Leading Jews in spiritual self-discovery

Growing up in California in the 1960s, Rabbi Carolyn Braun had always wanted to be a rabbi – even though women weren’t allowed into rabbinical school back then. Her interest surprised her family, since they hadn’t gone regularly to synagogue when she was a child.

But Braun, who heads Temple Beth El in Portland, says her background gave her the freedom to discover the stories and rituals of her faith on her own. She brought no “baggage” to her spiritual journey and felt free to make her spiritual practice her own. She was ordained in 1988 as part of the first class to accept women into the rabbinical program at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.

Not surprisingly, Braun has led Temple Beth El in much the same way she found her faith, helping her congregation of 350 families foster their own journeys of discovery.

“I help people see God in the way they want to,” she says. “It’s a matter of people taking their idea of the divine and understanding it for themselves.”

Braun expresses delight in taking Bible stories in which God has traditionally been portrayed as an authoritative force and spinning them a different way. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, for example, traditionally ends with God “kicking them out of the garden,” she says. But according to Braun, when God sees Adam and Eve naked and embarrassed, he sews clothes for them before showing them the exit.

“That’s a loving thing to do,” she says. “Reading the Bible is like watching a parent and an adolescent interact.”

Braun, who replaced retiring longtime Rabbi Harry Sky at Temple Beth El when she came to Maine in 1995, doesn’t believe her openness to spiritual self-discovery is a product of being female. She knows many men willing to explore and express the spiritual aspects of their lives. She believes parenthood, for example, is a profoundly spiritual practice and that men can be just as nurturing toward their children as women are.

Braun sees many of the social issues of the day as spiritual issues.

“The poor ways we treat one another, being too busy, running around with no time for ourselves, these are spiritual issues,” she says.

This philosophy has led Braun to be an activist among clergy in Maine. She has served on the board of directors of the United Way and the Maine Interfaith Council for Reproductive Choices. She was also involved in 2009 in the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, a group of 150 clergy who advocated with their congregations and in Augusta for marriage equality. She still advocates for marriage equality today.

“As Jews, we know what it feels like to be oppressed,” she says, echoing the words from a sermon she gave in 2011. “We cannot shy away when another is put in a similar position.”

Braun says that when she decided to become a rabbi, she never expected to be the leader of a congregation – and certainly not for as long as she has led Temple Beth El. Before coming to Maine, she worked as a chaplain at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital, and counseled inmates at a federal prison in New York City. She also was a chaplain for six years at Mount Holyoke College.

Braun is from San Mateo, Calif., also the hometown of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Like Brady, Braun seems to have found her niche in New England. She says she and her Arkansas rescue dog Ruby – a part Airedale, with some American Eskimo, terrier and German Shepherd mixed in – feel at home and are content with their lives in Maine.

“I love Maine,” she says. “I see Maine as just a very independent place with a spirit of individualism.”

“I help people see God in the way they want to,” says Rabbi Carolyn Braun, spiritual head of Temple Beth El in Portland.    

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