Judaism Unbound Podcast

by Allison Friedman / October 9, 2017

Judaism Unbound Podcast: BREAKING NEWS – Yom Kippur…in a Beer Garden? – Aaron Potek

Listen to the entire podcast here. Read on for a complete transcript.

Rabbi Aaron Potek

Dan Libenson:

This is a special breaking news edition of Judaism Unbound—Yom Kippur…In a Beer Garden? Welcome back, everyone. I’m Dan Libenson. And the first thing I should say is that Lex is not here with me today because we wanted to do this episode as a kind of rapid response to something going on in the Jewish world, and unfortunately Lex and I weren’t able to coordinate our schedules such that we could both do this interview together. But rest assured, Lex is in the background doing the editing of this episode, so his hand is still here.

And I’m excited to be here today with Aaron Potek. He is a rabbi who has been in the news recently, over the last week or two, because he put together a very unique Jewish experience for Yom Kippur, and it took place in a beer garden, which is essentially a bar.
So we’re going to talk to Aaron about this event, and we thought it was worth doing one of these rapid response breaking news episodes because it’s something that’s happened very recently that’s been in the news, that’s really interesting, and that connects to a lot of what we’re talking about on Judaism Unbound.

Lex and I have been talking recently that we want to try to do more of these episodes, and we’re going to keep our eyes open to things that are happening in a sort of “in the news” sort of way. So if you know of anything that’s about to happen, please let us know, and we will see about putting together one of these episodes.

So we’re excited today to talk to Aaron Potek. He is a rabbi at an organization called GatherDC, which in their own language is a local non-profit that connects Jews in their 20s and 30s in Washington D.C. to meaningful Jewish life, to each other, and to their unique Jewish identity, through personal relationship building, collaboration with local Jewish partners, and facilitation of alternative community programming.

GatherDC creates a thriving Jewish life where millennials of all backgrounds, genders, levels of religious observance, and interest can find their people and their place. So one of the things that this organization has done is to create an alternative Yom Kippur experience for some of the folks that they work with. And we’re really interested in talking to Aaron about that event.

As I said earlier, it got a lot of press because of its location in a beer garden, which is essentially a bar, which happened to be closed at the time of the event, so there was no food or drink served. But somehow that sense that it was happening in this not only space that wasn’t a synagogue, but in a particular kind of space that pushed some people’s buttons got a lot of press. This was covered in the Washington Post as well as a number of Jewish press outlets and other general press outlets.

And that in itself is very interesting, and we’re excited to talk to Aaron about it. But in addition to that, the experience itself is really interesting, because it was not your typical Yom Kippur service. It was something very different. So we’re really interested to talk about this, to connect it to the themes that we’ve been talking about on Judaism Unbound over the last couple of years, and to hopefully open up a conversation more generally about really what an out-of-the-box creativity looks like in terms of trying to connect Jewish content with people who are not connecting to the traditional forms.

So we’re really excited and glad and thrilled that you joined us today, Rabbi Aaron Potek. Welcome to this special edition of Judaism Unbound.

Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yeah, thanks for having me, Dan, and I’m excited to be a part of—I think this is a new feature for Judaism Unbound, correct?

Dan Libenson: Well, it’s the second time that we’ve done this kind of breaking news edition. But it was funny, because Lex and I actually were just talking the other day saying, “Hey, we should do more of those breaking news editions. That was fun.” And sure enough, some news happened. So thank you for giving us the excuse!

Rabbi Aaron Potek: Happy I could be the source of some breaking news.

Dan Libenson: Right. So let’s tell our listeners a little bit about this, because although it was covered pretty heavily in the Jewish press—and I think that we who are doing work in the Jewish community, the holy grail is that we should be covered by The New York Times or the Washington Post. And so at least I saw a Washington Post article.

So it’s very exciting for any kind of Jewish event to be covered in one of the major papers. But not everybody reads those papers. So I was hoping that you could at least just start by telling us a little bit about the event from your perspective, and how you came to create a Yom Kippur experience, as you put it, in a beer garden.

Rabbi Aaron Potek: Well, not only is this breaking news, but you have the first exclusive post-Yom Kippur experience interview. Those other articles were all before the fact.

Basically, my work is centered around unaffiliated, unengaged Jews in their 20s and 30s, here in Washington D.C. And for all the talk of innovation in the Jewish world and trying new approaches to reaching Jews where they’re at, when it comes to high holidays, the options are more or less pretty standard.

They seem to mostly be synagogue-based and prayer-based. Which is fine. You know, most—a lot of Jews connect that way, and there’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But there’s actually a lot of Jews who don’t connect that way, and I don’t really think moving prayer services from a synagogue to a JCC or to a gymnasium really counts as innovative.

So, yeah, I thought I would explore what it means to try to reach Jews for whom these standard aspects of Yom Kippur, whether it’s praying, whether it’s synagogue, whether it’s fasting—I was thinking about what can I do to reach Jews for whom that really isn’t as resonant, but who are still trying to connect to the themes of the day, the larger aspects of what Yom Kippur is trying to get at, and trying to make sense of their larger Jewish identity. And it seems like there should at least be an opportunity to provide something that’s a little different than the standard traditional option.

Dan Libenson: So tell me what the elements were in your thinking about what you were doing. Because at least in sort of reading the press about it, I think that there were two major elements, one of which probably I would imagine in your mind, the less important one is the one that got all the press coverage, which was the location of the event in a beer garden, which for our listeners who don’t know, is basically a bar. And that actually, there was no food or drink served at the bar at that time at the beer garden, because it was a Saturday morning, right?

