Rabbi of Last Resort

My grandmother Connie Freirich (z”l - may her memory be for a blessing) was mother of four young kids in the 1950’s on Long Island, New York. During their early childhood Connie went to the nearest synagogue to talk to the rabbi about joining and giving her kids a Jewish education. As she chatted with the rabbi they turned to the subject of her husband’s, my grandfather Jerry’s, profession, which happened to be the business of meat packaging - corned beef and pastrami primarily. The rabbi asked my grandmother if this was a kosher business, which it wasn’t, and then told her that my grandfather would have to change his business to join their synagogue.

My grandmother never went back to a synagogue until my Bar Mitzvah, probably thirty years later, and only went to synagogue after that when she absolutely couldn’t avoid it.

Almost all of us know a story like this, one where someone went into a synagogue or Jewish communal institution and had some experience that meant they would never show up there again.

Jews, people interested in Judaism, show up to synagogues and Jewish institutions as an act of bravery - almost all of us, including me, wonder whether we are “Jewish enough” to enter that synagogue and talk to that rabbi. How stalwart we must be to stride forth into a place and talk to people that we feel will offer us guilt or rejection because we never measure up.

Considering all of this, I must make every effort as a rabbi to welcome people into Judaism, because I could be that rabbi, the one that everyone talks about, who sent my grandmother packing. Every moment a person takes the risk of engaging Judaism seems like it might be their last encounter, and it just might be if we act as we have for the last century, using guilt and obligation, instead of compassion and connection, as incentive for being Jewish.

When we take the risk to venture into relationship with Judaism, we do so because we need something, otherwise why take the risk? If I have the opportunity to meet that need, I must engage each person expressing that need with caring, thought, and respect.

Judaism makes life better - more joyful, more thoughtful, more meaningful, more caring, more connected - so let’s run on our strengths, let’s share them. I work to leave the negative incentives behind, and recognize that every time I encounter a person interested in Judaism, I may be that rabbi of last resort, the one who makes the difference, the one who opened Jewish communal life up for another person, the one who says, “You’re Jewish, welcome.”