Martial arts and music help shape new rabbis spirit

What do martial arts have in common with Torah chanting?

Ask Rabbi Sarah Graff, the new assistant rabbi at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. The rabbi, who will be working with religious school students and b'nai mitzvah, has found a novel way of reaching young people: by combining the movements of tae kwon with the traditional cantillations used in Torah reading. The combination, she believes, adds new dimensions to the prayer experience and to Jewish education.

"I teach the side kick, which resembles the wishbone shape of etnachta [one of the cantillation or trope marks], with chanting the…etnachta," said Graff, referring to her experience as a summer camp leader. The recent graduate of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, also has extensive experience working with adults.

Growing up in a small Jewish community in the southern suburbs of Chicago, the 27-year-old rabbi is the daughter of parents who have been active members of their Conservative congregation. They also helped start the first Jewish community day school in their area. Graff was in the first class, learning Hebrew in second grade.

She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Washington University in St. Louis with a bachelor's degree in psychology and Jewish and Near Eastern studies.

Graff said she always wanted to work with people since she was very young. Ultimately she came to the conclusion that she wanted to connect with people through Judaism. "I felt it would bring so much meaning to my life."

Attending Camp Ramah, a Conservative camp in Wisconsin, influenced her decision to enter the rabbinate. "Living in the community of campers and counselors I felt a Jewish commitment for life," she said.

In 1997, she helped form Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia and spent several years serving as the camp's director of prayer and activities, with the goal of making prayer come alive for young people. During that time she authored an interactive educational prayerbook, which is now being published.

At the Georgia camp, Graff devised the martial arts class, combining the cantillation marks with different kicks and punches, a practice that challenged and inspired the campers, she said.

Moving in another direction, she served as a spiritual counselor during the summers of 1999 and 2000 at a Jewish addiction recovery house, Beit T'shuva, in Los Angeles. The center serves people from ages 18 to 70.

While there, she started a daily learner's service, led Torah study and taught classes on a variety of Jewish subjects, working with the 12-Step program.

"It is one of the most spiritually open Jewish communities I've encountered," she said.

Recently she held an internship with the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, N.Y. There she led services and started a Friday night dinner community for singles and young couples, and she taught adult education courses.

After graduating from JTS, she "decided to come to Kol Emeth because of the warmth and feeling of a small community at this temple. It is very vibrant and continues to expand."

In her free time, Graff enjoys singing in a Jewish a cappella group, practicing tae kwon do and playing softball. She would like to organize a team at the synagogue.

Nanette Friedland, Kol Emeth's president, said: "We chose Rabbi Sarah Graff because she has a wealth of experience working with youth and pastoral duties. She wanted to have a mentor and showed good compatibility between herself and Rabbi Sheldon Lewis. Rabbi Graff has a depth of seriousness for learning and teaching others. We feel she is definitely a Conservative Jewish scholar with a strong commitment to Conservative values of Jewish learning."

Noting that, in addition to supporting Lewis in pastoral work, Graff will be working with youth, Friedland said. "We also look forward to having her create alternative religious service experiences for our members."

With Graff's background in tae kwon do, the likelihood of alternative worship experiences is strong.