And so a lot of the sort of talk was about having a Yom Kippur service or experience in a bar, and whether that was appropriate or not. But that was one of the elements. And then the other element that you were talking about is what went on there. That it was not exactly a service. And so I’d love for you to talk a little bit about both of those elements, and if there were other elements in your thinking through the event and your planning for it, that were really like the key elements that you were focused on.

Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yeah, yeah. There’s a lot there. We can start with the beer garden. Like you said, that got most of the attention for, you know, good reason. Obviously when you think of Yom Kippur, you don’t think of a beer garden or a bar.

It was unfortunate how many people wrongly assumed or even willfully ignored articles confirming that indeed the bar was closed and that food and drink wouldn’t be served. Kind of a larger meta side comment there about how much we can ignore the truth, even when it’s [laugh] like right there on paper, or at least how much we’re not willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. But that’s for another conversation.

In terms of the reason that I chose the bar, I felt really strongly like I wanted it to be in a cool, real-world [laugh] location, you know? Whether that’s a bar, whether that’s a music hall, whether that’s a coffee shop. We didn’t specifically look out for a bar. That just happened to be the one that worked in terms of price and location and size.

But yeah, I think that was an important message, that especially for Jews who kind of touch Judaism once or twice a year, I think it sends a really important message that Judaism doesn’t just happen in a synagogue. I’ll share what someone shared with me, which is now whenever they go to that beer garden, they’re going to think of [laugh] my Yom Kippur experience. And that’s like—it was a half joke, but I really do think there’s something powerful there. If you never step foot in a synagogue again, then you never have to think about all the stuff that you thought about there. But if you’re having that experience in a beer garden, then you’re probably going to be forced to think about it again at some point in the upcoming year.

Dan Libenson: It’s interesting, because in the press coverage, one of the comments that I read somewhere, or maybe it was in some kind of Facebook comment or something, was that somehow there was some importance to the idea that Jews should come to synagogue for Yom Kippur.

And whether it was in a beer garden or somewhere maybe less provocative, I think that person would have felt equally that it was wrong to not have Yom Kippur services in a synagogue. And you know, I think it’s a really interesting question, right? This question of whether people should be coming to Judaism, or Judaism should be coming to people, and is there some way in which if Judaism comes to people—I think the implication was that that somehow is cheapening or lessening Judaism or making it less sort of important or I don’t know what.

And it struck me, because it was so the opposite of the way that I think about it. But it also struck me that you think back to our history, where Judaism was localized to the temple in Jerusalem, and that there was a notion that Judaism could only happen in the temple in Jerusalem. And then obviously after the destruction of the temple, Judaism started happening in all these other places. And it’s actually the people who now defend those other places where Judaism started to happen—i.e. the synagogue—that are now upset that Judaism is potentially happening in different places.

Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yes, yeah. I love that irony. Thanks for pointing that out. I guess this was honestly a good example of how I’m so immersed in this millennial world of non-institutional Judaism, that you know, I was not—maybe I’m naïve, but I was not anticipating that sort of reaction.

There’s obviously important debates to be had about institutional Judaism and Jews in their 20s and 30s—whether they should or should not join synagogues, and who’s fault—is it the synagogue’s fault? Is it the 20s and 30s who just have everything handed to them’s fault? You know, we could have that conversation.

But the reality is just—I mean, there’s no arguing that masses of Jewish 20s and 30s are not joining synagogues. So the idea that we should kind of dig in our heels and take a firm stance on the one or two times a year when Jews are actually looking to engage with their Judaism for the sake of—I don’t even know what—hoping that they become members?

I mean, I’m sure there’s statistics done, but that just can’t possibly be happening [laugh] on a large scale. I would seriously doubt that these Jews who are coming once or twice a year suddenly decide to come back to synagogue on a regular basis based on that.

That’s not to say that that’s not an important conversation, and that’s not to say that there isn’t merit in the idea that maybe we should be not dismissing synagogues so quickly, but in the end of the day, part of meeting people where they’re at, at least for me in this work, is saying “Hey, you know what? If you don’t want to join a synagogue, that’s OK. There’s actually a way to live a very rich Jewish life that doesn’t involve institutions.”

Dan Libenson: Yeah. So let’s turn our attention to what actually happened there, and how it all went. Before just describing it, could you also sort of talk to us about what was your point of view going into designing this day? What is it that you think people were looking for, or didn’t know they were looking for?

And I guess what do you think that Yom Kippur has to offer somebody who may not appreciate prayer or be a believer, or whatever the other predicates that we tend to think of, that have to do with the traditional themes of the holiday?

Rabbi Aaron Potek: Prayer has just become such a focus of the day, and again I’m not arguing that we should eliminate prayer or that prayer isn’t effective or that it isn’t a great means to achieve certain ends. But yeah, I guess my working theory was that for some people, just as a synagogue might be intimidating, prayer might be intimidating, and we shouldn’t let kind of the desire to promote and defend prayer get in the way of people actually connecting to the themes of the day.

So I think the real heart of the conversation is, what’s the point of Yom Kippur? [laugh] And how is it relevant? And what was interesting is that I heard some feedback from people that the actual point of Yom Kippur is fasting and praying. That that is the point. So kind of what I was doing was just a futile endeavor because it was you know, kind of just this hippy dippy secularization distortion of what Judaism actually is.

