Associate Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, Laila Haas, is not just a deep thinker, but also a serious doer. She contemplates the tough, big-picture questions, then creates educational teams, worship bands and spiritual study groups that will fulfill the educational, social and spiritual needs of her congregation and the wider community. Unafraid to take risks that will strengthen Birmingham’s culture of love and tolerance, she has a gentle soulfulness and thoughtful straightforwardness that is complemented by her fantastic sense of humor and infectious laugh. We are delighted to welcome today’s FACE of Birmingham, Rabbi Laila Haas!
Where did you grow up, and if you are not a Birmingham native, what brought you to Birmingham?
I was born and raised in Miami Beach, FL, and after I was ordained as a rabbi, I interviewed around the country, and I fell in love with Birmingham. It was my first choice, and I was their first choice, so it was a match!
What about Birmingham made you fall in love with it?
Every person that I came into contact with was just a genuine soul and had such an incredible spirit, and I fell in love with Temple Emanu-El’s incredible history and fabulous clergy. And it is just a hidden gem! I love the villages. I love how it is quaint and sophisticated. It’s just a beautiful place to live.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be a rabbi? What drew you to the profession?
My father’s a cantor, so I’m a clergy kid! I was always intimately connected to my synagogue and very influenced by my own rabbi. As I watched my father and rabbi engaging with people, I recognized what a privilege it was being invited into people’s lives in moments of incredible joy, but also in moments of pain and sadness, and I was really moved by that. I love the study, culture and traditions of Judaism, so to be able to formulate that into a career that would stimulate, challenge and excite me was just a blessing!
What are the most rewarding aspects or moments of being a rabbi?
The most rewarding piece is being able to travel along a journey with people during moments in their lives when they are open or vulnerable, but also during times when they are incredibly empowered and strengthened. Bringing the words of Torah to life in a meaningful and relevant way is something I am passionate about. A typical day could be: sitting with someone who is sick in the hospital and praying for healing, then running over to the temple to play with the preschool students at The Discovery School, to sitting with an engaged couple and listening to the hopes they have for their new life together, then being present with a family who has just lost someone and reflecting with them on the memory of that person, and then contemplating my message for Shabbat worship. Those are the rewarding moments for me. They take many different forms.
In the news, we see people killing in the name of religion almost daily. What do you have to say about violence in the name of religion?
There is a powerful teaching from a Holocaust survivor that has been connected to my heart as we’ve witnessed terrible tragedy in the name of religion. He taught, after the Holocaust many would ask, “At Auschwitz, where was God?” And the answer given was, “Where was man?” As a person of faith, if I don’t take the responsibility to teach love and to be among those who help to bring the light of understanding into this world, then I allow myself to be a bystander. As members of the human race and people who want to love instead of hate, we are commanded to be active participants in repairing this world. It’s a hard question, but we have to look at ourselves and ask, “How will I use my words to preach love, how will I use my hands to lift up the fallen, and how will I shine the light within me to illuminate spaces that have been kept purposefully darkened by intolerance and evil?”
How did The Discovery School come about?
I wanted us to have a full-time preschool for all children, to learn, discover and imagine. Preschool is the time and space for children to express themselves in the spirit of play and imagination. We value community and love that our children share the richness of their family cultures and language, such as Mandarin, Russian, German, Spanish and Hebrew. The way that we create a world of true understanding and love starts with the hearts of our children. The Jewish values that guide our school, coupled with best practices in the field of early childhood education, create an environment that is authentic, nurturing and engaging. It is an honor to partner with so many families on this important and exciting journey of education. I could not be more proud and excited about what we’ve accomplished at The Discovery School.
As director, tell us about the vision for the school.
We believe that each child has a unique blessing; we nurture that blessing and help it flourish. Our dynamic teachers ascribe to our mission of awaken, wonder and engage, and our classrooms are worlds of discovery. Each child, no matter their age, is in an environment that is going to encourage their creativity, stimulate them, inspire them and engage them in positive ways. The learning process is a creative adventure that leads our children to pose questions and explore ideas, culminating in moments of discovery. Learning at The Discovery School is about the journey, not the destination.
You lead a women’s study group that examines women of the Torah and today’s issues from a woman’s perspective. Are there any surprising or insightful takeaways that have come out of those meetings?
They are the most exhilarating sessions. My goal is to examine pieces of our tradition that inhabit the hearts of women. And because it is only women, among women, talking about women in a place of comfort, the authenticity, passion and excitement that come forth from the women as they ask questions and think differently about their tradition and Torah is rewarding and wonderful.
Any exciting plans or goals for the future of the Temple and The Discovery School?
Yes, always! Jewish tradition encourages us to evolve and grow to meet the needs of the people and the community in which we live and serve. We are focused on enhancing the synagogue experience, offering opportunities for people to create small, meaningful groups within the larger synagogue community for authentic relationship building and being creative in our mission of engagement.
What do you like to do when you’re not at Temple Emanu-El?
I love to cook and try new restaurants in town. You’ll also find me exploring vintage stores for antiques. I love to bring pieces into my home that have a story and give them new life; it adds such character! There’s great style in this town.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Speak with your own authentic voice. That has guided me in many different scenarios.
What is something people might be surprised to know about you?
I’m a huge college football fan. HUGE! Miami is my home team. The Bama fans here got to me first, so I’m a serious Bama fan. We’re not in the same conference, so it’s not a problem.
Name three frivolous or lighthearted things you can’t live without.
My apricot poodle, Meyer Lansky Haas, freshly cut flowers and a fabulous pair of heels.
And thank you to Brendon Pinola for the beautiful pictures of Rabbi Haas at Temple Emanu-El!
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