Colorado: Tradition and Change (With Altitude) – Transcript

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

All of the rabbis interviewed in this project, unless otherwise stated, speak only for themselves. Their opinions are their own and do not specifically reflect that of their denominations or congregations. 

(Regan) Welcome to American Rabbi Project. The Podcast about American Judaism from the perspective of rabbis across the country. I’m Justin Regan.

(Regan) In the last episode I interviewed Rabbi Dovie Shapiro in Flagstaff, Arizona, a few days before I started my around-the-country road trip. And when I left, it was also the last time I would live in Flagstaff. Which is why I thought it was weird that I never seemed to have THAT moment where it hit me that I was leaving. Now, it could have been I didn’t have time to feel anything other than the frustration of taking literally until the hour of my departure to pack, purge, preserve and pass off all the stuff I had accumulated over the years. But then again, maybe it was a little more than that. Because I was given another opportunity to have a moment of closure when I left Arizona by going through the four corners. You cross many borders while on a road trip, geographical, geological, geopolitical and mental. However you rarely get a chance to be dramatic about it. Usually when I crossed something significant I was in a car, going 70 miles per hour, with a sore back, slightly over caffeinated and listening to a never ending audio book on President Truman. But at the four corners, things were different. I had the opportunity to walk out of Arizona for the last time. And I didn’t realize it until it was too late. But a friend who hosted me the first couple of nights brought up an interesting idea. She said I didn’t overlook these moments, I just didn’t need them. Sometimes, people move on from places. And it’s not an indictment on any person place or thing or even yourself. It’s just sometimes, we need a change.

Episode 2-Colorado- Tradition and Change… With Altitude 

(Regan) Now, I know what some of you are thinking. And to that, I say if I had named this episode “Rocky Mountain Chai” I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.

(Regan) Besides, Denver’s great, but it’s more of a tall plateau than a mountain city. Although I did spend a few nights at Rocky Mountain National Park. I saw many things that took my breath away. And even more tourists who got too close to the animals they were filming. Anyway, on my 2nd morning in the front range, I rolled out of my tent, showered at a nearby camp and drove straight to Denver to talk to Rabbi Salomon Gruenwald at the Hebrew Educational Alliance.

(Gruenwald) I’m Rabbi Salomon Gruenwald. I am a Rabbi in Denver Colorado in Congregation HEA. I’m also the President of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council.

(Regan) Gruenwald’s parents immigrated from South America and gave him a strong Jewish education growing up. However, it wasn’t always a given he’d become a rabbi.

(Gruenwald) I initially started in Academia. I was getting a PHD in anthropology studying religion and ritual and how ritual is a vehicle for telling narratives. And it occurred to me at some point along other things I wasn’t satisfied being an outside observer. That I cared about Judaism. And I cared to be on the inside not an anthropologist looking at it from the outside in an objective way but as a participant.

(Regan) Gruenwald and his wife are like many Denverites. They’re originally from coastal states and are part of a recent migration influx to mountain western towns. That wave is bringing gentiles and Jews alike. 

(Gruenwald) And then you have people who have been here since the 1880’s. And they’re very fascinating. Families that are very proud of the Denver Jewish history and go back to the gold rush and some of the industries that grew up around that. There’s another group that migrated here because of tuberculosis actually. Denver has a fascinating history of tuberculosis hospitals including Jewish hospitals. National Jewish Hospital started as a tuberculosis hospital. and still remains one of the leading pulmonary hospitals in the country. Jews came here thinking the dry air of the mountains would help them with their tuberculosis and stayed here. 

(Regan) Historically, the Jews of Denver were concentrated on the Westside of town. As anti-Semitism decreased and incomes increased they started spreading out. And HEA followed. The schul moved to Southeast Denver 25 years ago. And following another change of the times, the synagogue switched denominations. 

(Gruenwald) The original synagogue was a little bit on an anomaly. It was by today’s standards a very liberal Orthodox synagogue with mixed seating. I think it had more to do with Orthodoxy moving further to the right and leaving behind some of the more liberal Orthodox congregations. The congregants were not as orthodox as such. and so Conservative Judaism was a good compromise for them.