And for me, that’s where the real debate is, because I just fundamentally don’t agree. I see praying as a means to achieve what we’re actually supposed to do on Yom Kippur, which is confronting ourselves in the deepest way. Confronting our mortality. Confronting the life that we’re living. Confronting the questions about the life that we should be living. And kind of asking ourselves and confronting, what are the obstacles that are getting in the way of me doing what I need to do to live my best life, and to be my best self?

Again, this kind of gets to a more core ideology of mine, which is that Judaism is ultimately supposed to help us achieve self-fulfillment and self-actualization. That these are not arbitrary laws that some vicious God is imposing upon us, but that this is actually a system that helps us live life to the fullest. So with that attitude, it seems obvious to me that there are other ways of connecting to the themes of Yom Kippur that don’t require prayer or synagogue to get there.

Dan Libenson: So how did you do it?

Rabbi Aaron Potek: [laugh] Well, [laugh] it’s easy to talk about it. I don’t know if I was successful or not, but I can tell you about some of the stuff that we did. We decided to focus on three major themes. The first was Judaism, which is a bit of a meta conversation. But basically in thinking about the day and what I wanted to focus on, I realized that for better or worse, Yom Kippur is just one of the few times, maybe even the only time in a year, that a Jew asks him or herself, “What does Judaism mean to me?” So might as well [laugh] use that opportunity to really delve into that question, instead of having it be in the background of someone’s mind but never explicitly discussed.

The second theme that we talked about was big picture. And I’ll tell you a little more about what we did there. But the idea was Yom Kippur is a day to zoom out of all the distractions and all the mundane details that end up, yeah, distracting us from this core question of, “What is my life really about?” So we did a couple of activities and used a couple of different methodologies to help people zoom out.
And then the third thing, which was actually the bulk of the time, was exploring this concept of tshuva, which is tough to translate, but has been translated as repentance or returning, and which is clearly a major theme of Yom Kippur. And so yeah, we figured “Hey, let’s actually spend a good hour talking about what this actually means, and what it actually looks like to do in real life.”

And those were the three major themes. I’m happy to get into what we did for each of those, but I’ll just share that we ended on a note of joy, which felt really important for me, both because I actually do think that there’s an aspect of Yom Kippur that is joyous, that is often ignored, and because as an engagement tool, the idea that people [laugh] experience Judaism once a year on this sad, somber, almost depressing day, and then we wonder, well, how come they never come back? It’s like, well, no wonder they never come back! [laugh] They experienced the depressing Judaism. Who wants to revisit that?

So for me, it was really important to end on a note of joy, and with singing, and with ultimately experiencing a little bit of the release that I think Yom Kippur is meant to create, which is a sense that we have a renewed commitment in this upcoming year to live life to the fullest, and not just beat ourselves up.

This idea that prayer works for everyone, or that fasting works for everyone—I mean, it’s just so clearly not true. And not only is it not true, but that’s acknowledged in the halacha, in Jewish law itself. Someone who suffers from an eating disorder—god forbid that we should be telling them that they should try to fast the whole day.

So there’s an acknowledgment, even within the system, that clearly this doesn’t work for everyone. And I think part of the dangerous trends of certain streams of Judaism today is not appreciating that a system that is meant to apply to every single person is limited by that very fact that it’s trying to apply to every single person uniformly.

And we really need more voices of different avenues that are ultimately trying to get to the same place. For me, that really just brings up a conversation of pluralism. And I think a lot of the pushback that I got was actually really just a pushback on the very idea of pluralism. The very idea that there are multiple paths to achieve the same outcome.

Dan Libenson: So could you share with us a little bit about the how? Because I think a lot of times when we talk about thinking differently about Judaism, and we might be able to bring in the philosophy, but then people break down at the point of saying, “Well, what would this actually look like applied, and how can we actually create a very concrete thing that people will be doing, that will in some way be capturing these meanings and goals of the holidays? Because here, we’ve received this tried and true formula that’s been around for thousands or hundreds of years, and at least—it might not work that well but at least we know that it worked one time for somebody, whereas your crazy idea, we don’t know if it’s going to work for anyone.”

You know, how do we really—how do you go from the goals and the meanings to an attempt to actually ritualize that? And what did you do specifically in this case, and how did it go?

Rabbi Aaron Potek: You know, I’m not like an innovative genius. I’ll tell you what I did, but I don’t think it’s anything mindblowingly crazy. I think what was more unfortunately radical and innovative was just acknowledging that there needs to be different methods to try to reach that same goal.

I understand that that’s dangerous territory and trying to create an alternative to the standard tried and true method, but we can bury our heads in the sand or we can look around and acknowledge that those tried and true methods are just either not working for a lot of people, or I think even more important is they’re not accessible to a lot of people.

Of course these prayers are unbelievable if you speak fluent Hebrew, and if you’re fully familiar with all the biblical references that they’re making and the plays on words. I’m not saying that that’s not incredible stuff. Of course it is. But we’re talking about people who don’t speak Hebrew [laugh], and who have no understanding of the Bible. So the idea that these prayers are going to work for them—they weren’t written for them. They were written for people who have a deeper understanding of our liturgy, of our history, of our canon.

So I just think this is really a conversation about dealing with the reality on the ground. And we can bemoan that it’s not where it should be, and we can argue about how it got to be where it is, but at the end of the day, we’re talking about a massive group of Jews—a massive population of Jews here in America—who are trying to connect. And if our only answer is, “Hey, do this traditional thing that is completely inaccessible,” we’re pretty screwed.

