Popular rabbi's parting shot
When I asked Rabbi Andy Bachman what he plans to speak about in his sermons during this, his last, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services as senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim, I thought he would bring up the importance of closing the gap between the wealthy and the needy in this country.
After all, the 51-year-old rabbi built a reputation at the Park Slope, Brooklyn synagogue as a strong voice for progressive Judaism, giving secular Jews a sense of meaning through social justice and communal causes beyond ancient rituals and prayers. Over his nine-year tenure, membership doubled to 1,000 families. Last March, when he surprised his congregation with the news of his plan to step down from his pulpit in June 2015, Rabbi Bachman explained that he felt the need to devote his full-time energies to alleviating poverty in our society.
But when I posed the question about his theme for the High Holy Days later this month, his one-word response came without hesitation.
“Israel,” he said.
“My message will be, ‘Don’t abandon Israel.’”
Shaken by witnessing the effects of the Gaza war while visiting Jerusalem this summer, the rabbi said he plans to press home the point that the Mideast is an increasingly dangerous region with direct implications for us here in America. Citing the rise of ISIS and Islamic militants in Syria, Gaza and Lebanon, he asserted that the violent aggression is “all interconnected” and that “Israel is at the front lines of a conflict that will affect us for the next 100 years, so we’d better get used to it.”
Critical, at times, of Jewish groups that advocated either widening the war or making deep concessions, he said he will “poke some holes on both sides. But I want to criticize the left internally,” he added, troubled by leaders who spent more time criticizing than defending Israel during the recent Gaza fighting.
Though he is a member of J Street and Rabbis for Human Rights, he said that dovish Jewish groups have “worthy values, but too often they don’t take into consideration how tough and complicated the world is.”
In a sense, “the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ no longer apply” when it comes to Israel, according to the rabbi. It’s more about being a realist, recognizing the country’s very real security concerns while resisting what he sees as “the erosion of civil structures” in a society moving rightward.
“Who speaks for the center of American Jewry?” he wondered aloud, crediting AIPAC for “doing an amazing job of advocating for the government of Israel’s position” but noting that the pro-Israel lobby “is not about convening nuanced conversation on Israel and its policies.” That’s something that interests him as a worthy cause he may want to be involved in the future.
Rabbi Bachman is a longtime supporter of Yad b’Yad, the only bilingual Hebrew and Arabic school in Jerusalem. Having visited there recently he came away impressed that he could not tell which students were Jewish and which were Arab. He supports other programs as well that foster Jewish-Arab cooperation in Israel, whose society has “too great an emphasis on difference,” he said. He thinks diaspora Jewry has “far less clout than we think” on Israeli politics, and that “the most impact we could have would be a mass aliyah of religiously pluralist Jews.” But he knows that is not likely, in part because most American Jews are not sufficiently devoted to live in an Israel that he says is far less multicultural than the U.S.
Personally, he would prefer to make aliyah now. What holds him back, he said, are the obligations of his family life, with a wife with a career and children in their teens. “As a student of history,” he said, “I am fascinated by the miracle of Jewish history and I wonder what it will all end up looking like.” Beyond his rabbinate, he plans to keep working toward ensuring a more open Israeli society.
“If I’m not moving there I have to find ways to stay in the game,” he said, with the goal of “creating new institutions.”
Among the projects Rabbi Bachman expressed an interest in launching is a post-high school gap year program in Israel for large numbers of American Jewish teens, recognizing the success of the Orthodox community in strengthening Jewish identity for their children through yeshiva programs in Israel. He is concerned about diminishing ties to Israel for non-Orthodox Jews here.
In the Aug. 1 entry of his thoughtful, often lyrical blog, “Water Over Rocks,” he wrote from Israel:
“I worry about American Jewry on this trip more than I ever have. I worry about their increasing alienation from the notion of a Jewish people, each of us inherently obligated to one another despite our differences; I worry about our understandable abhorrence of the killing of innocents that too quickly shifts to blame, guilt and distance from Israel... and I worry about a kind of liberal American Jewish hopelessness toward the Jewish national project, the dystopian other-expression of the very spirit that created this improbable, historically miraculous, wildly creative yet weighted, complex, imperfect nation.” In our interview, he asked aloud, “What will it mean for American Jewry if the next leader of Israel will be a [Naftali] Bennett or [Avigdor] Lieberman,” right-wing cabinet members who advocate tougher policies regarding the Palestinians and “who don’t speak for most diaspora Jews?”
“Part of the exhaustion of liberal rabbis,” he noted, “is that it takes so much to move the needle” in terms of encouraging congregants to become more engaged, either in Israel advocacy or active Jewish life at home.
As for the future direction of American Jewry, which Rabbi Bachman calls “a huge challenge,” he says he is both “hopeful and despairing.”
There has never been “a more open time than now, with gays and lesbians ordained, women Orthodox rabbis,” (some would dispute that description) “and the Conservative movement slowly accepting non-Jews as members,” he said.
“Those are signs of great hope. But what frightens me is the allure of universal culture and multiple identities, with Jewish identity moving lower down on the priority list,” particularly among young people. That translates into “a smaller voice” to address “the lessons of Jewish history and values that assured our survival” for centuries.
Rabbi Bachman emphasized that though he will be leaving the pulpit, “I’m still a rabbi and I’m not done agitating.” It’s just that his focus will be on helping the broader community in “alleviating human suffering,” with an emphasis on areas like poverty, homelessness and gun control, rather than confining his energy to the Jewish community.
He hasn’t decided yet on a specific post.
Though he acknowledges he was “never motivated to bring God down to people,” and would sometimes tell his associate rabbis to “take your foot off the gas” when it comes to direct mentions of the Lord, Rabbi Bachman says he is not leaving his pulpit because of any personal crisis of faith, as some have speculated. “I still pray and feel connected; I am a profound believer. And I want to deepen my commitment to my spirituality and to Jewish study,” he said. He also plans to continue to teach and to write. He is working on a book on what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century.
Rabbi Bachman’s career record suggests a degree of restlessness. “I need to change every seven years or so,” he said, having worked in politics in his native Wisconsin and as a Hillel rabbi at New York University before coming to Beth Elohim. But along the way he has learned that “as impatient as you may be, change comes slowly.” (Thus the title of his blog, “Water Over Rocks.”)
He is ready for the next chapter, well aware that he may be letting down many congregants who were devoted to his rabbinic style, which he described as “bringing secular Jews back into Jewish peoplehood,” and ensuring the continuation of Jewish heritage and tradition. But he believes he can be an example, to them and others, of someone who serves God by caring for as many of God’s people as possible.
Gary Rosenblatt has been the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week for 20 years and has written more than 1,000 “Between The Lines” columns since 1993. Now a collection of 80 of those columns, ranging from Mideast analysis to childhood remembrances as “the Jewish rabbi’s son” in Annapolis, Md., is available.