by Susan Josephs
At age eight, Rabbi Sherre Hirsch stood in front of 600 students during a school assembly and proudly explained her observance of the Jewish holidays. “This wasn’t because I was fearless about public speaking; it was because I was comfortable in my Judaism,” she recalls.
With a lifelong gift for “communicating Jewish wisdom in all kinds of public forums,” Hirsch became a rabbi who’s equally at home teaching an intimate Torah class, doing an interview on The Today Show or leading a workshop on grief as a consultant for Canyon Ranch’s spas and resorts. Particularly passionate about helping people navigate through trauma and hardship so they can lead more meaningful lives, the 46-year-old spiritual leader juggles a whirlwind career as a Los Angeles-based teacher and counselor, a media personality who appears frequently on television as a relationship and spirituality expert and an author of two books including the recently published Thresholds: How to Thrive Through Life’s Transitions to Live Fearlessly and Regret-Free.
“I have tried to do what I love as opposed to trying to fit some mold of what a rabbi should be,” says Hirsch, who credits her success to a talent for “working in different mediums” and inheriting a “sense of urgency” from her mother. “She always said that life wasn’t about being happy but about making a difference. This had an impact on me.”
Raised in Southern California, Hirsch also found role models in her uncle, a Conservative rabbi, and her grandfather who, for a time, attended rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College. A cheerleader and athlete who thought she wanted to be a doctor, she would set her alarm clock extra early at “tennis camp so I could pray. Even then, my Judaism was deeply within me,” she says.
“I have tried to do what I love, as opposed to trying to fit some mold of what a rabbi should be.”
After receiving her undergraduate degree in American Culture at Northwestern University, Hirsch enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) but left rabbinical school to travel through Southeast Asia. She studied meditation and other Eastern spiritual practices and “when I came home from that trip, I realized that being a rabbi was really who I was,” she recalls.
Hirsch went on to receive ordination from JTS and became the first woman rabbi to serve Sinai Temple, a leading Los Angeles-based congregation. She stayed there for eight years and helped create the music-oriented Friday Night Live Shabbat service, which remains a nationally recognized model of outreach to young Jews. She also developed her uniquely accessible rabbinical style of wandering the synagogue aisles and interacting one-on-one with congregants during services because she was too short for the built-in microphone on the synagogue’s bimah.
“They called me ‘Rabbi Oprah,’” recalls Hirsch, who attracted the attention of television producers and began appearing as a guest on The Tyra Banks Show, PBS’s 30 Good Minutes and other programs.
Married to Jeff Hirsch and the mother of Emet, 12, Eden, 10, Alia London, 8, and Levi, 5, Hirsch left Sinai Temple in 2006 because “I didn’t want to choose between my career and my children anymore,” she says of the demands she faced as a pulpit rabbi. “I knew that I was a people person and a storyteller so I forged a new career around that.”
Driven to “empower other women” to create their own dream careers, Hirsch plans on writing more books and remaining “open to new directions. I’m not afraid of change,” she says. “But whatever I do, I always want to help others find whatever doorway they need to move forward with their lives.”