What I wish was that this could be a panel [laugh]. Maybe this is for next year’s Judaism Unbound. You know, a panel of ten different people who tried different things, tapping into these different themes.

Dan Libenson: Well, I’m glad you said that because I really do—I share your hope, and I hope that one of the things that will come out of this conversation for our listeners—well, there are two things at least, that I can imagine.

One is stuff like this that’s already happening out there, we’d love to know about it. And we’d love to find a way to collect knowledge of it, and put it on our website or otherwise share it.

Because I’ll just tell you, even at my own synagogue that I attend for the high holidays, for many years I’ve been leading an alternative text study session as an alternative to a large chunk of the service.

And this year, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, as an alternative to the morning service, we also had Rabbi Benay Lappe, who was a previous guest on Judaism Unbound, teaching one of her Talmud study sessions, that she very much presents always and presented at this particular time as a spiritual experience.

What she says at the end which—she basically asks, “How many of you were thinking about your mortgage payments while you were studying Talmud over the last two hours?” Or, “How many of you were thinking about your other situations in your life, and how many of you were really focused on the Talmud study?”

And by the way, these are no Talmud scholars. These are regular people many of whom had never studied Talmud before in their life. And everybody raises their hand that they were focused on the Talmud study because it was so challenging and so interesting. And Benay says, “And that means it was a spiritual experience.” You know, “You had a spiritual experience. You were transcended from your day-to-day cares, and hopefully beyond that. You thought about important things that the particular text we were looking at was asking us to think about.” Et cetera et cetera. And so, just from a sample size of two, we both experienced these very interesting alternative experiences these high holidays. And we also know about these experiences for secular Israelis in Palo Alto. So my guess is that there’s a lot more of this going on than we know about.

And, second of all—that was sort of goal number one. And goal number two is that I think that a lot of people, if they hear, and if they would become—if they would know that these kinds of things are happening already, these are not just theoretical, they might do them themselves. They might—or they might urge the leadership of their synagogues to try alternatives. And to say, “This is not something that we’re going to be the first in the world to do. Actually, this is happening already.” And so I really think that there’s a lot of potential here. There may be a lot already going on. And yeah, sorry for the long digression, but I look forward to that panel discussion next year.

Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yeah. No, no. I appreciate that. And I do just want to say, maybe a slightly controversial point, but you know, a lot of people in the pushback that I got for this said, “Oh, well I host a learner’s service. Why can’t you just do that? That’s what engagement is.”

And again, not to repeat myself too much here, but distilling down a five-hour-long service into one hour and including some poetry readings is not the same as really what I’m talking about, which is a paradigm shift. Which is saying, “How can we move outside the model of prayer to still achieve the same ends?”

So I hope that that panel discussion is rich with a lot of different diverse non-prayer-based options. Because we know what the prayer option looks like, and I think this is a little more of uncharted territory.

And I heard from a lot of religious Jews saying, “Oh, I would have loved to have been there if it was on a Sunday or if it was after the regular services.” But then that gets into a problem of inclusivity and diversity.

And I’m obviously not going to come down against inclusivity and diversity. But I think there is something special about a self-selected group of people who are all more or less trying to connect to Judaism with a similar understanding or a similar background.
And this experience was really 130 like-minded people that were open to receiving a very particular type of message. And it was liberating from my perspective to not have to worry about, “Oh, but what about this type of Jew who’s going to be there?” And, “What about this…?” You know, and all the caveats, and all the introductory remarks, and all—it’s like “No, actually we can just speak to this group, because that’s exactly who’s here.”

Dan Libenson: OK. So let’s jump into the meat of it. We keep almost getting there. But tell us a little bit more about the substantive specific content of what you—as you say, you’re not necessarily the biggest ritual reinvention genius in the world, but maybe you are! So I’d love to know what you actually did.

Rabbi Aaron Potek: Trust me, I’m not. The first section of checking in about Judaism was just framing how much baggage people have when they walk into a Jewish space, and really thanking them for having the courage to step into this new experiment with all of that baggage, with all of that uncertainty.

And we just wanted to help bring people into the present moment. So we had people get up out of their seats, find someone that they don’t know, and do a three-minute each paired sharing of what brought them to this moment.

So whatever people shared, again that was private. So I have no idea. But I imagine people shared either kind of like the alienation that has led them to this kind of more alternative route, or the moments of inspiration that led them to actually do something on Yom Kippur as opposed to nothing.

I wish—[laugh] this sounds like Big Brother, but I wish I could have recorded every single one of those conversations, because I’m kind of blown away by everyone’s story, and what actually did lead them to that moment.
So anyway, we did three minutes each. I think it’s also nice to create a more casual style, where people aren’t just sitting in their seat the entire time. So it was nice to have people getting up and walking around.

We then had people sit back down and Sarah Hurwitz gave a talk about her personal journey, about how she discovered Judaism as something that could be meaningful in her life, and could offer real wisdom and values to just the way that we already live in the world.
And then we ended that section by singing the Shehecheyanu blessing, which is funny, because that technically maybe falls in the camp of liturgical prayer, which I promised there would be none of. But I framed it more—less as a prayer and more as kind of an intention setting and a mindfulness practice even, of just in any moment, being able to appreciate all of the events that led up this moment.

