You’ve served as a community rabbi in four countries so far: Australia, the US, Canada and the UK. What would you say are the most important lessons you’ve learned from your experiences?
I’ve lived and served as a rabbi in four countries, on three continents, so I’ve learned a lot. Every community has its own particular culture and flavor that makes it special and unique. I grew up in Australia and became a rabbi of a community that I would describe as old meets new. The Sydney Jewish community has two parts: British colonial and Holocaust survivors. I’m from the second group. But I became rabbi of an inner-city shul that embodied the first group. When I came it was a dying shul. But the area had become trendy and we managed to transform the shul into a bustling kiruv center for local young people.
When I moved to New York, I served as assistant rabbi in a Nassau County shul. Like Teaneck—where I currently reside—that area represents the transformation of American Jewry. In the 1950s, sociologists predicted the demise of the Orthodox community. Not only did Orthodox Jews not disappear, there’s a vibrancy that nobody could have foreseen. The larger Modern Orthodox communities are producing the leaders of American Jewry and impacting our country and the world in a way that is creating an incredible Kiddush Hashem for all to see. I think about the Daf Yomi boom amongst Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews alike, and that’s clearly a result of the success and engagement of the Modern Orthodox community.
We then moved to Canada to become a shul rabbi in Edmonton, and I quickly saw that the Canadian Jewish community is extraordinary. They’re very traditional Jews, and very devoted to Israel. I was there during the Harper era. Can you believe that the majority of a community that was traditionally politically liberal decided to switch to Stephen Harper just because of his support for Israel? I believe that Harper transformed the global narrative on Israel. He made it not just OK, but cool, for a country to be unabashedly pro-Israel. During our time in Canada, my wife Rabbanit Batya led an interfaith coalition to end homelessness. I have to say, I have yet to see another country where multiculturalism has worked as well as it has in Canada. The Jewish community there is blessed to be part of a beautiful national mosaic. And of course, I will forever be connected to Canada, as I was blessed with the great merit of building the National Holocaust Monument.
Then, the fourth country: the UK, which is unique in terms of its strong organization. Most of the Jewish community is Orthodox and part of United Synagogue. That’s kept them quite homogeneous in terms of their traditional Jewish practice. Amazingly, one generation after another just goes with the flow and joins shuls and cheders/schools because that’s how they were brought up. But in recent years, there have been winds of change both within and without. We were there at the peak of the antisemitism crisis. That was a turning point for Anglo-Jewry. Until that point, they preferred to pass under the radar as Jews and sought to be seen by their fellow citizens as ordinary Englishmen. But then they had a transformative moment. They found their voice and spoke out against antisemitism and anti-Zionism. And lo and behold, they were shocked to find broad support amongst the British public.
As you can see, each country, each community is unique and is striving to make Judaism meaningful for themselves.
What advice do you have for young rabbis who are first starting out as community rabbis?
The pulpit rabbinate has so many different facets. Initially, the paths of excellence can appear overwhelming. Some rabbis strive to be extraordinary talmidei chachamim and poskim. Others have a penchant for academic scholarship and pursue those goals. Others seek training in counseling to improve their pastoral skills. Others get involved in chaplaincy. And yet others seek teaching degrees. Nobody can do it all. You need to be a good community rabbi, but you also need to find a niche where you can really shine and fulfill your potential as a rabbi.
What are some of the challenges you faced when serving in these communities? How did you resolve them?
Where do I start?! Anyone who does not confront challenges on a daily basis—irrespective of your professional field—is not trying hard enough. If life’s a breeze, then you need to put in a little more effort to break out of the mold! That’s going to invite challenges and issues. But that’s how you achieve greatness.
Having said that we must all seek challenges, it’s particularly true of the rabbinate. A rabbi must always be working to infuse the congregation with greater spirituality and religious commitment. In one shul, a big challenge was to raise the mechitzah to normative Halachic standards. Understandably, there was initially considerable opposition, but eventually the congregation all came on board in good time.
But it doesn’t always turn out the way one hopes. Another time, I tried to build a mikvah in my shul. We had the money, we had the space and we had a significant number of people behind the project. But there were others in the congregation who had a hard time connecting with the mitzvah and so we had to put it on the backburner. But one should never lose hope—every effort has an impact, whether we see it today, or it paves the way for a future success.
Your most recent project is a series of books called “The Transformative Daf,” but you prefer to call it a “program.” What is this program and what makes it “transformative?”
I’ve found that the biggest obstacle for most people is that they struggle to find meaning in their Torah learning. When I teach Torah, I aim to make it relevant, meaningful and inspirational to the student, right here, right now.
The Transformative Daf model builds on the Daf Yomi model, which has a few goals: daily learning, common learning amongst all Jews, and expanded Torah knowledge. The Transformative Daf series is designed to fulfill at least the first two aims. It’s a daily study and it allows even those who don’t learn the Daf to be part of the global conversation. The approach also keeps in mind that we all have different approaches to learning. Some of us have an affinity for the historical aspect of Talmud learning; while others find the Halachic applications most meaningful. Personally, I find meaning in the life lessons that Daf Yomi offers, so I committed to finding something each day that I could connect with personally. I also wanted to connect my congregants with the Daf Yomi movement. By choosing one idea each day to teach, I was able to help them feel like they were part of something greater. Sure enough, within a few months of starting this concept, there was enough demand in my shul to start an actual Daf Yomi shiur.
Who would you say are leaders who have inspired you?
Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter shlit”a: Rabbi Schacter has inspired a generation of rabbis to inspire their congregations with Torah that is exciting, topical and dynamic. I owe a huge personal hakarat hatov to Rabbi Schacter, who has always believed in me and encouraged me to be my very best. Moreover, I’ve learned from Rabbi Schacter that a rabbi must strive for excellence in Torah Umadda and he’s a very important part of the story of The Transformative Daf.
And Rabbi Sacks, zt”l: His ability to inspire so many by making Torah ideas relevant to today both for Jews and non-Jews is unparalleled. We are bidden to be an or lagoyim and nobody embodies that principle more than Rabbi Sacks.
How do you see Talmud learning impact your day-to-day life?
My day revolves around the Talmud. Although many of us don’t realize it, everything we do is rooted in Talmudic law. It’s become normalized, so we don’t think about the sources of the intricacies we follow. It’s just what we do. Why do I wait a few hours after eating meat before having a coffee with cream? Because it’s just what we do. But as mature, intelligent Jews, we should be intellectually curious enough to want to know the source of the practice. Of course, throughout my personal day, I’m thinking about the next day’s Daf and wondering how to connect it to daily life based on what I see around me. And I think that’s what Hashem wants of us—to constantly be applying the wisdom from Torah and Chazal to our real-life situations.
Rabbi Daniel Friedman received his PhD in International Relations from the University of Alberta and advanced rabbinical ordination from Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz of the Beth Din of America. He is the author of “The Transformative Daf” series, now available in Jewish bookstores and on Amazon.