New Rabbinical Leadership in Vancouver
Religion 2.0 in the Age of iPhones and Twitter
As an undergraduate at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles at the dawn of the dot.com era Moskovitz started a Jewish software company. Later while at rabbinical school he began streaming religious services over the Internet and using technology in the classroom and in Jewish organizational life. As a congregational rabbi for the past 13 years in southern California Rabbi Moskovitz maintains an extended congregation on Facebook, twitter, his blog and as a regular contributor to print and online publications.
Religion is steeped in traditions from a world of long ago.
However Rabbi Moskovitz, who moved this summer from California to take over the leadership of the largest Jewish congregation in Vancouver, aims to dust off the cobwebs and bring the tech-savvy world into religion.
“I’m doing this to expand the walls of the synagogue and the reach of Torah,” Rabbi Moskovitz says. “We live on our phones nowadays, for better or worse, and I like to meet people where they are.”
Rabbi Moskovitz, who turns 43 on Sept. 5, is the new senior Rabbi at Temple Sholom, a reform congregation of 650 households in Vancouver. Previously, he was at Temple Judea in Los Angeles.
He comes to Vancouver bringing new energy and an ambitious program of innovation to a well-established institution in Vancouver. Using the highly effective techniques of summer camp, he has plans to reshape education for Jewish youth. He intends to create new opportunities this fall for interfaith families and residents of east Vancouver to connect with the Jewish community. In a surprising reversal, he is also focusing on programs for men.
Religion for centuries was the exclusive estate of men. However women have been so successful in asserting their presence in traditional male roles in Judaism that extraordinary measures are now required to bring men back into the religion. Rabbi Moskovitz has extensive background in this area, including being the author of a Men’s Haggadah (Passover prayer book) published by the Reform movement.
As the senior Rabbi of a well-established congregation, he sees his job as building relations with people, not just leading the committed congregants in Jewish ritual. “If there is one thing that I would like to be a calling card for my rabbinate, it is, I am about people before program.”
He approaches differences in tradition within Judaism from the perspective of his experiences as a teen leader in the B’nai Brith Youth Organization where he served as International President. In an effort to be as widely accepted as possible, rituals were created that were acceptable to people across the denominational divide. “We took what we liked, had dialogue about what was necessary and what was meaningful. We wrote our own prayer books, wrote our own melodies. And maybe that is the way the communities can bridge those gaps,” he says.
His own background is diverse. He grew up from ages 8 to 13 as part of the Chabad community in Berkeley, California. But he had his bar mitzvah in Reform and Conservative synagogues. He really did have two – Friday night at a Reform congregation and Saturday at a Conservative shul.
He would have also been happy to read Torah at the Chabad minyan as well, he says. However the Chabad rabbi refused to step into either the Conservative or Reform shuls. The Chabad Rabbi said he would not go into “a church,” Rabbi Moskovitz recalls. “That hurt, it was my first experience of Judaism pulling our people apart rather than bringing us together. I became a rabbi to make sure that doesn’t happen to others.”
Temple Sholom under his leadership will continue to play a role in advancing Israel’s contribution to the global society as a start-up nation – that reaches out in science, technology and medicine.
But at the same time he is concerned that the Reform movement of Judaism, as practiced at Temple Sholom, is not recognized as legitimate in Israel. Currently, the Orthodox leadership sets the rules on religious matters in Israel and does not accept either Reform or Conservative Judaism for purposes of marriage, conversions and burials.
It is not acceptable that Israel raises funds from our congregations but will not accept our Jews, he says.
His views may be controversial. But he is prepared to debate issues, under the Talmudic principle that arguing is intended to make things better.
That’s the approach he also has to social media. He uses his blogs and Facebook to create conversations, posting either something he has written or read and then posing a question. He is hoping to spark a dialogue, not so much with him, but among his social media friends and followers within his digital congregation. “If this 3,500 year old tradition is to remain relevant for our generation we have to own it for ourselves. Talking about it and grappling with its meaning is an important step hearing its voice in our everyday lives.”
Rabbi Moskovitz and his wife Sharon Mishler have three children.
Rabbi Moskovitz can be reached for an interview at Temple Sholom, 7190 Oak St., Vancouver, BC, V6P3Z9
Attached are selected quotes from an interview conducted during his first month on the job and a list of some initiatives he is undertaking this fall in Vancouver.
A Fresh Approach
Rabbi Moskovitz says his rabbinical vision was shaped largely by the results of a study of best practices he conducted during a sabbatical. He travelled across the U.S. for three months, meeting with religious and lay leaders and congregants at synagogues and Jewish federations. He spoke with the leadership of the Mormon and evangelical churches. “It was one of the most formative experiences I have had as a Jewish professional,” he says.
Selection of initiatives beginning this fall:
- Reaching out to interfaith families with one Jewish spouse who are interested in raising Jewish children and to lesbian/bisexual/gay/transgendered people.
- Creating new programs for families with young children, providing earlier services twice a month and free camp-style family services on Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kipper, with stories, music and materials.
- Developing men’s study and support groups
- Turning learning at the supplementary school on its head by taking the educational programs into the home, rather than having students come to the temple for learning in a classroom. Parents and their children will decide the time and place to learn; teachers will be sent to them, whether it is at their home, in a community centre or as an after-hours program at their school.
“The synagogue is the centre from which Jewish practice emanates. But the place that it is learned and experienced is the home,” says Rabbi Moskovitz.