Personal Transition

Baking and Cycling, Social Justice and Hebrew Poetry: Jewish Educational Creativity in a Period of Personal Transition

By Rabbi Reuven Greenvald

Amidst the dual-pronged challenge of the pandemic and hunting for a new job, sustaining purpose has become a concern as well.

  • Could I dedicate time to help others less fortunate, recognizing my own financial stability?
  • How might I grow personally and professionally to remain whole, creative, energized, and poised to return to the workplace?
  • What concrete things could I do to maintain and deepen connectivity among my friends and communities?

These questions revealed a moment of opportunity.

Without the need to answer to organizational decision-making, I am free to experiment. I began by considering my passions instead of seeking justification in market research. I can move slowly and reflectively without showing impact in a given budget cycle. Although my experiments might never evolve into tangible job skills, I’m learning a lot, and that knowledge I surely will use.

One program idea was to turn my three-year passion for sourdough bread-baking into a social justice platform. Early in the pandemic, while preparing for a study session about the spirituality of bread in Judaism, a Jewish text inspired me to donate to a different local organization that deals with food insecurity each time I baked bread. This idea was a COVID-era, socially distanced way to actualize what the Babylonian Talmud says about Rav Huna: Each time he ate bread, he invited in all who are hungry (Ta’anit 20b).

Complementing this practice was an effort to stay connected; I started to deliver homemade bread safely to friends nearby. Could these two activities, one tzedakah and one community-building, be combined into one proposition? Could I offer to bake and deliver bread around New York City to anyone who would partner with me by making my weekly tzedakah donation in exchange for homemade bread?

In fact, since October, I’ve delivered one or two loaves of bread each week in exchange for a donation to a local organization of my choice. Recipients receive the bread in a re-used paper shopping bag; a label on one side includes the name of the organization we’ve donated to in gratitude for the bread, and on the other side is printed the teaching from the Talmud about Rav Huna. To date, I have supported 12 separate organizations and engaged 20 individuals as partners (some even twice).

More than a platform for tzedakah, I’m seeking to create awareness around food insecurity. Through weekly social media posts about the bread and the selected cause, I can extend this awareness-raising, not only to friends and others who follow my personal social media, but also to those in the sourdough bread-baking community. Because the bread is made and shared in New York City, I especially want recipients to think about hungry neighbors in these challenging times.

My passion for contemporary Hebrew poetry led to another project. In my Jewish educational work, I frequently use Israeli poetry as a tool to open up nuanced conversations about Israel or to set thematic or spiritual tones for programs. During this transition period, I miss engaging with Israeli poetry in this way. To fill the gap, I started to recite a poem (in Hebrew with English translation) each Friday, sharing the video on social media to invite reflection on the events or mood of the week just ending.

As I received encouraging responses and reflections, I wondered, “Is there a wider audience interested in this conversation?” I brainstormed ways I might reach more people. One week, when poems I’d chosen included symbols in nature, a video from nearby Riverside Park seemed like a great idea. That little change sparked curiosity, and new people were drawn in by the natural setting. I, in turn, began to think about the power of connecting text to space – something we Jewish educators do often, especially in experiential and touring education. Given the limits on pandemic travel, I thought I might trigger new interest if I found a different city site each week – a landmark, public art venue, or scenic view – to complement the poem and prompt a conversation among the poem, the world’s events, and the symbolism of space.

As a dedicated cyclist, I bike to my chosen location, which adds yet another dimension to my weekly poetry-in-the-city experience. In fact, this newest dimension prompted me to frame my weekly poetry video posts consistently: “Ofanim,” which is Hebrew for wheels, facets, ways, angels, followed by this subtitle: Cycling through today’s Israeli poetry and New York City. Like the need to get rid of extra bread, making a connection to cycling has self-servingly encouraged me to keep on pedaling outdoors, even as the temperature drops.

Bringing bread and poetry together each week allows me, a Jewish educator and rabbi, to stretch my creativity and teaching muscles in new and different ways. Regarding the poetry, I primarily select new and diverse voices in Israel who have not yet been translated into English. My Ofanim platform is, I hope, stimulating interest in cultural shifts in Israel and prompting a look at how they relate, cross-culturally, to events and everyday life in North America. Connecting each poem video to the mood of the week, I think carefully about how best to present the poems so that Hebrew speakers, Jews, and people of other faiths all can share in the experience of the poem. Through the bread project, I am gaining new insight into how my personal interests enliven learning – making it memorable, inspiring learners to bring their entire being into Jewish engagement and, I hope, modeling an “outside the box” approach to transforming words and texts into meaningful action.

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald (he/him) was just appointed director of the Year-In-Israel program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Before the summer, he will move from NYC to Israel where he intends to continue his sharing of bread and poetry. You can follow him on Instagram: @upperwestsidevegan for the poetry and @chumetznyc for the bread project and posts about baking and pickling.