Rabbi Avis Miller’s Photographic Eye

Rabbi Avis Miller is one of the most admired leaders of the Washington-area Jewish community.

She’s also a trail-blazer.  When Adas Israel Congregation, the city’s second-oldest synagogue, made her one of its rabbis in 1986, it marked the first time that a woman had become a pulpit rabbi at a major Conservative synagogue in the USA. 

She left Adas Israel in June 2008.  The twenty-two years she spent there is the longest tenure in a pulpit of any woman rabbi in the Conservative movement.

Since 2008 she has been president of the Open Dor Foundation Inc., a 501 (c)3 non-profit, which has the mission of reaching out through educational programming and counseling to unaffiliated or minimally active Jews as well as non-Jews who are connected to Judaism through marriage or Jewish ancestry.  One would be hard-pressed to find someone else who is more perfectly suited —through knowledge, experience and personal charisma — for this calling. 

The foundation’s website is located at opendor.org and the rabbi’s email address is rabbi@opendor.org

She attended Wellesley College, received a masters degree from Georgetown University, and received her rabbinical training at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Among her numerous activities, she conducts High Holy Days services at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, the exciting, youth-oriented shul that occupies the blissfully beautiful building in downtown D.C. that housed Adas Israel in the first half of the 1900s.

She’s also a talented photographer, and spoke with me on the phone about it today.

How are things going at the Open Dor Foundation?

I am currently teaching a number of courses in synagogues around the community, including an adult bat mitzvah class at Tiffereth Israel, open to unaffiliated women as well as TI members, as well as a class in Shabbat liturgy at Tifereth Israel and a seder workshop at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda.  I have also taught classes at Sixth and I, including a free crash course in Hebrew and introduction-to-Judaism classes.  I also offer counseling, including for conversion without charging a fee, though I do welcome donations to the Open Dor Foundation.   

Now let’s talk about your photography.  What subjects do you tend to photograph most frequently — and what explains your interest in that subject matter?

Outside of family photographs, I take almost exclusively photographs of scenery, including wildlife —  though perhaps our grandchildren could be considered wildlife.

Photography is a way of appreciating God’s creativity and artwork.

There have been a few notable exceptions to my focus on scenery and landscapes.  When I was sent to Ethiopia late in 1989 to secure the release of Ethiopian Jews, I took many photographs of their lives in Addis Ababa.  My photographs are among the few visual witnesses to that era.

One of those photographs, of six Ethiopian children crouching against a wall, was later made into a large triptych, an oil painting, which hangs in the library of Tel Aviv University.  When I commented to the artist that she had repaired tears in the children’s tattered clothing, she told me that she did so purposely so that people would focus their attention on the faces of the children.

When did you first start taking photographs, and how has your interest in photography developed over the years since then?

I first started taking photographs in high school when I won a national competition in the German language.  There were two prizes.  One was a trip to Washington.  The other was a Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super Camera.

I began taking photographs the week I was in Washington being hosted by the German Embassy.

On Friday evening, the embassy asked what I wanted to do that evening.  I replied that I wanted to attend synagogue services.  So the embassy chauffeur tranported me to Adas Israel Congregation.  If anyone had told me then that I would one day be a rabbi on that very same pulpit, I would certainly have considered it some kind of a joke.  There were no female rabbis anywhere then in the United States, nor were there any women in any rabbinical schools.  

My interest in photography developed as I traveled to what must certainly be some of the most beautiful places on earth — our American national parks, all of the continents, and beyond both the Arctic and the Antarctic circles.   

Is there a connection between your photography and your personal sense of Judaism?

I believe that one thing that  Judaism does very well is to encourage us to focus on images and moments in time.  The very concept of a bracha, a blessing, is to make us focus.  It’s interesting to me that we use the word “focus” to speak about both photography and spiritual matters. 

According to the Torah, we are created in the image of God, Who is the ultimate creator.  In that sense, artists are expressing a divine aspect of human nature when we create art.



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