Arizona: I Met You On Sinai (And The Yellow Pages) – Trascript

This is the episode transcript. You can listen to the episode here.

(Justin Regan) Welcome to The American Rabbi Project. A podcast about American Judaism, from the perspectives of rabbis across the country. My name is Justin Regan and a few months ago I did something pretty crazy. I left my job as a public radio reporter in Arizona to go for a road trip around the United States. In the end, I traveled more than 14,000 miles, visited most of the iconic places you see in any America montage, reconnected with friends and family and seriously had an adventure. But road trips are more than just an opportunity to see the country and spike your cholesterol levels. It’s a time to learn something. And for me, the focus of my trip was on learning more about something very close to me. Judaism.

I’m from a secular interfaith family and grew more into my Jewishness in my teen years and college. And at times I can struggle with my identity. A Jewish tradition. Jews these days, we seem to be in an interesting place. In America, we are enjoying a certain level of security and acceptance that we’ve almost never had before. It appears to go against the grain of a traditional mantra that Jews are constantly on the move due to discrimination and genocide. And older generations are quick to talk about how other countries were similar to this until it all went south. And in a terrifying way, it seems like that might be coming true. Their has been a greatly recorded increase in anti-Semitic activity the last few years. Swastikas tagged on Jewish spaces, cemeteries getting vandalized. Nazis marching through the streets of Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us”. Louis Farrakhan calling Jews “Satanic”. And 11 worshipers massacred at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Hence why every Jew seems to come with their own sword of Damocles above their head. But is America different? 

At least on paper, this country is a multi-cultural democracy. Something that’s never really been done before. There’s no state religion, or class system and there is equal protection of people’s rights. Again, can’t stress this enough, at least on paper. So that triggers the identity struggle. Are you more Jewish or more American? Is there a balance? Does it even matter? That phantom spectrum seems to wiggle its way into many a conversation. Does the freedom of the U.S. move us away from our Judaism? Or is it simply evolving instead of dissolving? There are discussions over inter-faith marriage, observing Shabbat, and the sexiest of topics, Israel. 

And that’s what I was mulling over on my travels. And why I decided to talk to at least one rabbi in every state about their thoughts on American Judaism, the positives, the challenges and the personal stories behind it. We tend to not have priests in modern Judaism. Rabbis instead are teachers. Which makes them great subjects to interview as they always have lessons to give about the complex animal of American Jewry. I’d never go so far as to say any question is ever truly answered,(I’m not that full of myself), but hopefully, it can be a little better understood. And hopefully, you’ll join me for this. 

Episode one. Arizona. I met you on Sinai… and the yellow pages. 

(Regan) This project starts where I left. Flagstaff, Arizona. I spent the last 8 years of my life there. I came for college then stayed for work. It’s a small mountain university town. And politically speaking it’s usual blue dot in a now more purple ocean. Complete with an historic downtown, urban trails, beer and bikes, pines and peaks and growing pains spurred on by a University that packs in freshmen every year. I like to joke that everyone has been through Flagstaff. I-40, Highway 89 and iconic Route 66 run through it. Go one direction and you get to L.A. The other you’re in Albuquerque, or Phoenix or Salt Lake City or the Grand Canyon. It’s a southwestern crossroads town between major Jewish areas. So from a Jewish standpoint, you might not think it has a lot. There are no Jewish day schools, Hillel lacks a strong presence on campus and you can’t even find a good reuben sandwich, believe me, I spent eight years searching. But there is a vibrant community. And that’s thanks in part to Rabbi Dovie Shapiro. 

(Rabbi Dovie Shapiro)  Hi, it’s Rabbi Dovie Shapiro here in Flagstaff, Arizona. I would define my job as being the one responsible for taking care of the Jewish community of Flagstaff as a whole and each individual and bringing our Jewish community to greater heights.

(Regan) Shapiro fits the bill of a traditional-looking Rabbi. Long beard, black hat and a lot of energy which could be generated from either youthful vigor or spiritual content. In another traditional style his oldest kid was recently bar mitzvah’ed and his youngest was circumcised the next day. So he seems a bit “old school” Jewish in a town that is anything but. The synagogue is a modified storefront, that most people drive to. It can be hard to have complete services every week because in Judaism that requires at least ten adults. And for traditional rabbis like Shapiro, that means ten males. Many congregants have beards, but for Flagstaff reasons not religious ones. 

