This Thursday I head off to Ohalah, what my wife Renée refers to as "a rabbis convention for unconventional rabbis." This will be the first such gathering since the death of Reb Zalman, tz"l, and will then take on special meaning. This post, A Year of Stories #26, marks the 1/2 year since his death on July 3.
A few days ago I received in the mail a hardcover copy of Rebbe, the biography of Reb Menachem Schneerson written by Joseph Telushkin. I had not ordered it, so you can imagine my surprise when I discovered a note inside explaining that it was a gift to me from a pair of philantropists who had underwritten the mailing. Wow, that's a lot of bucks - "gimme loot, chasadim!"
I immediately looked in the index for Reb Zalman's name, and of course, found a good number of references to him, as he was a musmach (he had been ordained) by the Central Lubavich Yeshiva in 1947. Through the subsequent years Reb Zalman had many interactions with the person who R' Telushkin calls "the most influential rabbi in modern history." Here is a story that Reb Zalman shared with the author about his Rebbe:
When Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi was Hillel director at the University of Manitoba in Winnepeg, Canad, he brought a group of students to meet with the Rebbe in Brooklin. At the conclusion of the rebbe's opening remaks, one of the students, intending to be blunt rather than disrespectful, asked him, "What's a Rebbe good for?" To this day Reb Zalman remembers his feelings at that moment: "I could have sunk through the floor in embarassment." However, the Rebbe didn't seem offended at all and responded to the query directly:
"I can't speak about myself, but I can tell you about my own Rebbe (his father in law). For me, my Rebbe was the geologist of the soul. You see, there are so many treasures in the earth. There is gold, there is silver, and there are diamonds. Bit if you don't know where to dig, you'll only find dirt and rocks, and mud. The Rebbe can tell you where to dig, and what to dig for, but the digging you must do for yourself."
from Rebbe, by Joseph Telushkin, Pg 209
also, see Reb Zalman's book The Geologist of the Soul: Talks on Rebbe-Craft and Spiritual Leadership
My late rebbe, R' Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, zt"l, (זכר צדיק לברכה) was a master storyteller. He taught, in the name of Abraham Joshua Heschel zt"l: "a mayse is a story in which the soul surprises the mind". "A Year of Stories" is dedicated to his memory. I invite you to forward the link to these stories so that they find their way into the hearts of other listeners and tellers.
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The American City Diner is located on Connecticut Ave, a few blocks from my home in Washington, DC. Owned by Jeffrey Gildenhorn, a native-born Washingtonian, the diner requently has something noteworthy to say on its billboard. Sometimes the message is a political one that speaks to the countless politicos who drive by every day ("The Future is Now, Reach Across the Aisle"), or more diner-like ones ("Breakfast all Day, Birthday Parties"). The message to the left that appeared a few weeks ago ("Enjoy Shabbat Here") drew my attention for obvious reasons and got me to thinking, which my wife Renée likes to say, is always a dangerous thing.
I am going to ask you for feedback on this one, because I need your help to think this through.
You may be aware of the recent Pew research report,which depending upon your reading of it, represents:
1) a confirmation of the decline of Amercian Judaism
2) a flawed survey, or
3) an opportunity to reach out to Jews who reject denominational affiliations, yet express faith ("I'm spiritual but not religious") and pride in being Jewish.
Because I'm a hopeful kind of guy, I am most drawn to the third conclusion. In contrast to the Jack Werthheimer School of Doom and Gloom (note: can't we embrace BOTH global consciousness and tribal allegiances?), my impulse is to rest assured that 4000 years of evolution from Biblical Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism to ?? is foundation enough to withstand all the concerns of what modernity presents us with.
Here's my question. Who are the Jews that are enjoying Shabbat at the American City Diner and what does being Jewish mean to them? Some, I surmise, are Reform Jews, for whom spending money on Shabbat does not present an issue. For that matter, let's be honest and assume that some Conservative (with a big "C") Jews are eating there as well.
What about the rest? Are some of them unaffiliated non-shul goers who fall into the above third category? "Spiritual but not religious", who are among the 94% of the Jews surveyed who expressed pride in being Jewish.
Here's my idea, and it is based on successful models of "keruv", of Jewish outreach based on going to where the people are (i.e. Chabad rabbis' work on college campuses, which is how my rebbe Zalman Schacter-Shalomi and Shlomo Carlebach were deployed in the 1950's) The idea is to approach the owner Jeffrey Gildenhorn with the possibility of displaying a sign that reads: "Enjoy Shabbat Here - The Rabbi is In". Perhaps he might set aside a section of the restaurant on Shabbat afternoon (there goes my nap) for people to drop in, eat, shmooze, and talk about what it means to be a Jew. To pose some questions - How can we build a Jewish future together? Is there importance in securing a Jewish future?
What questions would you ask? And how might I approach Jeffrey Gildenhron with this idea? If the Pew people had talked to you, what woukd you have wnated them to know?
When replying, please do so on the website (as well as to me offline if you wish) so others can see your response. Thank you in advance for your thoughts and suggestons. In the tradiiton of Avraham Avinu, who according to the midrash interrupted his visit from G!d in this week's parsha to attend to the needs of hungry travellers, I wish you Shabbat Shalom. And if you happen to be in the DC area, "Enjoy Shabbat Here". (Or for that matter "asher hu sham" - wherever you may be)
Mark Novak is a "free-range" rabbi who lives in Washington DC and works, well, just about everywhere. In 2012 he founded Minyan Oneg Shabbat, home to MOSH (Minyan Oneg Shabbat), MindfulMOSH (Jewish mindfulness gathering), and