For me, that really is what the Shehecheyanu prayer is about. And it really is overwhelming, every time I think about it. You know, just any time you do something new, to think about everything that led you to that moment. So we—I explained it, and we made up a tune for it though. [laugh] We taught everyone and did, and that was a nice little wrap-up for that first section.

The second piece we did was focus on the big picture, and that was largely influenced by the thought of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, who says that Yom Kippur is all about confronting our own mortality. His theory, which I find convincing, is that all of the laws around Yom Kippur are actually meant to help us simulate our own death. That’s why we don’t eat or drink. It’s why traditionally sex is prohibited. It’s why we don’t bathe. All these ideas that kind of confront the fact that our bodies are fragile.

And so what we then did [laugh] after giving that framing was we had everyone take out a pen and write their own eulogy, [laugh] which was most certainly the most powerful part of the experience for me—to be sitting in a bar, with 130 people, who were all very seriously and intensely confronting their own mortality in a real way. We had a cello playing in the background. So it really felt almost like everyone’s own personal funeral.

Dan Libenson: Wow.

Rabbi Aaron Potek: And just from looking around, you could see people were really moved by that experience. We did give, I have to say, a couple of alternative, less death-related options for people for whom that might have been a little more intense.

But the idea was that all of those prompts were meant to really spark introspection in a way that forced everyone to ask themselves, “Who am I really?” And I think confronting our own mortality does that, but there’s obviously other ways that can do that as well. You know, really highlighting the question of, “Who am I when I’m being my best self?”

And that was really important before moving into the third section of tshuva. Because I think so often we talk about tshuva and forgiveness and repentance, and we frame it in such a negative way, of how have you done all these things that are bad, and how can you make amends for all these wrongs that you’ve done?

And I think it’s so important to start from the positive, and to say, “Actually, at your core, who are you really? Who are you trying to be?” And once you have that vision for yourself, only then can we really talk about where we’ve missed the mark. Because then we can kind of realign to who we actually want to be, as opposed to just focusing on the negative.

So we did a text study for a good 20 minutes, which is [laugh] really unbelievable, to turn a beer hall into a beit midrash. I provided them with a few texts that all kind of got at different ways of understanding tshuva. We talk about tshuva all the time but I think we rarely acknowledge that there really are fairly radical different understandings of what tshuva means. [laugh]

So we had quotes just purely from a translation perspective. You know, what does tshuva mean. But then we got into this tension through different texts of tshuva as repentance from sin versus tshuva as returning to your soul, and your truest self.

And the final text, which was what was most moving for me, was a text around the tension between tshuva from love versus tshuva from fear. Which is a really provocative idea, and one that is ripe for a very rich discussion.

After the text study, we got back together. Both Sarah and I shared our differing perspectives on what tshuva from love might mean. And Sarah led a love meditation for everyone, which was another incredibly powerful moment during the service—sorry, during the experience [laugh]—where people spent a good five, seven minutes reflecting on all the people that have loved them in their lives.
And the reason that we chose to do this was because it’s so important to really enter this grueling self-examination process from a place of feeling loved and of being loved. And ultimately, it’s hard to conceptualize or to feel that we are loved by God, but it’s a lot easier when you can break it down and remember all those moments throughout our lives when we have been loved.

And that was a very powerful moment as well. To have everyone in complete silence, just meditating on the different people that have been kind to them throughout the years.

Dan Libenson: And then there was an element that I—in what I read—it was sort of not presented, and maybe it wasn’t even thought of as part of this event, but it was often thought of as why hopefully you yourself personally will have time to pray after this event, but there might not be time, because your organization, GatherDC, was going to be going off and preparing food for homeless people I believe.

And that struck me so powerfully, right, because the Haftorah reading on Yom Kippur comes from Isaiah, where he’s basically talking about how god is saying to the people, “You think that I care if you’re fasting and oppressing your own bodies if you’re also oppressing workers and others?” And, “The fast that I desire is essentially to free those in bondage and to feed the hungry.”

And it felt like this was this element where all of this lead-up, whether intentionally or not, eventually led to the playing out of what Isaiah is saying is fundamentally the message of the holiday. Was that intentional or a happy coincidence?

Rabbi Aaron Potek: No, no, that was extremely, extremely intentional. [laugh] Yeah. We went from there—again, this was an alternative option. So about half of the people who were at our morning experience came to this, and about half other people joined us. We had 40 people.

And no, that started with another text study of Isaiah 58, along with a few other texts, that really got at that core message, which is, you know, of course the irony that we sit in services all day fasting, being hungry, and thinking about ourselves and our own needs, when really the entire point of that is actually the opposite. To be thinking about others and their needs.

So that was a very important intention-setting that we did upfront. And then, yeah, we made lunches for people experiencing hunger. We worked with an organization called SOME—So Others May Eat—which is an incredible organization here in D.C. I believe they’re the only organization that serves three meals a day, every day.

And yeah, that was really powerful to do on [laugh] Yom Kippur. There was a handful of people there who were fasting, myself included, and to say, “It’s not about me and my hunger right now, because I know that my hunger is temporary,” I don’t know, I found that to be extremely moving.

Dan Libenson: Yeah. Just listening to all this is putting me in the mind of these Talmudic categories of mi l’chatchila [sp] and b’di’avad. Right? Which mi l’chatchila [sp] basically means like this is the way that ideally you should do things. And b’di’avad means look, if you can’t do it that way that you’re really supposed to do it, this way is not a total sin. And you can do it this way too. It’s not great. But it’s OK.
And I almost feel like a lot of folks who hear about your event will see it at best as a b’di’avad. As a kind of, “Well, these people—they don’t know that much about Judaism and they’re not going to go to a synagogue and et cetera, et cetera, but at least they have some Jewish experience.”

