Conservatve Judaism Today and Tomorrow—Mitzvah
By Rabbi Adam Zagoria-Moffet
When you’re a rabbi, every person you meet will sooner or later ask you: ‘So, why did you decide to become a rabbi?’ In fact, it’s an entirely valid question. After all, being clergy is something we see as a real vocation, something imbued with a sense of ‘being called.’ Yet, I think for most of us, the paths that bring us to spiritual leadership are rarely straightforward and almost never accurately summed up in a ‘short version.’ Nonetheless, here’s my story.
I was born to a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, in a family that experienced its fair share of financial, medical, and emotional troubles. My sense of Jewish identity growing up was strong, but superficial. I was Jewish like friends of mine were Italian or Venezuelan – it meant little more than a national label and a loose ethnic/cultural component. It was only when I was a teenager, when I found myself working at a Lubavitch kosher deli and catering company, that I had my first real encounter with Judaism.
I discovered in Chabad a community of people for whom Judaism was more than something that they were, it was something that they did. Every aspect of their lives was Jewish, and to me this demonstrated an admirable sort of discipline. Moreover, I had always sought after answers to the ‘big questions.’ I had looked for truth in mystical systems from around the world and found most flimsy and unsatisfying. It wasn’t until I asked the Chabad rabbi the same questions and he eagerly responded by opening my eyes to the world of Kabbalah, that I realized that the Judaism I saw before me could be for me just as it was for them.
In the end, Chabad wasn’t quite for me. Although there was a great deal I loved there, there was plenty I didn’t – and in the end, my unease with the isolationism and patriarchy of the Hasidic world put me off it. Instead, I drifted more. Now I knew that I wanted to find a spiritual home in a Jewish community, but I had no idea which one. It wasn’t until my partner, Mikayla, independently decided to convert to Judaism and sought out a Masorti community that I came to see the beauty of our much treasured slogan, ‘Traditional Judaism for Modern Jews.’
Just as I found a home in the observant-egalitarian practice of the Masorti world, I was struggling to decide ‘what to do’ with my life. Education, social work, legal advocacy and politics all drew my attention – but Mikayla (who remains much wiser than I) suggested I could combine all four of those into the role of a rabbi. Moreover, I could use my own undulating and oddly-formatted path to Jewish life and practice to help reach others who might find themselves outside of the centre of Jewish life.
So I came from the very margins to the literal centre of Conservative/Masorti Judaism at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Having applied with the background described above, I didn’t exactly fit the profile of a typical JTS rabbinical student. I had only been learning Hebrew for a few years and I had practically no exposure to a lived Jewish life and certainly no synagogue skills. Yet, as I told the committee during my interview, my lack of experience didn’t translate to a lack of interest. I was hungry for Jewish life, and I assured them (and evidently they believed me!) that if I could attend rabbinical school, I would work as hard as possible to catch up and correct my deficits.
Evidently I must have – as now, six years later, I have had the extraordinary pleasure of being called to serve at St. Albans Masorti Synagogue. For me, as someone who has had to claim Judaism for myself at every step of the process, the ‘story’ of SAMS and of Masorti Judaism in the UK is extremely appealing. This is the place on the front line of Jewish life, these are the communities with the energy and enthusiasm to push us all forward into the Jewish future – and I am so honoured to be included among the amazing cohort of clergy, lay leaders, and administrators of Masorti UK with whom I have the pleasure to serve.
My earnest and sincere hope is that I might be able to use my own experience and story to help relate to those of us for whom Judaism has not always been an ‘automatic’ part of ourselves. I believe that for Judaism to work it has to be claimed, and in that way, the path of the spiritual seeker in our day and age is more important than ever. I have been, and hope that I always will be a sort of seeker – and if I now have more knowledge of the labyrinthine passages that lead into the heart of Judaism, I hope to use that expertise only to step back and show others the way in. That’s the ‘short version.’
Rabbi Adam Zagoria-Moffet is the rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue