September 25, 2023 -
My first week on the road for my sabbatical has been eventful! Professionally, I have seen and learned so much. Personally, I have had the chance to spend some valuable time with Leah and the kids. It has been enlightening to see my children as they are every day.
We visited Washington, DC, where this very same week Jack Lew, an observant Jew, was named the new Treasury Secretary in the Obama administration. Lew’s appointment serves as an apt reflecting point of how far Jews have come in America. For sure, our people’s advancement in the United States is a blessing. It is no longer novel to count Jews as major players in American politics, culture, and – to a lesser extent – even in sports! My visit to the Holocaust Museum in DC is a reminder, though, that we should never take our place in this country for granted – we must live our faith and our values every day, and instill them in our children.
In Waldorf, Maryland, a small congregation in the southern part of the state, congregants have stepped up to fill the roles served by professionals in larger houses of worship. I served this congregation, Sha’are Shalom, as a student rabbi and returned to seminary inspired by the volunteers who taught Sunday school, chanted Torah on Shabbat mornings, and raised funds to build their eventual home on Henry Ford Circle (ironic, no?). Very little has changed as I returned to the scene of my rabbinical school memories. The very same people, who breathed life into Judaism, are still doing it with contributions from energetic new members. In many respects, I can thank Sha’are Shalom for helping shape the arc of my rabbinate as I live it today.
The journey then took us south to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where I visited my friend and colleague, Rabbi Mark Strauss-Cohn. Mark serves Temple Emanuel, the only Jewish congregation in the city, which is rich in diversity. I discovered this first-hand when he invited me to attend a community organizing meeting of clergy who are working on bettering the city in the areas of transportation, education, housing, and providing support services for senior citizens.
We went further south, moving through South Carolina and on to Atlanta, where I met with colleagues who roundly agreed that serving as clergy in the south is a privilege and honor. Since Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympics in 1996, the city has grown exponentially – and that would include the Jewish population, which doubled in 10 years to over 120, 000 Jews! Jewish Atlanta – and the many institutions that support it – has worked hard to manage the population growth. Social justice work is in the blood of Atlanta clergy, and these men and women carry on the lasting legacy of Dr Martin Luther King. Clergy of all faiths have easy relations with their counterparts, and work together towards common goals of lasting equality for all. Still, there is much work to do. Just ask Rabbi Rachel Bregman, rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta (Reform), and fellow with the Open Tent Project. Rabbi Bregman has taken on the issue of human trafficking that is of grave concern in the area, and is happening just around the corner from the beautiful home of The Temple on Peachtree Street. I also met Rabbis Steve Rau and Fred Reeves of The Temple, who shared their experiences with me. I also met with Rabbi Bradley Levenberg of Temple Sinai, who shared his experiences of being a rabbi in Atlanta and the social justice issues he’s working on.
Finally, I was given the treat of observing the Sabbath in two very wonderful and very different Jewish communities. On Shabbat evening I worshipped with Rabbis Peter Berg and Lauren Lapidus, along with Cantor Deborah Hartman at The Temple. The Temple’s beautiful chapel was filled with warmth and song, and Leah and the kids and I were given the honor of lighting the Shabbat candles. Shabbat morning brought me to Young Israel of Toco Hills (Modern Orthodox), where I enjoyed a lovely service led by Rabbi Adam Starr.
While my family and I have not had the time to tour around the cities much, we’ve discovered something much more valuable after our first week on the road – friendships. We have renewed relationships with old friends and colleagues, and have kindled new ones. We are hearing the stories of the people we meet and the Jewish lives they are living – what an amazing experience!