For Rabbi Bruce Aft, a whole new ballgame

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Rabbi Bruce Aft of Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield. Photograph by David Stuck

To hear the congregants of Adat Reyim tell it, Bruce Aft is rabbi extraordinaire. More than 500 of them turned out for a baseball-themed virtual send off earlier this month, praising Aft and his wife, Sue, for growing the congregation, building its preschool and Hebrew school program and comforting them in times of both crisis and calm.

It wasn’t just members of Adat Reyim, an unaffiliated congregation in Springfield, that showed up to shower Aft with praise, either. Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom in Vancouver, British Columbia, said Aft’s counsel at a summer camp led Moskovitz to become a rabbi. Clergy from other faiths in the Springfield area came to say how he had served as a mentor, or a partner in ministry.

But to hear it from Aft? He isn’t sure what the big deal is.

“I’m not sure I’ll ever quite understand how the congregational rabbi has such an impact,” says Aft, 66. “It’s amazing to me.”

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Aft grew up in the Chicagoland suburbs and attended a Conservative synagogue with his family. Growing up, his father would read the Bible to him on Friday nights, and a love for Judaism — and the Chicago White Sox — was ingrained at an early age.

He went to college expecting to play baseball and become a lawyer. Aft played on the University of Illinois varsity reserve team for a few years, but he would drop pre-law to major in social work and eventually attend the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Aft worked as a Jewish educator in Chicago, Tucson and, eventually, Detroit. But despite his ordination, he never expected, nor particularly wanted, to lead a congregation. That all changed when the economy dipped in the early 1990s.

“I was looking for something that was recession proof in a recession proof part of the country,” Aft says.

Adat Reyim’s open pulpit position in northern Virginia looked like a safe bet.

While in rabbinical school, Aft also earned a master’s degree in social work. Students were encouraged to receive a second graduate degree as part of Reconstructionist movement founder Mordecai Kaplan’s belief that U.S. Jews lived in two worlds — an American one, and a Jewish one.

Training as a social worker prepared Aft for the pastoral duties that come with a pulpit role.

“I’m pretty conscientious about reaching out to people and staying in touch,” Aft says. “I feel like people felt that there’s a genuine sense of caring from my wife and me, and people are hungry to be cared for.”

Ballplayers as role models

Aft’s love of baseball, too, has helped guide his rabbinate. When the interviewing panel at the rabbinical college asked how his baseball experience would help him as a rabbi, Aft told them that when he was growing up, he saw ballplayers as role models and hoped to become that himself.

Rabbi Bruce Aft. Photo by David Stuck.

References to the sport are scattered across Aft’s sermons, and he turned to the national pastime to explain his last few weeks on the job.

“It’s not like Derek Jeter’s goodbye tour,” Aft says. “I guess it’s closer to the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, who got a gift when he went to every park in his last season.”

A bobble-head-esque Aft wearing a White Sox jersey and standing next to a bag of peanuts decorated the cover of the program for the rabbi’s going away party, which was divided into nine “innings” with breaks for the fan cam.

Throughout the program, Aft’s friends and colleagues sported Chicago Cubs apparel and ribbed Aft’s affinity for his hometown team.

Adat Reyim co-president Rebecca Geller asked Aft what the difference was between a kosher hot dog at the White Sox stadium and one at Nationals Park.

“You can buy a Nationals hot dog in October,” she said.

Another guest wished the Chicago Bears “a great season — 0-16.”

But baseball is more than a punchline for Aft. The talks at camp with Dan Moskovitz that eventually led to him becoming a rabbi took place over long games of catch. And Aft recalls meeting a member of the congregation at Dover Air Force Base when her husband’s body was brought back from Afghanistan.

“I went out and played catch with one of her boys because he liked baseball and I always carry a mitt in my car,” he says.

Aft said he’s most proud of turning his congregation into a tight-knit community over the last 29 years. When he arrived at the congregation it went by Adat Reyim: Gathering of Neighbors. But the Hebrew name has another possible translation.

“I told them, ‘You know an adat can mean a community and reyim can mean friends,’” Aft recalls. “So we went from a gathering of neighbors to a community of friends.”

Impressive roster

Adat Reyim was founded in a congregant’s basement in 1980, and by the time Aft arrived in the early 1990s membership hovered around 170 families. He said there are now at least 300 families involved in the congregation, with around 250 of them paying dues.

Though it uses a prayer book associated with Conservative Judaism, and many members go on to attend Chabad or other traditional synagogues, Adat Reyim has been unaffiliated since its founding due to what Aft says was the congregation’s diversity and the fact that interfaith families and non-Jewish partners have always been welcome.

Aft says Adat Reyim has had an impressive membership roster over the years: a former director of the Drug Enforcement Agency, a deputy director of counterterrorism for the FBI, presidents of international B’nai B’rith affiliates.

“That’s unprecedented for a small congregation,” Aft says.

The synagogue is also home to two current members of the Virginia General Assembly, including House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D), who recorded a video for Aft’s going away party.

“You’re always doing the hard work,” said Filler-Corn, the first Jewish speaker of the Virginia House.

Rabbi Bruce Aft. Photo by David Stuck.

Though he roughly doubled membership during his tenure, Aft says he regrets not growing the congregation more.

“People were so involved in building a community of friends,” he says. “I’m not sure we put enough energy into marketing what we have, which is so very special.

“I mourn for what might have been. And I’m not blaming anybody — I’m not saying it was my fault or their fault — I wish I’d been more effective in inspiring them to be so proud of what they’re doing that they wanted to invite more of their friends, so we could have grown.”

None of that is to say Aft was not active outside the congregation. One reason he shied away from a pulpit role after rabbinical school was a concern over narrowing the community he was able to serve.

“I’ve always been community minded,” he says. “I never wanted be as parochial as just working at one congregation and Adat Reyim gave me the opportunity to do both.”

That was evidenced by the non-Jewish clergy who attended his Zoom party, including the Rev. Tim Heflin, formerly of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, in Burke, who thanked Aft for his mentorship.

“I discovered there is no Hebrew word for retirement, meaning God wants you to continue working and being a blessing for others,” Heflin said.

Aft is staying on at Adat Reyim until the end of June, when Rabbi Chana Leslie Glazer will take the helm. But he isn’t quite retiring. Aft will become a visiting scholar at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, where he has lectured periodically, and will support the Jewish community on campus.

Aft says that in addition to having more time to travel and visit his four children and five grandchildren in the Midwest, he’ll continue to serve in a part-time pulpit role for congregations in the South through the Institute for Southern Jewish Life.

As for the legacy he hopes to leave, Aft looks once again to baseball.

“You know how they say Yankee Stadium was the house that Ruth built? If someone said Adat Reyim is the community Rabbi Bruce built, that wouldn’t be so bad,” Aft says. “But I’d still rather hit like the Babe.”

Arno Rosenfeld is a Washington-based writer.

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