Maine: Wrestling and Wandering- 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) There’s this wonderful sixth sense that most Jews have. Where regardless of how observant they are or how little they go to services, Jews find a way to make things work for the High Holidays. And that’s what happened to me when I found myself in Rapid City, South Dakota for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. 

The first thing I had to do was find the Jews in town. So I went to the place you can always find one, the local comedy club. My buddy who I was staying with has a Jewish friend on his improv team. And he graciously pointed me to the only schul in town. A small Reform congregation that meets in a modified house and flies out a student rabbi to lead services a few times a year. 

(Regan)It was an amazing experience and I certainly plan to do a South Dakota episode later on. I didn’t scoop up any interviews at the time because it was the High Holidays, and not a time for work. At this service I went to you could see the sixth sense in play, because there were more travelers than locals. It felt like we were holding services at a crossroads. In the next few days so many of us would be gone, including myself. But for that moment [beat]  we were together bringing in the New Year. I was originally worried I’d miss services because I was in a far away place. But I realize now that a far away place, is a very Jewish place to be. Whether that’s the Siani, South Dakota, or Maine. 

Episode 4 Maine: Wrestling and Wandering 

(Regan) Before I went on this trip, I talked to a friend who has done a lot of traveling. She said at some point, everybody hits their limit. Going into this trip I was worried that I’d hit my limit early. That after leaving my job to go on a huge journey I’d end up tapping out within a few weeks. So I promised myself that no matter how early I hit that wall and no matter how miserable I felt, I wouldn’t turn back until I made it to the Atlantic Ocean. And it was at Acadia National Park in Maine that I reached salt water. And I was relieved to know that I still wanted to wander. So I went to Bangor to chat with Rabbi Darah Lerner of Congregation Beth El. 

(Rabbi Darah Lerner) My name is Rabbi Darah Lerner. The largest component of my job is the broad universe of teaching. Whether that’s teaching prayers to people, whether it’s teaching Jewish tradition, Jewish history. Teaching customs teaching how to learn.

(Regan) Lerner started by teaching me the history of Judaism in the region. Maine is similar to Utah in the sense that some people question if there are any Jews there. The answer to both being ‘yes’. There’s about 16 congregations in the state, including a few in Bangor, Maine’s third-largest city, the oldest congregation’s around 150 years old. Lerner says back then the port towns of Bangor and Portland attracted plenty of Jewish and non-Jewish businesses because of their potential for growth and the draw of less competition than the Boston area. Also, some Russian and Eastern European Jewish refuges were settled in Maine at the beginning of the 20th century by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. 

(Lerner) We don’t have a huge Jewish population. But one of the things about Maine versus, I meet people from like, New York where they talk about how easy it is to be Jewish because there’s so many Jews around. Jews in Maine, you have to make an investment and that means you get a particularly kind of wonderful engaged if, you know, eclectic Judaism.

(Regan) That initiative was how Beth El was formed. The community was founded by a second wave of Jews who went to Northern Maine in the 1970’s and 80’s. They came for a program where doctors could have student loans forgiven by working for several years in a rural community. Lerner says those who stayed wanted a broader congregation that was more progressive and more welcoming to interfaith families, so they started a Reform synagogue.

(Lerner) The founding father Dr. Sidney Block and there were five other families that met. They put up a notecard in the hospital announcing their meeting and families showed up. And for many years they ran their own congregation, ran their own services, teaching their own kids.

(Regan) Lerner has been the congregation’s rabbi for 14 years. She describes herself as a “second career rabbi”. Before taking the beama she worked in business management and tech companies. 

(Lerner) But there’s three basic things that drove me to the rabbinate. One I’ll call ethical wrestling. I wanted to understand how people made choices along ethical framework. So I started reading deeply into philosophy, religion, psychology. And that helped drive me back to my own personal roots which were Jewish. The next was the power of community. I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Joined a synagogue there, because it was a great way to meet people. And really started to love the power of being in community. And finally the real wild card is really often in the social and political landscape you would hear people say something and then say ‘the bible says’ such and such. And very often I was not feeling very positive about what they claimed the bible said.

