The Life and Times of Reb Debbie

By Connie Barnard

The Life and Times of Reb Debbie

Deborah Slavitt is a woman you would love to meet. She’s a scholar, a teacher, a mother, a wife and oh, by the way, a rabbi. With a string of impressive degrees, a background in Ancient Greek and Latin, and a voracious appetite for learning, Rabbi Debbie’s life has been a journey rich in depth and diversity. I first met Slavitt when she participated as guest speaker at a series of programs on spirituality. Struck by her brilliant mind, approachable manner and rich sense of humor, I was curious to know how this remarkable woman with classical Ivy League credentials came to be a rabbi and teacher in the hinterlands of South Carolina. Fortunately, writing for Sasee provides the opportunity to have extended conversations with relative strangers! It is a pleasure to share the journey of Rabbi Slavitt’s fascinating life with our readers.

Slavitt grew up in New Hampshire, the daughter of German and Polish Jewish Americans who came to be here in the wake of World War II. Eager to separate themselves from World War II’s unspeakable pain, her parents embraced all things American. “My father, Isaac Katz, was a physician. He died when I was eleven, but I remember his great love of American icons like JFK and Louis Armstrong. He and my mother disassociated themselves from organized religion. They named their American-born children Michael, James, Deborah, David, Andrew and John. I have happy memories of my New England childhood which include Girl Scout Sundays at the local church, wearing little white gloves.”

Slavitt clearly inherited her parents’ intelligence and deep love of learning. At the same time, throughout her life she has been drawn by an innate spirituality and deep sense of connection with her Jewish roots. After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Ancient Greek and Latin from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. After graduation she taught junior high school Latin in Norwell, Massachusetts, and reconnected with her high school sweetheart, Evan Slavitt, whom she describes as “the most brilliant person I know.” They married while Evan was in Harvard Law School, and then spent several years in Washington, DC. With the many fine universities in this area, Debbie was ready to move in new directions. She considered following in her father’s footsteps and attending medical school, but soon realized that math and science were not where her talents and interests lie. Instead, Debbie attended graduate school at George Washington University where she received a Master’s Degree in Health Administration. After the Slavitts returned to Massachusetts, Debbie worked for ten years in outpatient and emergency care management at three hospitals in Massachusetts. It was a good job with good benefits, but she came to realize that this career field did not light her fire. Motivated to help employees find value and meaning in their fields of work, she became disenchanted by the inability to make a real difference and over time began to feel the tug of a different, deeper calling.

In 1993 Debbie had three children, including a newborn. She had a large, lovely old home and a very nice life in Malden, Massachusetts. Obviously, it was time to do something new and exhausting! Over the years for her own enjoyment, Debbie had pursued Jewish studies and music. “One night at dinner I told Evan that I was searching for something that would involve my three passions: teaching, music, and my Jewish roots,” she recalls with a chuckle. The shadow of a wry smile passed over Evan’s face as he said to himself, “Oh no! She is going to Rabbi School…”

Thus began the time in her life Debbie refers to as a wild ride which lasted nine years. First, she earned a Masters in Judaic Studies from Hebrew College in Brookline, Massachusets. She then began work toward rabbinic ordination through the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York City. This involved literally 24 hour days spent commuting into New York every Monday. On Sundays at midnight Deb would leave her three children in the care of a dear friend and take a four hour bus ride to New York from her home north of Boston, arriving at 4 am on Monday. She would attend class until 3pm, and then catch the train back home to Malden, once again at midnight. Debbie describes those days as both exhausting and exhilarating: “The learning was so exciting that it powered me through.” She was ordained in 2002 and spent the next two years serving a congregation in Andover where she had completed her two year internship.

2007 was a year of seismic shift for the Slavitt family. Evan accepted a position as General Counsel of the AVX Corporation in Myrtle Beach. He moved down first, later joined by his wife and youngest child, Tamar. “I had lived in New England all my life and knew nothing about the South,” Slavitt says. “From a cultural perspective, it was a real learning experience.” Their youngest child, daughter Tamar, who was 14 at the time, also chose to move with her parents rather than remain behind in her small private school. She entered Socastee High School’s International Baccalaureate program where she was astounded by the sheer size of the student body, most particularly her first exposure to the Southern phenomenon of a high school football pep rally!

The South’s overwhelming Protestant Christian demographics also posed a bit of culture shock for the Slavitts. The local folk were very friendly, but most knew very little about Judaism. Shortly after her arrival here, Rabbi Debbie recalls having to reassure several curious, well-intentioned new acquaintances that Jews actually do believe in God. (The good rabbi was too polite to remind them that both faiths share the Old Testament.) For Tamar, the move here was a clarifying experience as well. For the first time she found herself in a position of defining and defending her Jewish identity. Both women, however, recognize the positive impact of their experience as strangers in a strange land. “Sometimes we need to step back and view the world through a larger lens. The move here has provided that opportunity,” Rabbi Debbie says thoughtfully.

Over the six years since their move Rabbi Slavitt has settled into her new life in the South and no longer feels like Alice in Wonderland after falling down the rabbit hole. She has found new opportunities, both personal and professional. She serves as rabbi at Temple Beth Elohim, a Reform congregation in Georgetown where she assists with Friday night services and events such as the recent Shabbat at Sea evening cruise in Georgetown.

Slavitt is also a faculty associate at Coastal Carolina University, teaching World Religions, Old Testament, Latin and Introduction to Judaism. Her classes have become very popular with a wide range of students. Johann McCrackin, a student in her New Testament Greek course through the CCU’s Lifelong Learning Society, says, “Rabbi Slavitt’s warmth and patience with our class of senior retirees fostered a friendly, close-knit fellowship over the semester as she unlocked the intricacies of Greek nouns and verbs. As we translated familiar New Testament passages, she explained their relationship to the original Hebrew, giving us a more complete understanding of a passage in the context of the culture and context in which it was written.” A young former student, Shay Godwin, currently studying for his Masters Degree in Theology at the Christian International University, says: “I first met Rabbi Slavitt in Jewish studies. She is a rare professor to find because she invests so much of her time in her students, even outside the classroom. She challenges you to think and really understand what you believe. I have a very high respect for her.”

“I try to teach each class from a historical-critical approach,” Rabbi Debbie explains, “with a nuanced view of the past and, hopefully, the future as well.” It is this universal connection of the world viewed through a larger scope which makes Slavitt both rare as a teacher and as a human being. She continues to stretch her intellectual and spiritual boundaries in new and exciting dimensions, such as her most recent interest, Hebrew Kirtan, which combines ancient Hebrew texts and a Hindu practice of estatic chant also found in Celtic and Buddhist traditions.

Rabbi Debbie reflects: “Somewhere along the way our culture has decided that learning outside the practical, vocational or technological realm is a waste of time. Currently, there is an unfortunate lack of faith in liberal arts and the humanities. College is more than job training. It is the one time you get to play with your mind, think big for a while, and experience that ‘Big Wow.’ The best way to prepare for the future is to think beyond the moment.” These are wise words from a wise woman who embodies the original meaning of the word rabbi: the Hebrew term of reverence for a leader with a high level of knowledge, committed to both learning and to teaching.

About this writer

  • Connie BarnardConnie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.

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