At 40 years old, Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum is a millennial by most definitions, and his millennial sensibilities are reflected in the career he’s built for himself.
With a home base in Silver Spring, Buxbaum and his wife, Devorah, have bounced around area synagogues, such as Silver Spring Jewish Center and Ohr HaTorah to engage with communities of young Jews. As founders of the LEV Experience, the couple provides guidance to help this younger generation find meaning in their culture and religion outside the four walls of a synagogue.
“We want people to see their connection to Judaism not as an affiliation with an organization, but as, this is something that is spiritually rich, it’s something that is inspiring,” Buxbaum said. “There’s depth, and it becomes their own spiritual journey.”
Between outreach to other millennial and Generation Z Jews, podcasts and books, Buxbaum has mastered mixing ancient tradition with modern mediums.
In your first book, “The Four Elements of an Empowered Life,” you draw on the four chemical elements. How did you make that connection?
The four elements are one of the most ancient spiritual ideas. A lot of Chasidic rabbis use this as a concept of understanding oneself. The one, I think, that really delved very deep into the idea was Chaim Vital of Safed. He had this idea that all of our personality, our entire personality, all of our character traits or attributes, are connected to one of the four elements.
And my goal in this book was to take that idea and to No. 1, present it almost like a self-help book: to take that idea, but make it very practical for people, to use almost the language of personal development and to apply it to those things. And my second goal was to weave it into the stories of the Torah, so that people can start seeing the personalities in the Torah not just as historical figures, but as archetypes for our own personality.
Your second book is “The Four Elements of Inner Freedom.” What does inner freedom mean to you?
Overall, the introduction [of the book] was based upon the fact that most of the things, most of the struggles that we have, are self-imposed. The more that we’re self-aware and the more that we understand that actually the world is just a playground — it’s a gym for us to develop our own inner muscles — and the more that we learn how to develop those inner muscles, the more that things fall into place.
So many of the challenges that we have are just because we’re not ready, and we’re not necessarily aware, that we’re entering into the world, and that the world is here to test us and refine us. Once we learn that, once we identify, once we understand that the goal is inner perfection, or, what I call it, inner freedom…all the different things that challenge us — those things now just become opportunities, self-development opportunities.
Why did you use the metaphor of the Exodus to describe inner freedom in the book?
The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, and Mitzrayim comes from the word metzar; it’s the Hebrew word for constriction, of being in a constricted place. But that doesn’t necessarily need to be something that’s outside; it’s our own inner constriction.
You and your wife founded the LEV Experience together. How would you summarize your family’s role in your own Jewish identity?
One of the things that pushes you to really try to grow and grow stronger is because you see life and you want your children — the next generation — to grow and to be inspired. A lot of our life is about community… I tried to create a home that is exploding with vibrant Judaism, and my children are a part of that. When we have guests in our home, my guests are inspired when they see how my wife and I interact with our kids. And that’s a big focus of the Shabbat table: I try to give my children attention. They’re interested in hearing about the parshah. It’s a family effort. And I think that if we’re doing what we should be doing as a family and inspiring one another as a family, that sort of spills out to others.
What have you found to be the key in engaging younger Jews in Judaism?
People really want to be seen, and I think that this is very much an inside-out approach. I don’t believe that we can create this big picture of what Judaism, spirituality is supposed to be, and then now impose it upon people. I think that people need to discover on their own, that this is something that speaks to you.
When a person is alive with spiritual growth, then they’re on the search, and when they’re on the search, amazing, amazing things will happen. That’s the approach that we tried to take. It’s the way I do my own Judaism, and thank God that it’s been pretty effective. ■