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MIT Technology Review

Michal Woll, SM ’87

Rabbi builds community in Vermont

October 20, 2008

There aren’t many vegan Vermont rabbis who sing, dance, practice yoga, build their own sukkah–the traditional outdoor shelters erected during the holiday of Sukkoth–and hold degrees from MIT. In fact, there may be only one.

Michal (Jaclyn Michelle) Woll earned an MIT master’s in chemical engineering after getting her undergraduate degree at Northwestern in 1985. She may not be using her graduate degree as she intended, but she still finds that her scientific training and engineering abilities come in handy.

After MIT, Woll began her career in biomedicine, developing and evaluating dialysis and burn-care products and working as a product specialist with W. L. Gore and Associates, makers of Gore-Tex, at its medical division in Arizona. But she soon found she wanted something different for her career–and her life. So she earned another degree, this one in physical therapy, and went into practice in acute-care and geriatric settings.

Along the way, she grew increasingly interested in the Talmud, which she had explored in a weekly Torah-and-chocolate study group at MIT. “It was me and a bunch of undergraduate men,” she says. “You’d walk into this big conference room and there was a pile of books and a pile of Lindt and Toblerone chocolate bars and we’d all bring our lunch, and then, after lunch, we’d study and eat chocolate.”

Woll’s interest in vegetarianism began with an introduction from a roommate. “Kashruth, Jewish dietary practice, had not really been on the table for me,” she says. “It wasn’t part of my Reform Jewish upbringing.” For her, she says, vegetarianism follows biblical dietary law more closely than modern interpretations of kashruth.

All these threads weave together in Woll’s current life. After studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and interning as a nursing home and hospital chaplain, Woll was ordained as a rabbi in June 2007 and then joined the reform Congregation Shir Shalom in Woodstock, VT. She sees God and science as integrated concepts. “God is in the natural law,” she says. “God created intelligence. God is the source of my skills and talents. Science can be a process of discovering God. Einstein was definitely in that court!”

In Vermont, Woll plans to restore her antique house, build the synagogue community, serve as a hospice or health-care chaplain, and learn to snowboard.