From NJ to TX: Why I’m Becoming an Interim Rabbi

I am moving from New Jersey to San Antonio in August to take an interim rabbinic position at Congregation Agudas Achim, the city’s sole Conservative synagogue.

Why? Because of a question that has always fascinated me: How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb?

I believe the most appropriate answer (not necessarily the correct one) is four … one to donate the light bulb … one to screw it in … one to proclaim that “the entire Jewish people stands behind this action” … one to decry this is bringing on the destruction of Judaism.

Anyone who has ever attended a congregational committee/board meeting knows that the multiplicity of opinions can overwhelm coherent thought, as each side attempts to “save the Jewish people.” Sometimes, this can lead to congregations entertaining or pursuing contradictory policies at the same time.

Several years ago, my community in New Jersey was confronted with a challenge: the growing Indian and Asian communities sought to have their holy days recognized as public school holidays. They cited Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Good Friday as precedent.

The Jewish community was divided. Some of us actively supported this recognition, while others worked against it, afraid the backlash would threaten “our” days on the school calendar. The result? Much ill will all around.

I grew up in two different environments … one where the Jewish community was a majority and one where it was a decided afterthought in communal consciousness. What was taken for granted in Monsey, New York (bagels, pastrami, Jewish holidays off from school and support for Israel) was not evident in Charlottesville, Virginia (no cream cheese, no bagels, no deli and schools wondering why Jews didn’t believe in Jesus).

This is all to say — from observation and experience — that different realities, different communities, and different priorities challenge the same values.

I firmly believe that vital lessons about Jewish community and continuity are being taught and practiced outside of what are considered the geographical centers of Jewish life and influence, and that nurturing and attention must be given.

San Antonio, where the Jewish community is 10,000 people, is a place where we can learn much about the strengths and durability of our people. It represents a near-perfect ecosystem in which to test and try new and replicable ideas for engagement, growth, outreach and meaningful Judaism.

Hillel and Shammai were two leaders of the Jewish community at the turn of the millennium. They lived in a time of Roman persecution, and each had the goal of safeguarding their Judaism.

Shammai did this by being exclusive. You could not convert while “standing on one foot.” Hillel became inclusive. “What is hateful to you do not do to others, all else is commentary. Go and learn.”

It’s easy to be exclusive when there are kosher restaurants and congregations aplenty. But I believe, like Hillel, that exclusivity breeds divisiveness. I believe that lessons of inclusion and the future of our liberal tradition is to be found in not the most obvious places.

I want to be in a place where it’s easier to be Jewish because it’s harder to be Jewish. I look forward to writing from there, and sharing the possibilities that I find and help create.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar is Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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