Personal Statement

I will never forget gazing up at the 1,109 light bulbs that line the synagogue of my youth, Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. As Cantor Martin Feldman sang Avinu Malkeinu, I was overcome by the splendor of his operatic voice and the majesty of that sanctuary with the reds and blues of its stained glass and the yellow of its light bulbs. I experienced what I now know Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “awe” and “radical amazement.” 

When I was young, I felt a strong connection to the transcendent in Judaism, but I felt this mostly alone. People in my childhood synagogue and in the liberal but mainstream San Francisco I grew up in didn’t spend much time discussing “awe” or “radical amazement.” 

During my youth, I also didn’t appreciate the extent to which the relational aspects of Judaism are holy. I didn’t understand that my Hebrew School friends and I had a sacred community or that there was a spiritual side to the Erev Rosh Hashanah dinners my family had with another family at a restaurant. My Jewish story into early adulthood was about learning to appreciate both the transcendent and the relational dimensions of our tradition. 

In college, I gained insight into a third way of experiencing Judaism – the mystical approach to spirituality that holds at its core the idea that divinity is everywhere, all around us.  I first experienced this sense of connection at Middlebury College’s Hillel. As we held cinnamon and gazed into a braided havdalah candle, my friends and I were totally absorbed by our collective singing. This was a different spiritual connection from what I’d experienced before. In contrast to being inspired by the grandeur of existence to contemplate a power bigger than me, I was moved by the intuition that everything including myself is part of one collective whole. 

As a student rabbi, I’ve used my sermons, teaching, service leading and programs to tap into both the relational aspects of Jewish life and the various manifestations of spirituality in Judaism. In a Torah study I led at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, we were discussing yod-hey-vav-hey, the unpronounceable name for God. As the story of the burning bush explains, this name for God is a contraction of ehyeh asher ehyeh, “I will be what I will.” Congregants shared how, like this ever-becoming name for God, their religious lives have always been in the process of becoming. More than what anyone said, there was a sense of sacred harmony among us in the room that day as we described our constantly-in-formation religious lives. 

At Congregation Sherith Israel this year, I created “Expecting Jewishly,” a program that brings together expecting and new parents. The participants and I shared from the heart what parenthood means to us, while also caring for one another. When we gathered together to picnic in parks, we talked about how we were doing while also thinking about the bigger Jewish picture of the life transition we are experiencing. When I lead services, I emphasize both the community we are building together and the transcendent and mystical connections we can sometimes experience through prayer, music, and reflection. 

While I love the relational parts of being a rabbi, I believe I can contribute most to synagogues by helping congregants connect to the transcendent and mystical aspects of Judaism. Although we will never be able to fully understand God, I think synagogues depend on a connection to holiness that permeates the universe and that appears to us in many ways. My central calling as a rabbi is to facilitate encounters with divinity, to create moments that enable congregants to be in touch with something greater than themselves, and to support others to feel part of a universal oneness. 

Together, the transcendent, mystical, and relational elements of Judaism can feed off of one another to create a powerful multiplying effect in synagogues. When congregations grow in one of these three aspects, the others tend to follow along, creating a synergy. I want to strengthen congregations by tapping into this dynamic, by helping synagogues blossom upward, outward, and inward.