Rav Debi Lewis begins her next chapter as spiritual leader of Santa Ynez Valley Jewish Community
You might have heard this one.
A rabbi, priest and rabbinical student sat together one day in a boat in the Sea of Galilee.
“Somebody sent a note back to me, ‘Who tried to walk on the water? ’” said Rav Debi Lewis, laughing.
“Rav” is the title for a rabbinical student waiting to be ordained, and Rav Lewis actually sat in a boat with a priest and rabbi in the Sea of Galilee. She took a selfie of the three of them.
Her trips to Israel and her enthusiasm as a Jewish educator have inspired her to become the new spiritual leader of the Santa Ynez Valley Jewish Community. She will start the new position in August and will preside over the Aug. 7 Shabbat service, which will be conducted through Zoom video conferencing.
“The next day (Aug. 8) is actually the board retreat. We will be retreating via Zoom,” Rav Lewis told the News-Press last week on the steps of Santa Barbara City Hall, a convenient spot for social distancing.
“Part of my role, I think, is to help people deal with the grief of loss. Whether you have lost an individual to a pandemic or not, we’re all in this together,” she said. “We are all feeling a loss, whatever that loss is. I typically see my mom regularly, weekly. At this point, I haven’t seen her, other than via Zoom, in person for months.”
The world is becoming more virtual, and during the pandemic, Rav Lewis is bringing her experience in information technology to her new job.
From the early 2000s to the mid-2010s, she worked as senior vice president and IT director at Community West Bank. Before then, she was the IT manager at DuPont Displays in Goleta.
She also has worked part time at CIO Solutions, a Goleta business that provides IT services.
Rav Lewis talked about changing her career from IT to spiritual leadership.
“I think I came to a point in my life where I felt I wanted to make a bigger contribution to humanity. This is the way I felt I could do that,” said the native of the City of Industry, which is in the Los Angeles area.
Rav Lewis, who is completing her studies online at the Academy of Jewish Religion California in Los Angeles, will earn her master’s degree in March. At that time, she will be ordained.
“Then people can call me ‘rabbi,’ ” said Rav Lewis, who earned her bachelor’s in Jewish studies about 10 years ago at Grants College in Philadelphia.
“ ‘Rav’ basically means a Jewish educator or a Jewish leader,” said Rav Lewis, who’s also currently an intern in the chaplaincy program at the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara.
Since the late 1990s, Rav Lewis has been a member of Congregation B’nai B’rith in Santa Barbara, where she has taught Practical Judaism during the last four years and Jewish Ethics for the last two.
“In Jewish Ethics, we talk about some very tough topics. Ethical dilemmas wouldn’t be ethical dilemmas if they were easy,” Rav Lewis said.
She said the class covers topics varying from abortion to end-of-life care.
Rav Lewis also has spent summers in Jerusalem and studied at various institutions there. Among them was the Hebrew Union College.
Last summer, Rav Lewis went to Israel on a sight-seeing trip that included students from Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit and Marymount school in Los Angeles. That was when she found herself on a boat with a rabbi and priest in the Sea of Galilee. She also saw sights such as the Dead Sea, and her wife, Traci Lewis, joined her for the trip.
Rav Lewis and her wife had their unofficial but big wedding in 2010 at B’nai B’rth and their legal one in 2013 at the County Courthouse after the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding same-sex marriage.
Rav Lewis said her involvement with the Santa Ynez Valley Jewish Community began two years ago when a previous rabbi fell ill. Rav Lewis was asked to represent the community during an interfaith Thanksgiving service at St. Mark’s-in-the-Valley Episocopal Church in Los Olivos.
The Santa Ynez Valley Jewish Community doesn’t operate from a building, but meets at members’ homes and rents St. Mark’s for larger events such as the High Holidays, Rav Lewis said.
She said she and the board are exploring how to safely celebrate Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 18-20) and Yom Kippur (Sept. 27-28). She said members will not be meeting in person.
“We’re not willing to take the chance that anyone would fall ill,” she said. “We will be doing it electronically by Zoom. We’re trying to come up with some creative ways to bring meaning to what are our really big holidays, how to make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur meaningful while we can’t be physically together.
“We’re doing some pre-recorded singing, so we can put that up on the screen,” Rav Lewis said.
She said the Jewish community doesn’t have its own choir but hires Goleta resident Felicia Palmer as its cantorial (vocal) soloist for the High Holidays. Ms. Palmer is the wife of Rabbi Daniel Brennan at Congregation B’nai B’rith.
Rav Lewis said that for her first Shabbat service in August, she will discuss the High Holidays theme of personal journeys and becoming the person you’d like to be.