Washington D.C.: Here I Am-Transcript

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

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

(Regan) There are few things in this world that break my spirit faster than following news coverage of a mass shooting. It usually starts with a push notification on my phone saying there are reports of a shooting at a school, or a public event, or a house of worship. At this point there’s still hope it’s a false alarm or an overreaction and an “all clear” will come next. So I try not to allow my brain to go to the worst case scenario. Unfortunately in many, if not most cases ‘reports of casualties’ start to trickle in. This is where I get a thought in my head which I know is messed up, but I can’t help myself. I hope for the lowest number possible. No matter what number eventually comes out, it’s a tragedy. Even without a single death, lives are violated in a way that most people will never come to terms with. On my trip there were two massacres that deeply shook me to my core. There was the mass shooting at a country bar near my hometown in Thousand Oaks, California. 12 people were killed. And there was the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

(Regan) I was in Washington D.C. when Pittsburgh happened. And I felt completely lost.  Being in a strange town where I knew very few people I didn’t even know where to go to process my grief.  Until I went to a Havdallah vigil that night outside of the White House. Havdalah is the group prayer ceremony to officially end Shabbat and welcome the new week.There’s a belief in Judaism that you get an extra soul on Shabbat. So Havdallah is a way of ending the Sabbath and seeing off your extra soul until next week. Although, I feel like I gained something at that vigil. I’m not sure what. Maybe it was just a spirit boost, maybe it was a bit of empowerment to be praying and singing with people of all faiths right in the center of it ,in D.C., and maybe it was just the simple reminder that there is love in the world too.

Episode 9: Washington D.C. Here I Am  

(Regan) The person who told me about the vigil was the rabbi I interviewed while in D.C. Rabbi Gil Steinlauf 

(Rabbi Gil Steinlauf) Hello my name is Rabbi Gil Steinlauf and I’m the former rabbi of Adas Israel congregation. I am currently the director of the Hineni Fellowship for LGBTQ Jewish Leadership as well as the scholar in residence of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

(Regan) Steinlauf and I spoke a few days after the tragedy. When I got to Adas Israel, the first thing I noticed were the metal detectors. Something Steinlauf says were a new addition after the shooting.

(Steinlauf) I don’t know if I’m over the numbness. I certainly am overwhelmed and sad. But another reaction that I think takes precedence over all of those reactions is kind of just a sad sense of not surprised. Not surprised because of the culture of firing the flames of hatred that are being sowed at the very top levels of government in this society. I was thinking it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. 

(Regan) To date, Pittsburgh is believed to be the deadliest attack against Jews in U.S. history. 11 worshippers were murdered. Some have gone on to call it a ‘pogrom’  a Russian word similar to ‘lynchmob’. That word is usually a past tense word, reserved for acts of terror against Jews in the old countries. Jews are no strangers to tragedies and Steinlauf says this has crafted a very Jewish response. 

(Steinlauf) There is a very clear Jewish answer to why does evil have to exist? why do bad things happen to good people? And the answer to that question is ‘what do we do now’? That’s the response. It’s not reacting with hatred. It’s not withdrawing into despair. It’s action oriented. What do we need to do? Something evil has happened. Now what do we DO? And our rabbis and our prayers and our texts and our wisdom teachings have been showing us for centuries that we have to affirm justice. We have to uphold the sacredness and goodness and the infinite potential for goodness that exists in the world. If we have faith in anything it’s faith in that potential for the good in all things and all moments and we don’t give up on that. And we have to figure out what actions we can take. And I’m proud of our community because I think we’re seeing that coming out in this community now. 

(Regan) Specifically, Steinlauf mentions the vigil held at Adas Israel after the shooting. About 5,000 people showed up. 1500 of those couldn’t even make it into the building and held an impromptu vigil outside. It was part of a wave of unity events that swept across the country and the world in the wake of the tragedy. Something that inspired Steinlauf. 

(Steinlauf) My only fear at this moment, is that in our understandable yearning to be safe, in our need to protect ourselves, this obsession with things like metal detectors and armed guards and doing what we can, can overwhelm everything else. That’s always a danger that fear itself can overwhelm everything else about how we come together as Jewish people.

(Regan) For Steinlauf the whole narrative of the Jews in America has been about this balance between security and identity. In the past, it wasn’t so much metal detectors but adopting the dominant white Christian culture that Jews used for defense.

(Steinlauf) The kind of forms and formats you see in American synagogues with the beama in the front of the room and the rabbi, in American tradition, wearing things like robes these things are all borrowed from Protestant Christianity. All in this attempt to become more WASPy then the WASPs here in America. Over the past couple of decades you’ve seen a movement to begin to question those presumptions. You’ve seen a movement towards ‘well what is the authentically Jewish dimension of how we are Jewish? How we pray how we do Jewish? Are there new forms? New ways of experiencing our Jewish spirituality and our religion that harkens to something unique and not necessarily assimilationist?’ 

(Regan) It’s the type of questions Steinlauf has spent a good amount of his career chewing over. He says, back in his seminary days, in the 90’s, he was told that quote ‘Conservative Judaism is King of American Judaism’. Not long after ordination he found that to be untrue. That across the country and the world, non-Orthodox Jewish institutions, were declining in numbers. 

(Steinlauf) I would put the shift in American Judaism this way. In the past couple of generations, Judaism has been presented as what I like to call ‘an objectified Judaism’. In other words, it lives outside of you. It’s like a thing that’s out there in the world and that you as an American Jew are balancing your Judaism with other aspects of your life. And then when you enter a synagogue it’s like entering a museum for many people. You also have to know something about what you are doing. There’s a sense of deep insecurity that people have about ‘what page are we on? I don’t know where to bow.’ 

(Regan) Steinlauf started considering a total change in how everything from prayer to the synagogue to learning is viewed. 

(Steinlauf) So in other words, the Torah and prayers, they exist for you. They’re there to help you answer the question ‘How can I feel most connected to my truest self? To my loved ones? To my community? To G-d?’ And I can make use of all these different tool kits or at least in this technology to help me be a better human being.

(Regan) This style of thinking eventually got him to the Pulpit of Adas Israel. While there, Steinlauf brought about new changes like a Beit Midras or house of study. A place where people can study and connect on their own terms and, in this case, also have access to modern technology and, of course, a coffee bar. Steinlauf says things like that helped to grow numbers when most congregations were losing people. 

(Steinlauf) All of these elements started to create new kinds of opportunities which led people to ask really relevant questions. There’s a strong and growing influence in this congregation for example on social justice and on the spirituality of social justice. And on how our texts and our traditions inspire us and lead us directly to action. So that when G-d forbid things like this tragedy happen or G-d forbid will happen again, we will have the tools to turn directly to our tradition to answer that question ‘what do we do now?’

(Regan) Steinlauf helped bring these changes to a very seasoned congregation. Adas Israel has been around for nearly 150 years. Then President Ulysses Grant attended the dedication ceremony. It’s what Steinlauf calls a flagship congregation of the Conservative movement. Washington D.C. has a large Jewish population and many powerful people come there to pray.

(Steinlauf) I’ll tell you when I first got here I was terrified it was a very daunting and intimidating reality to suddenly find myself in. And I remember early on giving a high holy day sermon where I was making some major point about Justice. And there I was looking at Supreme court justices, in that moment thinking ‘what on earth can I possibly say that could they could take in the best sense?’ But they are all very lovely and supportive.

(Regan) Steinlauf says when he first arrived to Adas Israel the clout of his congregants would get to him and, sometimes, he would try to say impressive things to prominent members.

(Steinlauf) But what I have found over the years is that when you come to synagogue all of that in a sense disappears. Everybody is just Jewish here. And I think that’s what really most of those people are looking for most when they come to synagogue. They’re looking not so much to be players but to escape that actually and to find a safe haven here in the beltway. A place where they can approach aspects of their own spiritual lives and growth and connection with community. To a certain extent I learned to completely look past whatever people do outside of the Jewish community and simply meet them where they are. And that’s proven to be very effective.

(Regan) Still, there are some unique opportunities afforded to a beltway rabbi. He’s had world authorities and newsmakers provide feedback on drafts of his sermons. There’s also a lot of unique moments to be an ambassador to the Jewish people to prominent individuals. For Steinlauf, that specifically includes one time where he had a brief private Torah study session with then President Barrack Obama. 

(Steinlauf) The thing about President Obama is that, and I knew this about him before we had our couple of minutes together, he identifies strongly with the Jewish community. He sees something in the Jewish spirit and story of the Jewish people that resonates very personally with him. And he exuded that sense of connection as soon as we met. 

(Regan) Steinlauf showed President Obama the Beit Midras. He told the President about the Jewish concept of study, how it makes for an intimate relationship between those in study. How it’s about people coming together to learn about and debate the complexities of Torah and how it can be brought into the actions of the modern days. 

(Steinlauf) And he found that to be very moving actually. From his origins and things like community organizing where people have one on ones with each other and that’s what motivates people to take action and get involved. And to see the connection between that and what Judaism has been doing for thousands of years. As a way of getting us to do sacred things in the world, I only think it worked to deepen his own sense of connection to the Jewish people. 

(Regan) Inversely, Steinlauf also had words for President Donald Trump when he got elected. In what became a well publicized letter.

(Steinlauf) So that open letter to Trump is something that I put together as an expression of some of the words of comfort and hope that I had offered to people as we tried to make sense together. Once again, parallel with this moment after Pittsburgh. That when you see a devastating turn of events, Judaism has a lot to say about how we can overcome it.

