Rabbi Susan Miller Rheins lifts a heavy chair and sets it down in front of Temple Sinai’s Ark. In contrast to the animated offices and populated hallways, the sanctuary is as subdued as her attire.
For a few moments, Rheins’ initial reserve blends into the surroundings. Her voice is so soft she’s asked to speak louder. Then an unexpected question unleashes the candor lurking in her eyes.
On Aug. 6, 1990, the New York Times published the wedding announcement of Rabbi Susan Lynn Miller and Rabbi Richard S. Rheins. Brides would kill to have their nuptials published in the Times. How did they pull it off?
“I submitted it,” she laughs.
Rick Rheins, her husband and senior rabbi of Temple Sinai, is at a meeting. But even if he were free, he would undoubtedly stay out of sight.
This is her moment to shine.
Rheins has enraptured Sinai congregants with her multi-faceted talents since her husband was hired in 2005 following Rabbi Raymond Zwerin’s retirement.
Her talent, intellect and insight catch the unaware totally off guard. This demure, petite mother of three sons is a powerhouse packed inside a small frame.
She introduced her exceptional gifts the first time she chanted Torah to a full house at Sinai. Her melodic voice rose, effortlessly traversed pitch fluctuations, sustained itself, and soared again. Each precise phrase was measured in joy.
“I’m always honored to chant, and I’m always nervous,” admits Rheins, who considered pursuing the cantorate until the eighth grade. “It’s such a huge responsibility. I’m a perfectionist, and I know it should be done in a certain way. I strive to do that.
“I chanted on Shabbat, Jan. 31, on the anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah. I practiced all week even though I knew it by heart.” She throws up her hands. “I can’t help it!”
In addition to leading congregational and women’s missions to Israel, Rheins has taught all-female Torah study classes for the last four-and-a-half-years.
“A congregant approached me to see whether I would meet regularly with a group of women interested in studying with me.” Delight registers in her face. “I said, ‘Sure.’
“They wanted to focus on women in the Torah, Judaism, women’s issues, women in the Talmud and the sacred texts. We’ve covered pretty much all the women in the Torah.”
Rheins, who now instructs seven women-only Torah groups a month, contends that members of the feminine sex are powerful figures in Judaism.
“While the men may get the spotlight, it’s the women who play the important role in perpetuating the history and continuity of the Jewish people. They move history along.”