Jewish organizations, the Jewish learning center MakomDC and the musically inspired “Return Again” services. Versed at teaching Torah as well as meditation, Holtzblatt recently co-wrote an essay about the women of Passover with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and credits her success “to being the same person on the bimah as I am walking down the street.”
"It had always felt Jewish to me, this idea that when you come from a place of privilege, you give back."
“Being a regular human being is very important to my rabbinate,” she says. “More than a healer or a teacher, I see myself as a witness to other people’s lives.”
Raised in Port Washington, N.Y., Holtzblatt grew up culturally Jewish and credits her politically active parents for instilling her with a “deep sense of social justice.” Through her local synagogue, she participated in handing out food and clothing to the homeless and “it had always felt Jewish to me, this idea that when you come from a place of privilege, you give back,” she says.
At Sarah Lawrence College, Holtzblatt “fell in love” with the Bible after enrolling in a biblical literature class. She spent her junior year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and completed advanced Torah study programs in Israel and New York before deciding to attend rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Living in New York City, she found important mentors in the rabbis at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (BJ), where she completed a two-year rabbinic fellowship.
“BJ was a place where I saw how Jewish learning and teaching could have a real impact on the world,” she observes.
Inspired by BJ’s focus on soulful, musical services and social justice, Holtzblatt served as an associate rabbi at the Yale University Hillel and became the Hillel Foundation Director of Campus Initiatives, where she promoted “dialogues of civility” on college campuses. “I discovered that what I really love is working within a community and my encounters with individuals,” she says of finally landing at Adas Israel.
Married to Ari Holtzblatt and the mother of Noa, 8, and Elijah, 5, Holtzblatt works “almost full-time” so she can pick up her kids from school and “give them the same presence that I bring to my work.” She also serves on the board of Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps and on the educational committee of her daughter’s school, the Jewish Primary Day School of Greater Washington. “What feels most important to me is helping Judaism continue to shed its light on this world,” she says. “I always want to be part of that conversation.”