(Regan) So Lerner decided to read it herself. She studied with a rabbi, read the commentaries and used Hebrew so she could absorb Torah in its original form.

(Lerner) Because I really wanted to know if this foundational text not just of Judaism but ultimately other religions and traditions, if it really said this universe of negative things. And to my great pleasure and surprise it actually said things like ‘feed the poor, welcome the stranger’. That the first instruction for human beings is we should find ourselves a partner, it is not good for humans to be alone. And so I fell in love with this book and then all of our commentary.

(Regan) Similar to Rabbi Spector in Utah, Lerner says it’s an honor to share in people’s joy and sorrow through Jewish events. But her main passion for the rabbinate is teaching. 

(Lerner) We’re not the first generation to ask questions like ‘what’s the meaning of life?’ or ‘how do we deal with people who are different?’ And generations of Jews have wrestled with that question and taken ancient stories. Stories that we guess are probably 3500 years old. And added to that all the time. And so we can approach the world with deep history and incredible modernity.

(Regan) This ties into a key tenet of Reform Judaism. The Columbus Platform, a founding document of the movement, talks of revelation being an ongoing process. That Divine truth is revealed to every generation. This sets up one of the biggest ideological differences between Reform Jews and  Orthodox Jews . The concept of seeing Torah as a guiding document, as opposed to set in stone commandments.

(Lerner) There are Reform rabbis who keep strictly kosher homes, who are shomer shabbas, who are labels we often associate with Orthodoxy. There are also reform jews, Reform rabbis who eat traif and don’t keep kosher homes. It’s a big tent. It was a very comfortable place to live a rich and deep Jewish life. That was also a very deep and rich modern life.

(Regan) Modernity is at the core of the movement which has its roots in the Emancipation. A time where European countries started granting more rights to Jews. Today it’s the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S. Lerner says one of the movement’s successes is how it reaches out to Jews where they are. 

(Lerner) So we have prayers in our prayer book now that speak to even people who come to our services who may or may not believe in G-d. People who embrace fully the notion of being Atheist and Jewish we actually have prayers in our prayer book that say that out loud. There have been Jews like that I think as long as their are Jews, the brilliance of the Reform movement is we say it out loud. We’re not afraid to embrace that our communities are people who think broadly and deeply and are committed to Judaism and Jewish lives.

(Regan) Lerner says this inclusion also attracted her to the denomination. The Reform movement was the first to ordain female rabbis.

(Lerner) And additionally, I’m a lesbian and the Reform movement embraced early the possibility of lesbians and gays and now transgender individuals to be clergy. And to understand that G-d in G-d’s wisdom made us in our diversity and we’re all part of the story in that with appropriate Jewish education clergy should be like Jews. Sort of every kind of Jew.

(Regan) Lerner says she personally hasn’t faced a lot of outright discrimination in Jewish circles. But she’s dealt with more subtle forms of sexism, like comments about how she doesn’t “look” like a rabbi and not being taken as seriously as her male counterparts. 

(Lerner) Also humans are really interesting where I find if I’m the only rabbi around and people need a meaningful rabbi experience that will often moderate the part that I am a woman. And when there’s other options, generally male, again things readjust and I become the other, the woman, whatever. So that’s a fascinating phenomena as well as in a moment of crisis the rabbinic status is fully embraced and then when there are other options, changes.

(Regan) While Lerner says things aren’t perfect, she also believes attitudes are changing. These days, more and more Reform and Conservative synagogues and even some Orthodox institutions have an inclusiveness policy for LGBTQ Jews. Lerner says some of that comes from modern science and sentiments. But some of it also comes from the old texts. 

