Janis Siegel, Jewish Sound Correspondent
Rabbi Jessica Yarkin began her love affair with America in her teens when she realized that she was undeniably attracted to its openness, religious freedom, and willingness to accept many religious points of view.
So, after making a few family trips here and spending two summers at U.S. Jewish camps, Yarkin, who hails from London, finally made her way across the pond seven years ago at the age of 25 to begin her Jewish career as a program associate at the large University of Florida campus Hillel, where she worked for a year with current Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle executive director Keith Dvorchik.
Today, at the age of 32, Yarkin is making her way to Mercer Island to become Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation’s new director of congregational learning.
Along with her British accent, sharp wit and articulate style, the recently ordained rabbi told JTNews that she actually doesn’t miss much about England except for the weather. She looks forward to the Northwest’s soggy seasons.
“I fell in love with Americans, really,” said Yarkin from her car, mid-trip somewhere outside of Los Angeles, where she has been living. “I consider this my geographical soul mate. I always wanted to live in America.”
Yarkin will settle in Bellevue with her husband, a Bay Area-native who works at the eBay offices in Bellevue.
Yarkin will be teaching adult education classes and overseeing Herzl-Ner Tamid’s B’Yachad program, a religion school that encourages parents to learn simultaneously while their children are in classes there.
“I’m getting to teach the Livnot program with some of teenagers and that’s an area I really, really love,” said Yarkin. “I love to sing, and I play piano and I love music and choral singing. I love theatre and drama and improvisation. That’s something I’d really like to do with teens and adults, as well.”
Yarkin’s parents practice Modern Orthodoxy, the largest denomination in England, and her mother is a Jewish educator. They love the fact that she’s a rabbi now, she said, and they are very proud of her, although they miss her a lot. Yarkin Skypes and emails her family often and travels home to England every chance she gets.
In a country ruled by the Queen and Christianity, Yarkin said she often felt marginalized.
“Not that I really encountered anti-Semitism in England,” she said, “it just wasn’t quite as vibrant. People are less proud of their Jewish identity, in general. It’s a Christian country, and you feel excluded if you don’t celebrate Christmas.”
Yarkin spent a weekend with the synagogue earlier this spring where she met many of the members, and delivered a d’var Torah on Shabbat. She also held a Torah text study for an adult group.
“Rabbi Yarkin brings a great gift for connecting with children, teens and adults,” said Herzl-Ner Tamid senior rabbi Jay Rosenbaum. “[She has] passion, energy and humor and a great talent for teaching Judaism in a most engaging way. The congregation has already responded very enthusiastically to Rabbi Yarkin.”
“This is a learned community with people that are thirsty to be challenged,” said Yarkin. “The questions that were asked of me were intelligent, deep points.”
She was equally impressed by the synagogue’s celebratory side.
“I had the great experience of seeing their Purim shpiel, and that’s what really sold it for me,” she said. “They had a live band and it was one of the best Purim shpiels I’ve ever seen – ever!”
After graduating from the American Jewish University in Los Angeles this spring, she began looking for a happy community to work with — one not in crisis with a healthy and well-functioning congregational life.
H-NT seems to be a perfect fit.
“They blew me away with their incredible hospitality,” she said. “They were so accommodating and on my side. I felt a connection there. I felt love. I could see myself here.”