A Life in ‘Hineni’ Mode

Inspired by our ancestor Abraham, a rabbi focuses on making people feel welcome.

by Rabbi Rachel Ain
Rabbi Rachel Ain of New York's Sutton Place Synagogue blows the shofar for a group of preschoolers.

Rabbi Rachel Ain of New York’s Sutton Place Synagogue
blows the shofar for a group of preschoolers.

As we prepare to return to the beginning of the Torah following the fall holidays, I’m always excited about reconnecting with our patriarch, Abraham. What I find most compelling is his constant readiness for action, his ability to respond, “Hineni, here I am.” As a congregational rabbi in New York City I often ask myself, “Am I in hineni mode?” And the answer most often is yes. My days are full and varied, and fill me with great pride and joy. I love going to work, knowing I’ve been entrusted with the task of leading a sacred community and meeting with, celebrating with, and counseling people who see the value that Judaism can play in their lives.

You might be surprised to hear this because being a rabbi is indeed an incredibly demanding job. I’m also well aware of the statistics showing that the number of Conservative Jews, even in New York City, has declined. But there are still many, many people who are open to Jewish life, and as a rabbi, I want to communicate to them the richness of Jewish practice, how performing mitzvot allows us to appreciate both ordinary and extraordinary moments, and how being part of a vibrant Jewish community can sustain us through different, sometimes difficult, periods of our lives. I believe that Conservative Judaism in particular offers a Judaism that is authentic, joyous and fully at home in the modern world.

I became a rabbi in the hopes of inspiring, teaching and counseling people the way I was inspired, taught and counseled by the extraordinary leaders at my synagogue growing up. I wanted to share the joyous, passionate Judaism I experienced attending Camp Ramah and participating in USY on Wheels and USY Poland/ Pilgrimage. Those summers cemented my love for being a part of the Conservative movement and taught me through experience, not words, that I could be fully Jewish and fully American. They cultivated in me a love for the Jewish people, in Israel and around the world.

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Now, as a Conservative rabbi I am committed to leading a congregation that reflects the values so powerfully instilled in me. But I recognize that the role of the rabbi has changed. The rabbi is no longer only someone to whom one turns to answer questions of halachah, or gain insights into the weekly parashah, or connect with during a lifecycle moment – though these are crucial components of my job and ones I take very seriously. Still, a rabbi today must also be a thought leader, a chief spiritual officer. This means understanding the full scope of the synagogue’s work and ensuring that Jewish values play a role in how we budget, who we hire, how we create our calendar, and when we partner with others. Ultimately, a synagogue must be an extension of the Jewish family that began with Abraham and Sarah, a home guided by sacred values.

Our synagogues also must have the pulse of the larger community and I, as the rabbi, must be able to respond to these larger issues in a way that is thoughtful, sensitive and timely.

My required reading cannot only be the siddur, the Tanakh and rabbinic midrashim, but must include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Haaretz, and manuals on leadership. I need to know what the best sellers are and what movies are out so that when I meet with teens I can have one conversation and when I interact with empty nesters I can have another. I cannot only speak to people from the bimah because only a certain segment of the population will hear me, so I use weekly Shabbat emails, personal phone calls, conversations at nursery school drop off, religious school pick up, and last but certainly not least, social networking sites.

I can best explain how I see my role by explaining the sort of kehilla, or sacred community, I strive to create. I believe a congregation today should be a beit knesset, literally, a home for gathering, a place where people can come and feel truly at home. It needs to honor those who built the community but open up the leadership pipeline to new voices. We need to serve everyone, from tots to teens, from young professionals to seniors. And to create a true sense of community, we must bring our various generations together. This past Shavuot, for instance, children and adults together interviewed Moses, our costumed guest, about what it was like to bring the Torah to the Jewish people. Only in a multigenerational setting can we emulate what Moses meant when he said, “We will all go, young and old, we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herd, for we must observe the Lord’s festival.”

I strive to make our congregation a beit midrash, a house of study, where people can learn throughout their lives. Just as our homes have bookshelves, our synagogue homes should have libraries that encourage Jewish literacy. When people acquire this literacy, they see how Judaism can help them understand how to live, how to love, how to parent, how to work, how to spend, how to save, and even how to die.

I believe in making our congregation a beit tefillah, a house of prayer and spirit. We cannot assume that just because people don’t come to services that they don’t want to pray. Many people need to be educated about our rituals and our language. If Hebrew is a barrier, we need to provide people with other tools to access services. Our melodies need to be consistent enough to be learned but dynamic enough to be exciting. I challenge us to have services that move people’s spirit, that connect them to God and to the community, and that place them in the chain of Jewish tradition where they are active citizens of the synagogue.

Our synagogue home should have a proverbial dining room table – we should use Shabbat and holidays as the platform for the strengthening of relationships. Creating a strong, Shabbat-centered community is crucial to supporting one another. But as a rabbi, I must also gather with people at other tables. I have found that meeting in law firms, at supermarket cafés, or in private homes can break down barriers that people associate with walking into a synagogue. Once people are in relationship with others, they are more willing to be a part of a synagogue community.

Rabbi Rachel Ain with congregants, says synagogues must try to bring different generations together.

Rabbi Rachel Ain with congregants, says synagogues must try to bring different generations together.

Our doors must be wide open, both to welcome people in and to let us go out to meet them. We cannot keep our synagogues to ourselves. We must seize opportunities to grow and be inspired by future housemates whom we haven’t even met yet. And when seekers come knocking on our door, we must welcome them, for we were strangers in Egypt. We must be such a welcoming community that even a stranger feels a kinship to our family.

Finally, our home must be built and guided by Jewish values such as caring for others, within the community and outside of it. We need to raise up the most vulnerable, for a community that only learns but doesn’t act hasn’t fulfilled its sacred mission.

Indeed, as Conservative synagogues in the 21st century, if we say we are welcoming then we must find a way, regardless of financial capacity, for people to be members of our congregations. We must welcome those who have families that might be different than the families we saw in the past. If we say we are accessible, we must have ramps and elevators and we must work with children who have different learning backgrounds. If we say we care about Israel than we must speak about Israel – both her greatness and her challenges – and make visits to Israel and advocacy for Israel part of our annual calendar. If we say we are committed to the world around us, we must work with the larger Jewish community, other faith communities and outside organizations committed to making the world a better place.

In striving to create that true beit knesset, we emulate Abraham’s call to be a blessing. We follow his example of true hachnasat orchim, hospitality, and also his ability to stand for values in a world badly in need of them. Just as Abraham experienced opportunities and challenges, exciting days and difficult ones, the journey of joining in sacred partnership with a wonderful synagogue, committed to the values of Conservative Judaism, is why I proudly say, “Hineni.”

Rabbi Rachel Ain is the spiritual leader of Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan (www.spsnyc.org). You can follow her on Twitter @RabbiRachelAin.