This week rabbinic student Isaama Stoll is heading up to Camp Be’chol Lashon to teach Torah, pray and hang with other Jews of Color. We caught up with this dynamic leader on the rise to find out more about her journey to the rabbinate, being a role model and her match-making hobby.
When did you first decide to become a rabbi?
I’ve been talking about becoming a rabbi since I was six yrs old. I remember being in shul and looking at the rabbis and thinking that is what I would do one day. People always ask me, if I have one great rabbi role model or a rabbi who pulled me in. The answer is no. Being a rabbi was always what I was called to do. I was called to serve my community, to serve God.
Throughout my life, my family has been as supportive as possible in providing me with whatever Jewish opportunities I wanted.
Saving up for summer camp and buying me Jewish books or studying with the rabbi. Whatever Jewish I wanted to do, they encouraged me to pursue.
Did the fact that there were no Jews of Color as role models ever make you think twice about becoming a rabbi?
As I got to middle school, I became increasingly aware of the place of Jews of Color in synagogue and in particular I was aware of the reception that greeted my mother. It really made me skeptical about how effectively I would be able to play the role of rabbi. But truthfully this was the path I was on and nothing could really dissuade me.
What did your parents think?
I was a difficult kid, very much a know-it-all spewing halakha (Jewish law) at them. Especially when I was younger I was quite judgmental. They did value that my life goal was so focused on community. But sometimes I was challenging. For example, there was always a fight at the Passover Seder. We would get started, my dad would skip a page and I would freak out. I wanted to do every page. That would lead me to explain why that page was so important and there was constant head butting.
But the more I was invested in Judaism the more my mother got invested in Judaism and she tried to be an engaged Jewish role model and tried to make sure that I could get what I need and the access I needed.
How is your rabbinic training preparing you to be a leader?
One of the things I like about entering the rabbinate and rabbinical school there is no one model of a rabbi. School is not training us for one cookie cutter thing, there is a real breadth to the education and engage with a wide variety of material that will help me with whatever rabbinate becomes. But the shape of my rabbinate is tempered by the question of what does it mean to be a black Jew.
One of the most challenging things is being thrown into communities that are not as diverse as the communities I grew up in, is that often I’m the only JOC in a given space. I am often the token and I have to articulate my identity. There is a lot of pressure to talk to larger issues that are burning in our time and that can be a heavy burden. I cannot speak for all Jews of Color. But as I navigate these spaces the experiences are teaching me and shaping me into the rabbi I need to be, so I can wear my identity with pride.
You are heading to Camp Be’chol Lashon this week and will be a role model for other Jews of Color. How do you feel about that?
It is satisfying that I can be a role model. A role model is something someone else makes you into. I’m more concerned with being an advocate for the message that diversity in the Jewish community exists than being a role model. When I am at Camp Be’chol Lashon it is very empowering to be a Jew of Color and in the moments when I can shed light on the intersectionality of Jewishness and blackness, when I can have those conversations with young people and kids, it is really powerful. On the other hand when I am called to speak for a wealth of Jewish experiences that I know nothing about it is hard. I don’t speak for all Jews of Color.
We hear that you have a special rabbinic talent, that you like to play match-maker and have a whole system for setting people up. Tell us about it.
I guess you think about the people in your life and you think about the top five characteristics and talents that person has and see what words come to mind when you think of that person. If you know two people whose core words/values/characteristics overlap then it might be grounds for making a connection. You never set people up with the assumption that it is going to be a match but with the hope that the overlap will help them click. If you can identify the core assets of who they are and what makes them them and how they relate to the world then that might be the foundation for a connection.
Have you made matches that stuck?
A few weeks ago I was at a wedding for two people who I was instrumental in fostering their relationship. I think that the formula works.