Rabbi Alicia Harris
Rabbi Alicia Harris says Congregation Shir Tikvah is a shul with “incredible energy.” (Analicia Honkanen Photography)

The Shir Tikvah pulpit is Alicia Harris’ first job as a rabbi.

Like most rabbis, Alicia Harris looks forward to the post-COVID era when she’ll be able to greet her congregants in person.

Unlike most, for Harris it will be the first time. As a newly minted rabbi, she was hired to an interim position at Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy after the previous rabbi, Aura Ahuvia, decided to return to Ann Arbor, where she’d lived for 30 years. Harris started in August and just a few months later, the congregation made her appointment permanent.

The Shir Tikvah pulpit is Harris’ first job as a rabbi. She was ordained in May at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s seminary. Shir Tikvah is affiliated with both the Reform and the Jewish Renewal movements.

Harris, 30, grew up in Toledo, though her parents moved to Pittsburgh soon after she graduated from high school. She worked in the political arena while studying at the University of Pittsburgh, where she majored in political science and religious studies, but felt something was missing. She flirted with the idea of becoming a cantor, but after graduating, she took a job as executive assistant at Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh. Witnessing the day-to-day work of the temple up close made her realize her call to the rabbinate.

Although all her classmates at HUC-JIR have found work, COVID changed the whole rabbinical placement process. “Many places I applied decided not to hire anyone who wasn’t absolutely essential,” she said. Though she wasn’t initially interested in an interim position, she’s happy others encouraged her to check out Shir Tikvah.

It’s a cliché, but true, she said: “I love the community.”

Shir Tikvah congregants unscroll the Torah during 2020’s COVID-safe outdoor Simchat Torah celebration.
Shir Tikvah congregants unscroll the Torah during 2020’s COVID-safe outdoor Simchat Torah celebration. Analicia Honkanen Photography

‘Warm and Welcoming’

“From the moment I did my first interview, something felt very different about them. They are warm and welcoming and have incredible energy,” she said, “but more than that, the way they care for one another is really remarkable.”

The feeling was mutual.

“From our first conversation with Rabbi Harris, it was obvious that she is someone special,” said Shir Tikvah President Patti Rehfus, a teacher from Bloomfield Hills. “We were impressed with her resume but even more so with her presence and warmth, which came through even over Zoom. Most of all, it was her genuine desire to become part of the Shir Tikvah community that impressed us.”

Rehfus said Harris, who started in July, spent long hours meeting (mostly virtually) with the congregation’s staff and officers to understand how she could be most effective. “With the High Holidays approaching, she deftly managed the staff, volunteers and ritual committee to produce wonderful virtual services that brought the community together while keeping us safe.”

Harris also set up a series of virtual meet-and-greets that helped her connect with the 250-family congregation. With the congregation’s staff, she planned several well-received outdoor events where people were able to participate in person.

“She was able to connect with people of all ages and interests, in particular people who were experiencing difficulties or who had lost loved ones,” Rehfus said. “Her ability to connect with so many congregants under the most challenging circumstances, her positive energy, her commitment to social justice, her meaningful sermons, her creativity and her abundant kindness are a potent and unique combination.”

Permanent Position

Almost immediately, congregants started asking Rehfus and members of the search committee, formed in July, to make Harris’ position permanent. At that point, no one on the search committee had met Harris in person.

“Our Family Education parents were particularly in favor of doing so,” said Joyce May, a psychologist from Linden who chaired the search committee. “They felt the she made an excellent connection with the children.” When the committee formally interviewed Harris, “it was perfectly clear that she embodied the characteristics that our Shir Tikvah family was looking for,” May said.

Michael Silverstein of Troy, a past president of the congregation, agreed. “Her smile is infectious, she speaks with a wisdom that goes beyond her years, and her voice is beautiful,” he said. “She makes you feel connected and shows true interest and compassion with people of all ages, even through Zoom.”

The rabbi’s first six months occurred during “very interesting times,” he said, “but there has been a lot of success and we are very excited to see what the next few years will bring.”

Harris said she was “beyond thrilled.”

She works primarily from her home in Royal Oak, visiting her Shir Tikvah office occasionally to check the mail or for a change of scenery. She leads worship services from the congregation’s sanctuary.

Dealing with COVID restrictions has been difficult, both professionally and personally. She was unable to say goodbye in person to her rabbinical school classmates and teachers. She can’t enjoy impromptu meetings with congregants, chat over a post-service oneg or invite them for Shabbat dinner.

Personal life posed challenges, too. Harris loves Latin dancing and live music, neither of which she can enjoy now. “I’m very social and extroverted, so establishing a new community and a group of friends of my own has been tough, too,” she said.

But Harris is becoming involved in the local clerical community. In December, she gave one of the invocations as Michigan’s electors gathered in Lansing to cast their votes. She serves on the lieutenant governor’s Ecumenical Advisory Roundtable.

After the November election, she organized a community-wide Havdalah service. “It was so moving to see people of all denominations come together for healing and unity,” she said, adding that she is impressed at the Detroit’s Jewish community’s involvement in social justice efforts.

Harris says she’s very excited to lead services in person after pandemic restrictions are eased. Most of all, she says, she “cannot wait” to hug people again.

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