(Shapiro) Really I think the biggest challenge is Jewish people moving to Flagstaff are not moving here for Jewish life in the community. They moved here for a job, or because they love Flagstaff. They specifically don’t mind not being in large Jewish communities. And many of the Jewish people did not know each other before we moved here.

(Regan) But Shapiro and his wife, Chaya, did move here for Jewish reasons. They are part of an organization called Chabad. An Orthodox group that works to grow people in their Judaism. Back in the 1940’s, then Chabad leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, or “The Rebbe” as Chabad calls him, moved to the United States and started sending rabbis and their wives as emissaries, to all sorts of places with the intention of building Jewish communities. It was the situation the Shapiros were in 12 years ago.

(Shapiro) After coming to Flagstaff, and seeing this beautiful city in the mountains and nestled in the pines, it being a community and also a college campus. Being a place for second home owners wanting to get out of the heat of Phoenix, and also the visitors from all over the world coming to the Grand Canyon. We really felt this was a beautiful place.

(Regan) The foundation of the Flagstaff Jewish community was started back in the 60’s when several families, led by Dr. Merrill and Rhoda Abeshaus, formed the lay-lead congregation Heichal Ba’Oranim or Temple in the Pines. It has since gotten its own rabbi and renamed Lev Shalom. The town became a focal point for Northern Arizona Jewery. People would come from nearby towns and some even hiked out of the Grand Canyon to go to high holiday services in someone’s living room. Shapiro built upon that when he arrived. He knows in small towns sometimes you have to bring the synagogue to the Jew. So he’s always got his ears perked for Jewish sounding last names like Katz, or Goldberg or…Regan…

(Shapiro) And a lot of it was going through the phonebooks, or one person telling us ‘I have a friend who is Jewish’ or meeting someone in the grocery store. We’re driving down the street and seeing a jewish name and going into the business and saying ‘oh, I’m a rabbi in town. Are you jewish? I’d love to connect.’ It’s nice how those chance encounters which I think are divine providence really, how a community can be built in that way just reaching out and connecting the dots of the Jewish community.

(Regan) After 12 years of flipping through phone books, and bumping into other members of the tribe at stores, the community is growing. Dozens of students attend weekly shabbat dinners at the Shapiro’s house. Again, some services can be small, but events and holidays draw large crowds. A second Chabad couple are now on the payroll. And possibly biggest of all is that work is under way on a six and a half million dollar Jewish Community Center funded in part by the Molly Blank Fund. Shapiro says finding this success in a small mountain town is all about approaching things from a different angle. 

(Shapiro) I think a lot of larger communities take things for granted that everyone knows where we are in the prayer book. And you assume everyone knows why we do things and why we are doing these prayers at this certain time. I think one of the things we did from early on was not to take anything for granted. And to explain everything in a meaningful way.

(Regan) But there have been challenges along the way. Most of all, the obvious, funding. It can be hard to get donations in a rural Arizona town. His family has missed bill payments and taken out loans in the past. Things have stabilized now, but it was hairy at times. But it reminds Shapiro of a lesson he took away from a book on billionaire Elon Musk.

(Shapiro) There’s certain points in life where you almost have to get to the point where you can even lose everything but you’re so dedicated to what you’re doing that somehow it all comes together. I believe it is with Hashem’s blessing when we do things that we believe in for the good of the world, I do believe at the end it all works out. 

(Regan) In many ways Shapiro considers this a success story, albeit one that is still being written. He and his young family landed in a small mountain town 12 years ago with a minimal Jewish presence. They worked hard and struggled financially. Now they have a vibrant community, with a new synagogue on the way and more programing then ever. Not to mention many stories of college kids, and even some seasoned adults, who grew more in their Judaism thanks in part to the community they expanded. For Shapiro, this is the American Dream. 

(Shapiro) America is a place where you can make things happen. In a different way then in other countries where it’s so much more difficult. And you can think big and you can dream big. And that’s what I think it represents being a Rabbi in America. You have that opportunity to dream in ways that even earlier Jewish communities didn’t have that opportunity. And we should just ask Hashem that we should always have this freedom.

(Regan) Now, this was one of several interviews done before Pittsburgh happened, and later episodes will go into that more. But the apparent increase in anti-Semitic activity was known by many Jews well before this tragedy. The Anti-Defamation League cites a 57% increase in reported anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. The FBI says reported incidents were in decline through most of the new century, until it started rising again in 2016.

