By ALAN SMASON, Special to the CCJN
Although she is a native New Orleanian, Rabbi Katie Bauman, recently selected to take over as the next senior rabbi at Touro Synagogue, has spent limited time in her hometown since she was nearly four years old. Despite that, she has deep roots to both the New Orleans and nearby Bogalusa Jewish communities and can’t wait to renew her connections to relatives and friends she knows here.
With relatives in the Berenson, Stone and Forsyth families, Bauman has connections to some of the most respected and highly visible Jewish community leaders. She hopes to continue that family tradition once she arrives at Touro in June.
“My grandmother was a Berenson. My mother grew up with them more than I did, but I certainly knew them,” she said in a phone interview with the CCJN. Her father, a physician who graduated from Tulane’s School of Medicine, moved the family to Little Rock, Arkansas, which was where she spent most of her formative years.
“New Orleans became the place that we’d visit,” she explained. ‘We went many times a year to spend time with my grandparents and our extended family and dear friends many times a year. It was a special home for me, but not a place that I was ever able to live.”
While growing up in Little Rock, the future rabbi became friends with a famous political family, the future First Family, the Clintons.
“Chelsea and I grew up together,” she noted. “We were in school together and did after-school activities together, but that was how everyone was. It was a small city; it is a small community.”
Bauman credits her attendance at Henry S. Jacobs Camp, the regional URJ summer camp located in Utica, MS., as having had a profound influence on her decision to become a rabbi. “I think the seed was planted at Jacobs camp,” she confessed. “I was a song leader and educator there for several summers.”
She credited former Jacobs Camp director Macy Hart as having encouraged her early on. “His contribution is immeasurable, I believe,” she added. “And he had a tremendous impact on my life; he influenced my life.”
Ironically, it was interim Touro Cantor Jordan Mandel whom she met at Jacobs, who first posited the question about her having a possible career in the clergy. Through her work as Jacobs, she came into contact with many rabbis and community leaders and when she graduated from high school, she elected to advance to Washington University in St. Louis, MO.
“In college, I fell in love with modern Hebrew and my text classes,” Bauman said. By the time she graduated cum laude with a degree in Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies, she was already weighing her options of attending Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and was considering either becoming a cantor or a rabbi.
“I came from a musical family and I’ve always been passionate about that and so I thought that I would become a cantor,” she continued. Her work as a cantorial soloist took her to Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati and the Northwestern University Hillel.
But after a remarkable year at Temple Israel in Memphis working as an educator, she made a momentous decision. The rabbinate would be her path. “I’m passionate about serving in this part of the country,” Bauman said. “I wanted to be near my family and close to my roots. I wanted to be flexible enough to be in a large place or a small place. I wanted to be flexible enough to be both equipped to be in an organization or a school or a synagogue. It felt to me that the rabbinate would be the best program for me to be equipped to handle whatever opportunity might arise for Southern Jewry.”
She continued her HUC-JIR studies as a student rabbi in Marion, Ohio and Natchez. In addition, she earned a Master’s degree of Education Administration from Xavier University in Cincinnati.
The year before she received her ordination in 2009, Bauman was awarded the Nathan Stern Prize for the highest academic achievement towards the requirements for the Master’s degree. At her ordination, she also received the Simon Lazarus Prize, given to the graduating student with the highest academic achievement.
Bauman returned to Temple Israel as an assistant rabbi and was promoted to an associate rabbi position over the course of the past decade. When she learned that the senior rabbi post at Touro Synagogue had become available, Bauman decided to put her name up for consideration.
She said she felt an almost immediate connection to the congregation early in the formalized selection process. The selection committee recommended her and the congregation made it official on February 25 at a special meeting.
Rabbi Bauman has been very involved with social action while living in Memphis. She believes part of the draw has been Memphis’ infamous place in history as the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Because of the racial tension here and the immense poverty not unlike New Orleans, there is a strong impulse to be involved in social justice work and I was influenced by that,” she stressed. She anticipates being similarly occupied once she assumes the rabbinate.
One thing the wife, mother of three and soon-to-be senior rabbi also admits looking forward to is working with the other Touro clergy and executive staff. “The team is phenomenal,” she beamed. “I have so much admiration for Cantor (Kevin) Margolius, for Rabbi (Todd) Silverman and for the executive director Kerry (Tapia) and the entire board. I’m so impressed by their minds and hearts. It will be such a gift to work with that team.”
Because of her annual meeting at Temple Israel, the rabbi will be occupied during this year’s annual Jazz Fest Shabbat, a major annual event at Touro. “That’s the end of Passover, that Friday night,” she admitted. “It’s not a great time to leave. I’d like to finish strong in my congregation where I am.”
But she indicated her eager anticipation at attending the 2020 event. “Oh, absolutely,” Bauman concluded. “I have been longing to be at a Jazz Fest Shabbat my entire life….as long as there have been Jazz Fest Shabbats and I can’t wait to be a part of it.”