A nontraditional rabbi gains a following in Beacon
Rockin’ Rabbi: Brent Spodek was invited to the White House to celebrate Hanukkah in 2014
Photographs by Tom Moore
Call him the accidental rabbi. Brent Spodek grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn without much of a religious influence: He never even had a bar mitzvah. But this charismatic, 40-year-old rabbi — who has taken the Beacon Hebrew Alliance (BHA) by storm — always knew there was something more. And he set out to find it.
After graduating from Wesleyan University in Connecticut in the early 1990s, Spodek headed to Durham, North Carolina, to work as a journalist. Casually at first, he became involved with a synagogue, and eventually took classes that covered the Talmud (Jewish law) with Rabbi Steve Sager. “I couldn’t really follow what he was doing, but I was absolutely enchanted,” recalls Spodek. Sager then suggested that Spodek spend time in Jerusalem studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Why not?
“I thought I was going to write a book, or at the very least an article, about how Gen X folks were reshaping religion,” recalls Spodek. But ultimately, he decided to take it one step further and become a rabbi after returning to the States. “I fell in love with the richness of Judaism and was immersed in the text and prayer, but also in the way of life. A lot of that experience is still with me.”
Spodek worked as the rabbi in residence at American Jewish World Service in New York City, a human rights organization. While he was thrilled to lead rabbis and students on trips and talk about human rights as a global concern, he wasn’t crazy about his desk job writing grants.
Meanwhile, his wife, Alison, got a job as a professor of environmental chemistry at Vassar. Six years ago, they moved to a house at the foot of Mount Beacon to raise their growing family (a daughter, now 8, and a son, 4). They dutifully joined BHA, which didn’t have a rabbi, just visiting seminary students.
“There wasn’t a lot going on for little kids, so I started doing very informal things in my home,” recalls Spodek. The parents started questioning the young rabbi. What does it mean to be Jewish? How do I make sense of my spiritual life in a contemporary context? With their kids, they began joining him on meditative walks through the woods, where he encourages people to feel the presence of the divine and carry it into their everyday lives.
“All of this stuff started growing organically,” says Spodek, whose self-deprecating humor and irreverent commentary are the exact opposite of a stuffy pulpit sermon. Soon he was teaching classes, meeting people on the street and in the supermarket, “talking to them about their own spiritual yearnings.” It was a no-brainer for Spodek to formally take on the rabbi role.
Since then, the synagogue has grown by about 40 percent, with 150 households on its roster. Now there’s plenty for kids to do (crafts, field trips, Hebrew language instruction), and adults have their fair share (meditation, book club, a women’s group). Spodek keeps busy running the Web site, organizing events, meeting with congregants, with a little time left over for his writing. “I never write up my notes as a formal sermon. They say that words that come from the heart, enter the heart.”
Spodek doesn’t care if his congregants believe in God or not. “We live in a secular era, but people still have souls, and their souls are thirsty,” he explains. “What they’re often given to nourish them doesn’t work. For most American Jews, the experience of Judaism is, ‘I’m going to engage in this activity, prayer. But I’m not sure who I’m talking to and I’m not sure if I believe somebody is listening. And it’s done primarily in a language I don’t speak or understand.’
It’s as if someone came to America and didn’t know anything and ate a Big Mac and said, ‘Eh, I didn’t really like it. I guess this country’s no good.’ But then you say, ‘Here’s the Grand Canyon, here’s the Constitution, here’s John Coltrane, here’s baseball. America, it’s a really big and complicated place. You don’t like Big Macs — okay, that’s fine.’
“What I say about Judaism is: Look, here’s this three-hour service in a language you don’t understand. Hey, that’s there. Now let me show you everything else.”