The Making of a Rabbi: Sermon for the Installation of Rabbi Emily Segal as Senior Rabbi at Temple Chai, Phoenix, AZ

The Making of a Rabbi

Sermon for the Installation of Rabbi Emily Segal as Senior Rabbi 

By Rabbi Amy R. Perlin, D.D.  Temple Chai, Phoenix, AZ        1-6-23/14 Tevet 5783


Our Jewish tradition teaches that we are to say 100 blessings every day.  This Shabbat, I stand before you Temple Chai, with the Shehecheyanu in my heart, thanking God for sustaining me in this life and enabling me to be here at this sacred moment in time to install and honor your new rabbi, my beloved student and colleague, Rabbi Emily Segal. This is truly a Shehechaynu moment!


To prepare for tonight, I took out two overflowing files filled with your rabbi’s journey to this moment.  You see, from the moment her family joined our congregation in Virginia, until my retirement in 2018, from her consecration to her wedding, ordination and rabbinic work that followed, I saved every note, every email, every recommendation, and every question Rabbi Segal, then the young Emily Dunn, sent to me or I wrote to her.  From the template for her Bat Mitzvah and the prayer she gave that day to her recommendation to rabbinical school, I can trace the making of your rabbi in her heart and her thoughts. Grounded in her love for her family, her lifelong desire to make Jewish choices, and the Jewish song in her heart, your rabbi was on a trajectory to reach this moment decades before it has come to be.


Our Torah portion this week, as we conclude the book of Genesis, begins with the words, “Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt…” (Gen 47:28) Vayechi is the first word and name of the portion.  He lived…from the root “chai.”  “Emily lived seventeen years in the land of Burke, Virginia…” Those roots planted long ago have brought her here to you, Temple Chai.  My earliest memories of Rabbi Segal are of a proud big sister pushing her little brother’s stroller into services when our newly formed congregation was still meeting in a church very close to her home, and a photo I still have of her standing with her mother in front of our makeshift ark in matching dresses. In the notes from her Bat Mitzvah on March 15, 1997, she spoke of being a vegetarian, made sure to tell me that she was choosing the new gender sensitive Avot v’Imahot, and her Bat Mitzvah prayer began: “Dear God, This is my time. This is my prayer. This is my moment.”  The next paragraph began, “But my moment is connected to the future: Passing Judaism on from generation to generation -L’dor vador.”


As a Governor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I quote our previous Board Chair, the mother of a rabbi, who is fond of saying, “rabbis aren’t hatched, they are made.”  The making of your rabbi began decades ago “in her home and on her way.”  She is the only Confirmation student I have ever had who submitted not one but THREE Confirmation essays.  Her love for music moved her to study classical guitar, and in no time, I had made her a member of our staff in charge of music for our Tot Shabbats, which she did even after she left for college, after graduating high school a year early.  She was president of our congregation’s youth group and was the most accomplished and articulate debater in our very large Post-Confirmation class.  For seventeen years, in partnership with her wonderful family, we planted the seeds of the amazing Jewish leader you have come to know as your rabbi.  My file is full of one recommendation after another singing her praises, and one letter after another announcing the next step in her sacred journey to this moment – from Charlottesville to Israel to Cincinnati to Chicago to Aspen and now to Phoenix.  This is your moment, Rabbi Segal, and we are all blessed to share it with you.


The tenth century text, Seder Eliyahu Zuta (Chapter 2) shares a story:  A king had two servants whom he loved with a great love.  He gave each one a measure of wheat and a bundle of flax.  The wise one took the flax and wove a beautiful cloth and took the wheat and made it into a fine flour, and sifted it, and ground it, and kneaded it, and baked it, and set it on the table, and spread the beautiful cloth over it and left it there until the king would visit.  And the other servant did nothing.   After some time, the king came into his house and said to his two beloved servants, “My sons, bring to me what I gave you.”  The first one brought out the bread of fine flour, on the table with the beautiful cloth spread over it. And the other brought out the pile of wheat and the bundle of flax, just as he had received them.  The author then asks the question, “Which one is more favored?”  And he concludes, “The Holy One, Blessed be God, gave the Torah to Israel as wheat and flax…” It is up to each one of us to decide what to do with them.


Rabbi Segal has taken all the ingredients God has given her and built a life, a beautiful family with Scott, and a rabbinate worthy of blessing.  She has come to stand under the magnificent cloth quilt you have created as a community to receive blessings, as she herself is a blessing.  She has spent her entire life preparing for this Shehecheyanu moment.


As you open your hearts to her wisdom and her caring, I pray that you “make bread” with her for many years to come.


Blessed are You, Adonai our God, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this moment.” Amen.