Utah: The Reformative Rabbi of Rome – Transcript

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

All people interviewed in this project speak solely for themselves. Their opinions are their own.

[Intro] Welcome to American Rabbi Project, the podcast about American Judaism from the perspective of rabbis across the country. I’m Justin Regan. 

(Justin Regan) I drove more than 14,000 miles on this road trip. I traveled through crowded cities, intimidating mountain passes and rain-soaked backroads. I never even got into a minor fender bender. And I’m really grateful for that. Even though I’m doing a podcast on Judaism, I’m really not that religious. But you do get more so when you’re traveling on such a scale. I even went as far as to put a Mezuzah in my car. A mezuzah is a box containing scrolls of scripture many Jews put on their doorframes as a mark of protection and faith. When I moved out of my apartment in Flagstaff, I plucked my mezuzah off the frame and turned it into a car-zuzah. And I thought I was being really original until I went to a Judaica shop in Philly and discovered they’re already a thing. Regardless, I figured it was nice to have extra divine protection from crashes on the roads and bears in the mountains. 

(Regan) When I was in South Dakota, I met a lovely young couple also on a road trip and traveling in the opposite direction. They had an RV and a dog and a Mezuzah. And we had a fun conversation about where do you put that for an RV? At the “home entrance” on the side? Or the cabin entrance? As always, I’m sure it’s open to plenty of interpretation. 

(Regan) Personally, for my sedan, I put it on the passenger side. Not sure why. But it was just nice to have a spiritually centered car. Even if the AC didn’t always work…

Episode 3: Utah- The Reformative Rabbi of Rome

(Regan) I’d been to Salt Lake City several times before this trip and always enjoyed myself. The salt lake itself is quite an experience. And it reminds me of the Dead Sea, except it’s not as salty and there aren’t hordes of Birthright students covering themselves in mud like they’re in a Predator movie. SLC is the capitol of Utah and the capitol of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints also called the Mormon Church. More than half of the state’s population is Mormon. The rest are gentiles. Like Rabbi Sam Spector.

(Act: Rabbi Sam Spector) Hi I’m Rabbi Sam Spector. I’m the senior rabbi at congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, Utah. The largest synagogue in the state of Utah. When I told people I was moving to Utah the most common question I got was ‘there are Jews in Utah?’

(Regan) Yes. There are. Jews have been here almost as long as the mormons have. Utah was even one of the first states to elect a Jew as Governor: Simon Bamberger in 1917. Legend has it on the campaign trail a Mormon called him a gentile, a term both Jews and Mormons use to refer to those not in their faith. Bamberger therefore responded by saying as a Jew he’d been called many bad names, but it was the first time he was ever called a gentile. The quip melted away the man’s hostility and helped him win the Governorship.

(Spector) Utah actually is the most religious state. Being the headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. So it’s very much part of the culture here that not only is religion important, but respect for religion is important and the community is important too. But because of that importance of religion we have very strong membership retention here.

(Regan) But it’s still a small Jewish population. So even though Kol Ami is the biggest congregation in the state, with about 400 families, it would be considered medium sized in other parts of the country. Also they don’t have the numbers for an individual Reform and an individual Conservative congregation so Kol Ami has a merged congregation. However, Spector says there’s a magnitude to being a rabbi in SLC that isn’t felt anywhere else in the U.S.

(Spector) There’s no other city that is the headquarters of a major world religion. Here, I get to really be an ambassador for the Jewish world to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and meet with its leadership. That’s a really exciting and unique thing to being a rabbi in this city. The only other rabbis I can compare that too is the ones in Rome. 

(Regan) That city being the headquarters of the Catholic Church. And as an ambassador in America’s Rome, Spector hasn’t noticed a lot of tension between Mormons and Jews these days. Instead there seems to be a good amount of respect. 

