Bringing Judaism into the public sphere
A 28-year-old struggling writer walks up to a checkout counter at Whole Foods. “Where is the Torah study?” he asks. “Oh, the class with the rabbi? That’s in the back, near the nuts.”
The clerk wasn’t being pejorative – the Torah study really is in the back, near the bulk bins of nuts and trail mix. I should know: I’m the nut teaching Torah in the store every Wednesday.
In my 20-plus years as a Jewish educator, I never dreamt I’d be teaching Torah in a supermarket. But, then again, I’m pretty sure the two dozen or so students who regularly participate in the class never thought they’d be studying Jewish text each week, let alone doing so surrounded by organic Swiss chard.
There is nothing new in all this. When the Israelites returned from Babylonian exile in 537 BCE and rebuilt the Temple, Ezra the Scribe noticed that the people were too busy with the pressures of the day to make time for Judaism. On Mondays and Thursdays – the two busiest market days – Ezra stood in the street and read Torah out loud to a people who had all but forgotten their own story. From this seminal moment sprang the practice of reading the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays that continues in synagogues to this day.
Millennia later, public space Judaism is again an emerging trend. I began my own work in this field as a congregational rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, Calif., inspired by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s teaching: “In a place where you can be Jewish anywhere, we should grasp the opportunity to be Jewish everywhere.”
Torah study at Whole Foods expanded to a host of Jewish events. On Sukkot, our youth group built a sukkah on Whole Foods’ outdoor patio, a banner explained the structure. We nurtured a mutually beneficial relationship with the store manager and staff, and the store sponsored food and activities at temple events. A year later, the relationship had solidified to the point that the store manager invited our congregation to lead a menorah lighting at Chanukah time. At that moment, I knew that we’d not only engaged Jews beyond our shul’s walls; we had changed the public face of Judaism in our community.
For Jewish communities like Vancouver that lack great Jewish population density, public space Judaism is a bit like online dating: if you want to meet someone, you need to let people know you’re looking.
Afterwards, the room was electric with everyone talking about how wonderful it was to connect with a larger Jewish community while on vacation and brainstorming how we might do this again.
How do we accomplish this? My colleague at Temple Sholom, Rabbi Carey Brown, teaches a Talmud class for millennials in a coffee shop once a month; I teach a text-based Jewish current events discussion at lunchtime in an office boardroom. Ringing in the 2014 year, we led a Shabbat service and Havdalah at Whistler Blackcomb. More than 60 people came to the dinner and service, about 45 to Havdalah. Afterwards, the room was electric with everyone talking about how wonderful it was to connect with a larger Jewish community while on vacation and brainstorming how we might do this again. A few local Jewish families asked if we could help educate their remote community. We now have plans to bring Hebrew school and family education to them.
When the rain and snow subside and the sun shines on Vancouver’s beaches, our congregation leads relaxing, open Shabbat services on the beach. We unfurl a banner and post signs welcoming all who wish to join us. And, like at Whole Foods, they come – Jews and “Jew curious.”
Howard Schultz, the man who developed Starbucks Coffee’s identity, famously explained his business model as trying to create a “third place” between work and home where people could gather and feel they belonged. For generations, the synagogue was that third place for Jews.
Like most rabbis, I have tried everything short of standing on my head to get people into my shul for prayer or study. While many come, some regularly, many others don’t or won’t. We can bring synagogue to them. We can meet in a third place of our own creation, filling it with meaning and a measure of Yiddishkeit.
One group in particular was easy to find but hard to reach: Jewish men. They were everywhere in our larger community, but not at synagogue. I asked a socially connected man in my Los Angeles congregation to host a Guys’ Night with the Rabbi in his home. I suggested he invite anyone he wanted and encourage guys to bring a friend.
To my surprise, 23 guys showed up. When we asked them why, they answered, “Because you asked.” Note that the “you” was not me, but the guy they respected and liked who had invited them to his home. Again, it was all about relationships.
We began that “Guys Night” with a simple but powerful exercise – introduce yourself without saying what you do for a living. Men so often define themselves by what they do, how they provide for their families. Our group would only work, we realized, if we could retrain ourselves to change this damaging, isolating pattern that is related to male competitiveness. We would have to see other men as brothers, each one with good things to give and to receive.
We established ground rules about confidentiality and cross talk. In the first months, we discussed Why Do We Work So Hard?; What Kind of Fathers We Had, What Kind of Fathers We Are; Being a Husband: How Has Your Partner Influenced the Way You Think?; Power and the Male Identity.
I always prepared a contemporary text and a Jewish text to help guide our talks, but soon we needed no more than a trigger to get started. The group of about 60 regulars has now met for eight years. Our annual retreat attracts more than 100 and there’s also an annual Community Men’s Seder, based on a Men of Reform Judaism model, that a core group of guys lead for friends and colleagues, which is growing every year. And many of the men who were once absent from synagogue life are now present.
Public space Judaism has taught me that, even in the congregational context, I need to reach out to members. If I wait for them to come to me, they might never come.
Public space Judaism has taught me that, even in the congregational context, I need to reach out to members. If I wait for them to come to me, they might never come. On my first day at Temple Sholom, for example, I was handed the Kaddish list for the coming Shabbat. I didn’t know any of the names, so I started calling members who were observing yahrzeits. Introducing myself, I explained that it would be my first time reading the name of their loved one. Could they tell me a little bit about the deceased, so I had a context for their memory as I read the name on Shabbat?
One by one, congregants told me their stories. They remembered things about their parents, spouses and siblings they hadn’t thought of in years. Tears flowed on both ends of the conversation. When the mourners came to synagogue that week to recite Kaddish, it was easier for them to walk into the place that had been made unfamiliar because of the change of rabbis, and easier for me to stand before them. We were no longer strangers.
Many of those talks also led to my visiting members’ homes or meeting them for coffee to hear their stories. Whenever possible, I set those meetings away from my office. Like Ezra the Scribe, I feel I need to engage the people in their space, not mine.
Yes, public space Judaism is a blind date, and that takes a bit of chutzpah. It begins with the sukkah, the phone call, the get-together at Whole Foods near the nut department. More often than we think, it leads to a relationship – a relationship with other Jews and with our Jewish selves that endures.
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz is senior rabbi at Temple Sholom and co-author of The MRJ Men’s Seder Haggadah (MRJ Press 2007). You can follow him on twitter @rabbidanmosk. A longer version of this article was originally published in Reform Judaism Magazine.