Cross posted from – Medium
The role of the rabbi is rooted in Torah (teaching and learning), service of the heart, and acts of love and kindness, and it is our job to adapt as the times change. And the times have changed.
Today, many Jews do not belong to synagogues, many live outside the reach of a synagogue. Still others have been turned off by synagogues for a variety of reasons, ranging from dues structure, to not feeling welcomed or simply not wanting to go.
Let’s talk about the dues structure of many synagogues. When Maya was a young woman in her twenties, she wanted to learn more about her Judaism. She did not have a lot of money and could not afford the dues of her local synagogue. The synagogue reached out to her and offered her a scholarship for membership. With the help of the scholarship, she joined that synagogue and loved it. She loved the singing, the challah and learning about Judaism. Sadly, when the scholarship ended, the synagogue wanted her to pay the full dues. She still could not afford the dues and stopped going, not just to that synagogue but to all synagogues. Today, Maya is happily married with three kids and does not belong to any Jewish community and has not reached out to a synagogue because she still believes that synagogues are too expensive and you have to pay to belong. Maya’s oldest daughter is now ten years old and Maya would love for her daughter to learn about Judaism.
Maya’s father, Arnold, is seventy years old. He spent a lot of his young adult life living in Israel on different Kibbutzim. He loves talking with me about Israel, and talking with me in Hebrew. Today, Arnold is a secular Jew who believes in the Jewish people but he will not go to a synagogue because he feels like they want too much money.
I’ve spent a good chunk of my time as a rabbinical student thinking about these kinds of issues and how my role as a rabbi can help foster Jewish community in the 21st century. The ever-evolving Jewish community challenges rabbis to meet people where they are in their lives, help people make discoveries about themselves and their place in society, and maybe even find their connection to God. What we also need to do, however, is think more creatively about how to reach out to and connect with Jews.
As an emerging rabbi, I’ve learned that people still need access to clergy, even when they don’t belong to a religious community. One night, I was at a local pub and Jay, a guy I’ve gotten to know from the neighborhood, walked in. Jay is not Jewish but he came up to me and said, “You’re a rabbi, right?” I told him I’m a student but will be a rabbi one day. He says “I’m going into the Fire Academy and won’t be around for two months. Can you give me a blessing?” I was touched, moved and honored that he would ask. I put my hand on Jay’s shoulder. Some of his friends joined us, and there were also Jews in the bar who joined. We closed our eyes as I offered Jay a blessing that wished him well on his new journey to becoming a firefighter and prayed for a safe return. The look on Jay’s face was pure joy. In that moment I was able to be Jay’s “rabbi,” he needed pastoral care and I was honored to provide it for him and since then, the Jews who were in the bar that night, most of whom are in their 20’s or early 30’s, have discussed many things with me: their trips to Israel, their time in Hebrew school, their childhood rabbi, and much more. I also want to add they do not attend a synagogue and are not active members in a Jewish community.
These stories emphasize why it’s important to broaden our view of what it means to be a rabbi today. Of course we don’t want to get rid of synagogues, but we can also find other ways to meet people where they are in their lives. We can find ways to work outside the boundaries of our synagogues, talk with individuals, and listen and engage with them about Jewish life.
Click here for Part 2.