(Spector) The church, they really connect I think with us. There’s this thing called philo-Semitism. A love of Judaism that’s very prominent in this church in particular. And they see a lot of their narrative as ours. Just as we left Egypt led by Moses and found our promised land, escaping persecution, they  left persecution in the mid-west with their moses being Brigham Young and came out here to their promised land. And that’s why you have their version of the Dead Sea here. Great Salt Lake. The Jordan river, Zion, Moab and Mount Nebo, a lot of the same named places in a holy city with their holy temple in it. 

(Regan) In fact, when Spector was hired, he was advised to not refer to the synagogue as a temple, like most Reform and some Conservative congregations do, because “there’s only one temple in town”. From a professional stand point, Spector describes his relationship to the church as “very lovely”. Their security has even assisted Kol Ami in the past. 

(Spector) There are areas where we differ in particular our synagogue is very much in favor of same-sex marriages and LGBTQ rights. I know that there are members of the Church who share that view, but the Church as a whole believes marriage should be between a man and a woman. So their are areas where we differ. However, despite our differences I think we are able to have a great relationship and see a lot of holiness in each other and have a lot of respect for one another.

(Regan) Spector’s path to Rome started when he was a high school kid in Southern California. There was a synagogue near the campus and it became his sanctuary when his parents got divorced.

(Spector) In that moment I had my Israel, my struggle with G-d. ‘Why aren’t things working out the way I hope for?’As I engaged in that struggle I also engaged in more studying and more leadership and more advocacy. I really found a home for me in the Jewish community. I found I got to be along side my rabbi a voice for social change and advocacy while also using my heritage and values to promote that.

(Regan) Spector also says there’s an intimacy that comes with being a rabbi. He serves as the bridge between big moments in his congregants’ lives and Judaism. 

(Spector) People call me in the most important moments of their life, good and bad. Whatever it may be, I’m one of the first phone calls. And that’s really, really exciting and meaningful to me that people are calling me and saying ‘can you connect this really happy moment with our Jewish heritage’. But also in very difficult moments. ‘I’m getting a divorce,  I just got diagnosed with a terminal illness. My husband just died’. I’m one of the first phone calls when people say, ‘my worst nightmare just came true and I need you and I need Judaism in this moment’. And it’s a tremendous, tremendous honor to get to play a part in people’s stories. 

(Regan) Spector is also a bridge of other sorts. His congregation is both Conservative and Reform. They stem from separate synagogues that were both founded in the 1890’s. But due to low membership numbers, they merged in 1972. Now, it’s not unheard of for multiple congregations of different denominations to share a synagogue. But it’s more rare for multiple denominations to share a congregation and a rabbi.

(Spector) Our name Kol Ami. Means ‘all of my people’. That’s what we seek to be. I know during the rabbinic search process that was a little tense at times for people. Because there were people in this community who very much wanted a Conservative rabbi and others who very much wanted a Reform rabbi. 

(Regan) And Spector thinks he’s the right fit because while he practices Conservative, his beliefs are more Reform. It also helps that the two denominations have a lot of similarities like egalitarianism and being more lenient on certain traditions compared to Orthodoxy. However, there are some key differences. 

(Spector) In the past there have been some ideological challenges, about recognizing who is a Jew. I do recognize Jews of Patrilineal descent but there have been rabbis in the past who haven’t. And that has created tensions in the community when someone is told ‘We don’t see your kid as Jewish’. And that’s something I’m trying to change.

(Regan) Personally, Spector believes the tradition of only recognizing a person as Jewish if their mother is Jewish is outdated. Especially he says in a time when it is much more clear to know who someone’s father is. But having a merged congregation means not everyone holds that belief. Still, Spector believes the bulk of the tension between the two denominations comes from a lack of understanding.  

(Spector) Sometimes Reform Jews might think Conservative Judaism is not open to them, which I think is not true. And often Conservative Jews, I’ve had Conservative Jews say ‘I won’t step foot in a Reform service’. But then they tell me their ideology and it’s like actually, you believe pretty much the exact same things as the Reform folks here. I think there is a little bit of ignorance for a lot of people on both sides, and misconceptions about the other movement. And so I’m really hoping to take this place from being dually affiliated to a blended community that happens to hold two membership affiliations.

