Sixth & I Historic Synagogue and meeting the challenges of modern Judaism

August 22, 2012

Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & Historic Synagogue in D.C. and a contributor to The Washington Post's local faith leader network.

When I accepted a position at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, a very unusual Jewish institution, I spent quite a bit of time explaining to colleagues just what it was that I was hired to do. Sixth & I belongs to no denomination. It houses Orthodox tefillot (prayer) and intermarriages in the same building. Its two rabbis are not from the same movements, and their job is to enable kinds of Judaism beyond their own limits (neither of us are Orthodox, and intermarriages are not performed in my brand of Judaism).

The organization also spends as much time serving as a headquarters for secular thought and music not necessarily connected to Judaism as it does serving religious life. My friends still have not fit all the pieces together, and question why I would choose such a place instead of a more traditional synagogue.

In truth, I think my generation of rabbis is just different. (I was ordained in 2008, quite happily, by the Ziegler School in Los Angeles.) And a different sort of rabbi looks for an unusual home.

We younger rabbis are not distinguished by ability. Those who came before were far more knowledgeable. Rather, we are distinguished by circumstances that force us to redefine the nature of our work.

The religious ground beneath the feet of Americans has moved so quickly in the last century that the ideals of religious life and leadership that we inherited have not been able to keep up. Rather than knowing exactly what we are to do, young rabbis have a real question as to what our role should be.

Is our job to tell people how God wants them to live? Is our job to affirm the way they are already living? Is our job to lead them to God? Is our job to show them that God is waiting for them wherever they go? More radically, is our job to somehow leave God out of the spiritual equation until people choose to insert Him/Her/It on their own (asked of me surprisingly often)? Are we to live in a way that is an example for others? Are we to live apart, more priest than fellow traveler?

When we ask the people we serve these questions, they answer simply, “yes.” It doesn’t matter that the ideas are mutually exclusive, and that they cannot exist in the same community; there is always a different constituency that needs each.

Even as a rabbinical student I realized that I could never fill all of these roles for all our people. It would be a kind of foolishness, to try to personally inhabit such divergence – not because these roles are flawed, but because I could only give insubstantiality to such a breadth of desires. How then, to be a good rabbi? How then, to teach and live a life of worth? How to be useful?

My generation is not the first among American rabbis to have to deal with this conundrum. But the move toward individuality, innate rebellion, and inclination toward a thousand denominations has only sped up in recent years. Added to this acceleration is a new dynamic. Most Jews in their 20s to 40s are third-generation immigrants; our identities as belonging here, in the States, and as belonging to Judaism are held easily, lightly, and without sensible contradiction (a phenomenon documented ad nauseam). So affiliation, belonging to X group and being seen doing so, really means little to us.

Instead we get up in the morning for authenticity. We crave the sense that the actions in which we engage are imbued with meaning, and are not some kind of ceremonial placeholder. We choose our instinct toward “the real thing” over group identity, every time.

The problem is that, unless one is a traditionalist (also a related, growing trend), what is authentic to one opposes the authenticity of another. “Authentic,” ironically, means more disagreement, not less. What, then, is a young rabbi to do?

Here is the solution that has presented itself: give up the expectation that large groups of people will act, and pray, and conduct ritual the same way; rather, allow each community to arise from micro-communities who join together while observing differently. And, most importantly, that the rabbis serve them all.

This is where Sixth & I has found its sweet spot: the creation of a space in which these micro-communities have thrown their lots in together. This commonality is incredibly hard to define beyond a similar station in life and the search for authenticity. But, the connections are palpable and create an ever-shifting home for the fruition of new ways of finding God and spiritual meaning.

The idea is not new — Hillel pioneered this type of pluralism decades ago. But for some reason it has not been adopted into the post-university world until recently.

For rabbis, Sixth & I entails a radically different way of being a religious leader. Even when honored in the breach, the job has been to say, “This is the law.” Judging was not a joke. Our tradition existed before the split between religious and secular law, and rabbis were expected to adjudicate human crimes as much as crimes in the eyes of God (often the same thing). So for many the idea of a community that by design does not reach for a joined ideal rubs against the grain of our training.

There is great honesty in living within community without the ideal of uniformity. To grant to others the freedom to inhabit other ideals, to help them on that path, to own your theology and inclinations without impugning others, to attract others through affinity – these are extraordinary gifts. And at this stage in history, honesty and variegation creates vibrant connection in the most anxiety-ridden segment of our culture – religion. So while transitioning away from leading the way will take some time and plenty of adjustment, the task of a pluralistic community is worthwhile, and I am grateful to be a new kind of rabbi through my work at Sixth & I.

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