City Pulse People Issue 2021: Amy Bigman, rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek

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Amy Bigman has been the rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in East Lansing since 2007. Bigman, 55, was born in Chicago and raised in metro Detroit. She is in the 29th year of her rabbinical career. She chaired the board of the Michigan Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She founded the East Lansing Area Clergy Association. In 2019, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer named her to the board of the Children’s Trust Fund.

What inspired you to become a rabbi?

It just sort of added up for me. I was always proud to be Jewish, I always liked going to religious school because I liked to learn. As I got older, it meant more to me outside of just learning. It meant more to me being part of a community and what happened to our ancestors for all of this time, and so on. My dad is a retired physician. My parents really raised us to go into helping professions, and I couldn’t be a doctor because of the science and because I can’t stand the sight of blood. Becoming a rabbi is being part of a helping profession.

Was 2020 the most challenging year of your career?

It’s definitely challenging in its own unique way, but there are always challenges throughout life, in every career and every profession and every job. And so mine is no different. You’re always on. And at this point, most of my congregants have my cell phone number, which I welcome them to use when they need it. And there’s not the kind of separation that there is when you are usually going into a building for certain hours a day as when you are working from home. It’s just true with everyone I’ve talked to, it doesn’t matter what your career is. So it’s definitely different.

Are there offsetting benefits from having a profession that’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

The benefits are certainly the opportunities that I have to walk along life’s journey with so many people. To be with them in their happy occasions and also I’m there for their sadnesses, when they need help in some form. People let me into their lives as a clergyman that’s different than if I were their doctor or their schoolteacher. By far the benefits outweigh the difficulties. It really is an honor to be part of this particular congregation, but also this community as well.

What you are drawing upon from scripture or from Jewish tradition or Jewish history during this terrible time?

When the pandemic really hit, that first week that we were closed down — I should phrase it differently: when our building was closed — our work has continued. A webinar I was on started with a song that comes from both Exodus 15 and also Psalm 108:2. And it has a really simple melody and the words are [here she spoke in Hebrew, then translated]: “God is my strength and my song, God is my deliverance.” That week, I found myself literally just walking around my house humming that, to the point where I didn’t realize I was humming it. I thought this is the perfect way for me to start our first Shabbat services where we are all livestream and there’s no one worshiping with me. I have started every service since then with those words. The words and the melody together bring some kind of strength that I don’t know that can explain specifically, but I’ve had a number of people tell me that they also start finding themselves singing it during the week. When the service starts, I’m usually humming it and then I sing it quietly and then louder and then quietly again. And that’s really been, I think, a meaningful way to start our worship and meaningful for me to have those words to really think about. Hopefully those words will continue to bring strength to members of our community who are watching me on Friday nights or Saturday mornings.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of churches being exempt to some extent from shutdown orders. What’s your take on that?

I believe very strongly in the separation of religion and state and I speak about it often, but frankly in this case, I think that we should all be following this. We have seen evidence of churches’ having worship services, and we’ve seen evidence of places having large weddings and so on — being spreader events. And so in Jewish tradition, we talk about the importance of Pikuach Nefesh — of saving a life. We have decided at our congregation, as have most of my colleagues, both Jewish and not, to maintain our distance.

(This interview was conducted, edited and condensed by Berl Schwartz.)

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