(Regan) In the letter, Steinlauf told President Trump that people like him who used hatred and infighting to gain power have plagued people in every generation but that light always wins out over darkness. At one point Steinlauf wrote “For you, life is a nightmare where you cannot feel the nearness of Divine Love”. Steinlauf says, as a rabbi, he tries to avoid making political statements when he can. 

(Steinlauf) However, and I have been saying this to my members all the years I have been at Adas, I reserve the right to speak out and say something even political when I feel like the moral message of the hour requires me as the spiritual leader to do so. And we are living in an era where our political leaders have crossed the moral line in ways that are sometimes immoral or even evil. And who but clergy have the responsibility to be the first people to call that out and to name it and to speak truth to power. 

(Regan) It’s one of several times in his life when something became a bigger story then he intended. Another instance of this was when, after the high holidays in 2014, he wrote an open letter to his congregation coming out as Gay. For Steinlauf, it’s a realization about himself that took 45 years to come to terms with. 

(Steinlauf) People like me often feel like they have something to prove to the world when you’re trying to hide something.  For some people they become anti-gay bigots. There are others who are more like me. I just had to be-I wanted to prove to the world my ability to be successful and to meet all societal standards of what heterosexual success looks like. 

(Regan) In so many ways he seemed to have achieved those standards of success. Steinlauf was the rabbi of one of the most established synagogues in the country. He was boosting attendance numbers in a time of general decline elsewhere. He and his then wife, who is also a rabbi, had made a very happy family together. But deep down, Steinlauf felt like something was off. 

(Steinlauf) Because of therapy that I’d been in and in the 80’s it was a long time ago, they had different messages for  kids like me back then. I really thought I was straight. I thought I was straight, maybe I had some hangups. That’s just how I understood myself. And I had been so disassociated from the part of me that was gay I couldn’t even place what was not right. 

(Regan) This spurred Steinlauf into a period of soul searching and one of the things that helped him see the truth of who he was, was Torah.

(Steinlauf) The purpose of Torah is not just to inspire. It’s not just to be stories that make us think of higher things. Sometimes the propose of the Torah is to challenge us. Sometimes the purpose of the Torah is to upset us! Sometimes it’s there to put us into a tailspin and in crisis in life! That’s why the Torah is sometimes harsh. That’s why its sometime alienating. That’s why it can be a very difficult and sometimes almost opaque document. It’s like a mirror of life itself. It’s a mirror we hold up to ourselves and to our world. Just like how life itself is sometimes difficult and opaque. Sometimes we feel the presence of G-d and sometimes we don’t feel the presence of G-d. And in confronting the harsh truth and reality of Torah along with all that is wonderful and warm and fuzzy about Torah and embracing the whole truth of it, that helped me to do it within my own soul. There were parts of myself that I had just avoided. And I realized from the very nature of Torah that I could look at the very fullness of myself and not think of myself as too shameful or too dark or too unacceptable to be part of the narrative of who Gil Steinlauf is. Just as the Torah doesn’t shy away from it, I’m not going to shy away from it. 

(Regan) With this discovery, Steinlauf and his wife realized they had to get divorced. He says the two of them still care deeply for each other and consider themselves family. Eventually, Steinlauf came to the decision to come out to his congregation. The letter went viral and the response was overwhelmingly supportive.

(Steinlauf) And it wasn’t just the congregation. I remember coming into my office an hour after the letter published and my inbox suddenly exploding with hundreds and ultimately thousands of emails and I was getting phone calls and hand written notes and cards literally from all over the world because the news spread that a senior rabbi of a major American congregation mid-career suddenly came out of the closet. Which I didn’t realize at the time would be newsworthy. Because there are plenty of Gay and Lesbian rabbis already out there in the field. But apparently this one struck a cord. Jeffery Goldberg who is the editor of The Atlantic wrote a piece about it. He wrote it the same day. About how the reason that it’s newsworthy is that it’s a liminal moment that had I been ten years older I would have just remained closeted forever and ten years younger I would have been out anyway. 

(Regan) And Steinlauf hopes that stories like his soon become a thing of the past. Where someone has to suppress who they are to the point that they have to rediscover themselves. Steinlauf’s own story has now taken a pivot since he’s come out.

(Steinlauf) I decided a year and a half ago to walk away from this extraordinary position at Adas Israel, and to pursue a new chapter in my professional life. And that has everything to do with that shift in my understanding of my own path that no, I don’t have anything to prove anymore. And I don’t have anything to prove. What I do want to do is teach Torah. What I do want to do is frame moments and create conditions for people to be inspired and to feel connected to something beyond themselves. That’s still there. But I want to do it in different ways.

