Arrivals: Rabbi Diana Villa, 50

Her Hebrew is perfect, and the impact of her work is far-reaching.

October 12, 2006 12:16
Arrivals: Rabbi Diana Villa, 50

rabbi villa 88. (photo credit: )


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Diana Villa's life in Israel is a story in two parts. The first starts in 1974 when she arrived in Jerusalem, aged 18, to study for her BA in Jewish Philosophy and general philosophy at the Hebrew University. The second chapter, still ongoing, began in 1996 when Villa returned to Israel after a 14-year detour, made aliya, and completed her rabbinical school studies with her eight-year-old daughter in tow. "There were moments back then that I wanted to chuck it all in with all that bureaucratic 'go there and then come back here, go there and come back here,' but after a few months that phase passed." Ten years later, Villa lives on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood with her 18-year-old daughter who was recently drafted into the IDF. Her Hebrew is perfect, and the impact of her work is far-reaching. Nonetheless, by her own admission, she feels "less than completely rooted." FAMILY HISTORY Villa has some serious yichus. Her maternal grandfather was Rabbi Leo Jung, who is widely considered one of the major architects of American Orthodox Judaism. Her father was raised in Argentina, and her mother in America. They met when her father came to New York and stopped by her grandfather's synagogue, The Jewish Center on the Upper West side. Although both parents were Orthodox, Villa says they were always "very open... My mother always placed ethics above everything else. She taught me first and foremost to be a mensch." Villa grew up in Buenos Aires attending Orthodox schools and taking an active part in Bnei Akiva. BEFORE ALIYA Villa was shocked when she arrived in Israel for the first time in 1974. "You had to fit into very specific boxes here. Either you were religious, or you weren't." She describes going to the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University to pray the afternoon service in trousers and being frowned upon. "I was told, 'It's very nice that you come, but why in trousers?' The way everyone had to fit into some preconceived box was stifling." Villa finished her BA, eventually, and went to the States to study for a MA in Philosophies of Judaism at the Jewish Theological Seminary. While in New York, Villa's father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She moved back to Buenos Aires to be near her father who eventually passed away. Villa stayed in the city, teaching at the Conservative Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano. In time she got married, gave birth to Tami and got divorced. Eighteen years after she left Israel, she returned and came back to attend rabbinical school at The Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. < b>UPON ARRIVAL After getting past the bureaucratic upheaval, Villa had to contend once again with the closed "boxes" of Israeli society. Her first struggle was to find an appropriate framework for her daughter. She decided to send her to the Conservative Frankel elementary school in French Hill, a TALI affiliated school with enriched Jewish learning and daily prayers. And then there was the day-to-day cultural adjustment. "I thought that when you come to a country at such a young age, you would just become fully Israeli," says Villa. For Tami, however, it wasn't so. "Her Hebrew is perfect, and she's certainly Israeli," says Villa, "but she's not like someone who was born here. "I think that once you're old enough to have memories, you're old enough to compare where you come from to life here." For Villa, the second time around was somewhat easier. She was ordained by Schechter in 2000 and came to Israel with a strong social and familial network. Her mother, two sisters and one brother all live in the country. ROUTINE Villa works 20 hours a week teaching at Schechter and 20 hours a week at the Institute's Center for Women in Jewish Law. She also teaches halacha to Hebrew Union College rabbinical students, represents the Conservative movement in Israel on a number of national boards and is the joint editor and contributor of Schechter's Ask the Rabbi website. Her book, Za'akot Dalot, Halakhic Solutions for the Agunot of Our Time, co-authored with Rabbi Monique Susskind, was published this year. "My routine isn't very routine," she admits. FINANCES Things haven't been easy for Villa. "It's really hard for Conservative male rabbis to make a living in this country. It's ten times harder for women." Villa says that there are simply not enough positions available. "It's not like it is in the States. There 60 percent of rabbis are pulpit rabbis; the rest work in chaplaincy or other teaching positions. Here, there are very few options, and very few congregations. It [Conservative Judaism in Israel] is developing, but very slowly." Until last November she had not been paid year round for her work at the Schechter Center. Since then, although it's still not tenure, it has become a 12-month salary. "Only now has the whole issue of finances become OK. But I'm fifty already." Villa admits that she doesn't know how she will fund her retirement. CIRCLE Diana has a few Israeli friends, two dating back 30 years. She also has a close Brazilian and American friend - both of whom she met here but have left Israel in the meantime. "I have many acquaintances, but not many real friends," she says. "I guess when one immigrates at [the] age of 40 it is harder to make a circle of friends. I've also been a single mom since Tami was two." LIVING ENVIRONMENT Villa's flat on the fifth floor of her French Hill apartment block is comfortable but functional. All the requisite furniture is there: sofa, chairs, computer, bookshelves etc, but there is little in the way of soft furnishings and ornamentation. The distinct sense one gets is that Villa's creative impulses are channeled elsewhere. FAITH It took Villa a long time to identify as a Conservative Jew. According to the rabbi, each step away from Orthodoxy was painfully slow and carefully considered. Today, she keeps Shabbat, considers herself mitzva observant and fully identifies with the wide spectrum of beliefs that the Conservative movement encompasses. Nonetheless, it is a far cry from the world she grew up in, where Conservative Judaism was considered treif. "My father wouldn't be happy," she admits. PLANS "Since I turned 18 I seem to change direction every few years," says Villa. "It's very difficult for me to plan anything for the long term." For a while she was working on her book, but now that has come out, she is searching for direction. "In the Jewish calendar you live looking forward to the next festival. I have no such landmark at the moment." Villa believes that if it were not for her daughter (for whom she still has sole responsibility) she may be more transient. Despite being so involved in life in Israel on so many levels, she says she is: "still floating, somewhat; not exactly rooted." However, her interest in going elsewhere would mostly be for financial gain. "If someone were to offer me a great job opportunity in America for the next five years, I wouldn't necessarily turn it down." To propose an immigrant for an 'Arrivals' profile, please send a one-paragraph e-mail to:

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