(Lerner) For example, the Talmud, our foundational text on how do you understand and do Jewish. The predominantly men who wrote that, they were smart enough to understand that humanity came in incredible diversity. But they actually understood there were multiple genders or multiple presentations of gender. So 2,000 years ago they had no problem recognizing it and somehow we got into these really tiny boxes again and became somehow unable to think outside of them. Some of the texts that were understood to be explicitly against a particular group, re-reading them as Jews do we re-read our texts over and over again, we start to go ‘Oh maybe that wasn’t the import of that sentence’. Maybe that instead of being a prohibition against what we understand as healthy adult homosexual relations, it was a critique of cultic practices of our neighbors who were engaging in those activities for the worship of gods of the Greco-Roman variety as opposed to something else. The very first thing we learn about human beings, the very first is The Divine figures out it’s not good for humans to be alone. If we start with that mindset and then ask the question of ‘what does that mean?’ is that an opposite quote unquote for everybody? Or is it finding the appropriate partner for everyone? That’s really going to change how you read it and how you understand some of the texts. Similarly that can be applied to questions around the role of women in Jewish life. Was The Divine actually interested in having women excluded from huge percentages of significant Jewish life? It is certainly not the G-d I believe in. 

(Regan) For Lerner, this also serves as a call to action. Her social justice work is something she sees as squarely rooted in her Judaism.

(Lerner) What Jews are called we have three different names. One of our names is we are Israel. As Israel our texts tell us we are people who wrestle or struggle with G-d and other human beings. Their’s challenges in the world and our job as Jews is to participate in those.That’s what we do even when we think even G-d didn’t do the right thing. Our title calls us we are the people who are willing to wrestle and struggle with that. And call G-d to better behavior and call people to better behavior. We are eevry we are Hebrews. We are people who travel and move and crossover. So we go to places where there are Jews where we’ve traveled to and we build Jewish lives. And Jews “Jew” itself is from Judah which is the root for thankful. And social justice is rooted in all of that. I’m thankful for what I have, I occasionally have to go out there and do the work. And being one who wrestles means I am called to engage in all of these important questions of our time. 

(Regan) Those questions also include how do Jews relate to America? What are the challenges to being Jewish in this country? Lerner says it can be hard working around the dominant culture’s calendar which doesn’t always accommodate well with Jewish holidays and events. She acknowledges that more freedom can allow people to move away from a religious lifestyle. 

(Lerner) But at the same time the opportunity. You can learn so much, you have access to so much, those same freedoms allow you so much that you can have a better, smarter, bigger Judaism if you choose. That’s part of the whole Enlightenment and Emancipation that led to this country is we started allowing people to develop into them full selves. We didn’t make people stay in the same ghettos and isolations. We didn’t keep them away from educational science history and opportunities and we didn’t take things at face value.

(Regan) And she says this access has rarely been paralleled in Jewish history. But despite this modernity and freedom of living in America, Lerner says it’s important to remember that Jews also get a lot of rights granted to them from their Judaism. 

(Lerner) So we’re supposed to be busy all the time that’s the great American story that we have opportunity all the time. And it also demands on us all the time. The Jewish part of us says actually you have the right and privilege to say no to some of that. And that might actually be good for you. You have a day scheduled to be the day that you rest. Potentially tell your boss or your friends or the dominant culture ‘no, I’m not going to do that thing. I have control over the story of my life.’ In America we tend to encourage people to get through and over things even as serious and meaningful as the death of somebody important to us. Judaism offers the radical notion that you have the right and privilege to feel loss. And to feel the change that happens in your life when somebody important to you dies. And so we build in not 2 or 3 day bereavement leave if you’re lucky. But depending on who the person is and how close they are to you, maybe 7 days of stepping out of your regular life for a loss. Acknowledging it for a full 30 days of your life if it’s somebody significant. And if it’s a super close and significant person, for a year and every year you acknowledge the loss. So there’s ways Judaism improves your status in this American landscape because it gives you another vocabulary joyous events, challenging events, good news, bad news. It says ‘here, here’s another way to respond to those’, and again I’m going to emphasize these words that you have the right and privilege to have the full range of your life story acknowledged.

(Regan) It’s all part of the scale between being Jewish and being American. Lerner thinks the two are compatible and doesn’t need to involve leaning to one or the other. She says it’s always been a Jewish tradition to honor the country they reside in and even the concept of assimilation is not new.  

