Rabbi David Rafael Senter – Fourth-generation rabbi blends innovation and tradition
My background is somewhat unusual. I am a fourth generation rabbi who is proud of his lineage.
After studying in Shor Yoshuv Rabbinical College, my studies continued on a seminary level at Kol Yaakov Torah Center, where I received ordination in 1985. In 1996, I left the rabbinate and established the kosher concessions at Shea and Yankee stadiums. After two years in the business world I decided to return to my true passion – the rabbinate.
So what type of Rabbi am I? Orthodox? Conservative? Reform? Reconstructionist? I guess I am a “paradox.” One of my colleagues dubbed me a “Reconstructed, Neo-Chasidic, Orthoxative, Reformed, Yeshiva boy.” I view myself as a constantly evolving Under-Constructionist Jew.
As an Under-Constructionist, I understand that religion is a very personal matter, and the individual must find the level of observance they are comfortable with. Judaism is like a buffet; I want to help you take as much or as little as you are ready for.
The demographics of the Jewish community are in a constant state of flux. People rarely fit into the preconceived notions of Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. Couples come together from different segments of the Jewish community, sharing history and creating new history together. Interfaith families are a significant constituency with unique needs and concerns. The diverse nature of the evolving Jewish community challenges rabbis to meet people where they are: spiritually, physically and emotionally.
The rabbi’s role is deeply rooted in a living tradition that constantly adapts to a contemporary context. The model finds its roots in the teaching (Pirkei Avot 1:2:) “The world rests upon three fundamental pillars, Torah – acquiring wisdom, Avodah – the service of the heart, and Gemilut Chassadim – deeds of loving kindness.”
The rabbinate is built upon this traditional foundation, by reaching out to individuals, helping them connect with each other and God through prayer, Torah and loving kindness.
Torah – Acquiring wisdom: The rabbinate is an excellent opportunity to teach and be taught. I have been blessed to study with people of different levels of observance and belief systems. Each and every interaction with a congregant, member of the greater community and fellow clergy is an opportunity to gain and share new perspective. Each individual perspective is a gift that keeps the Torah alive. Varied perspectives are treasured by our tradition with the words “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim, “These and those (perspectives) are the words of the Living God”.
Avodah – The service of the heart: The Talmud (Ta’anit 2a) teaches us Avodah – service of the heart is referring to prayer. Prayer provides us with the profound ability to speak with God using a formal structure that dates back to the Great Assembly (5th century B.C.E). This formal structure represents a significant connection to our tradition through a reality of Kevah – maintaining the established.
Tradition realizes that Keva (that which established) cannot exist without Kavanah (that which inspires). We look to the words of Rabbi Eliezer (Talmud B’rachot 28a) “If a person prays only according to the exact fixed prayer and adds nothing from his own mind, the prayer is not considered proper.”
As spiritual leaders, rabbis are compelled to balance Keva (that which established) and Kavanah (that which inspires.) We are compelled to bring together tradition and contemporary voices in a prayer experience that speaks to both the heart and mind.
Gemilut Chassadim – deeds of loving kindness: Rabbi Chaim of Brisk declared: “The primary function of a rabbi is to be a Bal Chesed (kind person)”. Rabbis are blessed with the opportunity to share life’s sacred moments. We celebrate and are uplifted by every baby-naming, bar/bat mitzvah and wedding. These moments of intense kedusha (spirituality) allow us to share in the joy, hopes and dream of the people we serve. Moments of intense kedusha (spirituality) are not limited to Simcha (joy). Rabbis are often called upon to help families during times of sadness and grief. It is an absolute honor to help people navigate end-of-life issues.
Being there for people in their times of joy and sorrow is one of the most rewarding aspects of the rabbinate. Each lifecycle event leaves an indelible mark on my soul and shapes who I am as a rabbi. I am thankful for the opportunity to share in these special moments. Every aspect of the rabbinate is an amazing opportunity to connect with people. The most significant piece of a successful rabbinate is creating a kehilah kedoshah (sacred community), one relationship at a time.
I am proud to be a personal rabbi to each and every member of Temple Israel and the greater community.
With Torah blessings,
Rabbi David Rafael Senter