Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Meet Rabbi Matt Gewirtz, the Senior Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey, author of the book, The Gift of Grief: Finding Peace, Transformation and Renewed Life after Great Sorrow, a founding executive committee member of the Newark Coalition for Hope and Peace-an interfaith organization of Jews, Christians and Muslims that is committed to ending gang violence in Newark, one of the hosts of “A Matter of Faith” on PBS, and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. In other words, Matt is a very busy person and one who is at the forefront of incredible change, both in the world at large and within the world of the rabbinate.
In our second chat in our series featuring groundbreaking rabbis in the diaspora, Rabbis Without Borders explored Matt’s work, how he approaches it all, what the connections are between them, and more.
The Changing Rabbinate… And World
To Matt Gewirtz, his uncomfortability with much of his work started early. He felt a sense that there were things changing, but he couldn’t find the words to explain it. It was around that time he came in touch with Clal (the organization behind Rabbis Without Borders) and things began to change for him. In his own words:
I was trained to pastor, to shepherd a congregation a certain way.
And to be successful in that way meant that you would do really well. So when I started, being a rabbi meant, ‘Be as authentic as you can. Teach as much literacy as you can. Teach as much Hebrew as you can. Bring people to Israel as much as you can. And all of that will help fill your congregation, and people we become more Jewish, more connected to themselves, to their religion.’
And I really believed in all of that, especially literacy. You just teach people as much text and be as serious as you can as a rabbi, and whatever you do, don’t be Jewish Lite, and it’s going to reach people in the deepest of ways.
And again it worked out really well for me there, to the point where I came and was able to run my own congregation, here. And as I got here I realized that the world itself was changing byway of how people interpreted meaning. My first sort of foray into this was Googling “Spiritual but not religious,” because I started to hear it from people all of the time.
And sure enough, and again this is many years ago, I got 19 million results, that I saw. And I bet you today, it’s probably like 30 million.
But I was sensing something that was making me feel a lot and then there I go to study at Clal with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Rabbi Irwin Kula, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, and a lot of the scholars they brought in.
I thought to myself, “Oh, so this is why I’m feeling this unease, because the world is really changing quickly.” There’s disruption that was happening at Walmart, at Marriott, at taxi companies, and places like those. That is also happening in the world of religion.
It was this concept that things are getting disrupted faster than we can possibly imagine that pushed Matt to begin to approach his job as rabbi, both as leader of his congregation and as a leader in the world, differently. This meant styling his approach to take into account how disruption was really changing things while also creating a new approach that worked with those changes rather than fighting them.
About six or seven years go I thought to myself, “Huh, being Jewish is an extraordinary thing. Obviously something I’ve been, so I’ll fall more in love with over the years, but it’s probably not enough to just to teach Jewish as a vehicle onto being more Jewish.”
But there has to be another end goal. We can talk in that religious language. Or we could talk about what it might mean to find ultimate well being, and ultimate meaning, and ultimate balance in a world that is completely off kilter.
And that Judaism, all those things that I learned about in the beginning of my career, are completely and utterly important. So I’ve not given up on literacy, on Zionism, on Hebrew. But they’re not an end to themselves. They are an end toward delivering people the ability to find a way to navigate their lives, and to flourish and to find well being.
A “New Permutation of Synagogue”
To listen to Rabbi Matt Gewirtz is to hear of a large vision that is approached in small, incremental, and tested steps. This is in and of itself a reflection of the way most companies approach testing and experimenting with new ideas. That this is done in a synagogue, and with spiritual tools, is a reminder of just how much Matt has allowed the theory of disruption to help guide his approach to being a rabbi.
For example, the way he describes his approach to Hebrew School is a fascinating use of that iterative testing:
Right now our religious school has started to rewrite the curriculum, and this is now full on happening in one grade, next year it will be in two grades. Every single lesson, Torah story, holiday, and ethical value is coupled with a character strength.
So simultaneous to us learning the weekly Torah reading, for example, they are learning the associated strengths that might come along with that. So they can help hone their own central character and meaning in the world. Consequently, you look at a reading, and you see that specific story, but you also see courage and humility, which are both character strengths.
