Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, founding director of the healing center at JCC MetroWest, is heading a new CLAL project designed to bring Jewish wisdom to the American marketplace of ideas.
Photo courtesy Rebecca Sirbu
April 2, 2009
Is it time to take Jewish wisdom into the American marketplace of ideas? New York-based CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership thinks so. And they’ve tapped Rebecca Sirbu, former director of JCC MetroWest’s Jewish Health and Healing Center, to head up their new project.
Known as Rabbis Without Borders, the project will train religious leaders to speak in settings outside of familiar Jewish institutions, including mass media and places where transdenominational and interfaith audiences gather.
The goal of the project is twofold: to reach Jews outside of traditional Jewish settings and to inject Jewish ideas into the general cultural conversation on spirituality and ethics.
“Today more than ever the lines between the cultures, religions, and people are permeable,” said Sirbu, who left the JCC last May to begin working on the project. “The latest Pew study [on religion] showed that an extraordinary number of people do not remain in the same faith as the one they were born into. We are a nation of seekers. For this reason rabbis need to learn how to teach our tradition to everyone, not just Jews.”
Rabbis will also learn to speak to the non-Jews in their own pews.
“On any given Shabbat morning when a rabbi comes on the bima, it could be that 40 percent of the people in the pews could be people who are not Jewish, whether due to the high rate of intermarriage, or a celebrant’s friends and family,” said Sirbu. “If I know not everyone is Jewish, how I, as a rabbi, show the meaningfulness of a given ritual could affect how the whole rest of the service goes.”
When Rabbi Helaine Ettinger of the Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon first heard about the CLAL project, she was skeptical.
“I took on the responsibility of becoming a rabbi to serve the Jewish people; I’m not that interested in speaking to Americans in general,” she said she remembers thinking.
But that lasted only until she had an epiphany about the next generation of Jews.
“They’re not coming to my synagogue. It’s not that they don’t feel Jewish, but they don’t feel they have to be in a Jewish-only organization like a synagogue or federation or on the board of a Jewish nonprofit organization,” she said. “So if I speak to a general American marketplace, I’m talking to a new generation of Jews…. That’s when I suddenly understood.”
Rabbis without Borders, she said, “was completely in line with my desire to serve the Jewish people.”
‘The most wisdom’
The fellowship includes two tracks, one for rabbis and one for rabbinical students, each a one-year fellowship project. Each has 20 slots available.
Rabbinic fellows will meet six times during the year beginning in June; students will meet once a month. They will study with experts from a variety of fields, including politics, public policy, and religion. Among the speakers already on board are Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek magazine; Steve Waldman, editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.org; Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League; and Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America.
The program will also feature one-day sessions in cities around the country that are open to selected rabbinic groups outside of the fellows, for example, the board of rabbis of a particular city.
Ettinger, who took part in a sample program in December, will be applying for one of the 20 rabbinic fellowships. So will Rabbi Amy Small of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, who also participated in the December event.
How participants integrate the training into their work will depend on each particular rabbi, said Sirbu. Participants may be inspired to write a book, start a blog, pen an op-ed, or simply change the way he or she delivers a sermon to his or her own congregation. “The goal is to change the mindset,” said Sirbu.
Sirbu said she has already received 14 applications and 30-40 inquiries within a week of the project’s launch, with over 100 people registered on the project’s Facebook page.
“Hollywood has already popularized many Jewish traditions from bar mitzva to shiva,” Sirbu said. “Wouldn’t it be better for rabbis, who have the most wisdom to share, to be the ones to teach about our wisdom to the greater American culture? This is what we hope will happen five to 10 years down the line.”