(Regan) Now, the community is blended in some ways. The kids at the Hebrew school learn together with each child choosing if they want a Reform or Conservative Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Once a month, Spector conducts an inter-denominational service. But usually, Shabbat and High Holiday services are separate: one Reform and one Conservative. And he says there might never be a day where all prayers are mixed. 

(Spector) But something I’m looking to do here is more adult education programing. And put in some international travel every other year. Opportunities to see the world with each other. I think when we do that, yeah, people will still go where they are comfortable for prayer, but people will get to know each other better and there will be more for them here that is not along denominational lines.

(Regan) And for Spector this goes beyond building community in his Utah synagogue. It’s part of a larger issue of member retention that schuls across the country are facingc.  

(Spector) I think for a long time, synagogues were Bar Mitzvah factories. Everybody’s freaking out that synagogues across the country are losing membership. I was too. Until I found out, no, people have always quit synagogues. The difference is for a long time synagogues were focused on Bar Mitzvah. So every year after Bar and Bat Mitzvahs they’d lose 100 families and they’d gain 110 new ones. Now since the recession, people are saying ‘is this now worth my money? Do I need to belong to a synagogue to be Jewish?’ So now, people are maybe losing 100 families and gaining 85. So they’re down. Which is scary. But we need to realize, people don’t owe it to us to be here.

(Regan) It’s a concern shared by many other rabbis, including Rabbi Shapiro in the first episode. The worry that low amounts of anti-Semitism, while ultimately a good thing, also have the negative affect of not pushing Jews towards Judaism and Jewish institutions. 

(Spector) I was a member of A E Pi fraternity and the way it got started was this guy in the early 1900’s wasn’t allowed into any fraternity because he was Jewish. that’s not the case now, so people say, ‘do I have to pigeon hole myself into a Jewish group when I can be accepted for who I am and not just labeled as Jew?’ With that assimilation and acceptance we have a real challenge of now reframing it and saying we are not forced to have a Jewish identity, but why is it worth keeping it?

(Regan) So Spector draws inspiration from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Jacobs speaks of the need for “audacious hospitality” and not expecting people to come in unprompted.

(Spector) Something I said I needed to work here was an expense line to get outside the walls of the synagogue and meet people for coffee. Meet people for frozen yogurt. And I do that almost every single day. That’s really important. Some times walking into a synagogue is really intimidating. And people need to get to know us on an interpersonal level.

(Regan) And that’s more than just making the community relevant, but making Judaism relevant. And Spector thinks that should be done not just by focusing on Jewish traditions and customs, but on Jewish values too.

(Spector) I think going back to the prophets, ‘we need to be a light unto the nations of the world in a time of darkness’. I think a lot of people are seeing darkness in our world right now and hopefully Judaism can be an outlet for them to be that light. To illuminate it through social action and social justice work.

(Regan) For Spector, justice is key to his Judaism. He says a lot of things that might be considered political issues like LGBTQ rights, voter rights are really Jewish issues.  

(Spector) When I get up there and speak abut these things, I’m not speaking as a politician. I’m speaking about my personal interpretation of Jewish law and Jewish values and how these issues fit into them. I don’t think the Torah should be an heirloom. I think it should be a living fountain. We need to speak out on things in the world. And I think Judaism can help inform the way we see things. And debated as well. I have congregants that have very different interpretations than I do and I think that those people should have the opportunity to say ‘this is where I find my Jewish values’.

(Regan) Spector also leans in to another critical issue for the Jewish people. And something that has come up in every episode so far. Intermarriage. Similar to Rabbi Gruenwald in Colorado, he takes a more open approach. For Spector, nothing is going to turn back the tide of inter-religious unions and nothing is gained from shunning the couples.