(Regan) Now there are a lot of denominations of Judaism out there. And I’ll talk more about each as they come up in the project. For now, I’ll quickly summarize the “main three”. There is Orthodox, with a strict adherence to traditions and practices. The words of Torah are seen as the words of G-d and must be followed exactly. Some criticize the movement for its strict gender roles. For example, women are not allowed to be rabbis or read from the Torah at services. Many orthodox places don’t let men and women sit together at synagogue or even dance together at events. There is Reform Judaism. They tend to see the Torah more as a guiding force for living a good life as opposed to, no pun intended, set in stone commandments. And they are fully egalitarian. And there’s Conservative Judaism. That doesn’t mean politically conservative, instead it refers to the drive to conserve the traditions while allowing adaption to the modern world. Hence why they see Torah as absolute, but are also egalitarian and will put modern spins on old traditions. And that’s something that appeals to Gruenwald who himself was raised Reform. 

(Gruenwald) As I grew up in College I started to explore my Judaism more as my own and started taking on more study. I liked the intellectual rigor of Conservative Judaism. The attention to  scholarship and biblical criticism as well as a fidelity to tradition and traditional practice.

(Regan) While modern sects of Judaism have roots in the enlightenment in Europe, the Conservative movement really grew into its own in the interwar period in the U.S. Many Jews left the crowded cities and were no longer in walking distance to the Orthodox synagogues. In the Conservative movement, a more lenient interpretation meant they could, if necessary, drive to schul on Shabbat. America made the denomination more relevant. But now, it’s in a decline. According to the Jewish Federations of North America and Pew Research, the number of American Jewish households that identify as Conservative has been cut in half from about 40% in 1990 to less than 20% in 2013. It’s still the second biggest denomination in the U.S. But while they trend down, Orthodox and Reform are growing. 

(Gruenwald) Conservative Judaism is a big tent which I think is a strength. But the paradox of that is we often look like the mushy middle. On the one hand the Orthodox has the clarity of fervor and commitment to traditional practice, the Reform movement has been welcoming to interfaith families in a way that Conservative Judaism has struggled with. 

(Regan) It’s a key issue that some claim is hurting the movement. With each generation, interfaith marriage is more common for Jews in the U.S. and it can turn Conservative Jews with a gentile spouse towards Reform, or out of the faith all together. And as a GenXer, Gruenwald finds himself wedged between the much written of ideological divide of Baby Boomers and Millennials and their thoughts on marriage.   

(Gruenwald) Their choice to fall in love with somebody who’s not Jewish is not an outcome of our failure as a community it’s not an outcome of your failure as a parent. A lot of times these kids were raised in a synagogue, they went to religious school, they had Bar and Batmitzvahs, they went to Israel. They did all the things the Jewish community said would help strengthen their community and make them more likely to marry somebody Jewish. What I often say to baby boomers is that’s not a failure of our community, it’s actually the outcome of our success  as a community. We worked really hard to integrate into this country. We fought for equality in this country. We fought for access to professions and universities. Our children are very comfortable as Americans. They go to colleges and don’t experience anti-Semitism on a daily basis. They feel very comfortable in multi-cultural settings.

(Regan) Now, Gruenwald still believes Jews marrying Jews makes for stronger families and he says that their are struggles to inter-religious unions. But he also thinks it’s important to acknowledge the situation for what it is.

(Gruenwald) We’re less than 2% of the population. We spread out across the rest of the country it’s not surprising that Jews are going to fall in love with non-Jews and non-Jews will fall in love with Jews. What’s hard for people to understand is their choice to fall in love with somebody who’s not Jewish, for many many people there’s no contradiction to that and their Jewish identity. I hear it all the time. It’s an opportunity for us to share Judaism with others.

