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The Fire-Keeper

Dear Friends,

I find it disorienting but also amazing how the landscape of American Jewish life has changed in my lifetime. When I was a kid, if you married “out”, you were essentially declaring that you were opting out of the Jewish community – I didn’t know any intermarried families in my suburban town, and certainly not in my synagogue. I would entertain myself by scanning the phone book (remember the phone book?) and searching for all the Jewish last names. That’s how I could figure out who was Jewish. My Jewish community was an ethnically homogeneous, Ashkenazi crowd, sharing cultural referents and Yiddish-speaking grandparents as touchstones of our identity.

That world is gone. Today’s Jewish community is multi-colored and multi-ethnic. People from all kinds of religious backgrounds are now members of synagogues. The 1950’s ideal of “family” – heterosexual, nuclear, homogeneous – has been replaced by an ever-expanding rainbow of family configurations.

Of course, I feel some nostalgia for my old mishpoche. At times I feel disoriented, trying to get my bearings in this new and rapidly changing landscape. That’s entirely natural. But I truthfully find this new world to be exciting and enticing. As a rabbi, I can no longer rely on ethnic inertia to keep people involved in Jewish life. That paradigm is fading rapidly. Rather, I am forced to reckon with an enlivening challenge: creating an expression of living Judaism that is so compelling and meaningful and joyous and engaging that folks want to join in.

I was speaking about this topic recently with some congregants, and a felicitous phrase popped out of my mouth: At this point in my rabbinate, I am much more interested in being the fire-keeper rather than the gatekeeper.

That is, I find that I no longer have much interest in policing the boundaries of the Jewish community, nor am I particularly concerned with the question of “Who is a Jew?” It’s not that these questions are not important, but being the “gatekeeper” into Jewish life is not primary for me. Rather, I want to keep the fire at the heart of Judaism burning brightly, and invite anyone and everyone to come warm themselves and gain illumination by that blazing hearth. I want to leave all the gates and doors open, and focus my effort on being an able fire-keeper. Come, all you seekers, an ancient, nourishing flame abides in Judaism, shedding light and meaning in every generation. Even as the make-up of the Jewish community transforms, the flame abides. Come near, warm yourselves, learn from it, and grow with us. Help us tend this precious inheritance, and keep it burning brightly. I feel privileged and nourished and blessed to be a fire-keeper of Judaism. The gates are open; come on in!

Shabbat Shalom and Love,

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler