Rabbi Ilana Symons continues the family business
Second Generation RabbiIlana Symons takes the helm at Temple Sinai in New York

Rabbi Ilana Symons continues the family business

“Temple David was the village that raised me,” she said.

Rabbi Ilana Symons. (Photo provided by Ilana Simons)
Rabbi Ilana Symons. (Photo provided by Ilana Simons)

Rabbis Barbara and Ron Symons could be the envy of Jewish parents around the world.

All three of the couple’s children — Aviva, Ilana and Micah — are either working in Jewish spiritual or communal life or are studying to do so.
Professionally, Barbara and Ron Symons have spent much of their careers serving the Pittsburgh area’s Jewish community.

Barbara Symons was the spiritual leader of Temple David in Monroeville; Ron Symons has held various roles but is ending the Pittsburgh chapter of his career as the senior director of Jewish Life for the Jewish Community Center and the founding director of the organization’s Center for Loving Kindness.

The pair raised their children in Monroeville and are preparing to move to New York in the next few weeks to be closer to their family. The relocation will mean being nearer to their middle daughter, Ilana, who was recently ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and, in April, was hired as the permanent rabbi at Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs, New York.

The foundation for their children’s love of Judaism, Barbara Symons said, was found at both Temple David and in the family’s home.

“They clearly felt Temple David was a second home, and they established a lot of deep relationships with adults as mentors and people who just cared about them,” she said.

A family ritual blended Jewish tradition and social justice into weekly Shabbat dinners, Ron Symons said.

“We played a game, ‘Mensch of the Week,’ where everyone had to name someone who did something menschlich during the week,” he said. “The one rule of the game was that you couldn’t name yourself, because if you pronounce yourself as a mensch, you probably aren’t.”

Ilana Symons credits her parents for helping to establish her passion for Judaism. She also recognizes the role her mother’s Monroeville congregation played in her life.

“Temple David was the village that raised me,” she said. “It was really our second home. If my mom wasn’t at our home, she was probably at temple.”

Like most children of rabbis, Ilana Symons said she and her siblings spent a lot of time each week at the congregation, including twice-weekly religious school classes — first as a student then madrichim — Friday night services and holidays.

“Sometimes, we would just sit there and do our homework if my mom had a meeting,” she said. “We really got to know the people of Temple David like our second family.”

If the Reform congregation was the foundation of Ilana Symons’ Jewish life, youth group and summer camp were the primer for the future rabbi and where she found her own voice.

She was a member of Temple David’s youth group and spent summers at the Reform movement’s Camp Harlam in the Poconos Mountains.

“It was really the summer that I went to the Kutz Camp, which is NFTY’s leadership camp, that I decided officially that this is the path I wanted to pursue,” Ilana Symons said.

By the time her father was working at the JCC, Ilana Symons was already in high school, and soon after away at college — first at New York University, then Hebrew Union College — so she didn’t get to spend as much time with him at work, she said. But it was always a treat to come home and “see him in action and hear about all the wonderful things he was doing.”

“And then when the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting happened and he was at the JCC, which is right down the road, remembering that day is intertwined with the healing work that my dad has done from his place at the JCC,” Ilana Symons said.

While at HUC, she spent time at its campuses in Jerusalem, Cincinnati and New York. Of course, growing up with two rabbis meant that she already had learned a thing or two about how to navigate the rabbinate.

“I observed the way my parents interacted with their congregants or whomever was talking with them,” she said. “I think that, in a lot of ways, the ‘rabbi’ voice that I’ve developed for myself has come from seeing how they use their rabbi voices.”

The 26-year-old said that she is the sole rabbi at Temple Sinai, which is home to about 160 families. And, while her parents won’t exactly be next door, they will be closer than if they were still living in Pittsburgh.

“Of course, it’s sad for them to be leaving my childhood home and the place where I grew up,” she said. “There’s a bittersweetness to it. But I’m excited for my next step and their next step.”

One benefit will be the ability for the family to see Barbara Symons’ mother — who lives in Albany — more often.

“We can kind of meet in the middle and see her more frequently,” Ilana Symons said.

And after watching her parents in their rabbinic roles for so long, she said, the tables will now be turned.

“They can now come and see me in action after, as a child, seeing them in action,” she said.

Ilana Symons’ siblings are also ensuring that the Rabbis Symons will have plenty of opportunity to see their children carry on their life’s work.

Aviva Symons is serving as an assistant director at a summer camp in California, and Micah Symons recently completed his first year at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“We are so deeply proud of where they all are,” Barbara Symons said.

As for leaving the Steel City, Ilana Symons speaks, perhaps, for her whole family.

“I think it took me leaving Pittsburgh to really realize how amazing Pittsburgh is and how wonderful a place it was to grow up,” she said.
She said that she and her siblings appreciate what her parents did for them and are often asked what it was like to grow up with two rabbis as parents.

“I always say we didn’t know any different,” she offered.

She does, however, know the opportunity they provided.

“It was the full immersion in Judaism,” she said. “They let us make Judaism our own, so we all kind of found our own spaces when we were growing up. Spaces where we recognize the importance of carrying on the tradition of Judaism.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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