Beth Israel’s New Rabbi Justin Goldstein
By Hank Eder
Ask a lot of Asheville transplants why they settled in this area and many say they were drawn here, or they just knew this was where they belonged. Justin Goldstein, the dynamic new Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, is one such Asheville transplant.
“Interestingly enough, the first time I ever came here I knew I would live here one day,” Rabbi Goldstein said. “Even as I was starting rabbinical school – and in my early days there, I never actually thought I would work with a congregation – the one place I said I’d be willing to work with a congregation was here. The much shorter answer is that it’s been a home away from home for almost 15 years. My wife’s mother lives here; we were married here, so we have felt connected to Western NC for some time.”
Rabbi Goldstein is a perfect fit for an Asheville congregation. He has long been an advocate of ecological and economic sustainability, both important issues in this community, and he believes they are also important issues in Judaism. In his words, “In many ways, it was that interest in sustainability that led me toward pursuing a career as a Rabbi. I think the Jewish tradition’s commitment to caring for creation is very clear. It’s not always apparent in the literature, because most of our literature comes from either the ancient or medieval worlds, where environmental sustainability was not a challenge. The factors that led to an unsustainable world were not in place yet in a widespread way.”
While living in Massachusetts, Rabbi Goldstein learned about the relationship between small, family farms and the foods that people eat. Later, in Southern California, he witnessed a far different mindset on the huge corporate farms where much of America’s food is grown.
“When you’re living in a place like Southern California, you start to see the impact on the community,” says Rabbi Goldstein. “Who’s working these farms? What’s the relationship between poverty levels and the types of jobs that people have? These are all matters that the Jewish tradition has been concerned with forever, in terms of fair and living wages. Are workers being respected and treated well? Is there sustainability in community, in addition to the environment? Is there economic sustainability? And so all of these issues, for me, really crystallized during my time in rabbinical school. And at that point, a lot of my interest in sustainability grew beyond environmentalism and took a more rounded interest in what did the Jewish tradition have to say about the challenges of modern life when it comes to providing food and living wages for people? Those two things don’t always sit hand in hand.”
Rabbi Goldstein also wants to make the synagogue a place for people to discover themselves spiritually. “I think the main goal of any synagogue should be, to be a place where people find meaning in their spiritual expression. Or they can find meaning in building relationships with people in the community, and in connecting to their heritage and the Jewish tradition. Those are our primary goals,” he says.
These goals include keeping today’s young people engaged in a Jewish spiritual life. “It’s not just young Jewish people, but young people in general who seek experiences in which they find deeper meaning. Young people don’t like to be told what to do, or how or why to do it, but if given an opportunity where they feel they are receiving something from the experience, they will participate in it. I think part of the challenge that synagogues face – and this is the case for any religion or house of worship – is that people are not motivated to practice religion in the ways they have in the past. And religious institutions are suffering because of this. I think part of the challenge that any faith community has is being forward-thinking enough to understand the needs of today’s generation while also maintaining a sense of authenticity to their tradition. So I think the challenge is to find that balance between tradition and change,” Rabbi Goldstein says.
A major part of the change facing synagogues is the emerging and evolving role of women in ritual and in Jewish public life. Congregation Beth Israel is part of the Conservative movement in Judaism, which along with the Reform movement has seen many changes in women’s roles in recent decades. Rabbi Goldstein welcomes these changes and said the issue is significant to him.
“I was raised by a very strong Jewish woman who endowed in me a sense of the importance of equality. So I’m proud to be ordained by the Conservative movement, which holds egalitarianism as a value. I think that the women in Congregation Beth Israel have by and large accepted the progress in Jewish life and have taken on leadership roles in every capacity. You also have, however, a generation gap in the sense that women who grew up in gender-segregated Judaism are not comfortable taking on some of the things they view as ‘being for men.’ So there are women who don’t want those roles, and for me, part of egalitarianism is not demanding that someone do something they don’t want to do.”
