A Personal Statement
Because it is the year 2019, I imagine that if you are reading this statement, you have already used Google to search for something akin to: “Rabbi Ari Ballaban.” Among the results of that search, you may have found pictures and videos of me wearing a kilt and playing the bagpipes. To my knowledge, I am one of very few rabbis who play this instrument. And, while playing bagpipes may seem idiosyncratic of a rabbi, I believe it perfectly frames my vision of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century. The greater world of Celtic music, like Reform Judaism, represents an attempt to integrate cultures both ancient and modern.
In the Celtic musical world, you can find evidence of the struggle between antiquity and modernity in the fact that most bagpipes still are painstakingly crafted by hand. This is despite the fact that machines now can create the instrument more quickly, efficiently, and cheaply than human workers. In the Jewish world, we see this in the great drama of contemporary Judaism: the urgent mission to harmonize millennia-old traditions with the realities and necessities of the 21st century.
As a rabbi, I see the synthesis of Judaism past and present as essential to my work. I am equally invested in endeavors as diverse as finding better ways to understand ancient Jewish literature and creating novel strategies for synagogues to utilize social media. Importantly, I disagree with those who arbitrarily distinguish between such seemingly-diverse missions. Being Jewish represents more than sterile, unapplied knowledge or passionate, but unfounded emotion. Instead, the Judaism for which I advocate synthesizes deep thought and impassioned practice. It is for this reason that I am working on a PhD in rabbinic literature from the Hebrew Union College: I want to be able to help others to find torah l’ma-aseh, a love of learning so strong that it leads invariably to action.
The sort of Judaism I envision is necessarily relational. This Judaism must not only take into account our past and its static precedents, but also dynamically plan for a meaningful future. We begin to plan our future when we listen to the chorus of Jewish voices audible both inside and outside of synagogue walls. When I reflect on this reality, I recall one of the most meaningful experiences of my rabbinical career. It occurred while I was in my second year of rabbinical school, when I served a small community in Paducah, Kentucky. That year, I developed a relationship with an elderly, home-bound congregant. This woman, whom we can call “Sarah,” once had been the matriarch of her community. However, in her old age and infirmity she had become incapable of leaving her house and consequently unable to attend services.
Sarah was a true character. She was a woman devout enough that she adapted to her circumstances by holding her own Shabbat services at home (held weekly with two Christian friends, using a Union Prayer Book). At the same time, she had chutzpah enough to decide at the age of 96—without ever having done so before in her life—to smoke menthols because, in her words, “What could it hurt?” Sarah’s questionable smoking decision, however, is not why I think of her now. Instead, she comes to mind because of a certain visit to her house during which she and I shared a special moment of Torah.
Before she fell ill, Sarah had always been responsible for lighting the synagogue’s Shabbat candles. One week, the two of us devised a plan to bring her an extra measure of Judaism. Before driving to Sarah’s home that week, I stopped by the synagogue, picked up a Torah scroll, and buckled it into a seat in my car. I doubt that I will ever forget what came next: I watched, while sitting on her living room couch, as she lit the Shabbat candles. After this, we read Torah together- the first time she had heard the Torah chanted in years. Her response was inspiring, and it changed me: I will never forget the light this Torah sparked in her eyes.
In essence, my experience with Sarah was the literal representation of what I see as a less dramatic, more common necessity to prepare for a flourishing Jewish future. To succeed as a rabbi, one needs to meet people where they are; both literally and figuratively, I am committed to bringing the words of Torah to others. I have taken much time to consider how the landscape of the rabbinical world is different today than it was in the past. In the 21st century, gone are the when rabbis could stand on a bimah and preach to captive audiences as the unchallenged ruler and CEO of their synagogues. Today, rabbis face a different reality than their predecessors: If they do not give people compelling reasons to choose Judaism, average Jews may increasingly opt not to. And, by not choosing Judaism, such individuals effectively decide to fade out of the Jewish picture.
At my current congregation, I have worked ceaselessly to find ways to give people strong reasons to continue to choose Judaism. In particular, as the synagogue’s Rabbi Educator, I have overseen our transition from a languishing Sunday school to a vibrant Sunday morning, camp-like educational program. Called Makor (Hebrew for “source”), this program’s agenda is fairly straightforward. We have set out to revitalize our synagogue’s youth education. The tagline that we have included on our promotional material, “this is not your bubbie’s Sunday school,” effectively summarizes our recognition that there are many things we must change to make Judaism relevant to today’s children. We who work as Jewish professionals possess this responsibility: We must learn what Jews in our synagogues need, and we must find better ways to nourish their Jewish development.
I have often joked that people in my bagpiping community consider my “rabbi side” as strange as those in the Jewish community consider my “bagpiping side.” This, of course, makes sense: Each side represents a different culture, and the two seldom interact. Nevertheless, I am frequently impressed at how eager each community is to learn about the other. Our common humanity drives this. We need not, though, look to such disparate cultures to find an interaction of “others.” There are others within every Jewish community and inside each of us. Working as a rabbi, I am excited to be present as we shed light on our inner selves, our inner “other.” I look forward to a rabbinate dedicated to the development of a more cohesive, relational, and committed Jewish future.