Judaism Without Borders

By: Elan Babchuck

My name is Elan Babchuck, and I am a Rabbi Without Borders. Yes, I happen to be participating in a fellowship by that name, run by the pluralistic and dynamic organization Clal, which is the Hebrew word for “inclusive.” But I was a rabbi without borders long before I was accepted in the fellowship, and I was a Jew without borders long before I ever dreamed of becoming a rabbi.

I grew up in a non-denominational minyan (lay-lead community), where the major focal point was community. We shared Jewish experiences, Jewish wisdom, and Jewish prayer in a myriad of venues, but the most important ingredient was simply that we shared.  It was a simple operation, devoid of many of the bells and whistles that I enjoy now as one of the rabbis at Temple Emanu-El, but we made do with what we had. When space wasn’t an issue, we met in the living rooms and backyards of our members. When we grew a bit, we rented space in the sanctuary of a beautiful, old church, with community members coming together to make a 30 foot by 20 foot quilt to cover the massive cross hanging over our makeshift bimah (stage). In fact, my bar-mitzvah—one of the most humbling and powerful days I’ve ever experienced—was in that very same church sanctuary, right under that very same cross.

When I was blessed to be offered the rabbinic position here in Providence, my wife Lizzie and I both knew that this was exactly where we wanted—and needed—to be. It was the perfect place to raise a family, as we had just welcomed our son, Micah, into the world. Providence had everything to offer, and we eagerly moved cross-country from our home in Los Angeles to our new home in Rhode Island.

It’s been nearly a year and a half since the move, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that there was, in fact, one ingredient missing. You see, here in Providence there were (at least) four separate Jewish institutions offering exciting and meaningful programs to the young professionals in the community: the Alliance, Temple Emanu-El, Temple Beth El, and Congregation Beth Sholom.  We were all running excellent programs and events, but it usually only touched one segment of the population. Thinking back to the minyan of my childhood, it felt like the collaborative spirit was missing from these siloed endeavors and that a unique opportunity lay ahead. With support from our respective boards, the right lay leaders in place, and other like-minded professionals, there was no question in my mind that we could break down the barriers between the organizations in order to create one vibrant, pluralistic community in which we would put people before programs, and the interests of individuals before those of institutions.

It’s been about six months since the first conversations I shared with Erin Moseley (Alliance), Rabbi Sara Mack (Beth El), and Rabbi Barry Dolinger (Beth Sholom), and it was clear from the start that all four of us—and the institutions employing us—had the same vision. Today, as we celebrate the launch of our blog, our Twitter feed, our Facebook page, and our first huge event  (Vodka Latke), we also celebrate that (401)j has become something greater than the sum of its parts.  It is a community, a think-tank, and collaboration. It will take place in living rooms and backyards, restaurants and bars, and even in our synagogues and the Alliance. Most importantly, though, it’s just getting started. The only ingredient missing now is you.

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