New Hampshire: Live Free or Dayenu-Transcript

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

(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 were certain moments on the road trip when the magnitude of how much I was traveling really hit me. Like when I crossed the continental divide in Colorado and realized, geologically speaking, I was now on the other side of the continent. Like when I was in Montana. Being that far north in a flat land with big sky made it feel like I was on the ceiling of the country. Or when I would reach bodies of water that had always been so prominent on the maps I’d seen growing up. This feeling of awe popped up from time to time on the trip, but it was with me almost the whole time I was in New England. 

(Regan) It’s where I have relatives on both sides of my family and I’ve been there a lot over the years. That made it quite something to drive to the place I had flown to in my youth. This experience of constant nostalgia and reunion with family more then made up for how truly frustrating it is to drive through New England. The confusing roads, the hectic roundabouts, the weirdly angled turns and the hell of navigating streets whose name changes every ten feet! I guess I could have tried to tie this into how driving in New England is a lot like life, but I get too worked up thinking about it. So let’s just say I hated the roads. But it was nice to be back. 

Episode 7 New Hampshire: Live Free or Dayenu 

(Regan) The story of the Jews of Nashua, New Hampshire is similar to that of most non-Boston New England towns. The first major wave came in the 1880’s and these days Jews have spread out from the old neighborhoods. And the community’s numbers are bolstered by a lot of Boston and New York ex-pats. Being a medium-sized city, Nashua can be an epicenter for Jewish life many miles around. And one of the places in that epicenter is the Conservative Temple Beth Abraham and its rabbi, Jon Spira-Savett. 

(Rabbi Jon Spira-Savett) Hello, my name is Jon Spira-Savett. I am the rabbi surveying Temple Beth Abraham which is a Jewish community center in Nashua, New Hampshire. I lived here and worked for the synagogue for ten years.

(Regan) Spira-Savett likes being a rabbi for what he says is the ‘jack of all trades’ aspect which can include teaching, counseling and civic engagement. He even dabbles in internet education, having written articles for several Jewish publications and recorded videos on the topic.  

(Spira-Savett) Being in New Hampshire as the only rabbi in a certain radius and the only Jewish institution, I function as kind of a one man JCRC. I get to represent the community and even Israel out in the wider community. It’s also a chance to collaborate with other religious communities in a special way usually on social action or social justice projects.

(Regan) In another world, Spira-Savett could have been living in a much more Jewish place. Like Israel. It’s where he spent a year of college, and went to rabbinical school. At one point, he even considered himself Israeli and not American. But that perception changed when he returned to the U.S. 

(Spira-Savett) I just realized both how much I loved America and how American I was. How natural I felt here relatively. And I think the way in which we can be Jewish here is really infused with the best of America in terms of democratic values, and being able to see ourselves stretched by our interactions with all kinds of different cultures and faiths. 

(Regan) For Spira-Savett, this stretching includes ethical wrestling. Like many other rabbis, he thinks Jews have an obligation to give back to the United States and one way is to be critical of its problems from a place of patriotism. 

(Spira-Savett) We’re definitely of this place and I see myself as very American and one of those people who cares about this place enough to say when its extreme when something has gone off the rails. Which is sometimes when we talk about bigotry now in this society. But sometimes it’s also the rampant consumerism and individualism. So I think America has drawn a lot out of Judaism in a special way that I certainly wouldn’t trade even though there are things that Israeli Judaism has developed that you couldn’t do here too.

(Regan) Over the course of his career, Spira-Savett has found unique ways to wrestle with and address these societal issues. He’s a founding member of the Jewish teen philanthropy movement.

(Spira-Savett) I have for a long time thought about, the courteous teaching that the highest form of giving is to give it to a partnership relationship with mutual dignity with someone who has less economic means. So much of our charity is when we give someone something we have a lot of and they don’t have any of. Or going to the soup kitchen and teaching people to only meet people when they are poor and in their most vulnerable place where there is so much disparity. How do we tap into and start to teach kids and teens that mutual responsibility doesn’t mean pity but really means valuing people totally and not seeing what’s missing with them?

(Regan) Over the last 20 years, Spira-Savett has worked around the country to set up Jewish teen philanthropy organizations. They raise money through several means, including the tried and true Bar/Bat Mitzvah present method, and then go through the process of figuring out how to spend it. Just like the board of a foundation would. They research, possible options and tie it into Jewish values and Jewish teachings on giving charity or tzedakah. As Spira-Savett says, it’s about giving with dignity as opposed to lording it over somebody. Some teen groups distribute as much as tens of thousands of dollars through this method.

