In Acton, a new rabbi for a new generation
Michael Rothbaum was in kindergarten when the man he is succeeding at Congregation Beth Elohim assumed the pulpit of the Acton synagogue 40 years ago.
That would be enough to make Rothbaum’s arrival noteworthy. But there’s more.
The rabbi has been arrested about a half dozen times for civil disobedience.
His husband, Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, is a former professional opera singer now gaining international acclaim as a Yiddish music star. Russell, who converted to Judaism, finds echoes of his black ancestors in this almost lost language of Central and Eastern European Jews.
Oh, and you may spot the couple tooling around town in their silver Mustang convertible.
Rothbaum recognizes he has a tough act to follow: a leader who earned the confidence of several generations of congregants. Under Rabbi Lewis Mintz, Beth Elohim built its temple and then expanded three times to accommodate its congregation. The congregation today has more than 270 households, compared with 50 when Mintz arrived.
“It’s daunting to follow someone who’s really a giant,” said Rothbaum. “Now we have children of board members who are board members.”
Mintz, whose last day was June 30, said his lengthy tenure was “unusual for any clergy, for a rabbi almost unheard of.” Using the Yiddish word for a marriage match to describe his relationship with his congregation, he said, “This was a good shidduch.
The congregation is not affiliated with any formal movement of Judaism. “I fit into that very well,” he said. “We’re at the traditional end of Reform and the most progressive end of Conservative.”
Both Mintz and Rothbaum were ordained by the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, a pluralistic rabbinical school.
“I think the generational change is going to be very good for the congregation,” said Mintz, who is 70.
While sharing many of the same progressive views as his successor, Mintz said Rothbaum is more politically outspoken.
The new rabbi said, however, that his first priority is to sound out his congregants. “If you’re out front and there’s nobody behind you, what are you leading?” he said, going on to cite lessons he learned at his previous job as San Francisco regional co-chair for Bend the Ark, a Jewish Partnership for Justice.
“You talk to people’s hearts and find out what moves them,” he said.
Rothbaum said he was drawn to the Acton congregation’s commitment to living Jewish values, not just paying them lip service. In the aftermath of the presidential election, Beth Elohim formed the group Na’Aseh (“we will act”) to promote charitable causes, community service and social justice initiatives.
“This election is a blessing and a curse. I think a lot of people know the curse part,” Rothbaum said. “That’s destabilizing and terrifying, but it’s also inspiring people to be bold in ways they haven’t been before.”
In his sermons, he said, he won’t rail against politicians, but rather the consequences of their policies. “Are we going to talk about [immigration agents] showing up at a school? Are we going to talk about how we build an economy on the backs of immigrants and then make political hay by demonizing and deporting them? Is that treating people in God’s image?” Rothbaum said. “How could we not talk about that as if Judaism had nothing to say?”
Chris Whitbeck, co-chair of the search committee, said the panel knew of Rothbaum’s activist background before it interviewed him. “We’re not asking him to change who he is or to lessen his own political or social values,” Whitbeck said. “But we do ask him to be aware that whatever he does should be with the goal of bringing disparate people together.”
With a mother who is a fervent liberal and a father whose car bears a Donald Trump bumper sticker, Rothbaum has some experience negotiating political differences. Last fall, he wrote a column for the Forward, a national Jewish newspaper, called “7 Rules for Surviving Thanksgiving with Your Trump Loving Family.” He wrote that the election was one reason he chose to spend the holiday with his father. “Trump has risen to power partly on a promise to divide loved ones from each other — to destroy millions of families,” he said, referring to the president’s immigration policy. “I refuse to let him destroy mine.”
Vowing to be “the rabbi of left, right, center — everybody,” Rothbaum stressed the importance of making sure everyone is treated with dignity. “The rabbis in the Talmud say let the honor of your fellow brother and sister be more important than your own.”
Of the three finalists for the Acton pulpit, two were gay men and one was a woman. Openly gay rabbis were first ordained in the 1980s, beginning with the Reconstructionist movement, followed by the Reform in the 1990s and the Conservative in the early 2000s. Over the last decade, both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have ordained trans rabbis. As yet, no Orthodox seminary admits students who are openly gay.
Rothbaum said that white people make more an issue of his spouse being a black Jew than of their being in a same-sex marriage. Total strangers at synagogues, he said, will approach Russell and ask “‘How are you Jewish?’” Under Jewish teachings, Rothbaum said, “You’re not supposed to remind people of their convert status.”
Rothbaum said his encounters with the law may have cost him one job. A representative of a synagogue search committee called him after seeing a YouTube video of Rothbaum being arrested for protesting against deportations. He asked the rabbi, “Can you guarantee me you won’t get arrested again?” Rothbaum refused to do so.
Whitbeck said that when the rabbi told the anecdote to the Acton search committee, the members laughed.
“We said we’d make his bail,” Whitbeck said. “We need him at the synagogue on Friday night.”