Q & A With Rabbi Ed Feinstein
After more than 20 years at Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Ed Feinstein recently was named senior rabbi at the Encino synagogue, succeeding Rabbi Harold Schulweis. Recently, Rabbi Feinstein, 51, began teaching an adult education course called “Knowing God: The History of the Jewish Spiritual Journey.” The Jewish Journal spoke with him about his vision for the synagogue and the problems facing the Jewish community.
The Jewish Journal: So why did you decide to teach about God? Did you think people don’t know the basics?
Rabbi Ed Feinstein: Sometimes a teacher can help you discover what you already know. The Jews in my community have a lot of latent knowledge of our tradition, but it’s not conscious so they can’t share it with their kids. One of the complaints among the young people I went to school with is that we never talked about God. So I decided, let’s talk about God un-self-consciously. How do Jews think about God? It’s a historical view of theology. God talk is unfamiliar to those who teach our kids. The whole culture is awash in spirituality except for us.
JJ: What made you decide to become a rabbi?
REF: My father’s a closet philosopher, and he would hold big Jewish discussions around the table on Friday night; Jewish ideas were always part of the conversation. There was serious discussion at my table: whether a Jew can resist the draft, or whether we owed it to the country to serve. (It turned out I didn’t have to.) We talked about Israel. We talked about Jewish life in America, whether the synagogues were worth saving.
I felt the synagogue was cold. I went to my rabbi, and I said, “I can’t relate to the shul anymore.” He gave me Heschel and I started reading how religion “became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” It was my luck to find in my adolescent rebellion sources within the tradition to respond to my problems in the tradition; to find these guys who were willing to show me how to find an outlet for my own ’60s rebellion within the Jewish tradition.
JJ: What were you rebelling against?
REF: The government betrayed us by sending us to Vietnam; our parents betrayed us by giving us materialistic values; and Judaism betrayed us by becoming boring. But I could be a rebel in the Jewish community. Now I am a ’60s radical … I make a great radical, get the respect of the community and still say all the things I wanted to say when we were kids.
When Rabbi Schulweis came to [VBS] my father ended dinner early, and we started coming here. Rabbi Schulweis gave me a way to be religious without having to compromise the intellectuality that I grew up with.
JJ: You gave a sermon on Yom Kippur outlining your vision for the synagogue. Can you sum it up?
America gives us many gifts: freedom, security, hope. But there’re two huge holes in American culture. One, it’s very individualistic, and therefore lonely. And two, American culture doesn’t provide a sense of the purpose for living. And these happen to be the two things that Judaism does best. It connects us with each other into community. And it reminds us that we live for each other and with each other and provides a sense of purposeful living.
JJ: What is the most serious problem facing the Jewish community?
REF: The most important problem that I deal with is how to get people to take belonging seriously, and not think of themselves as consumers of the community, but to truly think of themselves as members, that the community belongs to them and they belong to each other and they belong to the community.
That’s the problem that all non-Orthodox synagogues have, because non-Orthodox people have an identity called the sovereign self. American individualism is reticent to join, to belong, to feel committed to something, to feel claim to something. The capacity of community is to make them feel like they really belong, and they’re not here just to consume the services of the synagogue when they need it, and [to leave] when their needs are fulfilled — it’s not Wal-Mart. That’s the problem that all of us deal with.
JJ: How do you deal with it?
REF: I deal with it in a couple of ways. I try to build personal relationships with lots of people and make myself accessible. I try to emphasize that the synagogue is not just for kids. We’re also here to create a vibrant Jewish culture. We welcome people of all kinds of backgrounds. We don’t assume that anyone knows anything when we start. We try to have lots of gateways for people to come in, lots of ways to get involved. We have people going to Habitat for Humanity to build houses. They don’t go to shul — that’s their Judaism. There are lots of gateways for lots of spiritual types: All trying to connect with each other and connect with the shul.
JJ: How do you try to attract the unaffiliated?
REF: You try to create a culture of adult Judaism that is compelling and you try to invite people to join. In the end, the thing that works best is nursery school. When people have kids, they begin thinking differently about their lives. We keep the doors open to singles, but people of that ilk tend not to join — their lives are very fluid and flexible, because they should be.