(Spira-Savett) These are the kinds of things that teenagers love to talk about. Their minds are really just starting to think about these things and to have a capacity to imagine and experience and to want to explore answers. It’s great and when you can go beyond the debates to something you can actually do you then have to face the issues of the power of my money or the power of my privilege. Or the inequalities within a group where not all Jews are rich or well off. It’s very exciting.

(Regan) This concept of civic engagement and social justice is even further relevant for Spira-Savett who finds himself a rabbi and ambassador for the Jewish people in New Hampshire, the first state to hold presidential primaries. Back in 2016 Spira-Savett was part of what he calls an ambitious project with other faith leaders to bring a more grounded and spiritual event to the hectic primaries. A clergy-led forum.  

(Spira-Savett) And we invited all the candidates who were pretty serious in both the Democratic group and the Republican group. I don’t think we invited candidate Trump. But almost everybody else. We used our connections and nobody took us up on it. The frustrating thing was that candidates didn’t want to open themselves, or maybe it was their staffs, I don’t know, who didn’t want to open themselves up for those kind of thoughts.

(Regan) While the forum fell through, Spira-Savett did get a chance to ask then Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton a question at a CNN town hall. The question was steeped in Jewish philosophy. Specifically Rabbi Simcha Bunim who taught that every person should carry two scrolls. One saying ‘the Universe was made for me’ and the other that reads ‘I am but dust’. He asked Clinton how she planed to balance ego and humility as President. Clinton responded by opening up about her own faith and the part it plays in her life.

(Spira-Savett) What happened after that was Secretary Clinton asked if she could have a word with me after that event. She thanked me for the question and said how much she wish she could answer questions like that more. And I think it was a really insightful thing which she said to me at the time was that when a candidate will open up about their faith of their vulnerabilities at their own events they’ll generally would get written up or she feared it would get written up as ‘that’s another tactic. It’s a self-serving thing. It looks like something set up’. Which I understand. So I just said back to her, there are going to be people in our state and then the next states who are gonna want to invite you to those things where you can avoid that because it’ll be something that came from the voters and please accept those and do your best to get in front of those questions as well. 

(Regan) Spira-Savett hopes his group of faith leaders will find more success in 2020 and host their own forum. But for now, he’s putting a lot of focus on what he calls “knitting people back together” after the divisiveness of the 2016 election.

(Spira-Savett) Starting from before and then really accelerating after the presidential election I would convene at coffee shops. I would say ‘I’m going to be here and if you’re going to talk about politics here’s how we’re going to do it’. I’m going just to ask people to share their stories. What were their parents and grand parents political involvement? What were the things in your history that led you to vote the way that you do? Or identify with a party the way that you do?

(Regan) Spira-Savett tries to bring this mentality into his job of talking to fellow Jews and non-Jews about Israel and Israeli policy. As previously mentioned, he chose to be a diaspora Jew, one who lives outside of Israel. But like many others in his position there is still a deep connection to the country. He says Zionism and Israel, at its best, gives Jews an opportunity to serve the world. But it can be difficult to find the balance between the Jewish homeland of the texts and the situation on the ground. 

(Spira-Savett) I think all Jewish ideologies have been affected by the Torah that’s generated in Israel. And I think if you’re orthodox then it’s very hard. You’re kind of tied right now to the settler movement and their ideas in ways that are not good. And it’s hard if you are an Orthodox person who values justice for the Palestinians too. It’s very hard to live in that reality. It can not be so easy in my reality too where you have to teach people it’s not a ‘are you for or against Israel’. But what are the things that make Israel a Jewish state living up to its Jewishness and Jewish responsibilities and what will we contribute to that?

(Regan) There’s a commonly held belief among Jews in the diaspora that if anything ever goes wrong, Israel will be there as a safe haven for all Jews. There’s another belief, which has been discussed at length in this podcast, that America is different and Jews can finally ‘unpack their bags’ so to speak. Spira-Savett says these two narratives are not in contention. Instead they are linked. 

(Spira-Savett) I think the position of Jews in this country would be different if there were not an Israel. And I think that though people will talk about how American Jews help make sure America helps keep Israel safe, I think the power that comes with Israeli Jewishness helps give us a footing here. If something G-d forbid happened to Israel I think it would be devastating and change our position here even if no people became more anti-Semitic. 

(Regan) And he does think there’s anti-Semitism in the U.S. Spira-Savett has lived in places like Minnesota, Atlanta and Boston, but he says none of those places compare to what he calls the ‘know-nothing’ anti-Semitism of New Hampshire. 

(Spira-Savett) You get some of the stuff around the ‘christ killer’ things, you get the graffiti things around swastikas, this terrible thing of dropping coins on the ground next to a Jewish kid to see that they’ll pick it up. And at another level you get a complete insensitivity in a lot of the school systems in towns for why Jewish kids do things around our holidays which means we can’t do other kinds of things. So I think that’s not active anti-Semitism but it’s a willful not taking responsibility for thinking about other people. For me that was a big surprise to see that that still happens in the quote unquote ‘liberal Northeast’.

