On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Va-et'chanan

In Parashat Va-et'chanan, Moses prepares Joshua to take on leadership of the Jewish people. So, it’s fitting that this week, Rabbi Jacobs is joined by Rabbi Matt Green, the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, New York and director of Brooklyn Jews. They discuss new ways to engage young Jews, the importance of Judaism to young people, and why we shouldn’t be worried about the future of Judaism.

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Welcome back to On The Other Hand, Ten minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week Rabbi Rick Jacobs the president of the Union for Reform Judaism shares a bit about the Torah portion of the week. Some weeks, he's joined by a guest. This week, Rabbi Matt Green joined Rabbi Jacobs. He's the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He's also the director of Brooklyn Jews. The two of them spoke a bit about Parashat Va'Et Chanan. They talked about Judaism outside of our normative walls and what younger people, are really tapping into.

Rabbi Jacobs: This week we focus our attention on Parashat Va-et'chanan the second parashat in the Book of Deuteronomy. There's an amazing opening, which really is, in some ways filled with emotion, because it really is our Moses realizing that he's not going to take the people into that next chapter. He has been our teacher; he's been our guide. He has nurtured and agitated in all the right measures as the Jewish people wandered. But it is clear to our great leader at this moment that his days are numbered and there will be a new leader for the Jewish people. And to me, one of the most beautiful, and frankly, energizing passages is Chapter 3 of Deuteronomy Verse 27. It says Alei, Roche Hapizga. It says: go up onto the summit and look to the north, the west, the east and look and see what might be possible.

And then in the next moment the commandment is to give Joshua instructions give Joshua zoochs, some strength, some inspiration some more ruach and Joshua, the next generation's leader is going to step in.

We are privileged today that Rabbi Matt Green is with us today. He is the newly minted assistant rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn and also the director of Brooklyn Jews. And I would just say, one of our inspiring leaders who has had such a clear vision, but a very dynamic practice of reaching beyond the walls of synagogues and thinking about how do we engage, particularly young adults in the Jewish community, in a very different way. And I just feel the echo of Chanan in this moment.

Rabbi Matt Green: Oh man, that's no pressure.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: No pressure at all. And I'm not Moses, but just sitting here getting a sense of your leadership. So I wonder if you can just put yourself up on that pisgah for a moment? Put yourself on this little mount. You're looking out, not just at a geographic area, but you're looking out at the future. And you know, Jewish leaders are always biting their nails or we are worried-- you know, is the future going to be OK or are we going to be strong. Can I just put you on the spot? What do you see? What's the kind of--not the prediction--but what do you see in our future as a newly minted rabbi from the Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion, stepping out into an exciting and bold new rabbinate?

Rabbi Matt Green: Well first obviously thank you. I am terrified to be compared to Joshua. I think it's a pretty exciting moment, actually. I think that obviously there's a lot of handwringing about some of the changes and some of the lack of interest in traditional Jewish institutions. But I also see Jews who are pretty deeply passionate about being Jewish. I think the problem is they don't yet know how to do Jewish. They know how to be Jewish and they feel good about it. But by and large, our institutions don't really give them ways in; don't give them ways of doing something that feels right. And I actually think, slowly, there's a kind of groundswell of things like Brooklyn Jews and other things actually in Brooklyn, but also not just Brooklyn Jews, around the country that are trying to articulate what is this thing--how do we actually do something in this landscape.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: So tell us more about Brooklyn Jews, which is one of the most successful projects to engage a wider swath of the Jewish community, not sort of have everyone come into the buildings, sit in the pews or the classrooms, which are, by the way, wonderful things to do if that's where your Jewish life is as you listen to this podcast. But your ability is to kind of broaden and widen who we're talking to, who we are engaging. Tell us what has Brooklyn Jews been doing that's so powerful and frankly, maybe even illustrative to others around North America who are trying to figure out how do we chart a new course through this Jewish moment.

Rabbi Matt Green: I think a little bit of history is required to understand what Brooklyn Jews is today. The first piece is that Rabbi Andy Bachman started Brooklyn Jews in his apartment in Brooklyn in 2003. And over the course of the following years it ballooned from just his friends and family into a real community of people showing up for one another and learning and coming together for ritual. And as it grew, three years later, he became senior rabbi of Beth Elohim and brought Brooklyn Jews with him. And that community kind of became part of the DNA of the synagogue. Many of the people became members. But then this brand, Brooklyn Jews, still existed. And so it sort of became the 20s-30s group and it basically took the character of whoever was the intern at the time, the rabbinic intern.