(Regan) Steinlauf is working to engage more LGBTQ Jews through a program called Hineni (hebrew for ‘Here I Am’). It’s a year-long course where LGBTQ Jews learn about Jewish culture, history, spirituality and many other things. It’s designed to give them the tools necessary to become leaders in the Jewish community. Steinlauf says this is vital because even though LGBTQ individuals are accepted in most Jewish circles these days, they are still marginalized. 

(Steinlauf) For example, even when I came out of the closet, people would come up to me and with the most loving hearts and most wonderful intention would say to me; ‘you know rabbi, we love you. You’re our wonderful rabbi. We think you’re the best. And this whole gay business, I don’t care. I don’t care at all’ And I totally get and understand what they meant when they said that. But inwardly I was thinking, ‘well I care’. Which led me to reflect on the whole idea that difference matters. That diversity is a beautiful thing and we should care. So rather then beat people over the head and become angry or alienated, I’m trying to say there’s another way. We have to have the courage. Those of us-not just LGBTQ but Jews of color, Jews who are in non-traditional families, Jews with disabilities. All these different groups of people. Some of us who have a love of the Jewish people and would be interested in leadership should really own these non-normative parts of our identities. And very consciously and proudly bring those things into the center of conversation because that can only serve to make the community healthier and more loving and more just.

(Regan) Steinlauf believes another factor in the discussion over the balance between innovation and tradition has to do with every generation having their own spiritual language for connecting with Judaism. 

(Steinlauf) My newest fascination is what we call ‘Generation Z’. The next generation after millennials who are now in college. They’re sadly more cynical but they are infinitely more sophisticated then anything that we’ve seen before. Because of access to information and to knowledge. They are going to be demanding REALNESS. They are going to be demanding something that the Jewish institutional structure that we currently find ourselves in with federations and JCC’s and day schools can only answer somewhat. It’s a little scary, because the answer that many of the youngest generations are coming to is that the only change that can happen is going to be a radical change of everything. Of all of our institutions of our corporate structure, of all of the oppressive and abusive ways that are happening in the world. But it’s also very exciting because Judaism has a lot to say about radical change as much as it has to say about tradition.

(Regan) Rabbi Gil Steinlauf has been working on change his entire life. And bringing more individuals into the fold. He says there are multiple American Jewish narratives. One is anxiety based. Worries over assimilation, loss of culture and even loss of life. He says these concerns are valid as shown throughout history and now sadly more recently with the continued attacks on American synagogues. 

(Steinlauf) That being said their are other narratives of being Jewish that I think have to have a place at the table. And I believe, not just an equal place at the table but a more predominant place at the table. Which is that Judaism is joyful, Judaism is sacred, Judaism is inspiring, Judaism contains messages and wisdoms within it that can try to transform, not only our personal lives, but literally can heal the world. Can transform the world that we live in and make it a completely different place where hatred doesn’t win out and humanity can reach a potential it has never seen before. All of these messages are so strong in our tradition that I think it is a tragedy when we give in to fear. Which is why I started out this conversation by saying my concern now is giving too much into fear whenever this happens. The greatest act of defiance we can do is live in the narrative of non-fear based Judaism, but of joy-based judaism and that would be the greatest success of all. 

(Regan) When I first got the idea for American Rabbi Project, a lot of it revolved around the question ‘is America different?’ It felt weird at times to ask that question after Pittsburgh. As if something had been exposed. However, what sticks out to me in the post-Pittsburgh interviews, Steinlauf included, is that despite being shaken up, in many cases, there was a still a sense of passion and excitement when talking about the future. 

(Regan) This concludes season one of American Rabbi Project. Don’t worry, I have plenty of other interviews in the bag, including several others from my road trip. I look forward to season 2 and if you’re curious about it please feel free to email me justin@rabbiproject.com. And now some thank you’s. Thank you to Derek Povah for being my dedicated web guy. Having a great website not only makes my product look better, it gives me a greater sense of pride of what I’m doing, so thank you. Thank you to Jeremy Krones and Sarit Rathbone for always finding the time to meticulously go through my long and clunky scripts and to listen to my senseless rambling on the phone. Also thanks to Jeremy for helping me get in contact with Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman in Massachusetts and Rabbi Steinlauf in D.C. Thank you to Beth Vander Stoep for being my rock, my sounding board and a great insight on the finer details of Jewish theology. Thank you to Dylan Abrams for bringing a professional journalists’ perspective to the project. As a professional journalist you have no free time, yet you found time for me. Thank you to my parents for literally everything, including reviewing my scripts and letting me voice this great piece of journalism in their bedroom closet. And thank you to all the people I interviewed. You gave your precious time to a freelance podcaster in a beat up Honda Civic, and that means the world to me. Season 2 is going to be great. But for now, go to my website rabbiproject.com to catch up on all the episodes. You’ll also find a Jewish terminology index their. Follow me on twitter with the handle @rabbiproject and facebook.com/rabbiproject

And, of course, until next time, until next season, Shalom and Safe Driving.

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