(Regan) But as newer generations open up to inter-faith marriages more, there are older customs that can make things complicated. This includes the debate over matrilineal and patrilineal descent. Traditionally, a Jew’s heritage is determined by their mother’s lineage. If your mom’s Jewish, it doesn’t matter how much pork you eat or how Irish your last name sounds, you’re in the tribe. But if you only have a Jewish father, no matter how observant you are, many Jews will say you’re not Jewish. Reform is the only “main three” denomination to accept patrilineal, and even that comes with more standards. It’s a situation where an interfaith couple or interfaith kid might seem “more legitimate” if the mom is the Jewish one. Gruenwald sides with the Conservative movement in saying it’s important to maintain matrilineal descent. But he wants to make it easy for patrilineal Jews to join. 

(Gruenwald) It’s kind of like somebody who learns how to drive a car. But for whatever reason nobody told them they needed a driver’s license to drive a car. And they get pulled over one day. And a police officer says ‘Show me your driver’s license’ ‘I don’t have a driver’s license but I’m a very good driver.’ Sometimes you need that driver’s license to make it official. My preference is for folks who are patrilineal is we make it as easy for them as possible to affirm their identity as Jews through the rituals that are used for conversion.  and that can be done very easily, that can be done for children and families that are committed to having a Jewish family. And i try to reframe it not so much as conversion, but as an affirmation of their identity that they are committed to.

(Regan) Again, a lot of things seem to be in flux these days. But Gruenwald isn’t too concerned. He says despite what some might think, Conservative Judaism is flexible enough to handle the changing times. 

(Gruenwald) When you have a commitment to tradition and are finding ways to make Judaism accessible to Jews within that framework I think it forces you to be creative. And create new expressions of Judaism that balance traditional practice with new sensibilities, new ideas. I’m not terribly worried, denominationalism in general I think we all find our place and those lines are getting more blurry which I think troubles some people but doesn’t bother me very much.

(Regan) Blurry lines seem to be a tradition of Judaism in the United States. And every generation blurs them more, between denominations, or observance or even between Jewishness and Americaness. Bringing on the classic question of are you “more Jewish” or “more American”. ‘Where do your loyalties lie?’ But for Gruenwald, it’s actually a non-issue.   

(Gruenwald) I think in some ways it’s a false narrative. I reject the premise of that. America is a multi-cultural society. One of our strengths is our diversity and our ability to express their distinctiveness within the plurality of America. ‘E Pluribus Unum. From the many one’. That’s America. So there’s no contradiction in being proud of your Judaism, proud of your ethnicity and expressing it in a public way and being fully American. To my mind there’s no tension to this. 

(Regan) Gruenwald goes even further saying in this country, Jews should do more than just express their Jewishness. But to further weave it into the greater fabric of American society. 

(Gruenwald) I think we reached a point where Judaism and being Jewish needs to be part of the public discourse in a greater way. Ironically even though we have this robust freedom of religion in this country, we are also really religious people. Americans in general, religion is part of our debates in national politics, social issues. Christians of all different sorts, Muslims and others express their values through religious idiom. And we as Jews, we do this and I think we need to do it more. Expressing our Americanness through a Jewish idiom.

(Regan) He says for Jews to add to the public sphere they should look towards their traditions and teachings. 

(Gruenwald) Judaism has this really neat concept at it’s core called Shabbat. And you’re hearing more and more non-Jewish people sort of setting aside the noise and clammer of modern life in some regular way. Either observing a day of rest. But it’s interesting to me that this idea of Shabbat comes as an antidote to some of the challenges of living in the modern world. I think that’s something we have to offer to our fellow Americans and the idea of being Jewish can be part of that public discourse. 

(Regan) So I asked Gruenwald, as a rabbi, what does he think his role is in this public conversation?

(Gruenwald) I haven’t figured out what it is yet. I’ve spent a lot of time working within my synagogue. Serving mostly Jews. More recently though I’ve gotten involved in activism. Especially issues surrounding immigration. I think it’s important that we as Jews especially given our immigrant history that we stand up for the rights of immigrants as our tradition teaches us. To care for the vulnerable in our society for the widow and the stranger and we can’t forget where we came from.

(Regan) For Gruenwald, talking politics in the synagogue is a delicate balance. He says too much can be toxic. But as a rabbi, he believes these discussions are important for his task of cultivating souls.

