By Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein
NEW YORK — I recently officiated a graveside funeral as the sole person physically present. Kindle as prayerbook in one hand, phone as camera in the other, I also was advised to bring my own shovel. The mourners on Zoom did not see my plastic “shovel” carried off by the wind as I began chanting Psalm 23.
Using a small, heavy slab of discarded concrete found near the grave, I moved many pounds of earth as proxy for each mourner in their loving duty. That funeral, like the many thousands facilitated recently by my colleagues, was lonely and distant; it was meaningful and responsive; and it was utterly exhausting.
Jewish spiritual leaders serve on the front lines of a crisis of loss and unimaginable loneliness while stripped of the tools upon which we have relied for thousands of years. As spiritual first responders, we are comforting the sick and dying; facilitating Jewish rituals of mourning and also of celebration across physical distance; distilling Jewish wisdom to help people facing spiritual and existential crises; creating innovative opportunities for ritual and study; facilitating acts of tzedakah and loving-kindness that sustain our people through severe financial distress.
There is no time to prepare. We must be nimble and innovative.
This moment of profound disruption has also accelerated a growing need for innovation of the organizing principles of Jewish life. “Innovation” can sometimes be a buzzword, and the pressure to innovate — often required for philanthropic support — can lead organizations and people to take on more and more, sometimes causing them to give short shrift to their core values and responsibilities in the process.
That’s not the form of innovation we need now, at least when it comes to training and supporting rabbis. Though exhausted, we need our rabbis (whether we call them rebbe or rabbah, rabbi or maharat, cantor or rosh kehilah) to inspire visionary transformations of precious, but outmoded community structures that are suddenly proving to be unsustainable or, worse, obsolete. Today’s innovations must echo the wisdom of our ancestors.
We trace our way of Jewish life back to Yochanan ben Zakkai, remembered as the one who gathered sages in Yavneh to create a vibrant Judaism that flourished after the destruction of the Temple. Like those sages, we can take stock of the essence of Torah, and promote new ways of preserving and living out our tradition. And like the great rabbis who later created the Talmud, we can allow a myriad of voices to share and debate important perspectives from the wider world in which we live.
That is why our Center for Applied Rabbinic Innovation is called Yavneh Bet. For five years, we have been successfully training entrepreneurial rabbis to build lean, nimble startup communities through our Fellowship for Rabbinic Entrepreneurs, housed at the Hillel Office of Innovation. At this moment of crisis, we are expanding our work to support any Jewish spiritual leader in their need to be flexible and creative, entrepreneurial and innovative.
Right now, all Jewish communities are like startups, because even the most established synagogue or JCC is traversing uncharted territory right now.
We are offering “Spiritual First Response” support groups, clergy mentoring and training for conducting essential rabbinic functions during a time when in-person gathering is limited. Years of supporting entrepreneurial rabbinic leaders creating flourishing communities have shown us that we cannot simply return to our habitual ways of doing business as soon as possible. In addition to supporting clergy as they temporarily move physical gatherings online today, we must also help them imagine and build sustainable, relational, invested communities that will continue to transcend space, making use of every possible corner that fosters community tomorrow.
For example, Rabbi Jon Leener of Base Brooklyn has built his vibrant community by valuing personal interactions over the ntumbers attending any large gatherings, and investing in people over permanent space. Keeping track of his one-on-one meetings, he is aware not only of when members have attended the Shabbat or learning sessions usually run out of his home or local businesses, but also how long it has been since he has had a personal interaction with each of the 3,000 “Basers” in his database. Now, when large gatherings are impossible, those deep relationships are sustaining his community.
Over the past few weeks, it has been natural for his members to move these deep relationships online. Base Brooklyn’s new community Facebook page has quickly become a mutual-aid society where members are asking for and offering their own resources to support each other. One Baser, a therapist, has created a service connecting other members to mental health services. Members have offered and brought to their neighbors in need; others provided aid to those losing jobs or health coverage.
Rabbi Leener has been in nonstop communication with members, who trust the intimacy of their relationship and know that they can call on him with their needs. To weather this moment and rebuild their communities for the future, more rabbis will need to understand his approach and get the tools to replicate it.
With support and training, we can help our rabbinic leaders avoid exhaustion and overcome the fear of uncertainty. Then they can effectively use this time of crisis as a springboard for necessary change.
With history as our inspiration, the essentials of our tradition at our core and an entrepreneurial spirit, we can provide rabbinic leaders the support they need to turn challenges into opportunities to allow them to lead us forward with strength, energy and transformational creativity. For now, we also still advise them to bring their own shovel.
Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein is the executive director of Yavneh Bet: The Center for Rabbinic Innovation at the Office of Innovation of Hillel International.