Evergreen, Colorado, a mountain community west of Denver, is where I have lived for the last seven and a half years. It is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world. But we moved here primarily for Judaism. There are thousands of Jewish families that live in the foothills west of Denver, most of them are unaffiliated and are not connected to Jewish life in any way. Reaching out to them and getting them to see how Judaism is relevant to their lives is a herculean task. In many ways, it is like trying to sell someone something that they don’t think they need, but will take up a lot of their time and money. This is especially true in America where there is no entry into Jewish life that does not have a financial barrier to it.
But I remain persistent and will never give up. At my synagogue there is no financial barrier to entry nor are there membership dues. In order to do this, we keep costs at a minimum – no one gets a salary for working with or at Judaism in the Foothills.
So there I was having coffee with a new friend, and he asked me: “So Levi, why do you do it?”
When I was much younger I would have answered this question based on a Kabbalistic or Hasidic teaching. I would have told you something about the Divine sparks or about God’s essence being revealed through Torah and mitzvot. But now, in my mid-30s, I would rather give an answer that is based on my own experience with Judaism.
It’s like when you have read a book that has changed your life, or used a product that has solved a problem for you, or watched a movie that made you think differently about things. You tell your friends about it. Judaism is like that for me. I want to share Judaism with others simply because of the hugely positive impact it has had on my life.
About 15 years ago, I was invited to a friend’s home for a Shabbat meal. There were about 20 people sitting around the table, and the host asked his guests to each share a positive and a negative experience they had with Judaism. Lots of the people described negative experiences associated with bad rabbis, corrupt Jewish organizations and attending badly run religious schools as kids. I was the last person to answer.
“I have never had a negative experience with Judaism. Judaism does not offer negative experiences," I said. Turning to all the people who had stated their traumatic Jewish experiences, I said: “That was not Judaism that you were experiencing; it was a bastardization of Judaism.”
Doubtless, I have had many negative experiences with Jewish organizations, schools, rabbis, religious leaders and communities. As someone who grew up going to a Hasidic school and then to yeshiva, and has worked in or around Jewish organizations all my life, I could write an entire book chronicling all the dastardly things I have witnessed. But none of that represents anything more than normal human frailty.
Equally, I could write volumes enumerating the positivity that Judaism itself has had on my life. I am motivated to do just that. But not in the form of a book, for now at least. This article marks the beginning of a series I will be writing about the impact Judaism has had on my life and why I am so passionate about sharing it with others.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life