Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pulling Rabbis out of a Hat


For the past three days, I've hung out with rabbis. Hundreds of rabbis. Young and middle-aged and of advanced years. Male and female. Illustrious and of modest achievement. Fashionably attired and less so. Celebrity rabbis and counter-cultural rabbis.

During these days, I've gathered with rabbis in lecture halls and dining rooms and synagogue sanctuaries and in the passage ways of old stone buildings and modern classrooms and chapels and on street corners. I've even gone to the bathroom with rabbis.

For nearly 72 hours, I've listened to rabbis and talked to rabbis and heard jokes from rabbis and hugged rabbis and learned from rabbis. I've reconnected with rabbis I first met years ago, during their rabbinical school training. I've gossiped with rabbis and taken note of weight loss and gain, new hair styles that are flattering and not. I've heard about the births, deaths and divorces, career dislocation, disappointment. I've seen at least one former boyfriend in this collection of rabbis. He greeted me with a smirky nod of the head.

The reason for this rabbi-fest is the annual gathering of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional association of Conservative and Masorti rabbis worldwide and as their publicist I get to schmooze with the Jews, becoming a kind of pseudo-rebbe or at least, a kid-sister facsimile of a rabbi.

Though it might sound like a decidedly unglamorous assignment or the opening of an ethnic joke: "So, five hundred rabbis met in New York City the other day...." the RA convention is always spiritually, intellectually and socially charged, not to mention great fun. Yet this fact sometimes eludes those nearest and dearest to me.

"Do you really have to go on the boat ride tomorrow night with those rabbis?" pressed HOBB earlier this evening. "I mean, do you want to be stuck with them on the Hudson river for three hours??"

Uh. Yeah. And they will have a DJ. And a bar.

You see, I really like rabbis, especially of the Conservative/Masorti persuasion, who feel to me like kin. I like their blending of God-consciousness and social awareness. I like their caring and devotion, the weird fusion of old fashioned values and instruments of the cyber-age. I don't know why, but it makes me happy that rabbis use BlackBerries and send text messages. I adore that they come to sessions with laptops and I-Pads. I even like that their cellphones ring annoyingly during plenaries and important programs.

I like the serious attention that is paid to interpersonal ethics within this movement-- the awareness of the importance of observing boundaries. I do not take this for granted, having met other clergy who egregiously violate boundaries. I like the sincerity, the poetry, the prophetic voice I glean at these gatherings.

When I am together with rabbis of this movement, I find that there is a common cultural language we speak -- a blending of tradition, belief and socialization. There is also the camaraderie that arises from being a member of the denomination that once ruled the Jewish demographic charts and has, according to social scientists, fallen. Hard.

Yet I hold fast to the belief that Conservative Judaism is still the anchor of American Jewish life.

In the parlance of The Three Bears, this brand of Judaism is not too hard, not too soft. Just right.

Readers of this blog will note that I have never written about the work that I do nor the clients whom I represent. But there is something up close and personal about my work with the Conservative rabbis, something real and authentic. Aspects of our lives have been shared and traded in hallways and on bus rides and field trips and late at night in hotel lobbies and around Shabbat and lunch and dinner tables. I've climbed pyramids with the rabbis and hotel staircases. We've shared wine and tequila and lots of coffee. I've marveled at the spirit of the Latin American rabbis who will sing Hebrew songs late into the night. Together, we endured good and bad press at these conventions. We've cleaned hurricane-whipped schools and visited political hot spots. Once, we almost got arrested at a protest. We've met dignitaries and important leaders. We've talked endlessly about the development of Magen Tzedek, our ethical kashrut seal. We praised new publications of the assembly. With these rabbis, I've talked about matters of the heart and soul: I've even cried with some of them. And on several occasions, I've danced joyously with the rabbis, most recently this past Sunday night when Neshama Carlebach performed with her band and the Green Pastures Baptist Choir in Feinberg Auditorium of the Jewish Theological Seminary where Big Babe had his Bar Mitzvah in 1997.

And when the rabbis grant a glimpse of what it means to be a spiritual leader in the 21st century, I am positively breathless...and not a little bit envious.

This is the eighth RA convention I have attended as a publicist. Every year, former classmates of my dad, who was ordained a Conservative rabbi in 1955, ask eagerly if my father is in attendance (he is usually not, having left the rabbinate and the movement when he became a clinical psychologist in 1977) spurring me to call him on the spot from my cell phone.

Invariably, I lose access to my phone for at least half an hour as my dad eagerly reconnects with a dear friend, reminding me that I am, and will always be, the daughter of a Conservative rabbi, a post-denominational, egalitarian Jew who nevertheless clings stubbornly to this first identity for it shaped me in innumerable ways, rooting me, enriching me, providing me with a portal into Jewish Peoplehood, a personal path, a vantage point from which to gaze at God.