(Regan) As mentioned in the last episode, while Jews come in all races and from all over the world, many in the United States identify as white. And this brings on the question of ‘do you consider yourself a minority?’ For Spira-Savett the answer is ‘yes’. 

(Spira-Savett) We’re certainly not a minority in the way African Americans are a minority. It’s a different experience as I say it enables me to have pride about many things that are America and to be a good loyal critic about those other things. And I think I love that position.

(Regan) And he does love being in New Hampshire. 

(Spira-Savett) I think one of the reasons I’m here and not in a big city is that I am not probably the conventional kind of Conservative rabbi or Conservative observant person. I have my idiosyncrasies and being out in the hinterlands maybe enable me to say ‘look, I may look like the guy who wears a yarmulke all the time as I do out in public. But I’m also making choices’. Me and my family we are also struggling with if the only way to be in a performance or drama group is to do it on a shabbat evening from time to time will we give something of our shabbat? Is there a way we can accommodate that within our framework? The five of us don’t all see things the same way. We make our choices and they may look religious but we are asking the same questions everyone else is who’s Jewish around here. And I really love that.

(Regan) But it’s not just on a personal level that Spira-Savett struggles with accommodating tradition and modernity. It’s happening on an institutional level as well. He and others in the Conservative movement are starting to consider the possibility of officiating interfaith weddings. Something Spira-Savett used to think he would never do.

(Spira-Savett) So People have been talking about like if we were to without committing ourselves to doing it, if we were to design let’s say a marriage ceremony what would have to be in it? So it wouldn’t just be a ‘schmorgesborg’ or ‘build a bear’ you decide to do it and we’ll just do it. And to look at that and say ‘does that have integrity?’ I think that’s the next step. What I do now with couples I can’t marry I work very hard to find them a great rabbi who would do it. And I do ask myself ‘If I go that distance why can’t I be the great rabbi who does it?’

(Regan) Similar to Rabbi Jan Salzman in the next state over and in the previous episode, Spira-Savett thinks about examining the role of the Ger toshav, the welcomed stranger, the non-Jewish member of the community. They both say it can be a way for the non-Jewish spouse to play a role in raising a Jewish family. And similar to Rabbi Solomon Gruenwald in Colorado Spira-Savett still supports Matrilineal descent, but wants to make it easy for a child with only a Jewish Dad to convert, or ‘affirm’ their Judaism. But he does think changes are coming. Mostly to non-Orthodox denominations like his. 

(Spira-Savett) I think that part of my feeling is that if I were an Orthodox Jew and an ultra-Orthodox Jew certainly I would look at this and say ‘well these other folks these conservative Jews etc. they’re going to disappear anyway within a a few decades and we’re the ones who are going to be here’. And it could happen that way. So I think all we can do is say there’s an integrity to the approach we’re taking here. All I can do is challenge the people who will pay attention to me to figure out what that integrity is. And history will take care of itself. If we were just meant to be here for a phase. And whether it’s a few centuries or who knows if its only a few decades more, let’s make sure we do good things for the world while we’re here and whatever happens to the Jews in the next generations people will decide what that is and figure it out.

(Regan) Something that sticks out to me about Rabbi Jon Spira-Savett is the question he asked Secretary Hillary Clinton. How do you balance ego and humility? And those dynamics played out in my trip. When people told me they wish they could travel like me, it gave me confidence to stretch the route. But there were also times where I feel like I didn’t get to experience as much I could have because I bit off more than I could chew and had to rest from burnout. Secretary Clinton answered the question by talking about the importance of gratitude. And that works for me too. I tried to practice gratitude at every step. Gratitude I had the opportunity to travel, gratitude that there were so many people who opened their homes to me and gratitude that I was able to drive all around the weird roads of New England without getting lost too much. 

(Regan)American Rabbi Project Episode 7 New Hampshire: Live Free or Dayenu  was written and produced by me Justin Regan. Derek Povah handles the web stuff. Additional thanks to Jeremy Krones, Sarit Rathbone, Beth Vander Stoep and my parents for the assistance. And also thanks to my cousins, the Flory family for hosting me in New Hampshire. You can watch the interaction betweenRabbi Spira-Savett and then Candidate Clinton by going to the episode’s page on my website rabbiproject.com. While there, you can also find all the other episodes and a Jewish term index. Feel free to email me justin@rabbiproject.com. My twitter handles is @rabbiproject and you can also find me at facebook.com/rabbiproject. And until next time, Shalom and Safe Driving. 


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