Oklahoma City temple's new rabbi had faith piqued at college camp
Vered Harris, who recently became rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City, said her journey to the rabbinate began with a life-changing summer camp when she was 20.
It was a summer camp experience like no other.
At 20, Vered Harris learned more about her faith at a camp for Jewish college students than she gleaned through a smattering of Jewish familial observances over the years.
This is the first in a series of reports about new religious leaders in the Oklahoma City metro area.
“It was 26 days that changed my life,” Harris said recently.
Harris said she became immersed in Jewish daily living at American Jewish University's Brandeis-Barden Camp in Simi Valley, Calif., in 1992.
“It was the first time I was exposed to living Jewishly beyond the episodic observance of a few holidays with my family, the Passover, Yom Kippur, the sporadic lighting of the Shabbat candles,” she said.
These days, Temple B'nai Israel, 4901 N Pennsylvania in Oklahoma City, is one of the beneficiaries of that long-ago camp experience, as Harris is the temple's new senior rabbi.
With Harris' July 1 arrival, the Oklahoma City Jewish community has women leading the city's two Jewish congregations. Abby Jacobson became rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue, a Conservative Jewish synagogue at 900 NW 47, in 2009. Chabad Jewish Center of Greater Oklahoma City, which is headed by a man, Rabbi Ovadia Goldman, is an Orthodox Jewish organization but not a congregation.
Harris is Temple B'nai Israel's first female rabbi in its 109-year history. She replaces Rabbi Barry Cohen, who accepted a rabbinical position at a Florida synagogue.
Harris, 40, recently moved to Edmond with her husband, Benji, and their three daughters, ages 11, 9 and 3.
The rabbi wore bright red ruby slippers during a recent interview, appropriate since she previously served as education rabbi at Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, Kan., for 12 years.
“We do have a few friends there who would like me to click my heels and come home,” she said, laughing as she referred to friends in her former congregation and the fictional character of Dorothy Gale of Kansas in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Harris said she feels like a Kansan because her daughters were all born there, and she considered the people at Beth Torah her extended family. However, she said she and her husband are both natives of Southern California; he is from San Diego, and she is from Simi Valley.
She said her journey to the rabbinate did not start until she was an adult at the Brandeis-Barden Camp. She said her parents are Jewish (her father is from Israel), but she did not grow up as an observant Jew attending temple services and participating in a regular family Shabbat ritual. The family visited Israel every few years, and she learned about Jewish holidays through her maternal extended American family.
“We were raised with a strong Jewish identity but not raised in a synagogue,” she said.
Harris said she had been a counselor for younger youths the year before attending the camp for college students in 1992.
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