Director of interfaith family engagement
Rabbi Melinda Mersack believes her bat mitzvah was the entryway to her Jewish adulthood and into the Jewish choices she has made for herself and her family.
“Even though I was raised Jewish, and my family was very involved in Judaism and our congregation, I really think of that time in my life as being when I was old enough to say, ‘This is important to me,’” she says.
Mersack, 41, has served in the newly created position of director of interfaith family engagement for the Jewish Federation of Cleveland and the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland since May.
She celebrated her bat mitzvah in May 1986 at Temple Adath Israel, a Reform congregation in Lexington, Ky., where she grew up.
“I remember being excited, a little bit anxious and nervous, but having a really good time in the middle of it,” she says. “I was a little concerned about how quickly I was speaking and kept looking over at my mom, who would tell me to slow down if I needed to. But it was a nice event, and it was fun to be with family and the community.”
Mersack’s father had served as president of the temple, and her mother was sisterhood president. Every summer, she would go to the Goldman Union Camp Institute, the Reform camp in Zionsville, Ind., for which she has served as Cleveland representative since 2011.
“I think I knew when I was 16 that I wanted to become a rabbi,” she says. “I went on a GUCI NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) teen Israel trip, and when I came back, my parents remember me saying with certainty, ‘I want to be a rabbi.’
“So GUCI was a huge influence, along with my parents’ involvement in our congregation and Rabbi Jon Adland.”
Adland, who now serves as rabbi of Temple Israel in Canton, was not the rabbi who officiated at Mersack’s bat mitzvah, but he joined the temple’s clergy later that year.
“He’s the person I really think of as my rabbi today,” she says. “He came at a time when I had a lot of questions about Judaism, and he was really accessible and easy to connect with. He was always able to answer my questions, and I think that really encouraged my curiosity about Judaism and my continued involvement, and it was one of the reasons that led me to this path today.”
In her new position, Mersack says her goal is to serve as a resource and connector for interfaith families so they are welcomed in the Greater Cleveland Jewish community.
“Because everyone’s Jewish journey is so personal and individualized, it’s hard to know what’s going to spark something in someone else,” she said. “So my goal is to help people find that spark for themselves – what’s going to spark their passion or their curiosity about Judaism, the way mine was sparked.”
Mersack, who was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institution of Religion in Cincinnati, also leads services at The R.H. Myers Apartments in Beachwood. She previously served as a rabbi at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood.
Mersack and her husband, Mark Jacobs, live in Solon with their three sons: Isaiah, 12, Eli, 10, and Kiva, 7.
This article appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Bar•Bat Mitzvah.