A while back I wrote that I will have big plans to announce for my future. It is finally time to share those plans. Before I do, just a moment of reflection.
Throughout my career as a rabbi I’ve been both inside and out. I’ve been inside the organized Jewish community by: Serving as a rabbi and educator at Conservative and Reform affiliated synagogues and schools, working with many mainstream organizations, such as, CJP and JCRC in Boston, and sharing my music with national organizations like the UAHC (now URJ) Biennial and International USY conventions. I’ve been outside, both because of my choice of Rabbinical school, the Academy for Jewish Religion and by not being a member of either of the major liberal rabbinic organizations - the Rabbinical Assembly or the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Over the course of the past month and a half I’ve thought a lot about being inside and out and where I can do my best work. Being inside means having a structure, support and history. It also means having all of the baggage that comes with those perks. Being on the outside means going against the grain, taking risks and not always being accepted by the mainstream.
The American Jewish community has relied on our “inside” institutions for decades. These organizations gave us the stability and security that we needed as we navigated the waters of assimilation and battled against anti-semitism. There is still hatred against Jews and, to be sure, many are still trying to find the best way to live fully as Jews and Americans. But for the most part these challenges are in the past. We Jews have been accepted into American society as equals and we have embraced American secularism into our lives. The struggles that made those “inside” institutions so necessary have, for the most part, abated.
In addition, with the secularization of America has come a rejection of particularism in favor of universalism. Those on the “inside” may not see their organizations as being particularistic. They imagine them as a big enough for everyone with room for diversity. But fundamentally, these institutions were not created for that. They were created to provide for the needs and the security of a particular subset of people. They were made to be particularistic - and they worked.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being particularistic. An institution cannot be all things to all people. Communities must have a unique vision and mission. The problem is when that particularism creates an “other” or “outsider” mentality.
I’ve served Conservative affiliated congregations for nineteen years. Although I am not a graduate of JTS or a member of the RA I took seriously my responsibilities to serve my congregants with a Conservative mindset and to follow the teachings of the Conservative movement. Imagine my surprise when, many years ago, I was asked a question by a congregant and tried to access the Conservative responsa to give a proper answer. I was told that because I wasn’t a member of the RA I could not have access to these documents. Here I was, trying to serve an “insider” - a member of a Conservative congregation - and I couldn’t because I was an “outsider.” Thankfully this has changed and the responsa are readily available to all online. However there are many other examples of how our institutions continue to keep too many people “outside” in the name of protecting those who are “inside”.
I believe in a Judaism that has a clear vision of what it believes in and yet does not think it has the only truth. I believe in a Judaism that isn’t afraid to stand up for its values and yet does not devalue others in doing so. I believe in a Judaism that is particularistic in its vision and universalistic in its morals and ethics. I believe that, while working from “within” may give us stability - working from “without” allows us to see the world through, as Martin Buber might say, “I-Thou” glasses.
To have a clear vision of my future and values does not mean that I must objectify you and see you as “other” or “outside”. If our Jewish communities want to grow again we must tear down the fences that have protected us and begin building bridges. We must stop talking about being a community and a family and start acting like it. We must stop judging how people come to synagogue, when they come to synagogue, how they dress in synagogue and how much they give to the synagogue. Judaism cannot be particularistic when it's Jews have embraced universalism.
And so, I’m choosing to work from the outside. While I am grateful to have had a number of opportunities to work with well-established, affiliated institutions - I am, instead, joining a “start-up” community called Congregation Beit Kulam. Beit Kulam was founded one year ago by my friend Rabbi Joannie Cubell in Delray Beach, Florida and now has just over fifty family units and growing. I’ve known Joannie for years and we share a vision of a new kind of Jewish community - one that offers an authentic Jewish experience on the bimah and in the boardroom. One that isn’t focused on budgets, buildings and bureaucracy but on building relationships. And one that seeks to have a clear vision and invites everyone to be “outside,” together, in striving toward that goal.
I'm so grateful to the Beit Kulam community for welcoming me and allowing me to dream, vision, build, learn, sing and celebrate with them. The view from “out here” is wonderful and I can't wait to embrace the incredible diversity and passion that makes up us Jews on the outside.