(Lerner) If we’re strictly looking at some kinds of numbers  and if somebody Jewish is defined by if they married somebody Jewish, yeah, there are numerical considerations and some percentage of loss. At the same time Judaism has also always engaged in a certain act of acculturation. If you were to listen to Yemenite Jews do various prayer and Torah chanting. They will amazingly enough sound like the culture they’re from. And the ones from Germany sound German and the ones from France sound like France. And this is not a recent phenomenon it’s a historical phenomena. So there’s always cultural borrowing, cultural sharing, cultural integration. 

(Regan) Some of the biggest sharing includes a sharing of love. It’s a central focus of Lerner’s congregation which was founded by interfaith families. She’s officiated these unions and usually sits down with the couple and talks to them about where Judaism fits into their relationship. Although, one thing she is leery about is the concept of raising a child with two faiths. 

(Lerner) Much of christianity and much of Judaism have different foundational ideas about human beings and when we’re older we can juggle those. But I’m not sure kids can juggle foundational different beliefs on human beings. When you tell radically different stories I think that can be a challenge. Another problem is, I’ve never experienced this, but often parents if you raise kids in two, teach in two, and then use the expression you invite the kids to choose, when kids are little they don’t think they are being asked to choose between two faiths, two histories, two religions that sometimes they think they are supposed to choose a parent.  And that I’m not sure is a good thing to encourage kids to do.

(Regan) Still, from a general standpoint, Lerner thinks it’s more about focusing on the potential of every couple to contribute to the community, as opposed to worrying. 

(Lerner) What’s the expression? If you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail? If you assume there’s a problem you’ll probably see it as a problem. If you start by understanding these are people looking for community, meaning etc. then you have the opportunity to develop  great relationships and Jewish families. Even if not every person is labeled by tradition Jewish.

(Regan) Because for Lerner she says at her core as a spiritual leader and a teacher the priority is offering something meaningful.  

(Lerner) There is a Jewish author I want to give credit but we are famously known as ‘the ever dying people’. We are always commenting on -real trauma I am not dismissing, I am not dismising the real trauma that has happened in Jewish history. But there is a way we talk about our loss to some other something. Opportunities outside of the Jewish community, education, interfaith all of these things we’re always handwringing over our loss. And we shouldn’t pretend it’s not real. But we shouldn’t act like it’s our only story. Jews often have to choose whether we are thinking about Amalech and Aushwitz the dark moments of our story. Or are we Sinai and Torah Jews? Are we Jews who are Jewish because something amazing happened and we have a vision of a better world with a story of humans can actually improve things? Those are the deep questions and if we present some of the Sinai and Torah and meaning then Judaism will be just fine in my opinion.

(Regan) Simon Rawidowicz is the author who coined the phrase “ever dying people”. And maybe I kind of fell into this trap too? Maybe some of the motivation to do this project came from a worry or at least some uneasiness… But there does seem to be a lot of optimism from the people I talked to. Specifically for Rabbi Darah Lerner, she gets that optimism from the ever living Torah and the ever changing Jew in the far off places. 

(Regan) American Rabbi Project episode 4 Maine: Wrestling and Wandering was written and produced by me Justin Regan. So if I’m a one man band, then Derek Povah is the competent roadie, and does the web stuff. The logo is designed by Dan Ziffer of dandelion digital. I want to thank Jeremy Krones, Sarit Rathbone, Dylan Abrams, Beth Vander Stoep and my parents for the assistance. You can go to rabbiproject.com for more episodes, a blog and a Jewish term index. Feel free to reach out by sending me an email justin@rabbiproject.com. Follow us on twitter with the handle @rabbiproject and facebook.com/rabbiproject.

And until next time, Shalom and Safe Driving. 


One Reply to “Maine: Wrestling and Wandering- Transcript”

  1. Sunshinegirl

    “Are we Jews who are Jewish because something amazing happened and we have a vision of a better world with a story of humans can actually improve things?”

    Oh, G-d, I hope so.

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