Meet Rabbi Iah Pillsbury, the new rabbi of Temple Beit Torah in Colorado Springs. Rabbi Pillsbury was born and reared in California to a Jewish mother and an Episcopalian father. Her mother was more interested in religion than her father; hence, Rabbi Pillsbury and her sister were brought up observing Judaism.
Her name is short for Tobiah, which she says means “truthful one” or “kindness” in Hebrew.
Rabbi Pillsbury’s interest in becoming a rabbi began at age 13. She had always been fascinated by history and had studied about the Holocaust and the Crusades. She realized that terrible events in the past had been fueled by religion. Pillsbury wondered why good things couldn’t happen because of religion as well.
She attended shul on a regular basis with her mother and sister, and after services there were many discussions around the lunch table with her mother’s friends.
Pillsbury pinpoints the day her decision to study for the rabbinate crystalized: her Sunday School class had been misbehaving, and her teacher shouted at them, “Don’t you realize one day you can be a rabbi or cantor?”
She immediately went to speak to her rabbi about this.
Her rabbi delineated all of the duties she performed as the rabbi of the congregation, such as leading services, pastoral counseling, community involvement, teaching and interaction with many types of people. Pillsbury thought, “Wow! I had no idea there was so much to being a rabbi!”
That was the point at which she decided her future career.
Pillsbury lived in southern California until she graduated high school, with short intervals living in England and Chile. She then studied English at the University of Chicago.
She took one year off after graduating with her BA to care for her 86-year-old grandfather in Albany, NY. She went on to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Israel for her rabbinic studies. After a year in Israel, she continued the remainder of her six-year program in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she was ordained.
Rabbi Pillsbury works at Temple Beit Torah three days a week: Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. The other weekdays she works from home, performing tasks for the temple and writing a book on Queen Esther. As she balances her work and personal life, she gives extra time to the temple as she wants her community “to thrive.”
Pillsbury sees the congregation continuing to grow, not just in numbers but in spirituality. The religious school and adult education classes are increasing in attendance, and Pillsbury has continued to emphasize social justice programs as well.
She would like to see her lay leaders become more familiar with parts of the Shabbat service.
At the same time, Rabbi Pillsbury would like to see her congregation remain “funky and heimische” and maintain its diversity of members. Pillsbury also hopes to strengthen the relationship between Temple Beit Torah and Temple Shalom.
The job with Temple Beit Torah was her first choice, directly after beging ordained. She liked the fact that the congregation was small and “funky” and growing internally.
She realized that building a community can be hard work and that this congregation needed a partner to do just that. She feels that she and the congregation can make a difference and grow together.
In Colorado Springs, Pillsbury is also involved in Faith Table, which works on the issue of homelessness, and the Pikes Peak Interfaith Coalition. She is also connected to Inside Out and Habitat for Humanity, organizations which are starting a clergy council to help at-risk youth.
Beit Torah President Jeff Ader says Rabbi Pillsbury brings a love of learning, enthusiasm, passion and creativity to her job. He relates an instance to illustrate: At the beginning of Yom Kippur services, Rabbi Pillsbury was found sitting on the floor teaching the young children. Later that same day, she was equally adept at adult education. Ader says Pillsbury is comfortable relating to people at any level.
Ader has seen various people who had been “disenfranchised” with Judaism return and find a home at Temple Beit Torah. He says that the temple, under Rabbi Pillsbury’s tenure, has created a community for those searching for something, which, for a variety of reasons, they could not find in more traditional congregations.
Prior to Rabbi Pillsbury assuming her position in July, 2019, the congregation had a part-time rabbi, who led Friday night services twice a month. Now services are rabbi-led every week.
She is also helping to streamline the management of the temple for the officers and board of directors.
Rabbi Pillsbury is Temple Beit Torah’s first female rabbi and in a same-sex marriage. She feels these characteristics are “both an obstacle and an opportunity.” She says people listen to others based on preconceived notions, but finds that people are more welcoming of her when they accept who they themselves are.
For Rabbi Pillsbury, her purpose at the temple is to “make the world a meaningful and better place, both individually and collectively.”
For Ader, the hiring of Rabbi Pillsbury was “a match made in heaven.”
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