New Interim Rabbi Creates Sacred Spaces Through Virtual Platforms

Not every rabbi can break boards with their bare hands or hit the bullseye at 25 yards. But Rabbi Hillel Norry is not your typical rabbi. As both a black belt in Tae Kwon Do (3rd Dan), and a certified firearms instructor, Rabbi Norry advocates self-defense training and teaches about the mental and spiritual aspects of martial arts, and embodies the expression, “Practice what you preach.” 

“Over the years I have developed a philosophy of spiritual practice that draws inspiration from visual and creative arts, athletics, and other spiritual traditions,” says Norry. “And I am excited to bring that to Chattanooga.”

On August 1, Rabbi Norry officially started as the interim rabbi for B’nai Zion Congregation in Chattanooga. Fortunately, such an unorthodox rabbi is exactly what this Conservative Jewish synagogue needs during these unconventional times. 

“Our congregation is in a transitional period as we search for a new permanent rabbi,” said Scott Israel, board chair for B’nai Zion. “Rabbi Norry is an ideal person to help lead this congregation and the conversation during this critical search as he simultaneously ensures that our services, holiday celebrations, educational programs and life cycles events continue.”  

And he is doing it all from the comfort of his home. In Atlanta, Georgia.

“COVID has brought all sorts of unique opportunities along with challenges – this is no exception,” added Norry. “An interim rabbi would typically move here or at least lead services in person. But instead of coming in for a weekend, hanging out with people and shaking hands, everything has been virtual. Instead of schmoozing, I’m Zooming,” he laughs. “It’s not ideal, but it’s working.”

As a lifelong musician, Rabbi Norry is an accomplished guitarist and harmonica player, who believes music can be used as a spiritual amplifier in any Jewish setting. During these isolating times, he finds that music can be an especially powerful tool to bring people together and has been incorporating his musical talents into his virtual Sabbath services. 

“I always had a traditional Jewish practice that didn’t include instrumental music during services. But that changed. I realized I was denying myself a depth of richness that I didn’t have to deny. When you bring the creativity of instrumental and deeper musical creativity to prayer it’s more powerful than the words,” said Norry. “Music is one of the most powerful phenomena in human culture and a vehicle for powerful expression. If I can influence someone’s way of being Jewish through music, isn’t that the same as a sermon? It’s part of my Torah.” 

Born and raised in Rochester, New York, Rabbi Hillel Norry earned a degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University in 1987, and an MA in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He was ordained in 1993 and later pursued doctoral studies in

Talmud while serving as an Adjunct Instructor in the Department of Professional and Pastoral Skills, founding and teaching in the Seminary’s beit midrash for rabbinical students. He has served on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, as spiritual leader at Congregation Shaare Zedek on the Upper West Side of New York City and as Senior Rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta. Rabbi Norry also has a long history of involvement with the Ramah camping movement and is a passionate educator who takes every opportunity to engage both young people and adults.

Rabbi Norry has appeared on CNN, the CBS Morning Show, Fox & Friends, as well as several appearances on Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasting. An avid vegetarian chef and proponent of ethical eating, he has taught vegetarian cooking on cable television, at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, to Emory Hillel students in his own kitchen, and at Shearith Israel. In 1999, he was the rabbinical consultant for the Ed Norton and Ben Stiller film Keeping the Faith and can also be seen as an extra in the popular Netflix series, Cobra Kai (Season 1, Ep. 10). 

While Rabbi Norry is hoping – and praying – that in-person services and celebrations at B’nai Zion will resume soon, he is also focused on the positive that this new spiritual reality offers. “B’nai Zion may be virtual right now, but that also means there is no barrier to entry. Our congregants are active and participating, our kids are engaged and learning, and our congregation is thriving,” he said. “Our virtual doors are always open. Come and join us!”

Founded in 1888, B’nai Zion Congregation provides a multi-generational, inclusive community dedicated to the education, worship, and celebration of Judaism while inspiring a vibrant, uplifting, and inclusive community connected to the dynamic traditions of Conservative Judaism.