Debra Kassoff

Seated demurely before me was the first rabbi I'd ever met—a slim clear-eyed young woman who looks like she could be a lawyer, a teacher, a counselor—not the stereotypical picture I have in my head of a rabbi—a man with a beard, wearing glasses and a yarmulke on his head. Debra Kassoff, 33 and a native of Maryland, joined the staff of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in April 2003 as the director of Rabbinic services. Based on the old-time tradition of the itinerant rabbi, Kassoff serves small Jewish communities in 12 Southern states.

After graduating with an English degree and a concentration in women's studies from Williams College, Kassoff attended Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion where she enrolled in Rabbinical Studies, spending the first year at its Jerusalem campus, the last four in Cincinnati. During her studies, she was a student rabbi in Greenville, Miss.

Twice a month for two years, she flew down for three days with the Hebrew Union Congregation where she developed an appreciation for the uniqueness of Southern Jewish culture. There's a community pressure of sorts to be associated with a faith here in the Bible Belt. "They didn't have the luxury of being lazy about their Judaism, and I found that very energizing," Kassoff explained. On one of her trips she met Macy B. Hart, president and CEO of the institute, who convinced her to apply for the job of circuit-riding rabbi. "I felt it was a very important thing for me to do, so here I am," Kassoff said, smiling.

Spirituality, by definition, has to do with one's personal connection to the sacredness of one's religion—the devotion or fellowship one feels daily. "In Judaism there are so many different ways to express spirituality," Kassoff said.

For instance, Jews pray from prayer books, and one might wonder how that could connect you spiritually. Kassoff explained, "There are two things going on—one is the keva that connects us to our tradition … and the kavanah is … the spiritual focus that we find in the spaces between the words … [where] you put the feelings that are in your heart." Judaism pairs them with each other because you need both." Each of us has the opportunity to make a prayer service, a study experience or involvement in our community a spiritual experience, depending on the kavanah we bring to it.

"That's certainly how I feel personally," Kassoff said.

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