(Shapiro) It’s hurtful, it’s surprising, you think the world has come so far from anti-Semitism. But it does remind you unfortunately it’s there. It’s like a disease, just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s there. It’s unfortunate, it’s a lack of education. It’s sad.

(Regan) For Shaprio, it’s about staying positive. He’s personally never had a hateful experience in Flagstaff even though he looks “Jewish” 24/7. He also says he’s spent a lot of time in Europe and it doesn’t compare. 

(Shapiro) There was never a sense like I feel in America where we have our justice system and the protection that there is in the sense of the protection of everyone’s rights. You somehow don’t feel as much in Europe. Even walking down the streets in Europe sometimes you would get faces, someone would even spit at you. You don’t see that in America, you don’t feel that in America. And though it may be there somewhere underlying in some groups of society, I really do believe this country is a gift that we have and we should feel grateful that we have it and we can feel safe over here.

(Regan) Yet Shapiro also shares a concern heard in a lot of Jewish circles. The idea that a lack of hostility towards Jews is freeing people up to move away from their Judaism. To assimilate into a more secular life. This concern is backed by data from the Pew Research Center which shows an increase in American Jews who say they are not religious. It’s especially the case among younger generations. 

(Shapiro) I think it’s a double edged sword where it’s a blessing but on the other side it could be a curse. Money is a blessing but it can also be used in evil ways, anything powerful. And I think the freedom, the power of freedom, the gift of freedom could be used in a beautiful way but it can also be taken for granted and you can also lose that sense of Judaism.

(Regan) But here’s a catch. That same study also shows the vast majority of Jews, including more than 80% of non-religious Jews, are proud to be Jewish. That plays well with Shapiro’s strategy of preservation through positivity. 

(Shapiro) That’s why counteracting the freedom with this beautiful sense of pride, which is a powerful part of what the Rebbe taught. Is being proud of your Judaism, not in a condescending way, but having public menorah lightings on Chanukah, and doing events in city hall. We’re just proud of it and we want to share it with others in a positive way and we welcome everyone, and we don’t judge anyone and we don’t proselytize. But we’re proud of our judaism and we’re proud of what Judaism has brought to the world.

(Regan) Because for many, Judaism is more than a religion, but also an identity. But that’s where the spectrum comes back into play. How does living in America change that identity? Are you more American or more Jewish? For Shapiro, the point’s kinda moot. Because he says Judaism is something that transcends this dynamic. 

(Shapiro) As Americans we are extremely patriotic, and we love our country and we are so blessed to be in this country. But at the same time, a Jew is who we are at the core. If we lived in another country we’d still be Jewish. Our Judaism is our inner identity, your nationality is just an identity that you take on. Being a Jew it’s not even about being more important than the other it’s just an identity of who you are.

(Regan) So this also leads to the other big question of how Jewish are you? What traditions and practices do you follow, and which do you not? Everyone has their own mix. This brings about different denominations, which we’ll touch on more in a later episode. Shapiro, is very traditional. He eats kosher with no exceptions. On Shabbat, he doesn’t drive, use electricity and a lot of other things. He doesn’t touch a woman he’s not related to, and his services have men and women seated on different sides of the room. However, in other ways, his family has to make concessions. The Jewish day schools and kosher restaurants of Phoenix are two hours away. So it’s a drive to get to any serious Jewish infrastructure. The Shapiros make up for this by homeschooling their kids in an online Jewish school.

(Shapiro) So if we just let them assimilate there wouldn’t be a future Judaism or it would be much harder for them. But we want them to be proud of their Judaism. We want them to live as a Jew and they’ll continue that to the next generation. But yet we’re doing that here in Flagstaff at the same time not insulted at all and being totally welcoming to the community and opening our homes and having a synagogue which is open to everyone.  

(Regan) He says that unity is important for growth, especially in small towns. Which is why he keeps politics out of his sermons. 

(Shapiro) So to talk politics in the Synagogue today is saying it’s more important to talk these issues over the people. That the issues are more important than the people. And we find going back to Moses there were times Moses broke the tablets, it says he broke the tablets to save the Jewish people. It’s a very powerful lesson that the people are more important than the ideas. The people are even more important than the mitzvah. If someone breaks a mitzvah do you break your connection to them? No. G-d forbid. You still love them. That means the person is higher than those values. And that’s the highest value, your love for another person. Some of the worse things that have happened to the Jewish people in history has happened when the Jewish people were divided. Now imagine you divide the Jewish community by Democrats and Republicans you are polarizing a community and that causes extreme divisiveness. And it says in a place of divisiveness Hashem doesn’t rest. 

