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Cold Calls, Teachable Moments

07/31/2018 11:08:27 PM

Jul31

As the only Reconstructionist rabbi in town, I get lots of “cold calls,” people calling not necessarily because they want to talk to this rabbi, but in order to talk to the rabbi of this type. On many occasions, the query is about officiating at a life cycle event for a member of the caller’s family. It could also be from an agency in the Jewish community or the region at large, say, to give the benediction at a special event, or someone with a specific Reconstructionist query.
 
A subset of the calls are cries de couer from folks seeking a knowledgeable, compassionate Jewish voice who will hear their Jewish pain, pain from their lives in closed sectors of the Jewish community. Recently, surely just by chance, I’ve had a spate of these calls, which reminded me of the first type of call I had received one summer a few years back.
 
The caller left a call-back number, but did not identify a reason for reaching out to me. I returned the call to [someone with a name like] “Jamie Rubenstein,” whose message only requested that he speak with the rabbi. When his voice mail kicked in, I was startled to hear identify himself as “Yankel Rubenstein,” of a prominent Jewish “outreach” organization, “outreach” being a somewhat euphemistic term referring to organizations that wish to turn Jewish youth and adults towards stricter observance.
 
When he reached me soon after I left him my direct line, I was startled when he immediately began to ask if I could help him connect to regional and national resources of Reform Judaism. My mind raced …… he’s just calling one of “us” at random, like there’s no difference amongst us apikorsim [Talmudic epithet for a heretic]; women trying to pray in a group at the Western Wall used to be pelted with stones by other Jews yelling “reformim!”; he has no idea who I am or what this congregation stands for….. these and other less charitable thoughts threatened to colour my end of the conversation.
 
I could have simply told him he had picked the wrong shul, and sent him off to one of the Reform rabbis in the community. But I had a hunch, and summoning up all of my experience in interfaith and intra-faith dialogue, I chose another approach.
 
My instinct was rewarded. I was right in guessing the caller really didn’t have a clue that there were two different Jewish denominations that began with the letter “R,” and he was eager to learn about us. His questions about Reconstructionism opened up a broader discussion that touched on the range of perspectives towards halakha/Jewish law in the liberal denominations, women’s role in leadership and ritual, rabbinic training, patrilineal descent, and, most significantly, the notion of klal Yisrael, or the unity of the Jewish people.
 
It was a completely new notion to Mr. Rubenstein that “Reform” Jews could be actually committed to Judaism and Jewish ritual practices, or that going to “Temple” wasn’t just an activity, but a manifestation of a significant involvement in Jewish life. I suspect that even the notion of pluralism, while perhaps a familiar word, did not hold any substance in the internal discourse of his organization. My caller responded, genuinely, that these were new ideas to him. 
 
Over the years I have become a strong and uncompromising advocate for the religious legitimacy of our progressive approach to Judaism, in asserting that rabbis and communities across the denominational spectrum are legitimate inheritors of our sacred tradition. I will not officiate at a wedding where the Jewish couple want a second, “real” ketubah (traditional marriage contract) or conduct a baby naming when the parents will make sure their baby has a mikvah (ritual immersion) and “real” conversion if the mother is not Jewish. But I will always talk with those couples, and learn what is behind any such concerns and questions.
 
When I hung up the phone with Mr. Rubenstein, I had to acknowledge how necessary it is to be available for those “teachable moments,” especially the unexpected ones.
 
- Rabbi Liz

Fri, December 14 2018 6 Tevet 5779