I’ve been startled by some of the laments following Rabbi Andy Bachman’s announcement that in a year’s time he’ll leave the pulpit of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn.
When I moved to New York in 2005, Bachman was already a recognized force. To me and other young Jewish communal professionals, he was proof that not all people over 30 were out of touch with the Jewish community of the future. He set a new standard for openness, creativity, and passionate progressive principles. When I left the city seven years later, he had become an indispensable ally and inspirational role model for me.
So when he announced just a day ago that he wouldn’t renew his pulpit contract in 2015, it struck me as wonderful that he would now turn his capable skills to benefiting directly those in need:
Last year, the combination of watching our community’s response to Hurricane Sandy as well as the fortuitous and inevitable rite of passage of turning 50, I began to explore the idea of moving beyond strictly Jewish service and contemplate seriously the idea of serving disadvantaged communities broadly throughout New York City. The issues of poverty, hunger, homelessness, education, and violence remain central to my own concerns as a citizen of New York. And so as I thought of another chapter to my professional life, I became increasingly inspired by the opportunity to serve communities in need in Brooklyn and beyond.
I was delighted and proud for him. In fact, I felt the same desire. But then the moaning started. Haaretz’s article announced his “quitting” and I heard both crowing and bemoaning that he was “leaving the Jewish community.”
This is bullshit. Bachman isn’t converting to Hinduism and he’s not issued a smackdown of Jewish communal service. He has not issued a refusal to return to Jewish employment later, nor is it clear that his institution of choice won’t be Jewish in nature. (A number of excellent organizations come to mind.)
It’s clear to me that anyone so dedicated to (and so successful at) imbuing social action in others that he would want to take a leadership role directly. Hell, I know because I feel it myself. There is only so much talking, educating, writing, cajoling, recruiting, extolling, and lauding about bettering the world before we just want to do it. Our faith community in particular is some of the wealthiest, well-fed, well-housed populations in America. Yes, there are Jewish poor and sick and homeless, especially elderly and immigrants from the Former Soviet Union.
But if you are truly ambitious about solving the world’s ills, working only with or within the Jewish community might just be too small. Too narrow. Too underachieving. We are only .2% of the world. Dream big, my parents told me, and go for broke. Find those truly in need — those next door or across the ocean — and go where you can make the biggest difference. And despite my wishes otherwise, the singular might of the Jewish people is not enough to go it alone.
Because there is really no difference in my heart between my Jewish passions and my desires for a more healthy, peaceful humanity. As we’ve learned from Jewish Jumpstart’s recent studies of Jewish philanthropy, the loyalties that motivate Jews to donate to their law school, the Met, the ACLU and their local homeless shelter are the same values that move the to give to Jewish organizations. In fact, most Jewish dollars go to non-Jewish causes; even those who give the highest ratio of their charity to Jewish organizations still apportion less than half to explicitly Jewish institutions. Similarly, I am lucky that my day job does reflect both my Jewish and nonsectarian passions — but really, there is no such division.
There should be no value judgement on Rabbi Andy Bachman’s getting his salary from an explicitly Jewish organization, because regardless of his paycheck he is and will always be an Jewish agent of change for a better world. Many of us young professionals will emulate his journey into and out of Jewish and nonsectarian institutions. (Many activists are Jewish professionals in their hearts, if only there was a Jewish job available.) And that movement weaves us tighter to our communities and into the fabric of the global justice movement. (And if you’re worried that changemakers are in scarce supply in our community, hey, I have a few amazing friends for hire.)
And so I say to every capable social change organization out there: Give Rabbi Andy Bachman his dream job. He deserves it and you’ll need more like him to change the world. And we younger professionals are not that far behind him.