When Elissa Ben-Naim met Mother Teresa in 1992, she asked her, “Am I meant to be a rabbi?” Mother Teresa replied, “A rabbi and so much more.”
Mother Teresa was right.
For the past 18 years Rabbi Ben-Naim has been a rabbi and so much more at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
In 1995, she became the Judaic Educator at Camp Hess Kramer. Four years later, when the westside Irmas campus was under construction at Barrington and Olympic, she called Rabbi Steve Leder and said, “Do you have anything for me? I’ll be ordained in a few months.” Steve’s response was: “No. But give me a few weeks and I will.”
He was true to his word. In the early years of the Irmas campus, Rabbi Ben-Naim served as the rabbi for our camps living in Malibu for 13 weeks each year, mentoring Jewish educators. One of her favorite assignments has been with our Early Childhood Centers. “I found my puppet Sabba — Sabbaba — and he has been my trusted side-kick on the Nursery School Bima for all of my 18 years,” she said.
As Wilshire Boulevard Temple schools and community have grown, she spends most of her time as the Director of Jewish Life and Learning for the Brawerman School, the choice of hundreds of families for its commitment to Joyful Judaism. “Every day we take the vision of our Board of Trustees and clergy and we run one of the top schools in Los Angeles,” Rabbi Ben-Naim said. “I think we are so successful because our students and families are a part of our historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple heritage.”
Rabbi Ben-Naim was raised in Cincinnati in a “classical Reform” temple. Her grandmother worked for Israel Bonds, meeting with dignitaries and raising money for Israel. She attributes her decision to become a rabbi to sprinkle cookies and camp. “Sprinkle cookies were served at the oneg on Friday nights, and I loved going to services.,” she said. “At Jewish summer camp I found roots, wings, and a deep spiritual connection to Judaism, Hebrew, and Israel.”
Her search for spirituality and peoplehood continued throughout her college years at the College of Wooster (on and off the rugby field) and later, as a Fulbright Scholar in India where she was blessed to work with and research hundreds of prominent women at Delhi University.
That quest continues, through Brawerman’s 12-year-old partnership program with Tel Aviv, adding Zionism and soul to the school community. “Fostering a personal connection to the land, people, and language of Israel is at the core of our school’s identity,” Rabbi Ben-Naim said.
With three active sons, she’s a football mom, a basketball mom, a baseball mom, and a soccer mom. She’s also an avid early morning gym person.
Rabbi Ben-Naim is especially passionate about her work with the Temple’s Disaster Response Team. She helped bring Wilshire Boulevard Temple values to the 2017 recovery efforts in Houston and in 2016 to Baton Rouge, where communities were devastated by floods. Community, after all, is part of being “a rabbi and so much more.”