Leading U.S. Reform Rabbi Stuns Community by Quitting

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First on Rabbi Andy Bachman's agenda after leaving Beth Elohim in June 2015 will be writing a book on why being Jewish 'is one of the great privileges in life.'Credit: Len Small

BROOKLYN — His announcement stunned almost all who know Rabbi Andy Bachman. One of the best-known rabbis in America, the 51-year-old wrote on his personal blog this week that he is stepping down from his large Reform synagogue in the upscale Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope at the height of his career. He is turning outward, he wrote, to try to impact broader challenges, like poverty, which plague the most vulnerable New Yorkers.

Oft-quoted and a perennial presence on “top rabbis” lists at Newsweek and The Forward, in his eight years as senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim, Bachman has doubled its membership to over 1,000 families, staked out progressive but clear-cut positions on issues from Zionism to conversion to Judaism, and implemented a host of programs.

“CBE Feeds” was born out of the Hurricane Sandy crisis that decimated major New York City neighborhoods in 2012. A year and a half later it has involved 2,800 volunteers, some of whom still work out of the synagogue kitchen and provide hundreds of meals each week to hungry Brooklynites. “Israelis in Brooklyn” grew a small initiative into a major, multi-pronged program that brings many hundreds of Israelis into the life of the temple each month. Worship includes lively music-centered Reform services and a “traditional egalitarian” independent minyan that meets in the temple’s chapel most Shabbatot. Cultural events are frequent; “Brooklyn by the Book” talks have in the past several months attracted as many as 1,000 people to talks by Malcolm Gladwell, Ari Shavit, Donna Tartt and Paul Auster — though Bachman eagerly points out that 1,200 people also came to the megillah reading on Purim.

He has re-imagined what a Jewish community can look like in 2014, and made Beth Elohim its hub in what amounts to a living rebuke to the Pew and other studies that show waning attachment to Jewish engagement.

“He took a congregation everybody thought was dying and really turned it around, proving that at a time when people think the millennial generation is utterly uninterested in synagogues that it isn’t exactly right if you shape one that excites them,” said Jonathan Sarna, a widely-respected historian and the Joseph Engel visiting professor of Jewish studies at Harvard.

Financial problems have become a challenge for Beth Elohim, as they have at many synagogues. The Park Slope temple recently cut multiple programming positions from its staff - announced in a letter from board president Chuck Nathan to the synagogue community on March 14 - and departments are being told to trim their budgets for the next fiscal year. It has suspended CBE Feeds this week, though Nathan told Haaretz he is hopeful that grant applications for the program will be approved shortly, and the food project restored.

When asked directly if the cuts played any role in his decision to leave, Bachman said they did not. To the contrary, Bachman said, he is staying longer than he might otherwise have in order to help get the congregation on firmer financial footing.

In his open letter announcing his plans for when his temple contract ends in June 2015, Bachman wrote: “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 ... At age 51 and after nearly 25 years of work in the broader Jewish community, I am eager to pursue other areas of interest and public service in New York City.”

Walking home from the temple late Wednesday night after teaching a Basics of Judaism class on death and dying to about 30 people (several of whom are on the path to conversion), Bachman spoke with Haaretz about why he made the decision.

His three daughters, aged 11 to 16, have been asking, “ ‘is this what a mid-life crisis looks like, dad?’ ” he said, but “that’s not what this feels like.”

The evidence does point in that direction, though. “There was,” he acknowledges, “no reason to leave the job whatsoever. There was stability and continued growth. I could do this for the rest of my life.”

Confronting mortality, as he ushered his mother through her last several months of life, as he saw the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy shortly after his mother died, and as he ministered to congregants burying loved ones or facing the end of their own lives, and also as they welcomed new babies and spoke of the people after whom they are being named, has been sobering, Bachman said.

“Facing over and over again those essential life questions I found myself thinking ‘there are these other choices I still want to make.’ The personal question was ‘When I get to the end what didn’t I let myself do?’”

He also wants to spend more time with his family. His wife, Rachel Altstein, left practicing law as a public defender to work with Brooklyn Jews, a group for 20-somethings who felt on the margins of Jewish life. Bachman integrated Brooklyn Jews into Beth Elohim when he became its senior rabbi in 2006. Alstein now works as a psychoanalyst.

Though Bachman is fervently loyal to the Wisconsin sports teams he grew up loving in Milwaukee, they won’t be leaving New York, he said. “Yehuda Halevy wrote ‘libi b’mizrach’ [My heart is in the East, or Jerusalem]. It’s good to yearn for Jerusalem but this is our home.”

Being the focus of scrutiny as a high-profile pulpit rabbi has been challenging, Bachman said. “I want to be a Jew at home and in my community, but take a step back from living as an exemplar of how one ought to be. I’m interested in exploring that, to put it diplomatically. [It] is an intensely public choice that is an enormous privilege, which can be burdensome.”

Bachman is unusual in his ability to transcend denomination and connect the Jewish community with the larger world, said Rabbi David Ellenson, who retired in January as president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “Judaism has always spoken in universal and particular terms, and one of Andy’s great gifts has been his ability to speak to both of these poles in our tradition. Our community will have lost a significant leader who demonstrates how it is possible to do both of these things.”

What’s more, “when people are increasingly concerned with commitment to values, he not only embodies them himself but has been able to make them live in an institutional setting. That is a truly rare quality,” Ellenson said.

First on his agenda when he leaves Beth Elohim in June 2015 will be writing a book on why being Jewish “is one of the great privileges in life.” Beyond that, Bachman said, he has had no job offers and nothing specific in mind yet. “I want to be able to make a broader difference. I don’t know what that is, but it will be through service and policy. I’m confident that I’ll find really meaningful and satisfying work.”

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