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Rabbi Elyssa Austerklein

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Rabbi, Beth EL Congregation in Akron

When Elyssa Joy Auster was 10 years old, an award-winning essay plummeted her onto the bima of her synagogue.

“I had won the Holocaust essay award, which I think still happens, and had to read it in front of a thousand people or even more,” she recalls as she thinks back to her childhood experience at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood. “ And I was incredibly nervous.”

Now-Rabbi Austerklein – she’s since become a rabbi and married – remembers similar feelings during her bat mitzvah.

“I felt very nervous and uncomfortable being up there, but I also felt there was an important reason I needed to do it,” she recalls of her Nov. 12, 1994, bat mitzvah.

Austerklein, who now speaks from the bima at Beth El Congregation in Akron, says she still gets occasional jitters.

When she was a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, she had a revelation about leading services that helped to calm her.

“I realized it’s not about me,” she remembers. “I’m doing this for G-d. Then it doesn’t matter if my voice sounds good or not. That’s nothing to do with it – it’s about focusing people’s attention upwards and inwards, and not on me.”

Born in Portchester, New York, Austerklein’s family moved to Shaker Heights from Stamford, Conn., when she was 1 year old.

“We always joked about the fact that I was the only Clevelander in my family,” she says.

Austerklein first attended Jewish day schools and entered Shaker Heights public school in fifth grade. In addition, she attended both Fairmount Temple’s religious school and Cleveland Hebrew Schools. Her bat mitzvah preparation started “late,” but her musical ability and Hebrew skills helped her memorize her parts of the parsha and Haftarah quickly.

Her tutor, Tzipora Fromer, taught her using a cassette tape with Cantor Sarah Sager’s voice that Austerklein played on a fire-engine red tape recorder.

“And I did share my bat mitzvah day with another student whom I didn’t know at the time,” Austerklein says.

On the weekend of her bat mitzvah, Austerklein’s family held a Friday night dinner at an Italian restaurant and a luncheon on Saturday at Landerhaven in Mayfield Heights. On Saturday night her parents held an informal gathering for out-of-town family and friends at home. They hosted a Sunday brunch as well.

“We had a lot of people in from out of town,” she says. “And I remember Saturday night a lot of people gathered around the piano and (were) singing like all kinds of folk songs, Broadway songs…”

They celebrated with a cassata cake with white chocolate shavings that is recalled fondly by family. Centerpieces were baskets painted with purple flowers that held African violets.

“And we still have African violets that are alive from my bat mitzvah,” she says. “The baskets, which my mom had saved, I used at my daughter’s baby naming this past year. You can see we’re a sentimental family.”

Austerklein says at the time she became bat mitzvah, the rabbi stuck his finger in her back as a technique to get her to speak louder. That did not deter her from considering the profession.

She looked to Sager as a role model and liked Rabbi Stacy Schlein, then an intern, and Rabbi Sharon Marcus, who taught at Fairmount Temple at the time. A graduate of Shaker Heights High School, Austerklein studied European cultural studies and Latin American studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Upon graduating, she earned a Master of Theological Studies from Boston University before pursuing rabbinic studies and ordination.

She met her husband, then-Cantor Matthew Klein (now Austerklein), on retreat at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn. When they married, the two decided to share a pulpit – and combine their names.

“I’ve always felt from the time I was a really little child, like in my earliest memories, from two years old, I felt G-d’s presence in the world,” she recalls. “And that was part of my just human experience. But I think the first time I thought it was really possible for me to become a clergy person – and I wasn’t sure at the time whether it be a cantor or a rabbi – was when I had my bat mitzvah.”