Rabbis as Change Agents

by Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu

“The world is changing so fast I am not exactly sure how to be a rabbi any more. The old rules do not seem to apply.”

This is a refrain we hear in many of the application to Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship program. Each year we get more and more application for the fellowship from rabbis who have correctly ascertained that the world is shifting around them. They see the decline in membership at their shuls, and realize that the makeup of people who are coming to services and classes is changing. Some are not sure how to respond while others are hatching creative new ideas.

In her essay, “Inspiration. Cultivation. Reverberation. Training Community Leaders to Change the Game,” Rabbi Sharon Brous asserts that rabbis need fellowship and mentorship in order to learn and succeed. She is right. While she describes a program of mentorship with in a synagogue context, and for young rabbis still in formation, Rabbis Without Borders provides fellowship and mentorship for rabbis at all stages of their careers and for rabbis both within and outside of synagogue settings.

Now in its fourth cohort, Rabbis Without Borders is creating a network of rabbis who are attuned to and educated about the issues in American culture today. Through the fellowship program they gain skills in how to use Jewish wisdom to speak to these issues, and to share that wisdom in accessible and useful ways. Breaking out of the box and trying new approaches takes courage and support. RWB rabbis challenge one another’s assumptions and support each other as they try new endeavors.

The fellowship is named, “Rabbis Without Borders” because we understand that the traditional borders of society that used to separate Jew from gentile, Asian from Italian, and black from white, are now disintegrating. Even with in Judaism the pull towards denominational identification is fading. More and more people identify as “Just Jewish” instead of with one of the denominations. Therefore in our program we strive to bring together rabbis from very diverse backgrounds. In a given cohort of 20 rabbis, we have rabbis representing every denominational affiliation from Orthodox to Renewal, and those who do not identify with a particular denomination. We take rabbis who have been in the field at least one year and sit them next to rabbis with thirty years of experience. The rabbis hail from all parts of this country so that they can share about regional differences. In addition, the cohorts mix pulpit rabbis with rabbis serving in Hillel’s, day schools, as chaplains, adult educators, and independent contractors. This diverse mix opens the rabbi’s eyes to new ideas and the many different ways they can rabbi. Extremely rich conversations occur and new ways to approach today’s challenges come out of our meetings and alumni gatherings.

In addition, each rabbi receives individual mentorship from Clal faculty. The group process stimulates ideas, and the individual mentorship helps individual rabbis bring their ideas to fruition. We coach the rabbis on everything from visioning and program development to working with lay leadership, fundraising, and marketing. The results are rabbis who are connected with their passions and who both re-energize existing communities and are creating new ones.

We are beginning to see amazing results. Pulpit rabbis Gill Steinlauf in Washington DC (Conservative), Rachel Gurevitz in Westbough MA (Refrom), and Amy Small in Summit, NJ ( Reconstructionist) are reimaging their existing synagogue communities. Rabbis Rachel Kobrin and Lizzie Heydemann (Lizzie also interned with Sharon Brous at Ikar) are creating new communities of young people in Austin, Tx and Chicago, Il respectively. Rabbi Tsafi Lev is bringing his expertise to the New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, CA. Rabbis Ruth Abusch Magder and Juan Mejia are working with Jews of color all over the world through an organization called Be’chol Lashon.

The impact these rabbis are making is just beginning to be felt, and I only named a small sampling of them. Continuing Rabbinic Education which includes a safe space for idea sharing and mentoring is critical to help rabbis be the change agents they need to be in today’s world. With borders coming down everywhere, rabbis need to be open, pluralistic, and entrepreneurial. Creating a network of Rabbis Without Borders is one path to this future.

Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the Director of Rabbis Without Borders at Clal. She blogs at myjewishlearning.com/rabbiswithoutborders, tweets @rabbirebecca and@rwbclal, and can be found on Facebook as herself and Rabbis Without Borders.