Rabbi shares her journey to Judaism and becoming a rabbi

Rabbi shares her journey to Judaism and becoming a rabbi

Rabbi Margie Cella. Photo courtesy Margie Cella

By Rita J. Egan

For Rabbi Margie Cella, the path to serve her congregation differed slightly from other rabbis.

At the annual Jewish University for a Day held at Stony Brook University on Sunday, April 7, Cella shared with attendees her experiences when converting from Lutheranism to Judaism and ultimately becoming a rabbi. The Port Jefferson Station resident, who taught math for 30 years, became a part-time rabbi with The Jewish Center of the Moriches in Center Moriches and an educator with the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism in the last few years. Her new career blossomed after she wrote the book “Hindsight Is 2020: Torah Lessons from a Turbulent Time.”

In a recent phone interview with TBR News Media, she discussed her decision to convert to Judaism and how she became a rabbi after working as a math teacher for 30 years.

The journey from the Lutheran Church to Judaism

Growing up in Massapequa, Cella attended St. John’s Lutheran Church with her family. Her father was raised a Lutheran, and her mother converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism after she married Cella’s father. The rabbi said her mother devoted herself to the Lutheran Church, which became part of the family’s social life in many ways,

“It was a big part of our life growing up,” she said. “We went every Sunday, and I went to Sunday school.”

Her husband, Raymond, who was raised Roman Catholic, joined the Lutheran Church after it began morphing into a mixture of Christianity and Judaism. In 1982, the Cellas along with their children, Jessica and Benjamin, converted to Judaism after realizing St. John’s church was becoming more like a cult, according to Cella.

At its peak, the rabbi said the congregation included approximately 2,000 members from every denomination. People came from all over Long Island, the five boroughs, Westchester as well as out of state to attend services. She added while it was the way she was introduced to Jewish practices, due to the mixture of Judaism and Christianity, she felt “it was inauthentic to both religions.”

“I don’t think that it is actually possible to practice both religions, because they diverged so much,” Cella said.

However, as the church changed, Cella said she did a “total 180” initially and became involved, at times she felt due to peer pressure. After being part of the mixture of religions for 11 years, she said the church “gradually morphed [as] more and more Jewish practice was introduced.”

She added, “Christianity was emphasized and spoken about less and less, so when we left there … we were faced with a decision, where do we go and what do we do?”

After realizing they were traumatized by the experience, Cella said she and her husband knew “the one thing that made sense to us out of everything that we were doing were the Jewish practices we were observing.”

Once they decided to convert, the couple talked to Rabbi Moshe Edelman, who led the congregation of North Shore Jewish Center at the time, to ask what they needed to do. The conversion included a course of study and practice for at least a year, such as studying the basics of the Jewish religion and observing the practices.

“Now, in our case, we were already observing a lot,” she said. “It was just we had a lot of misconceptions.”

At the end of their studies, the couple was interviewed by a rabbi and two congregants. Soon after, a ceremony marked their conversion by immersing them in water using a mikvah.

From teaching math to leading congregants

Cella and her husband moved to Maryland soon after they were married. They were both certified teachers. However, according to the rabbi, there were no available teaching positions on Long Island at the time. After living in Maryland for approximately a year, the couple moved back to Long Island, living in Coram and then Miller Place until they moved to Port Jefferson Station in 1985.

When the couple first returned, there were still few teaching jobs, so Cella worked in retail until she had her first child. She stopped working for a few years and returned to teaching after her second child was 3.

The rabbi said while it may have taken nine years after graduating from college in 1975 to begin her teaching career in New York, in total she spent 30 years as a math teacher. The rabbi taught at William Paca Middle School in Mastic Beach, North Babylon High School, Bridgehampton High School and for the last 25 years at Southampton High School.

It was after she retired from teaching, that Cella began her studies to become a rabbi. She said for 25 years she thought about going to rabbinical school, but it wasn’t practical with raising a family and the necessity of being a two-income family. 

She attended the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, describing the five-year program at a school in Manhattan as “intensive.” For the first four of the five years she studied, she traveled into the city and attended every weekday except Friday. She also lived and studied in Jerusalem for one semester. She now holds master’s degrees in Bible and rabbinic ordination and was ordained in May 2019.

Cella said her 30 years of teaching comes in handy. One example is instead of a sermon for Shabbat, she said hers is more like a study of a week’s Torah portion, which is interactive, involving the congregants in the discussion.

Reflecting on the Torah leads to publication

Before leading The Jewish Center of the Moriches, during the COVID-19 mandatory shutdowns, Cella said North Shore Jewish Center’s Rabbi Aaron Benson reached out and asked if she could help him sustain the congregation while they could not attend in-person services.

“I had this idea, because I have always been a lover of text and a lover of teaching, I decided to do a daily study of part of that week’s Torah portion,” she said.

The rabbi added that each Torah portion is divided into seven parts, making studying a portion each day ideal.

“I would write about it, and I would relate it not only to what it said in the Torah portion, but where possible, I would relate it to what was going on in the world at that time, because that was a unique year,” Cella said.

Her writings were emailed to the congregation every day. When members were able to return to the synagogue to worship, Cella said she decided she wanted to finish what she started.

“It takes a full year to go through the whole cycle of the Torah, and that’s what I did,” she said. “I wrote basically every day for a year. I wrote on every piece of every Torah portion, the entire Torah, over the course of a year, and it wasn’t until I got to the end that I said to myself, ‘I think I have the makings of a book here.’”

Cella said she learned a good deal from her book-writing experience.

“I think now that we’ve returned to what we call normal — or the new normal — I think that a lot of times we tend to forget the lessons that we learned from that year,” she said. “There were a lot of really profound things that we could take away from that year because nobody ever anticipated we would have something like that in our lifetimes. It wasn’t just COVID, there was so much else going on that year. There was political unrest in the country. There was social unrest in the country. There was so much going on. That all shows up in my book.”

The rabbi said she also feels it’s important to talk about her life as she did on April 7, as she believes it’s a cautionary tale regarding following religious leaders blindly, especially those who may prey on younger people. She hopes to share her experiences in another book one day.

As she reflected on her life and all the changes that had occurred over the past few years, Cella believes that if a person has something they want to do, they can make it happen regardless of age.

“One thing I like to tell people is you’re never too old to pursue whatever your dream is,” the rabbi said.

For more information on “Hindsight Is 2020: Torah Lessons from a Turbulent Time,” visit www.rabbicella.com.


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