Building an Engaged and Dynamic Jewish Community
A graduate of Hebrew College in Boston, Bressler was raised in the Reform-Judaic tradition and ordained in 2018. In this interview, Bressler shares some of his greatest challenges as a rabbi, as well as his hopes and dreams for the community.
Question: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Answer: I’m Rabbi Phil Bressler of Beit Am Jewish Community in Mid-Willamette Valley. I was ordained at Hebrew College, which is a rabbinical school in Boston. It’s a little bit unusual in comparison to other rabbinical schools in that it’s not affiliated with [only] one of the denominations of Judaism. It was founded by Rabbi Arthur Green and a number of other rabbis specifically for the purpose of training rabbis to meet the evolving and changing needs of the American Jewish community.
There’s kind of a bigger trend away from denominational affiliation, mirroring what happens in liberal Christian circles. There’s something in the American zeitgeist right now wherein people don’t necessarily want or feel the need to have an all-encompassing approach to their religion. More and more individual Jews are considering themselves just Jewish, rather than reconstructionist or reform or conservative, and more and more institutions are going that way too. That’s a really good fit here at Beit Am, because this place has always been unaffiliated and intentionally pluralistic.
Part of that was in response to the circumstances. It’s a small community. At the time of its founding there were folks who identified as orthodox and conservative and reform, and some who weren’t really interested in Judaism as a religion at all. But there was a sense that they all wanted to be together, partially out of necessity and partially, I think, out of a sense of Jewish peoplehood. And so Beit Am has always figured out how to be a place for all of the Jews in the area.
Q: What brought you out to Corvallis initially?
A: I was ordained in the spring of 2018, so this is my first pulpit. The job search process for rabbis is kind of like a regular job search in a lot of ways, at least for Hebrew College rabbis. One of the downsides of not being part of a movement is you don’t get to go through their placement process.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit, I had never actually been to the state of Oregon before coming out to visit Beit Am. I saw the posting for this job come across my email, and I thought “that’s not for me, I’ve never heard of Corvallis, I don’t know anything about it,” so I ignored it initially.
A classmate of mine applied for the job and really liked it, but ended up getting accepted to a fellowship in Seattle, so he said, “This is a great job, I know my friend Phil is still looking for work, he’d be a great fit,” and he sort of set us up. He told me “you gotta talk to these folks” and I trusted him, so I checked it out, and it ended up being a great fit.
My wife and our daughter came to visit with me and they really liked it too. While I was interviewing, they were touring around the city and connecting with folks here, and everyone felt very welcomed, like this would be a great place to settle for a while and raise a family.
Q: Why did you become a rabbi in the first place?
A: I grew up in the reform movement, and for me that meant going to the religious school and participating in the youth group and going to summer camp, and I came away with a very strong Jewish identity. However, I had enough Jewish learning to get a sense that the ocean was very deep, but I was only really able to see the top few feet. I didn’t really know how to access anything beneath the surface until I went to college. I started as a history major and became a Jewish studies major because I realized that studying Jewish history was what I really felt a connection with.
It was really the techniques of biblical criticism, the academic analysis of the Bible from a literary/historical/critical perspective that opened up this world. Part of the issue was that I was never able to reconcile the spiritual seeking side of me with the scientific, rational side of me in a way that made sense. So acquiring those tools, and being able to look at and wrestle with and engage with Jewish texts in a way that felt authentic to my scientific, critical thinking side, and also from a Jewish religious standpoint, sort of opened up a doorway I could walk through. I got more interested in studying the Bible, and that opened doors to all sorts of other Jewish religious practice I experimented with.
I had an inkling that I might want to go to rabbinical school. I actually applied to the reform seminary, and was told “we think you’re going to be great, but you need to make sure that this is really what you want to do. It’s at least a five year commitment.” I was young and not necessarily that certain of things, so I went and worked in a number of other areas. I started on a master’s degree in Jewish studies, and realized very quickly that I did not want to be an academic. I really wanted to learn about Judaism so that I could be with people, and so that I could help other people get more out of being Jewish, kind of the same way I did.
