January 17, 2008

Spiritual experience takes rabbi full circle

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PLATTSBURGH -- Temple Beth Israel's Rabbi Heidi Waldmann followed paths away from Judaism in her youth that brought her full circle.

"I was kinda looking for more texture," she said. "I was looking for some answers."


The Reform Judaism of Waldmann's childhood was the streamlined, modern version born of the German Enlightenment, with emphasis on intellectual engagement and not so much on observance.

Holy-day celebration, with the exception of Hanukkah and Passover, was minimal; the families didn't keep kosher.

The services conducted by rabbi and cantor left no room for participation by the congregation.

And while she absorbed like a sponge the Reform instruction in responsibility and social justice, overall, the connection was missing.

And so Waldmann, a self-titled "hippie wannabe," tasted the spirituality of the '70s -- sunsets and other gifts of nature.

"I had also always been fascinated by other faiths," she said, sipping coffee at a corner table in Starbucks. "I found them different languages for expressing the same things."

She was married briefly to a "nice Jewish boy" whose military service took them to Germany; not until a visit to Dachau concentration camp did she comprehend her connection with the larger Jewish experience.


In Germany, the young woman's path converged with that of Jim Waldmann, a Roman Catholic from Nebraska; they married, raised two children and owned their own audio-equipment store in St. Paul, Minn.

Attending the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn., Rabbi Waldmann earned a degree in theology. She trained and served as a chaplain; her work with patients in a small county hospital, helping them make sense of life-and-death issues "spoke to me," she said.

It was when her mother, afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, needed nursing-home care that the future rabbi found herself unexpectedly pulled back to her roots. The older woman no longer took much note of the world around her, but her daughter felt comforted surrounding her with things loved and familiar at a Jewish facility.

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