Some changes are even smaller, a reminder that change doesn’t just happen with huge institutional growth but also through thinking through every detail of the evolution of religion itself. Rabbi Matt explains:
The atmospherics of the school are changing. I called it the “Spirituality of curating.” You come into a space that is really busy and that space is like every place else you go in your life. We wanted to change that, so we removed all the clutter from front offices and from the lobby, and we put out apples and water, and piped in classical music.
So that when people walked in they said to themselves “Oh, this place is a different place than any place else.” And when I have to think about where to take my kids I think, “Look at this. This is also something for me to put in my mouth that’s actually healthy for me. It causes vitality.”
And instead of the old button that said “Push here for entrance,” it now says, “Push here so you can come home to your sacred space.”
On Bringing Politics Into The Synagogue
It is rare to hear a rabbi extol the power of politics to bring together a congregation. In today’s day and age, rabbis and other spiritual leaders often feel as if politics is the very thing they must avoid. To Matt, since politics is causing so much spiritual pain, he sees his job as rabbi to address that pain. How he does so is what you may find fascinating:
This new political age has made me do something I never thought I would do, which is to have more patience, empathy, and authentic caring about people who disagree with what I personally believe in.
I’m not just doing it because we should get along, but because our very communal fabric depends on it. If we don’t really understand why “Second Amendment people” feel so strongly about the Second Amendment, then there’ll be no progress made on it at all. And I think rabbis, imams, ministers, and reverends have a significant role to play in that debate.
It sounds so wishy-washy, but I’m just talking about the idea that this is about more than mere civility. Civility means that we politely listen to each other. I am talking about the ability to have empathy towards the person that drives you the craziest.
It is this attempt to teach empathy and the push for it that really drives Matt’s work and helps explain how he is able to bring politics into his synagogue. His goal isn’t to debate… it’s empathy and understanding between people who are divided.
An example of this approach is the sermon he often gives about gun control:
I like to tell the story of being mugged when I was with my father and sister when I was 16 and my sister was 12. Father started struggling on the ground with the man. But in the meantime, the other mugger took a knife up to my sister’s neck. I won’t go into detail, but for 30 seconds it felt like 30 years. I thought my sister was going to die.
And during the sermon I said, I’m the most anti-gun guy you could meet. However, if I had had a gun at that point, to this day there would have been no doubt that I would have shot the guy. Not only would I have shot the guy, but I don’t think I would have felt badly about it.
Now, who knows. Thank God, I don’t know how to do that, but I would have seen myself as doing the most heroic thing possible by shooting that guy. So the whole reason I told that story is that I live in a place where cops come quickly, I don’t live in a place like this farm where cops take half an hour to come.
So you start to understand, why someone might want a gun to protect his house, is very different than a kid who grew up on the Upper West Side, who knows that all I would do is shoot the wrong person if I had a gun. And if we can’t have that conversation as opposed to, “What kind of crazy idiot would ever want to own a gun?” (which is sort of what I was brought up with) we are in trouble.
What Ties It All Together
There are so many different things happening with Matt’s work that it might be hard to see the philosophy that holds it all together. That’s why we found his description of how having a nice Hebrew School experience can be connected to bringing politics into the synagogue particularly beautiful:
The common thread is that we hope people feel through us, relief from the polarity of the world, the divisiveness of the world, and the ability to share what they think is unpopular.
By the way, that’s often the times that people who are right of center, feel spiritually un-cared for because they feel like somehow they’re horrible people because they don’t necessarily like the president but they might like some of his policies.
So when they feel the ability to be reached in ways that, again, either allow them to voice what they feel, or allow them to feel their nerves assuaged, or the ability to be able to know that there’s a place that represents the way it ought to be as opposed to the way that it is out there, that’s when I feel like we’re hitting it.
It is this drive to create a relief from polarity and divisiveness of the world that can sum up Matt’s work. And it is this thread that allows his work as a rabbi, a TV host, a writer, and more to help provide answers that many people are looking for.
His drive is also the reason that we see Rabbi Matt Gewirtz as a groundbreaking leader in the Jewish world today. As others avoid controversy or embrace it, Matt has found a “third way” that, we hope, will be modeled by many more to come.