Very English Tea celebrates Rabbi Deborah Silver’s New Orleans tenure

England meets New Orleans as Shir Chadash in Metairie says farewell to Rabbi Deborah Silver.

For the last six years, Silver has led the New Orleans area’s only Conservative congregation. “A Very English Tea with a New Orleans Flavor” will be held on June 12 at 3 p.m. at the Windsor Court Hotel, paying homage to Silver’s English roots. The event is the day after her final Shabbat leading the congregation.

Silver will return to Los Angeles, where she was ordained by the Ziegler School at the American Jewish University in 2010. There is a family pull, as she has “35 and counting family members” living in that area.

Silver initially worked in theater and publishing, including a post as the senior English editor of the “Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary of Current Usage.” She then qualified as an attorney, working as a litigator at Mishon de Reya, and as an associate professor at BPP Law School, London, before the pull of the rabbinate proved irresistible. She holds a Master’s degree in Hebrew Studies from Cambridge, England, and an MA in Theory and Practice of Literary Translation from the University of Essex, England.  She co-edited three volumes of the Ziegler Adult Learning “Walking With…” series with the school’s dean, and she won the Whizin Prize for Jewish Ethics in 2009.

She was Shir Chadash’s first female rabbi, as well as the first lawyer, lexicographer and yoga teacher to serve in that role.

In addition to providing spiritual support and intellectual engagement in Jewish texts, she has served as the president of the Jewish Clergy Council of New Orleans and on the board of the Jewish Family Service of Greater New Orleans.

Silver said she learned three important things while in New Orleans. First is the importance of being flexible as a rabbi. “You have to hold everything gently because it could all blow away,” she said, giving credit to the entire Shir Chadash staff for “being able to pivot and to create community under the most difficult circumstances.” That included a Rosh Hashanah during the pandemic when the rabbi, Torah reader and shofar blower were in diaspora across the country, each in different towns.

Second, she found New Orleans to be unique. “I am so struck and moved by the wide variety of people who wish to join the Jewish people here. Of the new Jews I’ve welcomed, the youngest was 2, and the oldest 85. I hope that these connections helped people to be less isolated.”

She is also “particularly proud that three of these new Jews lived in Lafayette and that two are still there — we are always so glad when they visit.”

Third, she found New Orleans to be a good place to ask “what nourishes our Judaism?” and continue to discover new opportunities. “I hope people come away from encounters with me in a way that helps them to take ownership of their Judaism in the knowledge that questions are always welcome, to develop a durable relationship with our sacred texts and to take possession of them, and to deeply understand that Torah continually speaks to all of us,” she said.

After a sabbatical of a few months, Silver will seek a position that plays to her penchant for teaching. Of particular interest to her is serving unmet needs of Jewish adults over the age of 55.

She observes that every rabbinic leader follows role models. “I’m an Aaron,” she asserts, “and his mission statement as expressed by Hillel always inspires me: to seek peace and pursue it, love humanity, and bring people closer to Torah. Somehow I always come back to that.”

As she seeks to leave Shir Chadash on a solid spiritual and financial footing, the tea is also a fundraising event, with patron levels from $180 to $10,000 and above. A limited number of tickets is available for $54 for adults, $36 for an adult congregant under 36. Raffle items include jewelry from Debbie and Effie Rothchild, jewelry from Dashka Roth, and a silver umbrella handle from M.S. Rau’s Antiques.

Silver will be succeeded by Rabbi Scott Hoffman, who was the rabbi of Chevra Thilim in New Orleans from 1991 to 1993. Chevra Thilim merged with Tikvat Shalom to become Shir Chadash in 1999.