Temple Beth El Introduces Rabbi Toby Manewith

Manewith talks about a time she didn't believe in God and how life's experiences have shaped the Chicago-native into a Jewish educator.

Toby Manewith, newest rabbi and Director of Lifelong Learning, acknowledges a time when her understanding of Judaism and faith in the religion was somewhat exhausted.

“If you had asked me when I got into rabbinic school if I believed in God, I would have said ‘no,’” Manewith told Patch. “I don’t believe in something that exists in the clouds.”

She even admits being mad at God, in her youth, before her current understanding of religion. 

“I felt myself then to be angry at God, of course in order to be angry at something you had to believe in it, but I sort of didn’t get that at the time," she said.

Manewith's feelings about Judaism have obviously evolved over time, to date she's had a 20 year career in Jewish education, ranging from secular universities,  overseas study tours, time spent as a congregational rabbi and an independent Jewish educational consultant. 

Over time, Manewith's faith was shaped by discovering more welcoming and practical interpretations of God, and she continues learning about the faith through the insight of her 5-year-old son and her students. Values she now teaches to children and adults at Temple Beth El. 

"At the time [she started rabbinical school] I felt more strongly about community — I knew wanted to be more involved with strengthening this group of people. I believed in the people," Manewith said. “The whole idea that God is a force for good that resides within us, that’s a God I can believe in.”

Part of Manewith's skepticism towards religion was the product of her Jewish education as a child. 

“I grew up in a synagogue that was a traditional synagogue, where the girls could learn, but the girls didn’t have as many opportunities as boys," she said. "Even as an 8, 9, 10 year old, I thought that was ridiculous. Even though I loved the learning, it made me angry that I couldn’t actualize my learning."

Growing up, Manewith witnessed women enter leadership positions within the faith for the first time, but not enough to calm her concerns with the Jewish community she was initially exposed to. 

"I knew I had the strength to be a leader but I had no role models," she said. “When I was a child, my Jewish education was very black and white — either you believed this way or you had to walk away. I don’t want anyone to ever have that experience. There are so many ways to be part of the Jewish community.”

Manewith 101 

During her studies, Manewith discovered a theology that taught "God is sort of a force inside of us. So any time when two people are in a situation where there’s real discussion, real exchange, that God is present there."

“Lots of times people say they don’t believe in God, and sometimes people don’t and that’s fine, but often people don’t believe in the God that they learned about when they were 8 years old," Manewith said. 

As such, the Judaism Manewith teaches young children is the same Judaism a reasonable adult would believe in. 

“We start teach people when they’re young so that they see Judaism just as part of who they are," she said. “I feel like it’s my job to make sure that people know who they are and to make sure that people’s pathways into the community are never shot down.”

Part of Manewith's responsibility as Director of Lifelong Learning is writing curriculum for the Temple's supplementary school, which teaches children of all age groups about the religion. 

"One of my goals is to make sure social justice and giving back to the community are integral parts of what the school students do," she said. "It’s already an integral part of what the congregation does, but just to make sure that even a 5-year-old understands it’s part of his communal responsibility to give back.”

She's also leading a program for eighth grade students about civics and contemporary society so they learn their role as a Jew in a world with politics, racism, poverty and oppression.

Manewith is likewise responsible for the temple's adult education programs, such as a series on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, which the temple is offering in the fall. 

“I knew that Beth El had the kind of values that were important to me, that it was an incredibly warm, down to earth kind of place," she said. “I have this really great thing in my life that’s a source of so much of who I am, why wouldn’t I want to share it.”

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