So I kind of dawdled for a while, and eventually heard about Hebrew College, which didn’t have much of a high profile at that time. A rabbi in town suggested I check it out, and it ended up being a great fit. I did not know that I was a pluralist before I went. It took me six years, including a year of study in Israel.
Q: What challenges have you faced as a rabbi?
A: I’m only about a year and a half into my career, and the challenges are constantly changing. The first year here was really all about getting to know the community and the ways that things are done, as well as the personalities and politics. Not to mention just developing my own systems, habits, and practices.
Now I feel like a lot of that is fairly stable, so I’m starting to look ahead to the future about what direction I want to go and what I want to make the main pillars of my rabbinate. That’s partially a personal exploration, but I’m also thinking a lot about this community and what this community could really use and what will help it the most. Like in many institutions, there’s a lot of inertia. People are not excited to make big sweeping changes all at once, so there’s a lot of plotting and careful positioning, trying little changes that slowly shape the environment around here.
Q: What core pillars have you identified in your work?
A: One thing that has made this community very successful over the years is the kind of do-it-yourself, pulling ourselves [up] by our bootstraps attitude. People here talk about the Beit Am Way, which I think is shorthand for “if you want it, we gotta build it ourselves.” If we want a new building, we’ve got to take charge of laying all the groundwork and raising all the money. If you want a service in the style you like, you gotta be the one to make it.
I want to keep that sense of ownership and agency over this place, this sense of doing it ourselves, and I want to make sure that Beit Am is prepared to keep doing that in the future. This place benefited greatly from several strong leaders who were grounded in Jewish text and tradition and who really knew what they were doing, and I want to make sure that folks around here are educated enough that they can make these decisions.
Another big pillar of my rabbinate going forward will be education, both for adults and young people. The Beit Midrash, our religious school, is a big program — we have a part-time director but I’m very involved in shaping the curriculum, because I kind of have an agenda there about how I want kids to feel about their Judaism and what I think is important for them to know and understand about it.
I think there’s definitely going to need to be a process in the near future about visioning and goal-setting for the congregation. This building has been the goal for quite a while, which it had to be, because otherwise it wouldn’t get done. But the thing is, just constructing a building isn’t an end in itself. “If you build it they will come” does not work for Judaism, or for religious institutions, I think that’s pretty clear. This is a tool that we can use for all sorts of things, so we’ve got to figure out what direction we want to head now. Do we want to grow? Do we want to consolidate? How public-facing do we want to be versus inward facing? These are all stances that we need to figure out, and we’re going to need to do some visioning as a community to figure that out.
Q: What inspires you?
A: There’s a lot of things, the common factor is young people engaging with Judaism. Generally speaking, young people are not that religiously engaged across the spectrum. Engaged with religious institutions, I should be specific. Which makes sense, they have a lot of other priorities and the culture has changed a bit. There’s not this feeling like I need to identify within an institution as part of defining who I am as a person.
What does inspire me is people who take it upon themselves to engage with Judaism despite that. There’s a program called Daf Yomi, “daf” means a page and “yomi” means daily, where you study a page of Talmud a day. And if you do that, you’ll get through the entire Talmud in a little over seven years. I’ve been toying with the idea of taking it on myself, and I jumped into an online discussion with a bunch of young people who are excited and interested in studying on a day-to-day basis. These are folks who are about to grapple with this for the first time, who don’t have a lot of preconceived notions, but do bring a lot of passion and other values to this in ways that I think could be really transformative for them and for the Jewish world.
I’m also really inspired by a lot of young people who are active in politics and in social justice work, especially around issues like the detainment of migrants. That’s an issue that hits close to home for a lot of Jews, because within the last century we spent time in cages and worse. After that, we said “never again.” We’re not going to let that happen for us, and we also meant for anyone else. There are a lot of Jews who are taking that to heart and letting that inspire and drive them to political engagement and action. I see my rabbinic colleagues out there, I see all sorts of young people and folks from different Jewish walks of life coming together on this issue, and that’s really inspiring, because all the Talmud learning means nothing without converting that into actions in the world.
