When Joshua Davidson, 45, is installed as Temple Emanu-El’s senior rabbi this week, he will formally be taking over one of the country’s largest and highest-profile Reform synagogues, located on Fifth Avenue. The son of Rabbi Jerome Davidson, who served Temple Beth El in Great Neck, L.I., for more than 40 years, he most recently led Temple Beth-El of Northern Westchester. Rabbi Davidson succeeds Rabbi David Posner. The Jewish Week caught up with him last week via e-mail.
Q: You actually preached your first sermons a few months ago. What were the topics?
A: They addressed the importance of making Judaism matter. In an age of declining synagogue affiliation, congregations must prove their relevance as never before, both by supporting their members through life’s challenges and passages, and by helping them view the critical issues of our day through the lens of Torah and Jewish history. Standing proudly as part of Am Yisrael, we understand our people’s particular commitments and experiences as grounding our universal aspirations for tzedek and tikkun, justice and repair of the broken places in this world.
What was it like growing up the son of a rabbi? Were you expected to go into the family business, so to speak?
It was wonderful. My father remains the best role model there could be for the congregational rabbinate. I always admired the joy with which he approached his work and the warm relationships he built with members of the congregation, many of whom became extended family. Based on the strength of those relationships, he was able to speak as courageously as any rabbi ever has to the important social justice concerns of our time. He never pressured me to go into the rabbinate; he inspired me to go into it.
Emanu-El’s sanctuary is breathtaking. Do you feel a sense of the sacred in that space?
To me, the sanctuary is awe-inspiring and provides a feeling of God’s transcendence often absent in synagogue worship. And especially when the sunlight shines through the stained glass and splashes against the wood and stone, the magnificent space conveys remarkable warmth.
The recent Pew study painted a grim picture of the non-Orthodox movements. Is the Reform movement nimble enough to face the new demographic challenges posed by the study?
Yes. The movement’s hallmark has been its responsiveness to the evolving landscape of modern Jewish life. Reform Judaism, at its core, accepts that every Jew’s journey starts at a different point and is guided along a different path by his or her passions, interests and needs. … While on one hand affiliation rates are down, on the other, countless people are knocking on our doors looking to explore the beauty of Jewish life.
If we continue to define ourselves as a movement committed to social change … then the current generation, searching for meaning, will find its values present in our own.
Do you see yourself doing outreach to the large majority of “nones” documented in the Pew study?
The study reports that while most Jews are proud of being Jewish, an increasing number do not identify as “religious.” This suggests to me that the greater the number and variety of portals we open into synagogue life beyond worship and study, which will always lie at the core of our synagogue’s mission, the better we will serve and engage the Jewish world. So I would hope to provide all comers with meaningful explorations not only of Jewish history, religious thought, ritual and worship, but also of literature, music, the visual arts and contemporary issues.
Emanu-El affords you a big bully pulpit. Can we expect you to push certain social/political themes or positions?
Our congregants want to be engaged from the pulpit on topics that matter. Often those are personal and spiritual; often they are social and political. I believe that rabbis have a duty to speak to the critical issues of our time, informed by the wisdom of Jewish tradition. Doing so demands sensitivity to the variety of perspectives present within that tradition and to the diverse opinions held by one’s listeners. Nonetheless, I believe I have the responsibility to say what I feel to be true, and that with thought and study, it is possible to be provocative without being alienating.