Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser recently became the first rabbi hired to fill a major pulpit in Washington who is married to someone of the same gender. But he doesn’t like to focus on that. “I’m gay, but I also scuba dive and play guitar,” he said. July 4 was the first Sabbath at Temple Sinai for Rosenwasser, 32, and his husband, Shalom Rosenberg. Temple Sinai, in the District’s Chevy Chase neighborhood, is one of the region’s largest Reform synagogues, a place that tries to blend tradition with innovation at a time when many U.S. Jews have abandoned institutional life. Washington Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein talked to Rosenwasser about various matters, including Silicon Valley (his last posting) vs. the District,whether the biblical Joseph was gay and singing with his college glee club.
Boorstein: You came to Sinai from a synagogue in the Palo Alto area. How does the tech culture there impact spiritual life?
Rosenwasser: It’s this culture where people look like they’re not working. Mark Zuckerberg is always wearing a hoodie and jeans, but they’re always working. Teens in Palo Alto are really stressed out. Stanford is their backup school. What we tried to create was a place where people could come and gather and sort of de-stress . . . a place where people could be in community and not feel attached to this crazy techie culture. That’s what we’re trying to build at Sinai. I’m new to D.C., but it’s a place where people are very busy and literally running the world, or think they are. . . . We try to create a place where people can be themselves.
How do you do that?
Gather for Shabbat, have dinner, learn for the sake of learning, not for getting a high score.
Why did you come to Washington?
Washington is a fascinating city. For better or for worse, it’s where big things happen. In Palo Alto, we brought teens here every year . . . to learn about Washington and social justice. This week [Senior Rabbi Jonathan] Roos was going to a meeting on Capitol Hill. I was like, ‘Wow, it’s just 15 minutes down Connecticut Avenue to the heart of where policy and big decisions are made.’ I’m a bit of an idealist. I’m sure I’ll become a little jaded by Washington, but I think it’s cool to be in another place — like Silicon Valley — where people are trying to change the world for the better.
Silicon Valley is a place where people aren’t afraid of failure. It’s cool almost to be between jobs and to try new things. I think Sinai is striving to, too. Judaism, and especially Reform Judaism, we want to be relevant, and we want people to find meaning in their Jewish life.
So many Jews have left institutional life. Are there almost going to be two types of Jews, people who belong to synagogues and those who don’t?
The synagogue has to serve a different purpose. It can’t be a place where people just drop off their children to learn enough Hebrew for bar or bat mitzvah. It has to be a place that engages community. No one likes to think of a synagogue as a business, but it is. Even a nonprofit needs money to exist. But when there is a simcha [a happy occasion] [or when there is] a death, it’s so important to have that community to take care of you and feed you and hold you and comfort you. I’ve seen so many cases when unaffiliated Jews in a crisis turn to the synagogue because we are not solitary creatures. We do need to lower any barriers that exist, including we don’t need to give someone a dues sheet on their first visit.
What is the Bible to people today? What role do biblical characters have in our lives?
They are about our greatest human triumphs and challenges. Abraham nearly killed his son. Jacob and Esau nearly kill one another, but 20 years later, they make up and embrace. And I find so much wisdom in the stories, not seeing them just as pseudo-historical figures we’re supposed to revere. They are very much like us, both positive and not so positive. I look to the text for meaning and relevance. When I share that with people, they find a connection to Judaism.
You said that in rabbinical school, you looked sometimes at biblical characters from a feminist and queer perspective. What did you find?
Some people ask: Was Joseph gay? He was this effeminate, handsome guy. I don’t think he was gay, but he was certainly an outsider. People mocked him. They didn’t understand him. As gay people, we are outsiders in many ways. Thank God, things got better, but we can relate to Joseph’s struggle.
What role do you think your being gay plays in your rabbinical work? How do people respond in more private counseling settings? It could be like the first time people see women in a clergy role in their synagogue.
If anything, I think it makes people feel like they have someone to talk to. I had a young man who grew up at Sinai; he’s gay, we had coffee together this week, I get a lot of that. [Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, his former synagogue] was viewed as gay-friendly before I came there, but it does make it easier for people to come see me, including gay couples on sensitive issues. A lot of teens came to me to come out. You know with a gay person, you’re safe. It does make a difference.
You were in the glee club in college, at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (where he also grew up). Do you still sing?
I do. Here and there. I love music. Singing is like praying. A way to communicate the desires of your soul, and blah, blah, blah. (He laughs.)