Last Word: Rabbi Jacob Staub Reconnects with Judaism

Rabbi Jacob Staub is a white man with buzzed hair and a short, grey beard. He is smiling and wearing a black dress shirt.
Courtesy of Bryan Schwartzman

For those who don’t know Rabbi Jacob Staub, it’s hard to imagine that someone who has been a rabbi for the past 45 years, at one point, didn’t want to be Jewish at all.

For Staub, 71, director of the online platform Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations and professor emeritus of Jewish philosophy and spirituality and director of the Jewish Spiritual Direction Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, the path to embracing Judaism really was a reconstruction.

But six decades ago, Staub’s relationship with Judaism was much more fraught. Raised in a Modern Orthodox home in the Bronx, Staub was “destined to be a rabbi,” according to his parents, as he performed well at his yeshiva. His parents named him after Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the chief rabbi of New York City’s Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. Still, Staub resisted his Jewish upbringing.

“I couldn’t do it,” Staub said. “It was clear subliminally, unconsciously, I probably was looking for a way out.”

By the time Staub was about 12, he realized he was gay.

“Somehow, the whole paradigm crumbled,” he said.

Staub would sit at the Shabbat table on Friday nights, but he wouldn’t sing. At some points growing up, he considered himself an atheist, not knowing that Judaism could exist outside Modern Orthodoxy.

His parents were patient with him, and Staub’s attempts to escape Judaism were never successful. As Staub was growing up, his parents listened to WEVD, the most popular Yiddish radio station in New York, tagged “the station that speaks your language.” 

Determined as he was to reject his roots, when the Yiddish music washed over him, he couldn’t help but feel moved.

“I felt emotional; it touched me,” he said. “I tried to get over it, but I couldn’t.”

Staub and Judaism continued to play tug-of-war for years. Despite a strong resentment toward Israel on the eve of the Six-Day War, an international program at SUNY College at Old Westbury saw him study in Tel Aviv.

“In Israel, I tried lots of different things: I lived on a kibbutz; I went to K’far Chabad; I almost stayed there,” Staub said. “I actually wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe while I was at K’far Chabad because it didn’t take me long to get swallowed into Chabad.”

During his stay, Staub met the woman who would become his girlfriend, and later ex-wife. In his letter to the Rebbe, Staub sought advice and counsel, determined to “convert” himself to being straight.

Staub later transferred to SUNY Buffalo, where he studied medieval and modern English, spending his days translating Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” before realizing he wanted to change course again.

“It really became very clear to me that I would always be a tourist in Chaucerian England, and that I’d much rather be doing this in Hebrew,” he said.

He attended the Middlebury Bread Loaf Fiction Writers’ Conference toward the end of college, where he discovered the works of Mordecai Kaplan, the father of Reconstructionist Judaism. 

“It was perfect,” Staub said. “Mordechai Kaplan had been raised Orthodox, and he had embraced the reconstructed version of Judaism. And I read everything.”

Staub moved to Philadelphia in 1971, matriculated into RRC in 1972, and became ordained as a rabbi in 1977, concurrently attending Temple University to get his master’s and doctorate in religion from 1972-1981.

Though initially pulled toward academia, Staub returned to RRC after receiving his Ph.D. from Temple. 

“[I] just realized I had the opportunity, with the help of colleagues, to turn RRC into the seminary I wish I had attended,” he said. “What that meant to me then was reaffirming some traditional stuff in a new language for people to make it more appealing to be more observant.”

In the 45 years Staub has been affiliated with RRC and Reconstructionism, he’s seen the movement transform. 

“Fifty ago, we were revolutionary, in terms of discussion of God … all of those theological issues,” Staub said. “There was no talk — until the ’80s, anyway — of including lesbian and gay Jews, let alone genderqueer [Jews]. We’ve become much more open to excluded groups. We lead on intermarriage, on Jews of patrilineal descent, first bat mitzvah, all these women’s rituals for baby naming, miscarriages, first menstruation.”

Ultimately, Staub said, his work at RRC was to help build a community, democratic and diverse, and, above all, welcoming.

“I wanted to bring the riches that I had rediscovered and reconstructed to a larger world,” he said.

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