And what I’m hearing in what you’re describing is the ideal Yom Kippur, for me, and I think for a great many Jews in America, and while I would have nothing but respect for people who say, “Look, I believe that following Jewish law has to be at the center of it, and that’s what it is for me”—fine. I think that that’s a valid way to be Jewish.

But it strikes me that it’s also a valid way to be Jewish. And again, for me personally, a much more powerful way to be Jewish, to have the kind of experience that you’re describing for Yom Kippur, rather than the other.

And I don’t know quite how to talk about that without being judgmental or insulting to one or the other. Actually was troubled and am always troubled by a lot of the sort of insulting tone that gets placed on the alternatives. And I don’t want to make the error of putting the insulting tone on the traditional.

And yet I want to try to say that they at least in my mind, to explore the possibility that they’re both mi l’chatchila [sp]. They both represent sort of the best way to be Jewish. And I’m curious how you think about that, and how you kind of hold that in your mind, particularly as someone trained as a rabbi, and as a traditional rabbi at that.

Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yeah. Thanks Dan, for that framing. I love the l’chatchila versus b’di’avad. And I agree with you, that I don’t want to be disparaging of the traditional approach. That was actually some of the feedback I got in this last week as well, was around my tone and around the idea that I was actually tearing down more traditional forms of Jewish practice.

I really don’t want to be doing that, and I really want to respect that people have different ways of connecting. And the last thing I want to be doing is disparaging people’s authentic and sincere forms of expression.

That said, and I think you and I are struggling with the same thing—it’s so hard because that more traditional approach is often so disparaging [laugh] of alternative forms, that it’s hard to kind of not feel like the need to [laugh] fight fire with fire. So it’s definitely a delicate balance.

I want to apologize if at any point throughout either this interview or all the PR leading up to the event I did disparage the traditional ways. That’s definitely not what I meant to be doing at all. But like you said, I think that this actually is what we’re supposed to be doing on Yom Kippur. I really do believe that.

And I almost want to suggest—and again, this is pure speculation—that part of the reason that this received such a strong reaction is because it hit a chord that maybe some of these more traditional aspects that are supposed to be getting us to this place are actually failing at doing that.

And if that’s true, and again I’m not saying that’s true for everyone, but if that’s true, that then creates a pretty complicated tension and a really tough choice. Which is, do I continue to follow the tradition that is what I’m supposed to be doing, but that doesn’t lead me towards what I am supposed to be feeling, or do I let go of the tradition and get to that spirit of the law, while really sacrificing the letter of the law?

Obviously this is a debate that has been happening [laugh] for many, many years. But I wonder if part of the reason that the reaction to what I was doing was so almost angry is because I think for a lot of traditional Jews, the idea of circumventing the law in order to get to the spirit is extremely, extremely dangerous.

And I really hear that, and understand that. But I guess I want to counter that just as dangerous and perhaps even more dangerous, is divorcing the letter of the law from the spirit of the law, and almost raising up the letter of the law to the place where it really becomes almost arbitrary.

Obviously there are Jewish philosophers—Yeshayahu Leibowitz being the most famous who comes to my mind—who believe that. But I’m really troubled by that theology and philosophy. And again, I think that’s actually just a serious warping of what Judaism is meant to be.

Dan Libenson: Yeah. That’s so much one of the things that we are struggling with on this show all the time, and with the larger work that we’re doing, is what does this look like going forward?

I think that there are so many ways in which one could look at what you did in ways that say, you know, “This is giving me cognitive dissonance. How are you an orthodox rabbi but this is clearly not a quote orthodox way to experience Judaism?”

And there are those who will say, “So therefore you did something wrong.” Right? Or therefore you missed an opportunity to bring people to better awareness of the beauty of the tradition. And yet, there’s another way to look at it that says, “Gee, this thing happens that’s giving me cognitive dissonance. I better try to understand more deeply why this happened.”

And I guess there I was hoping that you could share a little bit in the time that we have remaining—just a little bit about the experiences that you’ve had through your work on campus—you used to be at Hillel, and now at GatherDC—where you’re encountering all these young Jews out there.

And I guess I’m curious, what is your sort of point of view? What is your understanding of who these folks are, and what they’re looking for, and what they’re not looking for, that has led you to create things in this very out-of-the-box creative sort of way?

Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yeah. I definitely want to answer that. Just to first comment on what you said in terms of the cognitive dissonance, in some ways I totally understand how what I’m saying can create [laugh] serious cognitive dissonance. But for me, it really just goes back to this idea of pluralism.

I identify very strongly as a pluralist. And so, from that perspective, I really don’t think it’s as jarring. I have a path that works for me, and I’m a part of a stream of Judaism that has a particular path that presumably works for its followers. But as [laugh] other teachers of mine have mentioned, Halacha, you know, the Jewish law, is a path. It’s to bring you to a certain place.

And I think almost having the humility to appreciate that that path might not work for other people, and that there are other paths that can lead to that same end—I don’t actually know that it’s all that wild and crazy, and I don’t know that it needs to create [laugh] cognitive dissonance.

