Rabbi Jason Miller Teaching at Kenyon College

How My Writer’s Workshop Class was Hijacked by a Colleague

This will be my final post for the Rabbis Without Borders blog as I have chosen to focus my time on some of my other writing opportunities. For my final post I intended to write about how critical the Rabbis Without Borders program has been to my rabbinate and my thinking in general about the future of Jewish communities. I certainly could have written about that two days ago and I would have articulated how Clal’s fellowship program has benefitted me in myriad ways and helped to expand my understanding of the “beyond borders” approach we religious leaders should be taking in 21st century Jewish life.

An experience that occurred yesterday, however, concretized the Rabbis Without Borders perspective even more for me. I’ve returned to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio for the second year to serve on the faculty of Kenyon Institute’s weeklong Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing workshop. My daily course focuses on using social media to further publicize ones writings on the internet. The class is made up of about 30 religious leaders (mostly clergy), of which about a quarter are rabbis.

In our second session yesterday I was discussing the benefits of blogging as a way to disseminate spiritual leaders’ perspectives on the various issues of the day. I talked about how the medium of the blog gives us a borderless audience with which to share our “Torah” and bring comfort, inspiration and learning to a limitless amount of readers around the world. Immediately the hand of one of the rabbis went up and he began to challenge everything I had just said.

“This is a Ponzi scheme you’re selling us,” he said. The rest of the class just looked on in utter surprise. I questioned his use of the term, refusing to allow him to group me with a criminal like Bernie Madoff — especially for the supposed “crime” of encouraging him to blog a few times a month and not bilking billions of dollars from innocent people. He went on to suggest that blogging would be a huge waste of his time because no one would read it. Furthermore, he argued that having a blog wouldn’t get his congregation any additional members. He noted that he’s already been watching his membership shrink over the years. Regrettably, I let him have the floor for a few more minutes as he criticized blogging and social media as a waste of time for rabbis.

I responded that the very nature of this writers’ workshop, for which he applied, registered and is currently participating, is to take your writing beyond the walls of the brick and mortar congregation. I explained that if he’s a good writer and has some meaningful perspectives to offer, he should try to extend his “Torah” beyond the reaches of his own synagogue and make it available to a larger audience. Moreover, I lamented his woeful perspective that his ultimate goal as a rabbi is to grow his congregation’s membership rolls rather than to try to inspire more people — potentially helping those in need with his enriching words. I then allowed some of the other rabbis in the room to refute his pessimistic perception.

This colleague’s miserabilism shows what the rabbinate has become for some rabbis today. This myopia is caused by institutional Judaism putting the emphasis on the business of the synagogue entity. In this view, a rabbi’s definition of success is based solely on quantity and not quality. What I heard this rabbi saying was that he’s only willing to try new things, like blogging, if the outcome will be more families paying membership dues to his congregation. His perspective was anathema to the Rabbis Without Borders philosophy, which is to look for opportunities to reach more people regardless of geography or even faith affiliation.

We finally moved on in the class, but I continued to think of this rabbi’s pessimism. At the end of class he came up to me, shook my hand and apologized for his long diatribe. This morning another participant, a non-Jewish woman, approached me and remarked how uncomfortable it was yesterday when the class was hijacked. I agreed and promised her I wouldn’t allow anyone to hijack the class again, but truth be told, I’m glad this colleague of mine expressed his view — as gloomy and defeatist as it may have been. His perspective caused me to appreciate my participation in Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders program even more. Perhaps, he will consider applying to Rabbis Without Borders in the future to repair his myopia.

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