Making Jewish Beliefs Accessible To More

By Lana Gersten

Published April 15, 2009, issue of April 24, 2009.
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At a time when many pulpit rabbis have fewer congregants to attend to, a Jewish institution is urging them to turn their attention to a larger flock — American society.

Rabbis Without Borders aims to bring Jewish wisdom into the public sphere by translating the beliefs and traditions of Judaism into an accessible and usable idiom for everyone in America.

The program was started by CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a New York-based think tank that focuses on pluralism and ecumenism. With synagogue attendance lagging, Rabbis Without Borders would redefine the role of the pulpit rabbi.

“We end up talking to ourselves, and sometimes we lose out on continuing to be relevant,” said Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz of Congregation B’nai Israel, a reform synagogue in Bridgeport, Conn.

According to a 2008 survey of religious affiliation by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, more than a quarter of American adults have either left the religion of their childhood to join another religion or decided not to practice any religion. Because religious and cultural boundaries are blurring, CLAL believes Jewish thinking has a place in the public sphere.

“We’re less concerned with affiliation and more concerned with whether Jewish wisdom can make a difference,” said Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of CLAL. “It’s about whether the wisdom can be accessible and useable to people’s lives.”

It sounds like a grandiose idea, but Kula believes the time is now ripe for rabbis to think of themselves not as Jewish continuity workers or Jewish survivalists, but as American religious leaders. “There’s a shift from using Judaism to help Jews become more Jewish to helping anybody seek more meaning and purpose in their lives,” he said.

The program will include two fellowships starting in June, each with 20 slots: one for rabbis, and the other for students from East Coast rabbinical schools of all denominations. The purpose is to train rabbis and future rabbis to speak to the needs of people today. They will study the sociology of the American Jewish community; learn how identity is shifting and brainstorm how to best relate Judaism to contemporary society. Participants will meet with experts in a variety of fields, including politics, technology and business. Ultimately, the goal is to create a network of 300 rabbis in the next 10 years to update and broaden the rabbinic role.

Ideally, participants would use a number of public outlets to get their message into the national conversation, including newspaper opinion editorials, blogs, panel discussions, radio shows and television interviews.

“Viewing our affiliation through the narrow eyes of your denomination, I think this is one of the problems of rabbinic education,” said Phil Lieberman, rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Kol HaNeshamah in Englewood, N.J. Lieberman attended planning sessions for Rabbis Without Borders. “Rabbis are beset with this agenda that in some ways prevents them from reaching these larger roles,” he said.

Lifting rabbis into a more public, visible role is exactly what Rabbis Without Borders intends to do. Kula, who is a frequent guest on the “Today” show and blogs regularly for The Huffington Post and for the “On Faith” section at WashingtonPost/Newsweek.com, hopes the initiative will help rabbis learn to better speak to the needs of people today. Courses in technology will incorporate everything from blogging and utilizing social-networking sites to reaching out to television and radio. They will use tools to reach the young, and part of the process is figuring out how to relate to certain demographics. “How do you put Torah up on Twitter in 140 characters or less?” asked Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, director of Rabbis Without Borders.

According to Alex Kaye, assistant rabbi at the Modern Orthodox synagogue Congregation Kehillat Jeshurun, located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, enhanced communication skills will help rabbis weigh in on important social and political issues, such as the war in Iraq.

“A purely secular way of processing that kind of information focuses on questions of politics, accountability,” he explained. “From a spiritual sense, there are all kinds of other questions, like mourning, mutual responsibility… responsibility to servicemen and women who come back, proper health care. These are questions that go beyond purely political and into the human, psychological realm. These are [issues] that we can address.”

Though not reaching out specifically to the Jewish community, Kula believes that the program may also reconnect Jews to their own faith. He thinks if Jews see that Judaism has something relevant to say about contemporary issues, they will find value in their tradition. “If Judaism sounds smart to Jews, Jews will be more engaged,” he said.

Rabbis who participated in initial planning meetings say the program is crucial, particularly now, for helping people through the worst economic crisis in decades.

“People are rethinking what are the values we need to live by now. Who are we as a people? Everything we’re looking to do here speaks to that,” Sirbu said. “It’s going to help us make it through the current crisis, and steer us through the next crisis.”

Lana Gersten is a freelance writer living in New York.

To apply for the fellowships, send an application with your name, address, e-mail address, school, résumé and a one-page, double-spaced response to why you would like to participate in this program. Please send the application by May 8 to Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu at rsirbu@clal.org.


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