Picture a group of twenty young couples from multi-faith backgrounds sitting in a hotel lobby in a makeshift circle, with the Kinneret, the sea of Galilee in the background, and me, a young rabbi, fielding their questions. Maybe they’re your children or grandkids or friends of your family. I’m there as a Jewish educator for a ten-day trip called Honeymoon Israel these couples have decided to take as they are wondering what it might look like to build a Jewish home.
And these are the questions they ask, coming at me, like rapid-fire:
- “Do Jews believe in Jesus?”
- “Is there a heaven and a hell in Judaism?”
- “Who’s this King David our tour guide keeps mentioning?
- “What’s with Jews and candles?”
- “What’s Shabbos?”
- “Rabbi, Is Pot Kosher?”
And for many of them, I’m the first rabbi they have ever encountered, or the first rabbi they’re meeting since a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
For me, this is my life’s work, at Base in Manhattan, where I work with unaffiliated millennials, young folks in their 20s and 30s, seeking Jewish life, meaning, hungry for connection and community but on their own turns. Base is not a synagogue; we, rabbis, and our partners operate out of our homes – at least we did pre-covid, and we have rabbinic couples homes operating in Miami, Brooklyn, Berlin, Harlem, Chicago, Ithaca, and Boston.
These folks in their 20s and their 30s are not rushing to join shuls – even when they do have kids – but they are just as thirsty as ever for Jewish intel. And where do they go? Who do they turn to especially when they don’t have a synagogue or rabbi?
Their questions for me are personal. As someone who grew up amid a smorgasbord of Jewish communities, I never felt fully at home in any one particular space, but I still felt a deep connection to all of them. And so as someone who has felt isolated in Jewish life, I relate to my students who yearn for an authentic, accessible Judaism and don’t always find a home. These young people who don’t find themselves in shul or yeshiva are our children and grandchildren and we owe it to them to enter the conversation.
Engaging with the questions is the ethos of my book Why Jews Do That or 30 Questions your Rabbi Never Answered. Each question here is answered in a succinct, and playful manner, accompanied with illustrations by students of mine from Base with questions coming from that conversation by the Kinneret.
I often recall how frustrated some of my fellow classmates in rabbinical school would be whenever someone had the audacity to say “Judaism says.” “How can we possibly say Judaism says? Judaism is a tradition spanning thousands of years! Try Rabbi Gamliel says or Rabbi Eliezer says!” In these moments of frustration, we ought to remember the words of the Mishna: “It is not upon you to complete the task nor are you free to desist from it.” Engaging people and their questions is a rabbi’s work and often, people feel shy when it comes to admitting what they don’t know. My hope with this book is that its reader realizes how valued and valuable their questions and questioning are to living a Jewish life.
Ultimately, we live in a Google-able age, in the way of Wikipedia, with Facebook and Instagram stories being updated daily, I still think the Jewish story is worth telling and hope my readers feel part of that sacred process.
Avram Mlotek is a Base co-founder and the Rabbi of Base MNHTN. He also serves as Director of Spiritual Life for the Base program at large.
In May 2015, Avram was listed as one of America’s “Most Inspiring Rabbis” by The Jewish Daily Forward. In 2012, The New York Jewish Week selected him as a “leading innovator in Jewish life today,” as part of their “36 Under 36” section.
Prior to joining Base, Avram served as a rabbi in training at The Carlebach Shul, The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, The Educational Alliance and Hunter College Hillel. Avram’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, The Forward, Tablet, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Week, JTA, The Huffington Post, and Kveller, among other blogs. His Yiddish cultural work has brought him to China, Ethiopia, Romania, Israel, Sweden, and Australia, where he has co-led High Holiday services in Melbourne with his wife Yael.
Avram grew up in Riverdale and Teaneck, speaking Yiddish at home, surrounded by music. Yiddish folk arts festivals, musical theater, Camp Ramah, Young Israel, and pickled herring were all part of his childhood milieu.
Avram studied at Sarah Lawrence College, Bergen Community College, Yeshiva University’s Belz Cantorial School, Yeshivat Hadar and City College’s Educational Theatre department. He graduated cum laude from Brandeis University with a BA in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. Mlotek completed three units of clinical pastoral education at the Jewish Theological Seminary and received rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He is currently pursuing a Masters in Social Work from Fordham University.
Avram is the proud Tati of Revaya, Hillel Yosl, and Shabtai Elimelekh.