Rabbi Sally Olins proclaims that she lives with “gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.”
“Gratitude will save you from more pain than anything else,” she says. “I always see the good—and want everyone to see it.”
“Rabbi Sally,” as she is known, is a 14-year resident of Palm Springs. She was born in Cincinnati before her family, including an older brother, moved to Los Angeles; she was raised in Beverly Hills.
“My parents were very quiet about money,” she says. “We never had a big car, and I was always reminded about how to act. I remember my mother pointing her finger at me and saying, ‘Keep your dignity. Don’t ever go down to their level.’ She was the most amazing, wonderful woman in the world. There was no one like her.
“My dad was a rigid man whose goal in life was making money. I didn’t ever in my life want to be like him, and that motivated me. When I buried him, I remembered that as his greatest gift to me. I didn’t have negative feelings about him; he did the best he could.”
After graduating from Beverly Hills High School, Olins attended UCLA and earned a teaching credential, followed by a master’s degree in dance kinesiology. She taught high school for a time, but soon realized that wasn’t her ultimate goal. She and her husband of 57 years had a daughter by then. She loved to exercise, so she opened a dance-exercise school. However, that school was not her ultimate goal, either.
“My grandfather was a religious man,” Olins says. “I went with him to services when we were in Cincinnati. Something in me wanted to go and be there. I remember once he got to carry the Torah around the congregation. I asked him, ‘How can you carry that; it’s so heavy?’ I’ll never forget his answer: ‘The more you know, the lighter it becomes.’”
Olins went on to earn a master’s in Jewish philosophy from the University of Judaism. Olins was bucking tradition when she told other students she was studying to be a rabbi. “I began wanting to be a rabbi at about age 7 or 8. I knew, with every bit of my being, that God had called me, but I was always told girls couldn’t become rabbis.”
Judaism is divided into three branches: Orthodox, which follows the laws of the Torah most closely, including separation of women and men in the temple; Conservative, which seeks to hold on to traditional ways of worship but compromises with modern society; and Reform, which focuses less on the Torah’s laws and emphasizes more secular moral practices.
“In Conservative Judaism, women couldn’t become rabbis,” she says. “I was told to go to Reform Judaism, but I was also told to just wait for things to change.”
In 1985, change did come. Olins was ordained in 1989 after completing studies at the Academy of Jewish Religion in New York City, becoming the 10th woman in the U.S. to be ordained. After serving as rabbi for a temple in Sherman Oaks for 20 years, Olins came to Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs for 10 years. Olins received an honorary doctorate of divinity from Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 2017—the same year she received a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. She has been involved in local community service with the LGBT community, the homeless, the Palm Springs Art Museum and more.
In 2015, Olins founded a nonprofit organization called Coffee House Rabbi, and she has been holding twice-monthly Coffee House Rabbi sessions—now via Zoom during the pandemic.
She recently published Coffee House Rabbi: Spiritual and Religious Wisdom, memorializing inspirational stories and quotations, and including sections on inspiration, life lessons, religion and humor.
“The best part of my job, after 32 years as a rabbi, is the joy of helping people see how religion can add to their lives,” Olins says. “People come together with other people with something very basic in common. The hardest part of the job is the challenge to have others see the beauty and importance in whatever event I’m conducting.
“I’m always seen as a very outgoing person, while the truth is I’m actually a very private person who loves to be alone. I’m a reader. I love my home; it’s like a sanctuary to me, and I love having private time. During the pandemic, I’ve been praying a lot. I don’t get out of bed in the morning without saying, ‘Thank you, God.’ Each new day brings new experiences and opportunities. At the end of the day, I think about the day, and again I say, ‘Thank you, God.’
“I’m not young, and I had a heart problem many years ago. Like anyone who has experienced a procedure where they had to go under the knife, I know you can’t take life for granted.”
When I ask Olins what makes her cry, I get a very surprising answer.
“I have trouble crying. I just don’t do it very well,” she says. “My heart responds, but not my eyes. … Maybe I was trained not to cry, to fit into the qualities attributable to women—that I always had to be professional.
“On the other hand, everything makes me laugh. I love to laugh.”
Although she describes herself as semi-retired, Olins continues to write, hold her Coffee House Rabbi get-togethers, and conduct weddings and pet-memorial services.
“I’ve given great time and thought to what will happen to some of the important messages I’ve collected when I’m gone,” Olins says. “I want to make sure they’re documented for education, and to make people feel better when they need something spiritual to hold onto.
“In the long run, we all want the same thing—to live an ethical and moral life, with kindness and compassion. You can find it inside yourself. I’m inspired by everything. I believe in people. … If I were giving a message to my younger self, or to any young person, I’d say: Keep hold of your dreams, and don’t ever give up.”
Rabbi Sally’s Coffee House Rabbi usually takes place at 10 a.m. on the first and third Sundays of the month. For more information, visit rabbisally.com.