Rabbi Aaron Potek may be a proud Minnesotan at heart, but for the past several years he’s been a staple at Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington D.C., where he’s served as the senior rabbi for the last two and a half years. Since joining Sixth & I, Potek has worked closely with the community and with people in their 20s and 30s as they undertake personal and religious journeys together.
What was your career path that led you to working in D.C. at Sixth & I?
I grew up Orthodox and got ordained at an Orthodox rabbinical school, but I’ve never worked at an Orthodox place. I first worked for Northwestern University at Hillel, which is pluralistic, and then worked for GatherDC, which is also pluralistic. When I first got to D.C., I learned about Sixth & I and was very taken by it. I met many folks who work there, I visited there, brought my parents there when they came to visit me, and always held it out as a dream job and a perfect place for me to work. It embodied a lot of the values that I had and reflected the approach to Judaism that I shared. And so, when the job became available about four and a half years ago, I jumped on it, and I was very lucky to get that job. At that time, I was working for my predecessor, Rabbi Shira Stutman. And she was most definitely the primary reason that I took that job. She’s an amazing rabbi, an amazing mentor, an amazing friend. And then when she decided to step down. I hesitatingly decided to take over her position and have been in this role for the last two and a half years.
What is the experience like being able to walk through a person’s religious journey with them?
One of the best and most humbling parts of this job is feeling like people really are turning to me and Sixth & I for guidance, as they both navigate and construct their Jewish identity. At Sixth & I, we target folks in their 20s and 30s and we design our programs for people in that general demographic. And these are people who are really asking the deepest core questions about identity, about who they are, about what they believe, about what they value. And the good news is, no one’s looking for me to tell them what to do. These are all very accomplished, smart individuals. What they’re looking for is less prescriptive suggestions and more frameworks, new ideas, gentle pushes. And so, on the one hand it’s an awesome task, to be guiding people through these questions. And on the other hand, I really firmly believe that it’s not just my job, but the job of Judaism, to help these people find the answers that are already within themselves. And so, in that way, I’m really just guiding them toward themselves.
What are the challenges and the benefits of working with that particular age group?
There’s not a lot of challenges, in the sense that what’s true for just the general demographic trends that we see with folks in their 20s and 30s is also true with folks at Sixth & I who are in their 20s and 30s. So, the challenges that I deal with are mostly around careers and relationships, and loneliness, and figuring out how to live a life of meaning. And I don’t think that’s unique to our community. I think that’s true for many folks in their 20s and 30s across America. What I do is try to connect those very universal struggles to a particular wisdom. And I think Judaism can offer folks in that life stage and the benefit of working with people in that demographic is that there’s so much open. There are so many different ways their life could go and while that is overwhelming and scary for a lot of people, I get excited by that … And also, just as is true with any age, life has a way of throwing us stuff that we could never have anticipated. I’ve been a rabbi in the last four and a half years at Sixth & I and most of that time has been spent navigating COVID. In the past couple of months, we’ve obviously been dealing with the Oct. 7 attacks and the war in Gaza that’s followed, and that’s not to mention just all the personal issues that people encounter, breakups, losing jobs, falling out of relationship with friends. And so, I spend a lot of my time helping people address these very core human questions and these very core human experiences.
Can you describe yourself outside of work?
I feel very strongly that a rabbi is a profession and not a personality. I try very hard to maintain a life outside of being a rabbi. That being said, a lot of my hobbies do mesh nicely with ‘rabbi qualities.’ I love to journal. I love to have deep conversations. I love to hike. I love to play board games. I love to watch movies. I’m a big fan of comedy … I’m a big camper – I love going on camping trips. And then I obviously like to read. I think this would be a tough profession if I didn’t like to read.
How do you feel that you were able to incorporate your Jewish identity into your job and personal life?
I’m very lucky, because given my personal journey away from Orthodoxy toward this non-denominational identity, there’s really no better place in the country for me to work than Sixth & I, which is also non-denominational. It really feels like both at Sixth & I and in my personal life, I’m able to constantly question and explore and revisit and reevaluate my relationship to Judaism. And that’s something that I get to model for everyone in our community and push people to do. I’m really not a fan of complacency and status quo in most things, and certainly when it comes to one’s spiritual identity, and so I hope that I can help others join me in trying to constantly figure out what does it mean to be Jewish today, in this moment.