Rabbi Goldstein goes on to say, “I hope to be part of a Jewish Community that no longer uses the phrase ‘women Rabbis.’ It drives me crazy. I often joke that unless you’re going to call me ‘man Rabbi,’ I don’t want to hear that term used. A Rabbi is a Rabbi. It’s a subtlety, but there’s a cultural shift that still needs to take place to recognize that we have not actually achieved gender egalitarianism, or gender equality, until we allow individuals to define for themselves their own personal limits. You must also accept when you’re dealing with leadership roles, whether that’s clergy or lay leadership in the synagogue, that the gender of the individual taking on a leadership capacity should have no bearing on how that person is viewed as a leader.
“The Reform movement began ordaining women first and the Conservative movement has been since the 1980s. But you still have, all these years later, a huge gap in behavioral norms in communities’ acceptance of what female clergy is ‘supposed to look like and supposed to be.’ For example, you won’t find any male Rabbis being told by their congregation, ‘I don’t like the color of your suit.’ But many female Rabbis have been told, ‘I don’t like the color of your nail polish.’ So there are cultural shifts that have not yet taken place even as women have been serving as Rabbis for decades. This has less to do with religion and more to do with society at large. Whether it’s a pay gap or any number of issues that society is still plagued with, we have a lot of work to do.”
Asheville’s unique spirit is a big part of what drew Rabbi Goldstein here. “One of the things that attracted me to this community and continues to keep me interested is the tendency in some aspects of the city to support itself. Whether it’s the effort to support the local economy, local agriculture, or local businesses, it is a value found here that not every city embodies. I would like to see it more engrained and widespread. You know, it always boggles my mind to see people sitting in Starbucks when there is a plethora of amazing coffee shops that are locally owned businesses. So that is important to me personally, and I think the city benefits from that culture immensely.”
Rabbi Goldstein has definite plans for the future of Congregation Beth Israel. Redefining success is part of those plans. “I’d like to see the community gain confidence in itself,” he says. “Rather than measure success in the size of the budget or congregational membership, we need to really look at the quality of the experiences that people have here. I believe that those types of shifts in consciousness really change the culture of an institution a substantial amount. It’s slow, and it’s not easy, and it’s not always apparent on the surface what changes it facilitates. The end result I would like to see in five years is a more vibrant community. It doesn’t have to be bigger or wealthier; it’s about a level of commitment people feel to the community, based on their desire for others to share in the experiences they find meaningful.”
Another of Rabbi Goldstein’s goals is to get the synagogue more involved in the happenings of the city at large. “I think there’s a tendency in the Jewish community, no matter where you are, to isolate, and I would like to see more involvement in service projects outside the synagogue. I’d like to see more involvement in being part of that Asheville culture I spoke about. I think it would be equally beneficial to the city and to the Jewish community to see that more rooted in the culture of the synagogue.”
Participation in community outreach projects gives the public a wider view of the Jewish community and helps push past cultural stereotypes. Rabbi Goldstein sees it as a win-win situation and says, “I think there is a history here of a disconnect, either between the city not engaging the Jewish community, or the Jewish community not feeling comfortable being engaged. Today we have the opportunity to overcome that in ways past generations didn’t have.”
In these changing times, Asheville and Rabbi Goldstein are a perfect match. Congregation Beth Israel can only continue to evolve in beneficial ways under his guidance and leadership.
Hank Eder is a PR professional and freelance writer living in Western North Carolina. Hank has been a newspaper reporter, editor, graphics designer, and educator. Current projects include working to finish a book about finding your “inner hero,” a locally produced animated science fiction series, and co-writing a Hispanic market screenplay. Catch up with Hank at email@example.com.
Hank Eder PR/Marketing specializes in publicity and content writing for business, web writing and website design, newsletters, B2B publications, corporate and personnel communications, SEO writing, crisis PR, social network writing and maintenance, blogs, branding, graphics design, and much more. Call Hank at 828-689-5787.