The charismatic rabbi of the most dynamic synagogue in Brooklyn announced his resignation a few weeks ago, and this made the papers in both New York City and Israel. People were “shocked” and “stunned.” I was only momentarily surprised, and that was at the timing. I had figured it was coming. I know this rabbi very well, and I know him to be a missionary, and missionaries move on.
My friend Andy Bachman has been the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE), the largest Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, since 2006. Under his leadership, the synagogue has doubled in size to 1000 families. Andy has welcomed many young Jews back to the faith. The CBE synagogue has gained a national reputation for revitalized worship, innovative education, expansive cultural programming, progressive Zionism, and social witness. After Hurricane Sandy the synagogue began feeding thousands of the storm’s victims, and then “CBE Feeds” morphed into an ongoing ministry for the poor of New York. On Sundays, a Christian church meets in the main sanctuary. Hundreds of people pass through the doors of Beth Elohim every day, and only a majority of them are Jews. It’s the cathedral of Park Slope. Rabbi Andy Bachman has led all this.
So, yes, it was big news when at the end of March, Andy announced that he would not be renewing his contract next year. (In the Reform movement, rabbis have to give a year’s notice.) He’s not retiring---he’s only fifty years old. He hasn’t taken another position---he doesn’t know yet what he’ll be doing, although it will be public service to the wider community. People were asking how someone so successful and who gained such prestige for himself and his congregation could just put it all behind him---for what?
To me it makes all the sense in the world. Andy is a missionary. He’s an ethical missionary. I don’t mean that he’s a missionary of the Christian type, with the motivation to convert people. He’s a missionary of the Jewish type: he is a witness for the Jewish contribution for the healing of the world.
It was Andy’s missionary passion and vision which inspired in the synagogue’s dramatic growth. CBE had always been remarkably hospitable; I had already experienced that from the former rabbi, who was also a good friend and confidant. But under Andy that hospitality began to pour out of the synagogue into the streets and everybody’s lives.
Jews have good reason to be careful and probably they’ve earned to right even to be defensive, but this synagogue is acting defenseless and taking risks in welcome and witness. It got both more spiritual and more political. It is expressing a new and vintage Judaism, affirming worship and devoted to the Torah as God’s gift to the world. These Jews are Jewish for the sake of the world, and not just for protecting Judaism. Andy has been leading them in that.
This would be true even apart from all the collaboration between Andy and me and between our two congregations. We are known and recognized for this in Brooklyn. We’ve been in the news together, we’ve been on stage together, we’ve led in prayer together, our congregations have worshipped in each other’s houses, we make music together, and we house the homeless together. We talk. We kvetch. We joke. (One Good Friday morning he called me up to wish me a “good Good Friday,” and then he said, “I just want you to know it was all a mistake!”) I know about Andy’s prayers. About the same time every morning we pray in our apartments, with only Prospect Park between us. So I was not shocked or stunned. It was coming. You can fill a cup with only so much wine, and then it has to go somewhere. Andy has felt the call. He doesn’t know in what new direction or endeavor he’ll be going in, but what I know is that he’ll be going as an ethical missionary.
People love Andy for his bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, and his funerals. In Christian terms, he’s a caring pastor and an inspiring preacher. He’s a great rabbi, but being a rabbi is not his first love. What he really loves is being a Jew. Yep. Being a Jew. No small thing. That’s the great burden and the greater privilege, to be one more Jew who stands between the world and Adonai. Andy will be resigning his rabbinate in order to be a Jew. For the world, for Adonai.