5/26/2011

Balancing Imperatives: A Response to Rabbi Shmuly

After I completed my studies for rabbinic ordination in 2002, my wife and I decided to move back to the United States - temporarily - to teach Torah. Before leaving, we met and spoke with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. Among the issues we discussed was whether we would have an imperative to stay in a community if it grew to depend on us. He responded with the story of a relative of his who was a shochet, a ritual slaughterer, in Alabama. At some point this man decided that it would be better for the family to move to a larger community. A member of the local community approached him and said, "if you leave, everybody here will start eating treif." R. Lichtenstein continued, "but he had to make the decision that was right for his family. And indeed, kosher food was no longer available in that city."
My own grandparents faced a similar dilemma. In the late 1940s, my grandfather was hired to officiate (lead services, read the Torah, and deliver sermons) High Holiday services at a synagogue in a small town in Ohio. The one-off gig turned out to be a probeh, an audition, and he was offered the job of full-time rabbi. Although he was inclined to accept, my grandmother insisted that she would not move her family to a city with no decent Jewish education. And so they remained in Baltimore.
These stories were definitely part of the calculus that motivated us to return to Israel after 4 solid years teaching in the US. The decision greatly impacted my professional trajectory and ultimately led me to leave the fields of education and rabbinics. Our move was motivated by lots of factors, not least of which was that we did not want our children to grow up with Israel as a foreign country. I will always be an immigrant or alien here. I wanted that experience to end with me.
But during those 4 years, perhaps because we knew that we would only be in the States for a handful of years, we were able to do things that perhaps we otherwise would not have considered. For two years we lived in College Park, MD - something we never would have considered had we been looking for a place to settle. Living on campus while serving the campus community made all the difference, as the campus became our home and not merely our place of work.
Before moving to Maryland, we lived for two years in Dallas, Texas, where we were also willing to explore untested corners of Jewish education there. On one occasion, we spent a Shabbat at the University of Texas in Austin (hook 'em Horns). In many ways, that experience fueled our desire to accept campus rabbinic positions when the opportunity arose.

That Shabbat, we met a student, a senior named Shawn, who had become observant the previous year. I remember being struck by the fact that his trajectory of increased observance did not result in alienation from his peers. Though there were not many role models in Austin, he had somehow managed to keep his balance while undergoing massive lifestyle changes.
Today I have several things to say to Shawn.
The first is: Mazal Tov on your wedding. Tizku livnot bayit ne'eman Be-Yisra'el.
The second is: Keep making great use of your youth and energy! Continue to be a globetrotting warrior against poverty, injustice, and oppression wherever it may be found!
The third and final is: You are now part of a unit that is larger than yourself - a unit that will hopefully continue to grow. This will help you realize that your decisions affect those around you, and that self-fulfillment is not the only variable feeding those decisions. You are not the first and will not be the last to have to chart a course between choosing what is best for the Jewish people, or even the world, and the needs of those nearest and dearest to you (I recommend this post by R. Michael Broyde, which appeared the same day as your article). Be assured that it is not a zero-sum game, though. You will find that balance, just as you managed to keep your balance as a newly observant student at UT. You will meet the needs of your family even at the ends of the earth, if that is the route you choose. And, believe it or not, even if you wind up here in the Jewish state, you will find ample opportunity for development in conjunction with a diverse array of neighboring societies; to play a leading role in fighting injustice, alleviating poverty, advocating for Israel and Jewish interests, and learning from people of other faiths; and to actualize all of the values of our Jewish tradition.
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