Three years ago I came in and Brooklyn Jews wasn't doing a whole lot. We always had High Holidays in Prospect Park, which I actually think are critical, because on the one hand we're engaging Jews who think of themselves as “high holiday Jews,” and we know they should and can be more than that, but that's what they think. And in addition to that, there was pretty much nothing when I came in. So over the past three years we've added Shabbat monthly programming. We've added a number of different courses, small sort of mini-courses in getting your hands dirty in Jewish life.

And right now we're doing something pretty exciting, which I feel good about. We've put together an artist residency and I've got this cohort of four artists and they'll be curating eight events over a season of roughly eight months and those events are going to be an attempt at creating new Jewish culture, recognizing that people identify with culture primarily and not just religion or faith. And those events are designed to be communal so they're not just one off concerts or shows, but designed to get people talking.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: So let’s think about a broader definition of what Jewish doing looks like. It was one of the opening things that you shared. Having tools to have a broader cultural experience you know through art, through all the different modalities is a pretty exciting broadening of a palette of Jewish life, as opposed to only ritual practice. It's about certain learning within the boundaries of sacred text.

Talk about who are you finding? Who are you meeting? Who you are attracting? Are they people who are refugees from Jewish life? Are they people not engaged with Jewish life? Are they people who just haven't been given an experience that's so compelling that they made Jewishness part of the everyday? Who are you engaging?

Rabbi Matt Green: I think we are engaging people who, by and large, are not part of any other Jewish community. Actually I think the archetype of a Brooklyn Jew participant would be someone who had a Bar Mitzvah, never stepped foot into shul or Hillel after that and then maybe started dating someone who wasn't Jewish in their mid 20s, lives in Brooklyn and decided they needed to see what this thing is about.

So I would say most of our most active participants are people who grew up Reform or Conservative and are joined by their partner who is not Jewish. So in a way we're Brooklyn Jews, but we're sort of Brooklyn Jews Plus. We're not just Jews. And that's a really important piece. We are committed to ritual but we're committed to egalitarianism so that sort of sets us apart from Chabad or Orthodox institutions.  But more broadly, I think we're right now trying to articulate what it is to be a secular cultural Jew.

I'm not sure that that's really in conflict with Reform Judaism or liberal Judaism. I think that they're on the same journey. And I think it's really critical to figure out what that means, in part, because I think secular Judaism leaves room for saying Kaddish or coming to Yom Kippur services or saying Kiddish on Friday night. It's not atheist Judaism. It's something else. So these people, I think, want to figure out what that is and I'm hoping to help them do that.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: So think about your titles here. This is the rabbi of a great historic congregation in Park Slope Brooklyn, which is a place that, if you haven't been to Brooklyn and you're listening to this podcast-- it's alive. I mean, so alive with generations of people. You are now inside and outside a great institution. How are you balancing that? Is the goal from the congregation's point of view saying, hey, let's hire this great Rabbi Matt Green. He's been director of Brooklyn Jews. He's got to help bring all these new people into our congregation. He's going to help make more members.

How were you charged with kind of balancing your inside and outside and is there a hidden agenda, is there an explicit agenda? What do you do?

Rabbi Matt Green: Right. That is the question and the answer is there is no hidden agenda. I have not been tasked with getting new members and that's a really important thing. Sometimes people think that's what this is about. But really the way in which the congregation is served by Brooklyn Jews I think is twofold. One is finding a way for the broader Jewish community to engage and articulate what Judaism means for these people. But I think more than that it's to figure out how to be a Jewish community for a different kind of Jewish persona or a different kind of Judaism. And what we do with Brooklyn Jews, vis-a-vis culture, can then, in turn, inform what the synagogue offers to its congregants. And slowly, I think Brooklyn Jews itself is a laboratory for congregational change. So whatever we learn is not only useful for millennials outside the walls, but is useful for the boomers who are served by our congregation.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: Fantastic. Just a little personal footnote--when I was installed as the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, there were many different possible locations for the installation service and it was really clear to me that I wanted to be in the sanctuary of Congregation Beth Elohim, because it actually had at that moment scaffolding all around and the Senior Rabbi Andy Bachman said, “Rick, you know it's not ready.” I said “that's exactly the metaphor for this moment. It is all not ready.” We're needed to take it apart and put it back together in very different ways.