Q: What do you find most appealing about Judaism as a religion?
A: I cannot be objective about this question – I just want to note that!
I’ve often heard it said that if you ask a Christian to tell you about what Christianity means, they’ll start with a statement of belief. Jews start with a statement of action — Judaism is about what you do. There’s something appealing to me about the reality of action over and above belief. And by action, I mean both ritual action and interpersonal action.
There’s the idea of mitzvot: commandments that Jews are obligated to do. We use the word mitzvah to mean lighting Shabbat candles, which is entirely a ritual thing — that’s between me and God. That’s in the same category as the mitzvah of tzedakah, giving charity, which is between me and another person. Those are both mitzvahs, and they’re all under that umbrella of Jewish religiously sanctioned, and some would say obligated, actions.
I also really like the Jewish propensity for argument and discussion and critical thinking. There’s a long history and a lot of jokes about that — two Jews, three opinions. Again, I’m not objective, I was raised in that tradition, but to me that feels really valuable as a way to approach the world. We take nothing for granted. Even things that are deeply held Jewish principles are open for discussion and reinterpretation. In that online discussion group, some folks really appreciated how when we’re interacting with these ancient rabbis through these texts, you can disagree with them! There’s nothing so sacrosanct that it can’t be interacted with.
Q: What do you find interesting about other religions?
A: Lately, it’s been comparing approaches to reading scripture. For example, at the open house for the synagogue I ended up talking to a bunch of missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They asked me if I had a favorite Bible passage, and I said, “yes, I do, although what’s interesting is that what makes it my favorite isn’t necessarily the words of the text itself, it’s what commentators have said about those words,” which is a very Jewish approach to interpretation.
For Christians, as I understand it, it’s more about you reading the text and making sense of it for yourself. Whereas for Jews, we read in the context of our community and our tradition. We don’t really sit down and read the texts of scripture and assume that we can know what it means just on our own.
It can be a challenging thing to explain sometimes. People have asked “does that mean you’re prioritizing human words and human interpretation over God’s word?” That is one way to look at it, but that’s also not how we see ourselves as doing it, that’s not how we understand this process. But that’s also not incorrect — there’s a whole discussion about authorizing ourselves to be interpreters of Torah, and that once the Torah was given, it’s out of God’s hands. It’s in our hands now, and God doesn’t get to tell us what to do with it.
Q: How has the congregation grown since you’ve come to Corvallis?
A: It’s grown numerically, which I don’t think I deserve direct credit for, but maybe some incidental credit. The profile has been raised — ‘New Rabbi Comes to Town’ was a front page story in the Gazette-Times, and we were on the front page again with the new building dedication. The place has gotten a lot more exposure, and I think that’s brought people out. Last I heard, we were at 175 member units, and definitely added three or four since then, at least.
We’ve been on a steady upward trajectory in terms of membership, and I imagine that will last as long as the novelty of the new building lasts. I’ve been really clear with the folks around here that we cannot expect that to continue if we take no action to support [it]. We need to make sure that we are doing the work of welcoming and inclusion and relationship building so that all these new folks come in and meet and connect with somebody that makes them want to stay here. If they don’t connect with anybody, they’re going to lose interest and leave.
Q: What was the transition into the new building like?
A: Oh man, it was chaos! It was like moving into a new house — we had to set up all the phones and the internet, and figure out how all the light switches work and all that kind of stuff. We needed to get up and running pretty quickly in terms of using this as a ritual space, so we had to learn how to use the operative walls. We still don’t have enough people trained on how to use the kitchen.
A lot of folks are nervous about unlocked doors in a place like this, which is pretty understandable given the current climate, so how do we navigate that? If we’re going to leave the doors locked, how do we let in the people who want to be here, and the people we want to be here? We need somebody there to do that, and that requires a bunch more organization and coordination.
