By Ben Tinsley
DALLAS — Several hundred people attended Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky’s Feb. 18-21 appearances as the 2016 scholar-in-residence for the Rabbi David Lefkowitz Memorial Lectureship at Temple Emanu-El.
The rabbi is executive director of Big Tent Judaism, a national, independent, transdenominational organization reaching out to unaffiliated Jewish families and those who are intermarried.
Rabbi Olitzky, named one of the 50 leading rabbis in North America by Newsweek, is a well-known author widely lauded for his encouragement of inclusiveness.
He covered a variety of related topics during the weekend, ranging from a special Thursday evening session geared to individuals and families navigating recovery to Shabbat services to a Sunday morning talk on how to nurture Jewish grandchildren.
Many of those in attendance Thursday evening were there because they were well aware of the rabbi’s published work in the field.
“They wanted to engage with me — somebody they have been engaging with for a long time through my writings,” Rabbi Olitzky explained. “Our work and our organization is very altruistic and we sow our seeds as an advance team for the Jewish community. We are not a membership organization. We see ourselves as a conduit for engagement. We want people to be excited and interested about Judaism and the Jewish community and find their own path to engagement.”
The rabbi said he covered a lot of areas on a variety of topics this past weekend, based on their needs and various topics on which he currently is working.
“Because they have read some of the things I have written about, they chose topics that reflected the needs of the institution,” he said. “For instance, on Thursday night it was about recovering from drug addiction and alcoholism and other areas. On Friday it was ‘Why Be Jewish’ and on Saturday it was about ‘Beginning A New Jewish Narrative.’”
In a February 2013 submitted article to eJewishphilanthropy.com, the rabbi provided several answers to the question, the first and foremost of which was “As a Jew, the collective story of the Jewish people becomes my personal story.”
The rabbi is an author of many books and a co-author of others. He penned New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue: From Traditional Dues to Fair Share to Gifts from the Heart with his son, Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky. The book was published by Jewish Lights Publishing.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is well-known for his particular focus on interfaith work and recovery and his pioneering work specializes in the area of “Jewish 12-step spirituality.”
Mindful of the ongoing expansion at Temple Emanu-El, the rabbi said he was fortunate enough to speak to the program staff this past weekend.
“They have a task force on engagement that is working in concert with the development of their building expansion to try to figure out how a large institution is able to reach not only its membership and remain intimate with that membership, but also emerge as a community institution serving way beyond its membership,” he said.
Olitzky said he hopes members of the synagogue begin to think about subjects he brought up and take some of the ideas he presented.
“The people were responsive and they were appreciative, and the indicator will be whether they felt the various points I made are valid and whether they are willing to implement some of the things I talked about,” he said.
On the subject of intermarriage, he said there is much to be clarified about the topic.
“If you would have asked me 10 years ago what was the biggest challenge facing the American Jewish community, I would have responded, ‘intermarriage,’ ” he said. “But today I would say ‘engagement.’”
People continue to get married — but not increasingly with rabbinical clergy. Rather, he said, it is by the next-door friend or the neighbor with a license for a day.
In other words, he said, rabbis in particular are increasingly being left out of the lifecycle events of Jews.
“People are getting married later if at all,” the rabbi elaborated. “But the current synagogue model assumes a traditional trajectory of life stations.”
Rabbi Olitzky said he felt turnout was good during the weekend.
One takeaway from the weekend event is, “The wisdom with which we respond to the challenges of our day will determine the future landscaping we leave to our children.”
“I think that’s the biggest takeaway for the Dallas Jewish community — the future is in your hands,” he said. “What you make of it is all up to you.”