Rabbi Brings Her High Energy To The Valley


By Dana DuGan

Rabbi Robbi Sherwin will bring her “coffices” to Black Owl Coffee in Hailey, Sunday, Sept. 22. Photo by Dana DuGan

Rabbi Robbi Sherwin calls herself a “smitten mountain rabbi.” And after 11 years as spiritual leader to Congregation B’Nai Butte, in Crested Butte, Colo., she comes by that self-imposed sobriquet honestly.

The Wood River Jewish Community, based in Ketchum, hired Sherwin in February to take over as its spiritual leader.

Sherwin said it was hard to leave the high-mountain community in Crested Butte, but that she needed a “place where I could grow as a spiritual leader. I only left because the opportunity here was so phenomenal.”

There are approximately 1,000 Jews in the Wood River Valley, many of whom aren’t affiliated with WRJC. Within the WRJC, there are about 300 to 400 members, depending on the season.

Sherwin is now the fifth rabbi for WRJC. She is contracted to being in the Valley at least 100 days of the year over the course of long weekends, a month at a time, in summer, fall and winter. The remainder of the time she lives in Austin, Texas, her home for about 40 years—on and off—with her husband Mark Jordan, an attorney and the conservation manager for the City of Austin. There, she is a member of the clergy team of Congregation Kol Halev. The couple have three grown children.

Sherwin was an Air Force brat and grew up all over the country. Her father, an Air Force navigator who fought in Vietnam, still trains astronauts.

Sherwin and her siblings were often the only Jews in their schools, where they often encountered ignorance and bigotry. As soon as they were old enough, her parents sent them to Jewish summer camp, an experience that informed Sherwin’s life, her career path and her hopes for the future in the Wood River Valley.
“My parents gave us the gift of going to the same Jewish summer camp in Northern California no matter where we lived,” she said in an interview “I truly found my voice and identity in Judaism at summer camp.”

As important as that time was for her, Sherwin is equally determined to help Wood River Valley kids connect with their own Jewish identity.

“My style is open and folky,” she said. “I’m a contemporary rabbi and I hope I can make a difference in the Jewish world. I have plans for the Hailey crowd. More families live there—there’s diversity in age and socioeconomic status between those and the seasonal people in the Valley. I want to try to bring the community together. I want to start a scholarship for kids to go to Jewish camps, and connect teens with the

Boise community.”

This is a particularly busy time for Sherwin and her congregation, which meets at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Ketchum. High Holy Days encompasses Rosh Hashanah—Sept. 8-9—and Yom Kippur, which began last night and continues today, Wednesday, Sept.19.

Sherwin said High Holy Days require some “100 hours of preparation work, with 40 pieces of music, some of it thousands of years old, and some music that I wrote, readings from the Torah, sermons, and leading the service.”

There are five services done in 24 hours, starting with the eve of Yom Kippur.

“Rosh Hashanah is the head of the year,” Sherwin said. It’s the birthday of the year, correlating with the birth of Adam, the first human.

“For us,it is year 5779,” Sherwin said. “The new year gives us the opportunity to make us better. We cast away, in Tashlich, the crumbs of our lives into a flowing body of water.”

Those crumbs—usually bread crumbs—“represent our shortcomings,” she continued.

“In Judaism, to ‘sin’ is to miss the mark, an archery term. The concept is called t’ashuvah—to return, or try again. It is about the action, not the person, in Judaism. At the head of the year, you go to people you may have hurt, mostly with words, and ask them for forgiveness.

“After we receive forgiveness, we ask God for forgiveness for those shortcomings, those missing of marks. This is called Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

On Yom Kippur, we fast, donate to charity, and give food as donation that’s equal to what we might have consumed that day. As a community, we’re responsible for each other and ask God for forgiveness.

“On Yom Kippur, we are cleansed free of our shortcomings and we start fresh. All of Judaism is about being a good person.”

In order to connect with the community, Sherwin holds “coffices” (coffee meets office) at various coffee shops in the Valley.

She wants to put herself in a position “where the people are; where you don’t judge, you listen and learn from them,” she said.

On Sunday, Sept. 22 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., Sherwin will be open for advice at Black Owl Coffee at 208 North River Street in Hailey. Anyone is welcome to stop by for a chat, she said.

Rabbi Robbi, as she likes to be called, first became an ordained cantor before she was ordained as a rabbi. She calls this status a “double ordination.”

She is a member and the president of the Women’s Cantor Network, which includes 300 women from around the world from all denominations in Judaism, except in the Orthodox world, where women are not yet recognized as spiritual leaders.

“It is a huge privilege to be the president of this amazing organization,” she said.  “We give scholarships to deserving cantorial students, commission original pieces of music, hold an amazing annual conference, help each other finding music, in dealing with female clergy issues, and are a general support group for women clergy.”

Besides a flourishing spiritual life, Sherwin is a professional singer with 100 commercially published songs and several CDs to her name as well as collaborations with her multiple-award-winning band Sababa, with whom she sings and plays mandolin and guitar.

“From Tulsa to Tel Aviv, we sing in Hebrew and Arabic—we share many things,” she said. “We’re known as the Jewish Crosby, Stills & Nash due to our tight harmonies.”

The band even has a song on a best world music compilation CD.

Sherwin is a dedicated college football fan, was once a professional baker, rides horses, and hikes.

“I just love being in the mountains,” she said. “It’s partly the smell and that I feel closer to God when I’m in the mountains. I used to ski but have had too many injuries.”

Sherwin said people must struggle and change in order to find personal growth.

“One of my mantras is ‘bloom where you’re planted’,” she said. “This is a place that’s going to help me bloom. And we’re going to grow together.”

Yom Kippur Services

Wednesday, Sept. 19    

  • 10 a.m. Morning Service
  • 5:30 p.m. Afternoon Service Jonah’s Journey
  • 6:15 p.m. Yizkor (Memorial Service)
  • 6:45 p.m. Neilah (Concluding Service)
  • 7:30 p.m. Community Break the Fast

All services are held at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 201 Sun Valley Road