(Spector) Just because they walk into my office and I say ‘No, I won’t marry you’ Doesn’t mean they go ‘well the Rabbi won’t marry us. I guess we won’t spend our life together’. No, they would spend their life together, they would still get married, but what they would say, ‘In my first exposure to Judaism I asked that the most important day of my life be a Jewish moment. And I was told, no you’re not wanted here. I don’t accept your relationship.’ And as a result, so many of those people said I’m not going to raise my children as Jews. I’m not going to raise my children in a community that doesn’t love their parents’ marriage.

(Regan) He says this will probably make the question of what is Jewish peoplehood one of the biggest changes to Judaism in the next 40 years. 

(Spector) Something that is commonly said to me is ‘you don’t look Jewish’. And I’m like ‘what does that mean?’ And you’re already seeing the changing demographics. And I think that in a number of years, our religious schools are going to be full of hispanic and Asian-American, African-American children. You’re already seeing it. But right now when somebody is Asian-American and says they’re Jewish or something, people seem caught off guard and say ‘oh, did you convert’. Or they assume an African American is a guest or something and don’t automatically register that this person is Jewish and coming to pray. And I think in 40 years that will change. And maybe that’s a good thing.

(Regan) And more than just the people changing, Spector also thinks there are changes of perspectives. And more than just changing attitudes on traditions and customs like mentioned in other episodes. There’s also a change of perspectives on Jewish history and the Jewish State.  

(Spector) Judaism is very different today than it was for my father’s generation. We’re not seeing Israel struggle for its own survival anymore. We aren’t in the immediate aftermath of the holocaust. People are relating to those events, the Holocaust and the creation of Israel, differently than they did in previous generations. I think for a lot of young Jews, I think there is a bit of an identity struggle as well with Israel that wasn’t present for the previous couple of generations. Will it be a Jewish state that matches our values? What’s going to be of the Arab-Isralei-Palestinan conflict? Are we going to be a progressive Jewish state in Israel or are we going to have a theocratic state in Israel? And what does that mean for relationships with the diaspora?

(Regan) Moving forward, Spector thinks it’s critical for their to be unity. Not a unity of ideas or practices. But a unity that goes deeper than that. Something he finds in Torah. 

(Spector) I think the greatest gift Judaism gave to the world as a religion is the idea that people have the ability to be holy. It says in the Torah that everybody was created in G-d’s image and likeness. And later in the Torah G-d says ‘remember you are holy because I’m holy’. That came out 3,000 years ago. and up until that point, to my knowledge people couldn’t be- well maybe individuals like priests or something or a pharaoh, king. But your average person wasn’t holy. I think that right now we’re living in a time where people aren’t seeing holiness in each other. I think when Hillary Clinton is calling people deplorable she’s not seeing holiness in others. I think when Donald Trump is saying racist things against Hispanic people and Islamaphobic things as well and mocking disabled reporters I don’t think he’s seeing holiness in others. I think my main roll is to promote that idea of holiness.

(Regan) Rabbi Sam Spector clergies a unique community and acts as the diplomat to a major religion. And he taught me that no matter where Jews find themselves, we find ways to make things work. It certainly was a highlight of my time in Utah and after my lovely chat I went about my day in Salt Lake City which included a trip to the LDS museum and temple grounds. Because hey, when in Rome…

(Outro) I know that sounds corny, but I’m proud of that. Episode 3 of American Rabbi Project, Utah the Reformative Rabbi of Rome was written and produced by me, Justin Regan. Derek Povah handles the web stuff and texts me important reminders at one in the morning. The podcast’s logo was created by Dan Ziffer from Dandylion Digital. I want to thank Jeremy Krones, Sarit Rathbone, Beth VanderStoep, Dylan Abrams and my parents for the assistance as well as Bruce Horowitz, Catherine Cone, Jacob and Carine for hosting me while I was in Utah. You can find all previous episodes of American Rabbi Project as well as an auxiliary blog and an index of Jewish terms on my website rabbiproject.com. Feel free to reach out to me at roadtrip@rabbiproject.com. Follow us on twitter with the handle @rabbiproject and facebook.com/rabbiproject. And until next time, Shalom and safe driving. 

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