(Gruenwald) One person’s politics is another person’s pressing moral issue. I try to focus on underlying values. I try not to bludgeon people with my politics. But I try to speak my mind sometimes about current event. I try to focus on the core values. Things like the dignity of all people. The quality of all people being created in the image of G-d. That’s something as Jews we should all be able to agree on. But Judaism has to speak to the present moment. Has to speak the values we’ve inherited.  

(Regan) And that also comes into play when hatred is pointed towards Jews.

(Gruenwald)Anti-Semitism like other forms of bigotry, they emerge in times of instability and social disruption. So it’ll always be there. And it’ll always come back when people are looking for scapegoats they’ll turn to Jews and immigrants and minorities of all sorts.

(Regan) It’s a formula that has plagued many groups, Jews included, for centuries. And it taps into an old Jewish concern that countries are welcoming at first but get hostile over time. Gruenwald hopes the U.S. is different and says it should remain safe as long as people support religious freedom and equality.  

(Gruenwald) Where I get worried is when people in power express anti-Semitic and other bigoted ideologies. That’s where I believe we are not different. And what we’ve seen in the last couple of years is we are just as vulnerable as any country. And that democracy in the United States is just as vulnerable as it is right now in Europe and in the rest of the world. So we have to stay active politically and in the public sphere. And good people need to speak up. 

(Regan) Like every rabbi I talked to on this trip, Gruenwald finds himself a learned member of the community during a fascinating time. Identity issues are being discussed, concerns of assimilation are in play, and anti-Semitism is always prevalent. So a reoccurring question in the project is, where do you see American Judaism 40 years from now? 

(Gruenwald)There’s a lot of handwringing in the Jewish communities. And on my bad days, on days where I’m feeling pessimistic, I wonder if I will be among the last generation of American Rabbis and whether or not someday I’ll be locking the door behind me for the last time. Most of the time I’m optimistic. We’re in this interesting moment culturally of upheaval in the best way. Boundaries have been erased. There’s going to be some upheaval and some things that will radically change in the upcoming years. But I think new expressions of Judaism will emerge that’ll be very interesting. 

(Regan) Gruenwald for his part knows quite a bit about fluctuating boundaries and expressions. It’s part of his own spiritual journey. He left academia for the synagogue, switched denominations and moved to the high plateau of Colorado. He does his part to stick to traditions, but also faces the inevitability of change with optimism. 

(Gruenwald) We need to change our metrics for success. If our metrics are always about how many Jews light Shabbas candles, how many Jews go to synagogue every week. From those metrics we look like we’re failing or declining. But when you broaden your metrics and look at all the various ways Jews are expressing their Judaism. Jews are proud to be Jewish they want to be Jewish they want to look to their tradition and history for meaning in their life and ultimately it’s about how do you live a more meaningful, happy, flourishing life and can Judaism offer something to help you do that. Among all the various other ways people look for meaning in their life.

(Regan) Rabbi Salomon Gruenwald was the first stranger I interviewed for this podcast. And he taught me the lesson to never call a rabbi a stranger again. He was one of many friendly people who would give me their precious time. Despite my lackluster elevator pitch. And it was when I left the Hebrew Educational Alliance and drove off in my smelly civic, that for the first time, the project started to feel real.

(Outro) The American Rabbi Project Episode 2-Colorado Tradition and Change With Altitude, was written and produced by me, Justin Regan. Derek Povah handles all the web stuff and pushes me kicking and screaming to go the extra mile. I’d also like to thank Rivka Cohen, Jeremy Krones, Beth VanderStoep, Sarit Rathbone, Dylan Abrams and my parents for the assistance. And Dan Ziffer for the project’s logo. And I’d like to thank Sarit Rathbone, Michael Del Spina, Steven Gruenewald and Porter Marsh for hosting me while I was traveling through Colorado. If you want to contact me, feel free to send an email to rabbiroadtrip@gmail.com. You can also follow the podcast on twitter with the handle @rabbiproject. And on facebook.com/rabbiproject

Until next time, Shalom and safe driving. 


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