Rabbi Carla Cenker was, fittingly, born in 1948the same year Israel officially became a Jewish state.
She was raised in an orthodox synagogue in the U.S., though her family was not a practicing Orthodox Jewish one. Still, she loves the Hebrew language and is fluent in it, tooreading, writing and talking.
Back when she was in first-grade, some 50-plus years ago, Cenker ( pronounced, SINKER ) was immediately drawn to the religious ways and knew she wanted that life. That thinking continued when she married, as she wanted to keep a truly kosher home, but her then-husband was not interested.
At age 66, she was born ahead of her time, sort of.
Throughout her life, wherever she lived, including her 30 years in corporate sales, Cenker would find a traditional synagogue that prayed in Hebrew, and whatever adult education classes were offered, she took.
"As a woman growing up in those times, there were not educational options," said Cenker, who did not have the traditional Jewish Bat Mitzvah when she was 13.
She did, though, go to Hebrew University in Israel for her junior year of college, "because I needed to that."
Her fascination with Israel and Jewish customs, traditions and lore continued as she was in the working world and while raising her son and daughter. She continued to take adult education classes through local synagogues.
"There was no school for me to study [when younger]. Now, when the door opened, I ran in, and loved it," said Cenker.
Now she's running a marathon of Jewish lifeafter her five-year training.
Back in 2010, while attending yet another class at a Chicago synagogue, Cenker mentioned to the rabbi that she was curious about, potentially, attending rabbinical school. And so started Cenker's latest wild ride.
She spent five years studying locally alongside Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, who is the dean at Hebrew Seminary, A Rabbinical School for the Deaf & Hearing in Skokie.
"He welcomed me in his school because he heard that I love learning, which is true," Cenker said.
She is now a graduate. She is now a Rabbi.
"At first, [the five-year program] was absolutely overwhelming and intimidating," she said. "Still, I took every course offered, regardless of how many hours I would need to study.
I was exposed to subjects that I had wanted to learn about my entire life.
"The ordination to Rabbi was the culmination of finishing the work that was laid out, including [writing] a thesis paper. It wasn't so much that I intended to be a pulpit rabbi with a congregation. [Rather], I wanted to serve the Jewish community, with impact wherever I chose to be."
Her next step is, Israel.
Yep, Cenker is leaving in late August for Jerusalem, where she will continue her Jewish studies.
She wrote her thesis paper on how the deceased is treated and buriedwith honor and dignity, including ritual purification, a "missing mitzvah," which is not widely known in non-orthodox Jewish communities, she said. Cenker explained that this mitzvah centers on how the dead are treated in Jewish customs. "Orthodox Jews know about [this custom] and continue doing it, but many other [Jews] don't even know about it."
Cenker said she's hoping to teach about this "missing mitzvah," as she called it, in Jewish communities in the U.S. after her year in Israel.
"I am a glutton for learning," she said, laughing. "I had my chance here, and now I am going to a yeshiva, a school of learning, in Israel for another year. It's more traditional text study in a large room, Beit Midrash, where you can talk, debate, and engage deeply with a study partner. Her studying in Israel will be six days a week, likely from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Also while overseas, Cenker will continue her studying on the 'missing mitzvah.' Plus, she hopes to travel to other historic countries, such as Jordan, Turkey, Spain and others.
"I am excited and happy, not nervous," for the year in Israel, she said. "I feel very secure where I'm placing myself. I have not met them, but they are going to be kindred spirits, all of them, and there will be all ages, all genders," at this school of advanced learning.
After 24 years in Chicago, Cenker certainly is sad to leaveeven if only for a year. And during that year, she will analyze her options for permanently living in Israel or in the U.S., perhaps as a "roving' rabbi" and guest teacher, though not necessarily back in Chicago, she said.
Cenker was, in the mid-1990s, the president of Congregation Or Chadash in Chicago. She also has been a member of several Chicago-area synagogues. She's led High Holiday services at the Hillel at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and also at The Breakers on Chicago's north side, as well as services welcoming Shabbat at the Breakers, the self-help home in Uptown, and Whitehall in north suburban Deerfield.
"The people in Chicago are warm and gracious; I definitely will miss that," she said. "I will miss the incredible variety of cultural and educational opportunities here, from north to south, it's just huge. The LGBT growth and acceptance here in Chicago has been amazing, too, from 1995 to now.
Cenker was, years ago, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Center On Halsted. She also, decades ago, carried the temple banner of Or Chadash in the Chicago Pride Parade.
"I have always considered myself a very out Jew in the secular community and then a very out lesbian in the Jewish one," she said.