Rabbi Susan Silverman on Adoption, Jewish Leadership and That Famous Bat Mitzvah

In college I was involved with liberal issues, and I met my now husband who was also involved with them too, but from a Jewish perspective. He taught me phrases like Tzelem Elohim and Tikkun Olam and I thought, “Whoa. These are eternal concepts that are so much bigger and better than my opinion.” That gave me a place to stand in this beautiful way. When I went to Rabbinical school I didn’t know the Alef-Bet. I realized that as clergy you can impact social issues, but you can also work one on one.

Do you feel that being a Rabbi gives you more clout when it comes to standing up for social issues?

I think it does. It locates me. In some ways, I’m a known entity: I’m a Rabbi. And I’m representative of certain values in the progressive movements. So I think that helps. People have a sense of where I’m coming from. 

What are the main topics that you focus on in your work?

My main work is with foster care in the US, so I travel to the US a lot and run a program [Second Nurture] that helps synagogues in LA County prioritize foster care and adoption from foster care among their membership and to support those members who do it. When I was a kid I had foster sisters and it was really impactful, it just stayed with me.  

Second Nurture is a community based model. We encourage people to consider fostering and adoption. For those who do move forward we help the rest of the community learn how to support them so that more people move forward and foster and adopt because they know that we have their back, whether it’s professional expertise from the community or a free office because their home office became their son’s bedroom. 

 How do you get people to do that?

We just advertise and people do it. People want to help and they see the foster care system. As progressive Jews, what are the issues we care about? We care about prison reform, we care about homelessness, we care about trafficking. Foster care is the number one feeder into all of those things. So you get [kids] into homes and they’re not being trafficked or becoming homeless when they’re eighteen or nineteen. If we really care about these issues we’ve got to not just open our wallets and volunteer hours, we’ve got to open our homes. And in addition, each of these little neshamot need love.

How did you get involved in Tiffany Haddish’s Bat Mitzvah?

The reason I had reached out to her was because of her history in foster care and because she does foster care work— she has something called the She Ready Foundation – and I thought she should be on our board. So I wrote to her publicist and went through all the appropriate channels. Also, during that process my sister saw Tiffany and just threw it out there. I would never ask my sister to do that, but she saw Tiffany and said, “My sister wants you on her board, she does this great adoption work,” and Tiffany said, “That’s your sister, the Rabbi? I want her to do my Bat Mitzvah.” So it was done. 

She didn’t think of it in terms of the impact it was going to have publicly, which sort of made it all so fun and joyous because I wasn’t waiting for it in any way. In fact, what I did think is that people were going to be on us about her being patrilineal or how we did the service. I’m used to criticism. But I’ve seen none of it. I’ve gotten just this rush of joy from people. 

What was the process of preparing like?

I worked with her at her hotel in New York a few times and on set a few times. We also studied by video chat. But mostly, my daughter who lives in New York taught her the leyning, the Hebrew, her brachot and her Torah reading. 

For her Dvar Torah she just stood up there — no notes — and gave everybody chills. She spoke about Yaakov, and Sulam Yaakov, and the angels going up and down, and her own journey. How she felt that sometimes she had angels going up and down connecting her to something bigger even in her deepest darkest time. You know, I’m a big planner when I’m going to do something public. But with Tiffany I couldn’t even plan my bracha, I knew it had to just come and flow from me, and it totally did. She inspired that in me. She has a very powerful energy. 

It must be such a pleasure and an honor to stand in the presence of that joy and love. 

And it’s contagious. You know, I think I’m a basically nice person but I’m also pretty cynical and she just charmed it down. Some people might say that she’s a patrilineal Jew but you watch her and none of it matters. She so clearly has this spiritual energy that goes through her and connects her to our people. Any argument against it just looks teeny tiny and petty and silly.  [Looking at] the rise in antisemitism in the US, the fears Jews are having when saying “I’m Jewish”, her coming out and saying “I am Jewish and I love it!” is so significant. So many people I have heard have said, “Oh my God that meant the world to me.”

Do you think that for fostered or adopted kids there’s another level of affirming faith, because they’re joining the community in more than one way?

I think it’s a very symbolic ritual because being in foster care is this constant search for belonging, there’s no sense of belonging anywhere. Tiffany says when you land in a house you don’t know if the people are going to be nice or mean, you have no idea of anything. You’re just a kid in this household that’s a whole new culture. I think our job as Jews in terms of kids in foster care is to provide that belonging.