And also, I’ve been thinking about what is the role of a rabbi in this new world. To sit in your office and to stay within the confines of the building? No. But to build bridges and to be open to a different way of finding deep meaning, because again, we're not perpetuating something that's not essential to the world that we're living in; but it can take new forms and open some new minds and some new hearts.

If you had to just say what, in your mind, is one of the biggest challenges now that not only you and CBE and Brooklyn Jews face, but we, as an evolving, adapting people--what do you think one of the biggest challenges is to all of us?

Rabbi Matt Green: I don't really think we have any idea of how to talk about being Jewish or doing Jewish for that matter. I mean we've been handed institutions that look a lot like churches, at least in a certain kind of way. And yet I think innate to some kind of Jewish sensibility is a feeling like--but we're not that. We've got to be something else. And I don't think we have any language for it. We have a hard time saying that we're a religious group or an ethnic group or a cultural group etc. We just don't have words. So I think we need to find a better vocabulary and I think that's borne out even in our inability to have frank conversations about Israel and I guess intermarriage and all of the other issues that are tearing us apart at any given moment. We just don't have a language for talking about it.

Rabb Rick Jacobs: That's hard to have a conversation if we don't have language and we're talking to people with whom we can't make a lot of inside referential things--Oh you know Shabbat or you know prayer. I mean, what are these things in a real sense?

Rabbi Green it's so exciting that you have the title of being an Assistant Rabbi in this great congregation and also a whole Rabbinate outside. I think of the visionary leadership of Congregation Beth Elohim, Rabbi Rachael Timoner. Oh my goodness; she is so forward thinking and growing a whole new way to imagine synagogue life and for her to see clearly the gifts that you bring.

Talk about what it has been to be now part of this amazing rabbinic team at Beth Elohim.

Rabbi Matt Green: Yeah Rabbi Timoner certainly sees Brooklyn Jews as central to the mission of CBE, Beth Elohim. I think it's not a stretch, because CBE is already engaged in so many things that the Brooklyn Jews demographic cares about. Obviously, there’s social justice programming and community organizing, which have now become central pillars of the synagogue. These things are embedded within what it means to be Jewish for many people who are millennials.

And one thing I'd also say is that right now as I think about Brooklyn Jews, I'm trying to understand what is Brooklyn Judaism and I know that social justice is a pretty big part of that. So it's culture. It might be ritual and it's definitely social justice. And somewhere in there we've just got to articulate what we're going to produce for people to actually do.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: If you were thinking about being up on that Pisgah with the view of all that's before us, what would you say to some of the people who are just nervous that you're seeing and describing an entirely different way of being Jewish, one that may seem not just different, but to some people who hold Jewish life so close and personal, just not even you know kind of how they would even think about it, alone describe it? Can you say something, not to call you Joshua but I bet you know, people were nervous about Joshua….

By the way let's just say what the Torah knows. Joshua did great.

Rabbi Matt Green: But I'm sure he was very nervous.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: I'm sure he was nervous too, but I'm sure the people were nervous. What could be reassuring to help people who are sitting in different parts of Jewish life and nervous about the kind of dramatic change that you are describing?

Rabbi Matt Green: I'd say two things. I think the first thing is that a lot of people are looking for some sort of traditional services and by that I don't mean all in Hebrew with a full prayer service. But I mean like what you conventionally experience in Shul or Temple. I feel like many people, I'm constantly surprised, are still looking for that.

But in addition to that, I think there's something really exciting about having young people or really any people democratically determine for themselves and for their community what Judaism is. And that's scary, because you don't necessarily know. But the exciting thing is you're bringing more people in to figuring out exactly what it could be. So it's really about growing a community and figuring out how to build community and define it I think those two things should give hope to a lot of people.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: Great. I think also about how you just graduated from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and while you were a student, you received the Be Wise Fellowship in Entrepreneurialism because of your innovation, the way that you are not just thinking, but leading and practicing and changing and adapting. And all I can say to you, Rabbi Green, is that get up there on the Pisgah and not just look out, but figure out how we're going to take the kind of dramatic steps that we need to, to keep this incredible people, this incredible tradition, alive and for it to be alive, it has to change. So alei al-ha Pisgah, rise up. And we're looking forward to now watching the journey, about participating with you. Those who have anxiety and nervousness about the Jewish future, take a deep breath. I think we're in great hands.

Rabbi Matt Green: Thank you. And obviously one thing I didn't say is that the way I think about being a rabbi is being a fellow traveler with my community. And I think we're going to need to be fellow travelers with all of those who've come before too. So thank you for having me on today.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org or on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand:10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l'hitraot.