My Rabbi Road Trip
March 9, 2016
Posted by: Ilana Kaufman, Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Director, East Bay
It was Rabbi Menachem Landa of Chabad Novato who modeled for me the value of going door-to-door to connect with our community.
When Rabbi Landa arrived with Chabad Novato co-founder Adina Landa in Northern California four years ago this March, he canvassed every corner of his region to reach out, listen, connect and engage. In talking-story with one of Rabbi Landa’s congregants, I learned that it was only because Rabbi Landa literally knocked on her door with a challah in hand that she not only re-engaged with Judaism, but learned that she has lovely Jewish neighbors right on the block where she’s lived for 20 years. When I asked this challah-loving Novato citizen what was most meaningful about Rabbi Landa’s outreach, she said, it was that “he reached out. Bothered to show up.” And showing up is something I can do.
I have been in my role as the JCRC Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Director for the East Bay for less than a year. I cover 1,623 square miles of territory in both Alameda and Contra Costa Counties serving about 110,000 Jews supported by seventeen Synagogues. In my role I am often a “first-responder,” working behind the scenes to support our community in the face of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel actions. It’s certainly one way to get to know our community. The interactions are often intense and also fleeting. While difficult circumstances can bring people together, they seldom create space for the quality of relationship- or connection-building that knit colleagues and community together. In the face of such dynamic and complex work, I wanted to be more tightly knitted with our community. So, while responding to community crises, mittendrinen, I decided to visit every synagogue in my portfolio.
In the last three months I’ve been to each and every shul in the East Bay. I’ve walked their campuses, spent time with their leadership teams – visionary Rabbis, strategic Executive Directors, deeply dedicated Board Chairs, and engaged JCRC-synagogue-member representatives. Our synagogues and their leaders are warm and welcoming. They are committed to Torah and Tikkun Olam. And they are deeply tuned to what the community around them is looking for in a synagogue, whether it is a preschool, a home for an interfaith couple, a space for serious Talmud study, or a secular social action committee. Between Contra Costa and Alameda Counties, our shuls have our community covered.
Some of the shuls are on vast campuses. There is one from the 1800’s that is just a single, tiny room. Many have pomegranate trees growing on their grounds, or stained glass windows depicting seasons and abundance and Biblical events. Some share space with our Muslim Brothers and Sisters or host community yoga programs. Some Rabbis have big ornate offices covered in books, gifts and certificates of accomplishment. Just one sits next to the shul front door, greeting each as she enters. All have some significant-to-them piece of art on a shelf or wall. I can’t forget the dynamic Torah study sketch from a Rabbi’s first post many, many years ago (before he had a beard). There is also the painting of Superman meditating in Lotus positon with his back to the viewer, his “S” placed to his left side. That piece made me breathe.
Every effort needs a name. A brand. And I called my effort to meet with each Rabbi and visit every Shul my “Rabbi Road Trip.” I knew I’d put on my car several hundred miles, in some way collect souvenirs – whether they were memories or material – and I know, most importantly, that I would build meaningful connections on behalf of JCRC.
While I accomplished the goal of accumulated miles, received a super-hot Shul T-Shirt coincidentally reflecting imagery of my name, and forged valuable professional relationships, I got more back than I anticipated. What I didn’t anticipate was the building of friendships, the nurturing of my spirit, and pure joy that comes from being in our spiritual and community homes. In fact, after many of my visits, when the formalities were over, Rabbis often turned to me and said, “Ilana, we appreciate you and JCRC. But also know, if you have a spiritual or rabbinic need, we are here for you.”
Going door-to-door was essential on my Rabbi Road Trip, but even more important was finding my neighbors meaningfully engaging with my Congregational communities and developing new professional, personal and spiritual connections right here on my community block.
Todah Rabah v’Shalom Rabbis, and Executive Directors and Lay Leaders: While I do know you appreciated my visits, to be honest the privilege was mine.
PHOTO: JCRC PACE Director Ilana Kaufman with fresh Etrog from Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek (taken by JCRC Public Policy and Community Building Director Jessica Trubowitch)