Rabbi Emily Goldberg Winer remembers the summer when a teenage boy drowned, 12 years before she became director of spiritual engagement at Congregation Beth Sholom, in Providence.
It was 2011, and Winer was a camper at Camp Ramah Darom, in rural Georgia. During a whitewater rafting trip, 16-year-old Andrew Silvershein fell from the raft and was lost in the river. Winer knew Silvershein; they had sat next to each other on the plane ride to Atlanta.
The accident sent shockwaves through the camp, and rabbis traveled to Ramah Darom to help campers talk through their emotions. They spoke of “theodicy,” the continued faith in a good and caring God in the wake of cruel occurrences.
But as the rabbis were wrapping up their visit, Winer didn’t want them to leave. She wanted to keep asking questions, picking their brains, holding “deep conversations.”
“I was not ready to go back to the day-to-day life of camp,” she remembers. “I just wanted to talk with those rabbis about suffering and God’s presence in it all.”
Divine judgment may not be a typical conversation-starter for an adolescent girl from Florida, but there is nothing typical about Winer, 29, who is currently the only woman rabbi in Rhode Island’s Orthodox community.
With her straight blond hair, bookish glasses and deadpan humor, Winer brings a youthful, unexpected energy to modern Orthodox Beth Sholom, where she has served since June. Her self-described liberalism informs her feelings on eating meat, sexual orientation and who is allowed to become a rabbi.
Winer grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in a sizable Jewish community that skewed older. She went to Jewish day school and learned fluent Hebrew.
“I grew up in the Conservative movement,” she says. “I grew up really enjoying going to synagogue. I would sit in a pew with the Sisterhood ladies. I really liked my Bat Mitzvah. I really liked being involved.”
At 14, Winer received an unusual invitation – to join her synagogue’s Ritual Committee.
“About 15 65-year-old men sit and talk about the state of affairs of the ritual life of the synagogue, and no decisions get made,” Winer said of the committee. “It [was] the most unproductive, amazing space, and I loved it. I learned through those conversations the power of what it means to contribute to a space. I learned what it means for things to be high stakes to somebody. I ate it up.”
Winer enrolled at Muhlenberg College, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where she took an unexpected interest in Christian studies. She said she had “always had a fascination with other faiths.”
Her mentors encouraged her to study Talmud, a challenge she had never attempted, so she joined the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, based in New York City.
During her first session at Drisha, she casually asked the other participants why they were studying Talmud. She was surprised to learn that most of her peers were eager to learn Jewish law; their readings weren’t a grudging obligation, like studying for the SATs, but a satisfying pursuit unto itself.
“We weren’t just studying intellectually confusing material – what happens if your ox gores your neighbor’s ox, and who pays the damages – [and] the teachers we had were passionate and very sensitive,” Winer recalls. “They once asked, ‘How do you feel about this material?’ A few people did double takes. Like, ‘What do you mean, how do we feel about it?’ I thought getting my own perspective on [sacred writings] was really meaningful.”
It was at Drisha that Winer met her future husband, Jonah Winer, 28, who had a strong interest in rabbinical studies and Hillels.
Winer’s professional bio is remarkably layered for a woman still in her 20s, and one may wonder how she found the time to serve in so many roles in so many places. Winer was a Wexner Graduate Fellow at Yeshiva University, where she earned a master’s degree. She was ordained by the Yeshivat Maharat, in the Bronx, and has worked for such diverse organizations as the Stanton Street Shul (as a rabbinic intern), the Columbia/Barnard Hillel (also a rabbinic intern), and the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (chaplain), all in New York.
Her guiding principles are a mix of old and new, as the modern Orthodox community continues to evolve.
“I like tradition,” she says. “I like mitzvot. I like keeping Shabbat. I like keeping kosher. But I’m a feminist. I think women can be rabbis. I like the observant lifestyle, but I’ve been sitting on the ritual committee since I was 14. I want to be where the decisions get made.”
The couple lived in Somerville, Massachusetts, from 2022 to 2023, where Winer enjoyed the dynamic neighborhood and wealth of plant-based restaurants. She worked as the Boston manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of America, while her husband was the campus rabbi for Tufts University.
It was in Somerville that Winer learned about Barry Dolinger, Beth Sholom’s rabbi and a growing name in the regional Orthodox community. Winer was curious to know more about him, and they arranged a phone call.
She says Dolinger opened the conversation by talking about his hectic day: He was consulting on an agunah (a woman in a chained marriage), updating the kosher certification for a local café, meeting an ailing congregant at The Miriam Hospital, and working with a boy who had recently identified as gay, on the eve of his Bar Mitzvah. Winer was riveted.
“I was just like, ‘How do I have that day?’ ” she says. “I wanted [Rabbi Dolinger’s] schedule. I wanted all of that.”
Winer started to spend time in Providence as a visiting scholar. Beth Sholom had sponsored two visiting women residents in the past, through the Devorah Scholars’ Program, and although the congregation no longer qualified for Devorah, Winer spent a full year commuting to Providence to work with congregants.
She increasingly liked the idea of moving to Rhode Island, but there needed to be a local opportunity for her husband. When she spotted an open position for a senior Jewish educator at Brown RISD Hillel that seemed like a good match for her husband, Winer “not-so-subtly suggested that we do everything in our power to move here.”
Beth Sholom created a position around Winer’s skills, which is now officially known as the director of spiritual engagement.
In only a few months, the Winers have settled into their East Side home. They like the small-town feel of Providence and walking down Hope Street with their “extroverted” dog. Their first baby is due in December.
Winer says she has felt immense support in Providence, especially from Rabbi Dolinger, whom she described as a model colleague.
“He’s the most intentional person I’ve met,” says Winer. “He’s brilliant, [but] he’s also deeply, deeply humble. And that humility became really important for my role here. It’s not often that male, senior rabbis who have been able to run communities solely for years are willing to expand and take a step back. So, he models what he teaches very well.”
The Winers have quickly come to love the temperament of the city itself.
“It’s kind of like ‘Gilmore Girls’ meets like a large, thriving Jewish community, and a university town, all combined,” Winer says. “We’d always thought that we needed a city big enough to have two liberal, Orthodox, intentional, LGBTQ-affirming, interfaith-loving rabbis. We don’t need a city big enough. We just needed a city that was kind enough. And that was Providence.”
ROBERT ISENBERG (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.