(Regan) Then I asked him if he’s ever been tempted to talk politics.

(Shaprio) Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely, and I know many Rabbis who were tempted and some who even did it and regretted it later. it wasn’t worth it.

(Regan) And now, the only topic more fun than politics, interfaith marriage. Pew says more than half of American Jews who got married since 2000 wedded outside of the religion. That’s more than a three-fold increase in the last 50 years. With the numbers the way they are, Shapiro says it can’t be ignored.

(Shapiro) The Torah does teach us how to live our lives and teaches us the most meaningful things. And one of the teachings in Judaism is about a jew marrying a jew. And there’s something very special about it that can’t even be explained. It’s just, there are many things in the Torah that Hashem explained to us and we may not understand it but there’s blessings in it and certain benefits. With that said, I don’t want to take away from someone who’s had another experience. We’ve had many people come to Chabad that they themselves are married to someone who isn’t Jewish, and that doesn’t take away whatsoever from them being Jewish, or their connection to Judaism or how welcoming we are to them. This is where we are right now. Life in America. Intermarriage rates  are extremely high. And our jobs is not to sit and focus on the negative or on the way it should be. Our job is to give meaningful Jewish experiences. And not just to the Jewish spouse but to the spouse that is not Jewish, that they’re welcome, they can come and they are apart of the community just like anyone else. But if someone were to ask me my opinion, I truly feel, if Hashem has given us a mitzvah, the mitzvah is there for a reason and it brings many blessings  that come with it. Those are my thoughts. 

(Regan) It’s an interesting facet of small-town Judaism. Shapiro is a very traditional Rabbi, serving a congregation that transcends denominations, observance and even beliefs on what practices are acceptable and what aren’t. He says it’s about looking past that towards the mantra that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. 

(Shapiro) And i think that’s a powerful message, especially today when we live in a world that is so divided. The way we see every single Jew is it doesn’t matter what they do or how much they know, if they’re loved by G-d right now, I have to love them, there’s no difference.

(Regan) Chabad is in a lot of ways an inherently American organization. Though it started in the “old country”, Rabbi Schneerson came to the United States to start a mission with the philosophy of Jewish pride. Regardless of where they are in the world. Even a small place like Flagstaff, Arizona. Shapiro says with Jews today, it doesn’t actually matter what level of observance they are, as long as they are growing.

(Shapiro) Our actions have tremendous impact. One Mitzvah, where you put on Tefillin or you light shabbat candles  or you give charity or you show up to the Synagogue on Yom Kippur or on shabbat, having a shabbat meal. Any mitzvah that we do or for another person. We don’t realize the impact it has on the world. And Maimonides wrote, every person should view the whole world like it’s on a scale and one mitzvah can be the tipping scale that brings Moshiach. That one mitzvah you do can be the tipping scale to change the world for the better.

(Regan) Rabbi Dovie Shapiro helped me grow in my Judaism and light that spark to explore it further. So I guess you can say he either gets a good amount of credit or blame for this project, depending on your preference. Like every Jew who’s ever existed, he’s got a lot of strong opinions about a lot of things. And some stuff I agree with, and others I don’t. And that’s probably how you’re feeling right now to. And that’s what this project is. Every episode you’ll hear a different take on these topics from a rabbi with a different background and outlook. Everyone has something unique to say, because there’s nothing more Jewish then that.

(Regan) The American Rabbi Project Episode 1-Arizona I Met You on Sinai (and the Yellow Pages…) was written and produced by me, Justin Regan. As of now, I’m the only person fully working on this project. Which leads to some pretty tense staff meetings. But there are some people I want to thank for either assisting me on the podcast, the trip or both. Thank you to Jeremy Krones, Sarit Rathbone, Beth Vander Stoep, Derek Povah and Dylan Abrams for the assistance. Thank you to my parents for script reading and breaking with all Jewish and Catholic stereotypes by supporting my decision to leave my University Job, with benefits, to travel and produce a podcast that I voice in their bedroom closet. If you want to get in touch with me, I have an email address. Feel free to send any questions, comments or concerns to Rabbi has two b’s in it. As for social media… more next time. 

And Until next time. Shalom and safe driving. 

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