Arts & Culture

Rabbi Dan Ain: Torah Badass (The Interview)

Rabbi Ain is a rock star in the radical Jewish community. This guy leads one of, if not THE MOST, progressive congregations in the world. New Shul is a model for what is possible when you combine creativity, a love … Read More

By / October 5, 2009

Rabbi Ain is a rock star in the radical Jewish community. This guy leads one of, if not THE MOST, progressive congregations in the world. New Shul is a model for what is possible when you combine creativity, a love for the Jewish lifestyle and a community filled with spirit.

I took a deep breath and suddenly it happened: the phone rang. It was Ain. I put on my "poker voice". As chill as I could, I picked up the phone. "This is Patrick A, how may I help you?" What a pussy thing to do! You know it’s Ain! Don’t be such a wuss. "Patrick, this is Dan Ain from New Shul. How’s it going?" How the fuck does he think it’s going? "OK, OK," I think to myself, "it’s just a phone interview. You have the questions, you love this guy! Just make it happen." We chat for a bit and then he drops a bomb on me. "I loved your post on Jewcy.com about why you believe in G_d."

I hate impressing important people. Not only does it give me a superiority complex that I don’t deserve, but it sets the bar really high. I hope this interview can live up to his expectations of me. So we talk. "Give me a basic introduction to New Shul. Imagine I’m walking down the street and I ask you what it is. Give me the sales pitch." I learn quickly that Rabbi Ain is quick. No bullshit. He hits home. "We are attempting to use authentic jewish wisdom, knowledge and spirituality to take the old and reinvent it in ways that provide new meaning to people." Another bomb: "PunkTorah is very similar to New Shul." Oh, crap. What do I do with that? I thank him and say, "I’m just some punk rock douchebag". Did I just say "douchebag" to a rabbi? Yep. Sure did. Douchebag! On that note, we talk about young people and spirituality. "A lot of people on the younger side, free thinking and smart, are not being provided ways into spirituality, religion, G_d…the need for G_d is very important." For me, interviewing rabbis is a lot like a married guy going to a strip club. Sure, I have my piece-back-home (and I’m a lucky guy, my rabbi is the shit), but sometimes its nice to have a little fantasy in your life. I ask Rabbi Dan about some of the programs involved at New Shul. I’m impressed when he talks about "Tefillin Unbound," a Tuesday morning minyan that explores new ways of looking at the ancient practice of laying the leather straps across the body. I am especially excited about "Shabbat on Top", a post-shul praying-person’s-pub where guest speakers (recently the VC for Twitter) talk about Jewish issues…over drinks! Rabbi Dan drove home a really great point to me about modern life and faith. "[Religious leaders] are still, at best, speaking a 20th century faith. [We're] slow to get into the 21st century…religions tend to progress slowly." In his mind, young people are seeing the world entirely through the internet and social media networking. In his words, we have "given up our eyes to technology." This radical shift leaves us in a tough place where we have to "get to know the people you are talking with" in order to reach them. New Shul is proud that they bring "creativity and genius to Judaism." But the old, nagging, Haredi contrarian in me is left wondering, how do we have Jewish yoga and aromatherapy without completely losing actual Jewishness? "We’re looking for ways in," says Rabbi Dan. And he’s right. That’s what we’re all doing. We’re looking for a way in, both to G_d and to the Jewish world. Rabbi Dan related the story of a bar mitzvah kid at his synagogue who was a skater. He had no interest in his bar mitzvah, but was doing it for his grandfather. His parshah was Korach (very appropriate, given that the parsha is basically about rebellion). So the kid talked about rebellion. He talked about Kurt Cobain and Rage Against the Machine and all the things that meant something to him. He talked about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and finally, Korach. By giving him the opportunity to talk about RATM, Dan Ain got a bar mitzvah kid excited about his Jewishness. Rabbi’s voice is getting excited. You can tell he loves his gig. That enthusiasm spilled over to me. I was pacing in a circle in my yard, my neighbors wondering, "what the hell is that crazy Jew doing now?" I interject with a story about a woman I spoke with recently. She was having trouble reconciling her issues as a lesbian with her Jewish upbringing. I mentioned how awesome it was to help someone connect to their Jewish identity by giving them the freedom to be themselves, the same way that Dan Ain helped the skater kid. "Dude," he said, "I just got chills." Fuck yeah. This is what Judaism is all about! This shit, right here. Two people, sharing stories about how to help people get closer to G_d. Patrick and Dan, for the win! Rabbi Dan Ain is a Torah bad ass. And if I ever move to NYC (don’t get your hopes up, you sassy Williamsburg hipster Jewesses), I know where I’m going to daven. Shalom, mother fucker! Writer’s note: I think that tape recording interviews is bullshit. And heck, look at what Rabbi Ain said about giving up our experiences to technology. So I may not have quoted everything right, and I may have missed the order on some things. But cut me some slack, OK? You still got a pretty rockin’ story.

Editor’s note: I am a sassy Williamsburg hipster Jewess, and you can’t even handle this.