Rabbi Menachem Creditor was recently appointed the Pearl and Ira Meyer Scholar-in-Residence at UJA-Federation of New York, where his role is amplifying Jewish learning, leadership and values within the charity’s community of supporters, staff and partners. In 2013, he was named by Newsweek as one of the 50 most influential rabbis in America. Before moving to Westchester County, he served as spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif. Rabbi Creditor has been involved in the leadership of Rabbis Against Gun Violence, American Jewish World Service, AIPAC and the One American Movement, an organization dedicated to bringing together Americans of different faiths and opinions. Among his 16 books and six albums of original Jewish music are “And Yet We Love: Poems,” “Primal Prayers, and “Olam Chesed Yibaneh/A World of Love.” Later this month, he will celebrate his marriage to the noted singer Neshama Carlebach with their five children.
What are the areas/themes about which you most look forward to teaching?
I’ve always been moved by Jewish tradition’s ability to alternate between internal concerns and global commitments, an intersection that leads to applied curiosity. The Torah is invested in creating a just society for all, in using power ethically, in caring for each other. We must be too. A good way to determine just how we go about doing that is studying Torah together.
What are the major issues the community faces, where you might have some impact?
Jews, like every human sub-group, live in the real world, a world currently experiencing great upheaval. It is only logical to anticipate heightened levels of anxiety, as widespread instability rarely leaves the Jewish community unscathed. So, on one hand, I hope to support the community in deepening our Jewish resilience and confidence. But, with the other hand, we have the capacity to do something for others as well. We can be part of stabilizing the world around us by adding our voice to the mix. Judaism is a multi-vocal tradition, where disagreement is not the same as enmity. I hope to be part of the reunification of our people by teaching Torah that is both driven and inclusive. The world needs that dynamic more than ever.
The New York Jewish community is large, noisy, opinionated, diverse and often divisive. How do you see bringing about changes and healing divisiveness?
A dear friend, a black pastor from the Pentecostal tradition once challenged me not to be color-blind, but rather “color-bold.” This is the kind of thinking the world needs. It is disingenuous to pretend that unity in our community means uniformity. Political commitments — on Israel, American social welfare, even Jewish tradition itself — need not align in order for us to build a cohesive community. We will — and should — share when we disagree. In that spirit, I hope we can be mindfully brave and not blindly defensive. Hot-button issues are typically too big for only one right answer, and so Jewish leaders have the opportunity (and obligation, I believe) to publicly affirm the dignity and worth of those with whom they disagree.
What is your vision of the connection between diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews?
The American Jewish diaspora is a complicated and beautiful thing, firmly rooted within the dynamics of the American experiment while also facing east to pray. That implies that we feel invested in (at least) two national homes. My experience as a Zionist in Berkeley for more than a decade opened my eyes countless times to the dangers of distancing oneself from Israel, the pitfall of only relating to Israel with rebuke. It is also true that Israel has succeeded in becoming what David Ben-Gurion called a “normal state,” in need of constant perfecting. Just these past weeks horrific kite-bombs sent by Hamas terrorized communities in southern Israel. Just these past weeks a non-Orthodox Israeli rabbi was arrested for performing a Jewish marriage. We must refuse to hold our tongues when the welfare of our sisters and brothers are under attack, from without and from within. The Jewish people stands with Israel, always and unconditionally. The Jewish people stands for each other, always and unconditionally. The two things Israeli and diaspora Jews must do together is defend each other from outside harm while never permitting Jewish power to assault the place of fellow Jews.
In your early impressions, how do the Jewish communities of New York and northern California compare?
It’s been a powerful transition. Until 11 years ago, I spent my entire life on the East Coast, mostly in New York. While generalizations rarely help, I found in my experiences that tradition plays a larger role in Jewish decision-making in New York, and it therefore falls upon leadership to make the case for change. In the Bay Area, where many Jews have chosen to move (and therefore don’t have parents/grandparents in the immediate vicinity), change is the basic premise, and tradition itself can be seen as a radical decision. But, most importantly: I believe we have more in common than that which divides us, and a blend of Bay Area creativity and New York grounded-ness will be only for a blessing to the Jewish people.