So, it’s definitely an ongoing process. There’s a lot more thinking to do about how we want to utilize this space, more than anyone expected. The board put a good deal of work into building use policies and things like that, and still didn’t anticipate everything. I think this building is a really wonderful tool, and we’re still figuring out how to wield it.
Q: What do you think the future holds for the synagogue?
A: I would really like us to maintain a bit more of that public profile. There are a lot of really awesome interfaith allies in this community who’ve been really excited about bringing the Jews of Corvallis and surrounds into that kind of work. Many folks are involved on an individual level, but I think it will be really cool to make Beit Am more of a player in that scene, in a way that still feels safe and secure here.
I think we’re very fortunate that this community has not faced open anti-Semitism. Down in Eugene, there were gunshots fired in the wall of a synagogue, and a brick through a window, stuff in Portland too. Corvallis has mostly escaped [it], but that could happen at any time, and we want to be ready. I would like to see us conquer those fears while being practical and aware of the risks and dangers that are around us.
I also want to cultivate a new generation of leaders with vision for this place. Part of that is education, part of that is empowerment. Not necessarily [to] make Beit Am resemble what’s going on in other parts of the country, but to make it the best possible version of Jewish community in Corvallis. I think there’s a lot we can learn from other institutions, but I want this to continue to be a place that feels like Corvallis, that feels like the Beit Am Way.
Q: What do you think are some of the challenges that Judaism is faced with, both here and in the wider U.S.?
A: That’s a big question. There was actually just a study released by the American Jewish Community surveying Jews around the country about their feelings on the current climate of anti-Semitism. Something like 89 percent of Jews were very worried about anti-Semitism and not particularly happy with the way it’s been handled by high levels of government, often feeling like it’s actually being encouraged, which is really distressing.
In light of our historical experiences it’s something we’re really sensitive to, so one big challenge is wrestling with that. I don’t expect us to solve the problem of anti-Semitism, it’s been around for thousands of years, but we do need to figure out how to not let it paralyze us. The only real losing scenario is the one where we’re too paralyzed to live our lives or do anything productive anymore and just totally retreat inward. I don’t think that’s the kind of Judaism we want to live.
Over the last couple of decades, one of the big challenges has been framed as the interfaith issue — more Jews continue to intermarry with non-Jews at a high rate. That means that a lot of interfaith families are involved in Jewish institutional life, so how do we navigate that from an institutional perspective when we’re used to assuming that everyone is Jewish all the time? How do we make sure that both the Jewish and the non-Jewish family members feel like they can be accepted and welcomed? That continues to be challenging because there [are] no obvious answers.
Q: What gives you hope?
A: Let me circle back to my favorite verse in Torah — the first verse of the fifth chapter of Genesis, and it’s a really boring verse. It says “these are the generations of Adam,” and it goes on to a genealogy list. Not all that exciting, but it leads to this discussion between two rabbis about what is the most important verse in all of Torah.
One rabbi says that the most important verse comes from Leviticus, it’s that you should love your neighbor as yourself. The other rabbi argues that “these are the generations of Adam” is the most important verse for two implied reasons: One, who is my neighbor? That’s open for interpretation, does it mean only other Jews? Does it mean only other Jews that observe Judaism the way I do? That could potentially be a problem, because it doesn’t seem like it means everybody. Two, what does it mean to love somebody? Am I obligated to love people that are particularly unlovable? Am I to understand that I am violating the most central principle of the Torah when I don’t love people who treat me or others horribly?
The reason I think “these are the generations of Adam” is the most important verse of the Torah is because the continuation of that verse is “when God created humanity, He created them in the divine image.” To me, that verse conveys what I think is the most essential principle of Torah, which is that we’re all in the divine image. There’s no neighborness to it, it’s everybody. Every human being, just by virtue of being a human being, is created in the divine image, and therefore entitled to a basic level of dignity and respect for that createdness, that humanity. That doesn’t go so far as saying we need to love everything about everyone — people do some awful things and we don’t need to love that, but we need to treat everyone with a basic level of dignity. That’s why that verse is my favorite, and what gives me hope is that I see around me other people who understand that.