Interview with Rabbi Briskin

Interviewed by Nina Prays

Q1. How did your family upbringing affect your views on Judaism and Jewish education?

I was raised in a large suburban reform synagogue by parents who were very active in the synagogue life and I was nurtured through a large Jewish community and through a large synagogue and a large school in a community with a lot of Jews. And Judaism was all around me. My youth group experiences both on a local and a regional level were extraordinarily influential in helping to form my Jewish identity. I went to Israel when I was going into 11th grade. It was my second trip to Israel at that point. That certainly helped form my Jewish consciousness. I was very engaged with Jewish community and Hillel on campus when I went off to college. So, there were just a number of things along my path t that helped to strengthen my Jewish identity. As I was growing up I was always devoting a tremendous amount of time and energy to volunteer work with the Jewish community and deriving a lot of enjoyment from it. And once I discovered that one could make a career out of this, this was the path I decided to pursue. I knew that I wanted to work with Jewish communities and serve the Jewish community in some way. I wasn’t sure at first it was going to be through the nonprofit organizational world or education, the rabbinate. And then I realized that my gifts and skill set were most suited for the rabbinate.

Q2. What would you, as a Rabbi, most want to bring to the culture of synagogue and community?

That’s a difficult question to answer because I would be looking for somebody who’s like me and saying that would involve a lot of ego and so that’s not a cool thing to say, but basically this is what it is.

However, I can think of the synagogues that I would join. Like for example, Rabbi David Stern, who is the president of the Central Conference of American rabbis and I’m getting to know him now. He’s the rabbi of Temple Emmanuel in Dallas, Texas. He is one of those few rabbis who leads a large congregation but also has a great deal of humility, incredible intellect and is one of the most gifted speakers that I’ve heard. And every time I hear him, I always joke, “I think I’m going to quit my job, so I can join his synagogue.”  But such rabbis are few and far between. So often a congregant must find those qualities in their rabbi that they will be drawn to. And when you have a rabbi with a pastoral presence, good preaching and teaching ability, deep intellect and organizational skills, you’re lucky. And in most synagogues if you get one or two out of those four or five that is good enough.

Q3. What is your idea of Jewish community?

The idea of Jewish Community is rather abstract, but a community is something very concrete and very real. And our community is a gathering of people both Jewish and not Jewish who are committed to the Jewish endeavor that we’re exploring here in our congregation. We have a lot of people who are not Jewish, who are raising Jewish children, who are married to people who are Jewish and who are celebrating Jewish life in a very meaningful and powerful way and derive a lot of pleasure and learning and spiritual nourishment through this concrete organism that we call Jewish community.

I think the Jewish community here in the South Bay is focused on synagogues without the institutional structures of a federation or other organizations. It’s really based on the synagogue. So, our congregants look at Temple Beth el as their Jewish community their address for Jewish life. What I also love hearing about is when our members join with other folks and do Jewish things together that may be outside of our community. Like a movie group that is not affiliated with our Temple, but our congregants do it as a group, and that enriches our community life.

Q4. Did you get any training from Rabbi Lieb? What were your first experiences at TBE like?

Rabbi Lieb and I overlapped for a couple of weeks and it was meaningful. We did one service together and Rabbi Lieb placed the Torah in my arms and this symbolic transfer of leadership from him to me was memorable. It was as if he was putting his stamp of approval on me and on the synagogue’s decision to choose me as their rabbi. I think that really set me up for success and enabled me to change some things.  Change is hard, and people are resistant to it. So, it meant a lot that the Rabbi Emeritus was supportive of what I was bringing to the temple and of the things I wanted to do, including the things that I wanted to change.

Q5. What do you feel you have contributed to the Temple’s culture that is your own?

You know, I succeeded someone who was here for 34 years and made this transition without an interim rabbi and was able to maintain institutional stability.

I came from a larger synagogue up north and that helped me to expand the operation of Temple Beth El, to make it a bit more sophisticated, to bring in the right team of lay leaders and allow for the continued wellbeing of the congregation. I am also delighted that in the last few years we were able to infuse our worship with creativity, for example, our Shabbat morning alternative services. This program developed over the course of two to three years and filled in the gap in the culture on the Bnei Mitzvah-only Shabbat morning service. So, together with Cantor Davidson, we instituted eight types of worship opportunities for Friday night and Saturday morning. Different opportunities bring in different people, many of whom would otherwise not have participated in the service.  So, that I think was an accomplishment.