Today we are proud to cast a spotlight on Buffalo native and newly ordained Rabbi, Yonina Foster. Some of you know Rabbi Foster as Andrea K. or Andi, from Amherst High where she graduated in 1975. This BuffaloGalAgain is the same who continues to love nature, deep relationships with others, and her Jewish faith. Yonina has flitted in and out of organized religious space and place forever, and perhaps that is why one of her dreams today is to create a “Hamakom Hazeh,” (This The Place), a sacred space where she and others can meet the Divine and heal their Jewish neshamas (souls), study, share stories, and find joy. When she lived in Germantown, MD, years before returning to Buffalo, Yonina had created a similar gathering that she is seeking to rebirth in her hometown.
Foster’s desire to create such a space and to become a rabbi, is rooted back in 1972, when she was standing in the dining room of 100 Sedgemoor Ct., in Williamsville. At that moment, the radio announcer said the first woman rabbi in America was ordained. From a silence that followed a Voice emerged saying to Andi, “Be a rabbi.” Her inner response: “I’m not Jewish enough.” And that was that, she believed.
In her teen years encouraged by her mother, Anita (z”l), and before leaving the area for more than thirty-five years, Andi reached out to Rob Goldberg, now Chief Executive Officer of Buffalo Jewish Federation, for guidance. He suggested books for her to consult to find answers to questions she had about her faith. Rob, and his sister, Susan, friends during those years, began with their parents’ friendship, continues today.
Returning briefly after college, Foster sang in the choir at Beth Am, now Congregation Shir Shalom. Then at a small synagogue, Beth El, in Williamsburg, Virginia, Foster experienced a havurah, friendship circle, led by community members, further expanding and nurturing her soul. A concert by Reb Shlomo Carlebach further spoke to Foster’s yearning. Heading to DC for a Ph.D. in American Studies, Foster found Jewish Renewal, a Neo-Chassidic approach to Jewish tradition, with Rabbi David Shneyer and Am Kolel.
That Voice from childhood sat with Foster, biding its time. Raising her own voice and refreshing her guitar skills, she expanded her knowledge through learning and sharing Jewish music. During a second trip to Israel in 2006, the year her mother died, that Voice heard almost thirty-five years earlier spoke to her with clarity: “Be a rabbi.” By the following year, Foster was a rabbinic student in Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal and her heart and soul were at peace. During those studies Andrea became “Yonina”. While studying the Amidah with a rabbi mentor, Foster told him she felt like a Johnny Appleseed, planting seeds of Torah and peace, her mission to this day. His response was “Yonina,” explaining it was the feminine of Yonaton, or Jonathan, its root in Noah’s ark, the dove that returned with the olive branch. It is that which Rabbi Foster continues today to serve her soul and the Jewish community.
Following the death of Foster’s husband, Steven B. Katz, in 2016, from Glioblastoma, she found herself back in Buffalo. During the Covid summer of 2020, Yonina listened this time to a voice deep within herself, encouraging herself to finish the rabbinic education that she had started. Through Rabbinical Seminary International (RSI), Foster found the community of rabbis with whom to complete her studies and on June 29, 2023, she received Smicha, “hands’ on” ordination.
Now months since that moment, Rabbi Yonina is finding her footing and deployment. On September 6th, a small group met at her home to inaugurate Zra’eem, Seeds, as they considered the meaning of Elul, the love relationship with the Divine, with themselves, and with one another, to prepare for the High Holy Days. Through Zra’eem and work in the community Foster hopes to have a loving hand in improving the mental health of those she encounters through Jewish healing and practice.
If you’d like to connect with Rabbi Yonina contact her at RabbiYoninaFosterPhD@gmail.com.