It’s really just saying, “Hey, I’ve got this thing that works for me, but it doesn’t necessarily need to work for you.” Even outside of Judaism, I sometimes feel like we could benefit from more of that attitude. You know, “I love gummy worms, but it’s OK if you don’t like gummy worms. I get it.”

Dan Libenson: That’s so interesting. I think that the expectation, right, is that if you’re a Jewish professional, especially a rabbi, there’s some notion that what that means is that you think the path that’s right for you is right for everyone. Somehow that’s—you know, that’s the way that I think most people tend to look at most rabbis. And so—and by the way, I think probably most rabbis look at most rabbis.
And so it’s fascinating to me to hear you say something along the lines of, “Yeah, I’ve chosen a path that really works for me, but that’s not actually the job necessarily that I’m out here in the world to do. I’m out here to be part of a greater project that may ultimately bring about a Judaism that may not the best for me.”

You know, it’s funny because a lot of times—I mean, I get this from my perspective, which is very much not that of an Orthodox rabbi, and I often am sort of asked, well, why am I working on some more traditional—you know, why am I working to help a synagogue be better or whatever?

And I say, “Look, I’m OK with the possibility that the Judaism that emerges out of this process is going to be one that may not be the one in which I’m most comfortable. That’s not what this is about for me. What this is about for me is to create a Judaism that is healthy and responsive to the needs of people, and that best is able to connect the needs of people with the resources that Judaism has. And if it turns out that I’m not one of those people, that’s OK.”

Rabbi Aaron Potek: It’s hard, because obviously within the Orthodox world, but even outside of the Orthodox world, I think a lot of people and rabbis think that their path of Judaism is the right way, and that there’s not multiple right ways. And I guess my only response is I’m not really interested in hearing that opinion from people who are only [laugh] in their particular bubble.
What I mean is that I’ve gotten a lot feedback of Orthodoxy is the only right way, and how can you even be opening up another path for people that’s clearly not the right way? I don’t know. I would just like to see these people actually have conversations with [laugh] the people that I’m working with.

The more that you work with a diverse group of Jews, the more you—I honestly can’t imagine coming to any conclusion other than the one I’ve come to, you know? And I respect people who think that their way is actually the right way for everyone, and go ahead in good health and try to bring as many people on board as you can.

But I think anyone who is actually engaged in this work realizes that the idea of like a uniform path for every single Jew, especially today when we have such different types of Jews—I don’t know. I at best think it’s misguided, and at worst think it’s actually a little dangerous.

Dan Libenson: And could you give us a sense of what you think in terms of working with the Jews that you have worked with, who are not involved especially or at all with existing institutions or forms of Jewish life—could you tell us a little bit about kind of what leads you to the position to say, “Hey, let’s create a new way of experiencing Yom Kippur” that they might really resonate with, as opposed to I think what a lot of those folks assume, which is like “Oh, they’re not interested in Judaism.”

Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yeah. I mean, the problem [laugh]—it would be a lot easier if those people weren’t interested in Judaism. Right? Because then we could just be doing our way and not have to worry about finding an alternative way.

The problem is that’s just not true. They’re desperately trying to connect to Judaism, and they feel that they’re being locked out. Whether it’s being punished because they didn’t go to day school or didn’t go to Hebrew school or didn’t go to Jewish summer camp—that’s one big piece.

Another big piece is just ideological issues. They feel like they just cannot ideologically get behind some of these more traditional viewpoints, whether it’s on Jewish chosenness, or whether it’s on views on Israel. There’s all kinds of alienating ideologies that stem from traditional Judaism.

Again, there’s alienating ideologies that stem from any traditions. The point is that there’s just a danger in thinking that there’s just one path that works for everyone. So these Jews are desperately, desperately trying to find a way to connect. And they don’t have [laugh] someone who’s like stepping in and helping them connect the dots. Helping them access our tradition.

Again, what I’m doing is really not so wild. Unfortunately, I think the most wild thing is that I’m just willing to meet with them, and even focus on them. And that’s where I wish that we’d see more from the Jewish world. Again not kind of hoping that they come onto our particular agenda, but really just trying to say, “Oh, here are Jews that are interested in connecting. How can we help them connect in a way that works for them?”

I’m already anticipating the pushback is, “Well, it’s not about them. It’s about the Torah. It’s about authentic Judaism.” You know, “You’re just following whatever they want. What if they say they want to have sex and murder everyone?” You know? But I don’t know. Those arguments are honestly just a little obnoxious.

These people are searching for meaning. They’re searching for community. They’re searching for connection. They’re searching for belonging. They’re searching for purpose. If Judaism can’t provide that to someone who doesn’t speak Hebrew and didn’t go to Jewish summer camp, I think that’s more a negative reflection on [laugh]—on Judaism than it is on those people.

Dan Libenson: And I know this is a pretty huge question to sort of maybe end on, but I’m curious in terms of what you just said—how do you think about what Judaism has to offer such people? That if it’s not about God and what God demands of us, and Torah for its own sake—if it’s not about these ways of thinking that are some of the traditional ways of thinking, then what is it about?
And I guess I’m asking that both philosophically and empirically. Like where have you seen—and maybe it’s a way to sort of share any sort of very quick reactions that you’ve already gotten to the experience from just the other day. But what does sort of register with people, and what do they connect with? And where is it that Judaism still has what to say to people who may not accept many of its traditional predicates?

