The new president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia has no illusions about his work ahead.
Rabbi Joshua Waxman of Reconstructionist synagogue Or Hadash in Fort Washington can read the Jewish tea leaves, which indicate synagogue affiliation is down, while the rates for intermarriage and assimilation are up locally and throughout the country.
He knows he and his colleagues face challenges unlike many predecessors, but he is confident the combination of diversity and a willingness to stand on common ground will ultimately pay off.
“It’s different from when I started,” admitted the 44-year-old Waxman, who becomes the third Reconstructionist rabbi to take the reins, following Rabbis Joel Alpert and Elisa Goldberg. “There have been significant changes in the way Jewish life happens in the city and in” the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “The Jewish community, just like everybody else, took a major hit in the last recession. In many places Jewish life has rebounded, but in some ways perhaps not. We know what we do is important for the Philadelphia Jewish community.”
He sees the Board of Rabbis as a crucial part of fostering communal growth.
“First, it provides an important opportunity for rabbis to be able to come together with their colleagues to make connections,” explained Waxman, a native New Yorker who’s been at Or Hadash 13 years. “Being a rabbi is a very consuming job; to be with people of similar background and calling is a powerful thing.
“One of the main things we do is create opportunities for learning — teaching, but also an awareness in creating a space for reflection. We also have programs designed for personal and professional enrichment.”
Waxman said there’s a strong distribution of leadership here in terms of denominations, gender and age. He believes that enables rabbis to better understand the needs of the Jewish community.
“I’ve heard from colleagues in other areas that they’d hesitate to get involved because there were a few senior rabbis always running the show,” said Waxman, who previously served as the board’s vice president of programs. “It’s not like that here.
“Because you have a nice diverse range of people, we’re able to give more perspectives on issues facing the Philadelphia Jewish community and, in some aspects, the Jewish community in general.”
They’re weighty issues, indeed.
“There are some big picture issues the American Jewish community is facing,” said Waxman, who’ll succeed co-presidents Howard Alpert of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia and Jill Maderer of Congregation Rodeph Shalom. “[That includes] the lower levels of [synagogue] affiliation.
“That’s not the same thing as lack of interest in Judaism or in Jewish life. They may be passionately drawn to social action. They may want to be involved, but they’re generally not as accustomed to joining institutions. That creates a challenge and an opportunity as well.”
Besides working within the Jewish community, the board goes beyond it.
One of Waxman’s new duties will be his role with the Religious Leaders Council, a part of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia. The group seeks to “build relationships of mutual support, offer a moral and spiritual voice in the region, and identify issues of concern for dialogue and action.”
“We also oversee a program of chaplaincy for people imprisoned in the eastern part of the state, making sure there’s an opportunity for inmates to have services,” Waxman said.
Waxman said he’s humbled by the opportunity.
“I’m honored my colleagues have entrusted me with this position,” said Waxman, who ran unopposed. “We all have a shared commitment to Jewish life and the future of Jewish people and a deep love of Torah and Judaism.
“Rabbis are aware the things we say and do and don’t say and don’t do are often judged and scrutinized. To be among colleagues where other people going through the same shared experiences creates a real common ground for connections across denominational lines.”
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