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Born into a traditional Jewish household, Ariana Jaffe Silverman, along with her brothers and parents, was an active member of K.A.M. Isaiah Israel on Chicago’s South Side. She also spent summers at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute — one of the Reform Movement’s summer camps — in Oconomowoc, Wis.
But when her rabbi suggested to the 16-year-old Ariana that she should consider joining the clergy, she found the idea laughable. “He was a man in his 60s with a gray beard — just like my idea of what every rabbi should be. I simply did not fit that description,” she recalls.
It took another decade, during which time she earned a history degree from Harvard and pursued a career as an environmental lobbyist, before she found herself at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
A Wexner Graduate Fellow, she earned a master of arts in Hebrew literature before receiving her smichah, ordination, in 2010. Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, the president of Wexner Foundation, spoke at Jaffe Silverman’s installation as the associate rabbi at West Bloomfield’s Temple Kol Ami.
Rabbi Jaffe Silverman has made a name for herself as a passionate advocate for ethical food choices and community agriculture. She wrote her rabbinic thesis on ethical eating in the Reform movement and, prior to her ordination, served as the legislative assistant for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.
This environmental work was a part of what drew her toward the rabbinate.
“I wanted to work for environmental protection not just because it was important but because I see the world as sacred,” she says.
As the only pulpit rabbi currently living within Detroit proper, Jaffe Silverman and her husband, Justin Robert Long, a professor at Wayne State University’s School of Law, maintain an active role in their neighborhood, the Woodbridge section of the city.
“We love our neighborhood. Our street is very diverse — racially, socio-economically, religiously, professionally and in terms of family structure,” she says. “But there is a remarkable sense of community.”
Jaffe Silverman says her work at Temple Kol Ami is deeply influenced by her commitment to community, sustainability and social justice: “I am not interested in worrying about the future. I am interested in building it. My vision for the Jewish community is that the wisdom and practice of the people will enrich the lives of both Jews and non-Jews.
“The next generation of Jews will add to the creativity of the Jewish community by incorporating what is best of what the 21st century has to offer with the best of what 3,000 years of Jewish tradition has to offer,” she says.
Jaffe Silverman doesn’t just pay lip service to build the community she envisions. She is currently a member of the Detroit Community Leadership Initiative, a program that identifies young leaders from around the Metro Detroit area and brings them together to form collaborative partnerships focused on creating innovative programming designed to strengthen the city.
“I believe that the Jewish world is focused too much on fear rather than pride and hope. To tell young people that they should embrace Judaism because, if they don’t, we are going to disappear is not the most enticing of messages,” she says. “Rather, I believe that the wisdom and practice of the Jewish people provide meaningful technologies for life.”
Her trifecta of passions — Judaism, community and the environment — provides the rabbi with countless opportunities to effect change and get inspired. Jaffe Silverman recalled a backpacking experience from her youth that served as a catalyst for her future endeavors.
“We carried a small Torah scroll in a waterproof bag. One Shabbat morning, we held services in the mountains of Colorado, surrounded by lush greens and spectacular wildflowers as far as the eye could see.
“When the rabbi held up the Torah for Hagbah (the lifting of the Torah) and I saw the sun shining through the parchment, the letters seemed to catch on fire. It was a moment I will never forget,” she says.
“It was all One — the Torah, the mountains, the flowers, the people — I realized that Judaism and our natural world are inextricably linked. And twice a day, we affirm the Oneness of the world.”