Rabbi Aaron Potek: I mean, it’s funny. You listed Torah for its own sake, or God. I actually really think all of those bad reasons can just get folded into one, which is arbitrary Judaism. Whether that’s because God says so or whether that’s because the Torah says so, I really think that that is actually just the problem. The idea that Judaism is an arbitrary set of rules that we’re just supposed to follow and somehow that like appeases this magical God—I think that’s really the battle that’s being fought here.
What I’m suggesting is that that’s not what Judaism is. It’s not this externally motivated kind of system. It’s actually something that comes from within. It’s something that has our own best interests at heart. It’s a question that we need to be leading with always—
“Why does this matter?”

You know, it’s like almost funny. My rabbinate has really [laugh] kind of become just repeating that question over and over again. [laugh] “Why does this matter?” And I think some people have legitimate answers for that question, but I think a lot of people are scared to ask that question, because they’re worried they don’t have an answer. And if they don’t have an answer, then that really—to reference Benay Lappe, who we’ve already referenced—then that creates a real crash.

Sometimes I go back and forth. Sometimes I wonder, is Judaism just a language for us to have meaningful conversations that could be had in a different language? Or does Judaism actually have real unique wisdom and perspective that is deeply needed today? I go back and forth. But even if its the former, even if it’s only just a framework through which we can connect and have meaningful conversations, I think that’s pretty worthwhile, and actually desperately needed in today’s culture.

Dan Libenson: Well I for one am thrilled that you’re out there doing this work and asking those questions, and I would say most importantly, experimenting. And I think that we’ve been talking about, over the last year and a half that we’ve been doing Judaism Unbound, and I think we’re going to talk more and more in the future about the attitude that says, “We can experiment. And maybe this will work.”

And if it doesn’t, the way that scientists look at that is, “So now we have some more data.” And we can bring that data back into the equation. And so I admire so much the degree to which you are willing to take those risks, and to try stuff out. And it’s exciting, what you tried out, and like you, I really agree that I hope that the conversation that we’re going to be having next year is a panel discussion with all the folks who have tried out all kinds of crazy ideas.

Rabbi Aaron Potek: Yeah. And again, just to clarify, I don’t want that panel discussion to only be around different tactics or different methodologies or different programs. I actually think there’s a higher level richer discussion here, which is, what’s the point of Yom Kippur? And what are we ultimately trying to get people to do to feel—I think what’s so unfortunate about the opinion that it’s all about what God says and just follow the commands, is that it ends up completely stifling that conversation.

You know, maybe you don’t like that I did this eulogy thing. I’d rather you argue with me about, well then, what’s the point of fasting? You know? Like what are we supposed to be feeling if it’s not about confronting our mortality? I very well may be wrong on that one, but you know, then we’re actually having a rich conversation about like, what’s this leading to?

And it feels like that conversation so rarely happens, because we end up focusing on which denominational box does this fit into? Or you know, is this traditional or not? Or is it appropriate to be having this in a beer garden? You know? I understand all those questions, but for me, they’re so secondary to these more core questions.

Dan Libenson: Yeah, I agree. And I think that a lot of times what the fighting tends to be about is the sense that the stakes are so high of error. Right? And so if we got it wrong, so what? So we’ll get it right next year. As opposed to we got it wrong, and so we’re all going to hell.

Rabbi Aaron Potek: It’s funny. I’m struck by the irony of fear of being wrong on Yom Kippur. [laugh] Right?
Dan Libenson: [laugh]
Rabbi Aaron Potek: It’s like, if we’re talking about the themes of Yom Kippur, for me one of them is that we are inherently flawed human beings and that we will make mistakes.

Dan Libenson: Hmm.

Rabbi Aaron Potek: But that tshuva from love—this idea of returning from love—is actually rooted in this idea that at our core, we are good. You know? And to be a little kinder to ourselves and to others. And I really think that with that baseline, it does allow for a little bit more experimentation, and a little bit of a loosening that allows for creativity in a way that kind of perfectionism doesn’t allow for.

Dan Libenson: Well I think what a great note to end on. I really thank you so much for spending this hour with us. And I think that whether just by the happy chance that doing it in a beer garden got a lot of publicity for this, or because of the brilliant ritual reinvention that you did, I’m so glad that it’s opened this conversation for folks. And I hope that we’ll see the fruits of it in the years to come.

Rabbi Aaron Potek: Thanks. Thanks for facilitating a great conversation, and looking forward to hearing people’s other creative ideas. We’re so desperately in need of them, and I’m just one voice, really.

Dan Libenson: I want to thank Aaron Potek for a wonderful conversation and I want to thank him also for doing this work. This is the kind of work that I think we need more of. And in that spirit, if you know of things that are going on in the Jewish world along these lines, please reach out to us at Dan@NextJewishFuture.org, or Lex@NextJewishFuture.org, and we can’t promise an immediate rapid response, but we are really eager to find out what’s going on.

And finally I’d like to say that if you are so inclined, we very much would appreciate and need financial support. So if you would be so inclined to donate, please go to www.judaismunbound.com/donate, where you have options to give a one-time donation or an ongoing monthly contribution if you are so inclined.

You can look at some of our other postings at Judaism Unbound on Facebook, and you can also visit our website at www.judaismunbound.com, where we have all kinds of materials and particularly I’d urge you to look under the resources and holidays section, where we have all kinds of interesting stuff relating to the high holidays and the holidays in general.
So I’m looking forward to Lex being back with us in a couple of days, but until then I will take his role and say, “With that, this has been Judaism Unbound.”
[End of recording]