Whatever Happened To...the rabbi who asked ‘Who am I?’


Burrows is a stay-at-home dad who is living in Roslyn, N.Y., and working on a novel. (Jennifer S. Altman/For The Washington Post)
April 24, 2011

In 2008, Rabbi Josh Burrows was struggling to answer a question of faith: Who am I?

Burrows was shepherding one last adolescent congregant through a bar mitzvah ceremony before leaving his post as assistant rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation. As Burrows coached the boy through the Torah portion he had to learn— the same portion Burrows had learned for his own bar mitzvah 20 years earlier — he found solace in the story about freed Hebrew slaves who had faith in the goodness of a new land.

Still, the stress of guiding congregation members through life’s most heart-wrenching challenges — burying a child, loving a God who allows for natural and man-made disasters — had weighed heavily on Burrows.

“I’m a 32-year-old man forced to contemplate things I’m not emotionally ready to deal with,” Burrows said in a 2008 Washington Post Magazine story.

“To this day, I’m not sure what I want to do,” he said, speaking of his future in the rabbinate.

The message of faith in the story of the Hebrew slaves guided Burrows as he left Washington, and the rabbinate, for a new life in Roslyn, N.Y., a small Long Island community where his wife, Gabi Arad Burrows, now serves as cantor of Temple Sinai.

Today, Burrows, 35, is contemplating a return to the rabbinate. He is also sharing stories of faith in a new way, by writing a novel about religious extremism and personal theologies. The fictional tale is based on an actual group of religious extremists — Burrows declined to say which one — that uses biblical theology to justify its actions.

Burrows got the idea for the book in Washington, as he struggled to help his congregants develop “their own personal theologies” to answer questions of faith, but he didn’t have time to start writing it.

His current gig as a stay-at-home dad to his daughters, Noa, 4, and Maia, 9 months, enables him to write in between more pressing tasks: “Laundry, dishes, vacuuming, changing diapers, more dishes, more laundry, more diapers,” he says.

“There’s a lot of poop and imaginary people running around in my brain right now,” Burrows says, speaking over the sound of Maia squealing on a recent weekday morning.

He is currently working on his second draft of the 75,000-word tome.

Burrows says he’s realistic about his chances of having the book published. But he says the simple act of writing it — of pondering life’s questions, and finding faith in the search for the answers — is an important step in his spiritual journey.

“We live in a time when we wonder how we can believe in a God who allows for religious people to do terrible things to each other,” Burrows says. “I can’t say that I have answers to questions like these . ... I do know that a belief in God, or in something bigger than ourselves, can inspire us to hope, and that’s a good thing.”

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