Rabbis Without Borders

RABBI REBECCA W. SIRBU explains how an organization helps rabbis find wisdom in Jewish tradition so they are better equipped to help people in their communities

by Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu

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When people hear that I direct Rabbis Without Borders, I often get this question: “Are you like Doctors Without Borders, but with rabbis? Do you send rabbis around the world to care for people’s spiritual needs?”

Well, no, not exactly.

Rabbis Without Borders are rabbis who offer wisdom from the Jewish tradition in ways that can be helpful to you in your life. As rabbis, we want to use Jewish tradition to help you flourish, to help you live and grow. The “without borders” part means not that we travel around the world, but that we offer you wisdom from a variety of Jewish perspectives.

Founded three years ago as a program of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Rabbis Without Borders is an educational program and network for both rabbis and rabbinical students. We run two selective fellowships a year, one for rabbis and one for students, and we coach individual rabbis as well. We also teach in rabbinical schools, run seminars for boards of rabbis, and speak at rabbinic conventions and lay leadership programs. RWB is a diverse network of rabbis from all the denominations and geographical areas across the United States and Canada. It represents different kinds of rabbinates, including pulpits, day schools, JCCs, and Hillels, and including independent rabbis, all from different generational cohorts. This diversity is our strength. Nowhere else does such a wide range of rabbis gather to discuss the issues of the day and focus on innovative responses.

The American religious landscape is in transition. According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, affiliation rates are down across the board. Fifteen percent of Americans now say that their religion is “none”; this is up from 8.2 percent in 1990. Americans no longer join their parents’ church automatically once they become adults. The 2008 Pew study on religious affiliation shows that about half of American adults have changed their religious affiliations at least once during their lives. We are in a new era, where people switch those affiliations, blend their families in new ways, and mix different belief systems to bring meaning to their lives. People cross cultural, religious, and ethnic boarders in unprecedented ways.

All of these larger trends affect the Jewish community. As religious affiliation rates drop, the Jewish community is in no way immune to them. The next decade will see an increase in synagogue mergers, and more will close their doors entirely. Rabbis in all of the denominations are struggling to integrate non-Jewish family members into lifecycle events, and to make ancient rituals accessible and meaningful to the increasingly multicultural audiences in their communities. Instead of bemoaning these changes, we see them as an opportunity for innovation and renewal.

Rabbis Without Borders is ahead of the curve in identifying the forces affecting the American and Jewish communities in the next generation. We already have educational principles and methodologies in place to help rabbis adapt and serve their communities. In some ways we actually may be creating a new curve as we bring these innovative methodologies to rabbis and rabbinical students. As part of the fellowship, rabbis and students learn about the trends in contemporary society and how to integrate Jewish wisdom into them. Because the specific topics relate to current events, they change from year to year. They have included in-depth study about how Americans form and change their religious identities, how social networking and other evolving technologies affect how we communicate, how the economic climate affects American culture, and how new trends in positive psychology can help people live happier lives.

As part of their commitment to the fellowship, rabbis agree to bring what they learn back to their own communities and create new ways of using Jewish wisdom. In just three years, we have begun to see a strong impact on the communities these rabbis serve. Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Adas Israel in Washington, DC. He credits Rabbis Without Borders for giving him the support and encouragement he needed to move forward with a bold vision for his congregation.

“RWB provided factual, textual, and even spiritual contexts for reinventing synagogue life in the 21st century,” he said. “Even as needs, affiliation patterns, and expectations rapidly shift in our society, the synagogue is still the locus of community and meaning-making for our people. RWB challenged me to hold this truth together with the new ways people seek and find meaning – through online connections, through smaller lay-led groups, through individualized and customized spiritual searching in multiple religious traditions. As a rabbi without borders, I bring this knowledge and insight to my lay leadership, to inspire them to dream big about how we can do business very differently in our new, post-modern religious environment.

“We now integrate some deep questions and goals into even our most down-to-business committees and projects. For example, in our ritual committee, we don’t just address ritual practices. We turn the focus inward, and ask ourselves what practices do we cling to out of (justifiable or unjustifiable) anxiety instead of for the meaning they provide? How willing are we to acknowledge which aspects of ritual life work and which ones don’t work – that don’t get the job done? And how courageous are we to sit with our anxieties and move forward in new directions that can inspire us to a more deeply felt sense of being human and alive and engaged with life?

“As time goes by, we will be exploring how to translate these questions into tachles goals – revamping the idea of membership dues, boldly shifting the role of interfaith families, and creating new institutions-withinan- institution to provide learning opportunities and meaning-making for those who would never otherwise affiliate with a synagogue. Our work is only just beginning with all of these questions, visions, and initiatives, and I am very grateful to Rabbis Without Borders for all the help it has given and continues to give.”

Rabbi Rachel Kobrin, assistant rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas, is creating a new “soulful Shabbat community” called Selah in South Austin, an area that is full of young Jews but does not have an established Jewish community. Using what she learned in RWB, Rabbi Kobrin created an informal and inclusive service that features wordless melodies, text study with a social justice theme, and lots of music geared to the Austin community. Transliterations are provided for all prayers. The service attracts 100 people of all ages and religious backgrounds each Shabbat. Many have not been to shul since their bar or bat mitzvah; many attend every week. “My experience with Rabbis Without Borders – along with the courageous support of the Congregation Agudas Achim board and our senior rabbi, Neil Blumofe – was profoundly helpful in enabling me to bring my vision for Selah to life,” Rabbi Kobrin said. “I spent much of last year dreaming about getting it off the ground, and my time with RWB and the support that I received from the CLAL faculty and our cohort helped make this dream a reality.” Selah also received a New Initiatives grant from United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism last month. Rabbi Kobrin would love to see this model duplicated in other cities.

Rabbi Tsafi Lev, director of Jewish studies at the New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, California, is a lecturer for the Fingerhut School of Education at the American Jewish University. He said, “RWB has let me realize that the wisdom of Judaism can be taught through fiction, which is something I love. The stories that we told millennia ago still have the power to impart wisdom precisely because we’ve allowed them to shift and change. The wisdom of the RWB model is seeing that Jewish wisdom is inherently valuable, not because it helps us get more people to keep kosher or light candles, but because it is a wise lens with which to approach the world. In the marketplace of ideas, Jews and non- Jews alike need the voice of our tradition to help fashion our future into a more Godly image. In my role as a Jewish educator in a community day school setting, I have learned how to present Jewish wisdom to a pluralistic crowd.”

RWB rabbis are beginning to affect every age and stage in American Jewish life, both in established Jewish communities and beyond them. At CLAL, we are excited about a future in which more rabbis and students apply Jewish wisdom in their attempts to reimagine and reshape the Jewish landscape for the 21st century.

It’s easy to learn about what RWB rabbis are doing and thinking. You can find an RWB in your area on our website, www.rabbiswithoutborders.com.

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the director of Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. She was the founding director of the Jewish Health and Healing Center and the Center for Jewish Life, both at the JCC Metro West in West Orange, New Jersey.