Rabbi Broitman talks about Judaism on the Island

Rabbi Caryn Broitman is the first year-round Rabbi at the Hebrew Center, where she's been since 2003. — Photo by Michelle Gross

On a rainy November afternoon at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven, Rabbi Caryn Broitman is enjoying a hot bowl of broccoli soup. Shlomi, Broitman’s eight-year-old standard poodle, is sitting quietly by her side.

With the stress of September’s high-holidays behind her, Rabbi Broitman said she’s busy preparing for Friday night and Saturday morning services, making house calls, and tending to the various rabbinical duties that come with being such an integral part of a religious organization.

The Hebrew Center, the only synagogue on the Island, is widely considered to be the nucleus of the Jewish community. An integral part of Jewish life since it first opened in the 1940s, the Hebrew Center today is home to 350 Island families.

The Times recently sat down with the Rabbi to discuss the Hebrew Center and Judaism on the Island.

How active is the Jewish community on the Island?

I don’t know what the Jewish population on the Island is, but the number of members at our synagogue is 350 families. It varies seasonally. The number of people we get at services, we do have services all year round, Friday night and Saturday night, depending on both the season and whether or not there’s a special event, can be anywhere from 10 to 100 people.

Is there an increase in the service size in the summertime?

It does increase, but it also increases in the winter. We could have a potluck Shabbat dinner for the community, we might get 75 people in the dead of winter — it all depends.

Tell me a little bit about the Hebrew Center.

We are a reform synagogue, but we read from a Reconstructionist prayer book and I am a Reconstructionist trained rabbi. We’re the only synagogue on the Island, so we are very diverse: we have people from all different backgrounds.

But it’s really a diversity of people — people who were brought up orthodox, some who didn’t have any Jewish education whatsoever, some people who aren’t Jewish who are married to Jews.

Can you explain what Reconstructionist means?

It’s kind of in between reform and conservative. Historically it was a break-off of the conservative movement founded by a man named Mordecai Kaplan who taught at the conservative seminary. He differed from the conservative movement in that he didn’t think Jews were bound or obligated by Jewish law, where conservative or orthodox do, but like (David Émile) Durkheim or William James or other religious thinkers of the time, he really valued tradition and ritual more than the reform movement. Though the reform movement has changed over time and values it more, things like Hebrew language where Kippot and Talis, those kinds of traditional rituals, were really valued maybe for different reasons than Orthodox. But there’s a focus on culture, and civilization and that Judaism is not just a religion but a civilization with a culture and so forth, and so for that reason Hebrew is an important part of the civilization.

How does that ideology translate into your sermons?

I think, there’s kind of a joke, that so many Jews are Reconstructionist Jews and they just don’t know it. I think that Reconstructionism is the way that a lot of Jews think. The idea that what you believe theologically isn’t necessarily central to being Jewish, but being Jewish is a heritage of a whole civilization that changes over time and that you’re a part of that has to do with literature and art and music and not in a particular conventional supernatural theology. I think that’s the way a lot of non-orthodox Jews think anyway. I think the prayer book and what I try to do is, I use traditional structures as a container because that offers something rich and enriching, and at the same time we are in dialogue with those traditional structures in terms of what we offer in terms of who we are today. Does that make sense?

So Reconstructionism is a way to incorporate traditional conservative values with a more modern belief system?

Think about it this way. When you think about a Jewish wedding, the traditional Ketubah (wedding contract) is non-egalitarian. It has a language that not a lot of people would like. The reform movement has said, ‘this language is not what we believe in, let’s get rid of it,’ and for years, decades even, they would not have a ketubah and many reform rabbis wouldn’t use any kind of ketubah. They would say we have civil authority and the state marriage license is enough, and someone like Mordecai Kaplan and the reconstructionist movement said, ‘well, wait a second, there’s so much value in the idea of ketubah and having something written that either is passed down traditionally, or is changed according to what we believe in or written by the couple itself, so we’ll keep the idea of ketubah, or basically the ketubah is rewritten, some phrases that are the same, certainly the art of calligraphy that is so meaningful to couples today, the text that is not meaningful or is even offensive, you just drop it or change it.

I think that’s a good way of seeing what the reconstructionist movement has done. Now, a lot of reform and conservative sects have been doing the same thing in the last while, but I think that Mordecai Kaplan and the reconstructionist movement were pioneers in that. The lines between the movements, other than Orthodoxy and liberal Judaism, are not as rigid, and we can all learn from each other.

The Island has a long-standing history as a welcome vacation spot for African Americans. Does the same hold true for the Jews?

We have our own history here that dates back to the early 1900s. Ruth Stiller, who lives across the street, her father was the first Jewish person here. He came around 1906, and then the Brickman family came. They were really totally remarkable in building and creating the Jewish community with just a handful of people. That’s a remarkable story. It’s more of a story about the tenacity and courage of those individuals and creating a Jewish community here on the Island.

You are teaching a class on mysticism and Kabbalah. Can you talk about what kabbalah is.

So Judaism, like most religions — certainly Christianity and especially Islam, have a rich mystical tradition. There are some things that are very similar across traditions because mysticism is unity and unification with the divine, so you’re already in an area, that lots of religious thinkers had this sense about, but it’s also very particular in the way to that unity. Each tradition has its own language and kabbalah has a very specific and very fascinating and rich language, and we’re going to try and learn about that see if there are ways and what those ways are and how it can help us enhance our own spiritual lives.

The Island is such a spiritual place; does that play a role in your teachings here?

I think it’s really true, it is remarkable in that way. Compared to other synagogues around and there are plenty of other synagogues off Island where people come to talk about current events, to get together socially, those aren’t the priorities for why people come. They come here because they want a spiritual dimension in their lives. I think, a lot of people, that’s not the only reason that they come, that’s not the only reason, but that’s an important reason. I think that’s different. People are more open to that, and that’s exciting because it’s something that I want to be able offer.

What would you say is a typical day in the life as Rabbi Broitman?

Each day is different. I spend some part of my day studying to prepare to teach a class, give a sermon, or create the services. Speaking to people in a pastoral way, people who are sick or homebound. Engagement in larger issues is a big part of it. There’s a lot of tending to organizational issues and thinking about what projects we want to do. A lot of educational things, Hebrew school, informal education and just brainstorming different ideas. Someone came to me recently with an idea to do a Shabbat service that incorporates yoga.

What about community involvement?

We like to be engaged in the world and things happening on the Island in general. It’s important to be involved in things going on on the Island; it’s really important to the community to be a part of the Island and projects on the Island and collaborate with people to make it a great place to live.

A lot of our members have been involved in housing efforts, the social services. We work with the food pantry to channel contributions, we offer space to groups when we can like the cancer support group, family planning group. We have had soup suppers here, last year we worked with the Catholic church to raise money. We had a forum here, a year and a half ago, about diversity in the schools with different minority groups. We could always do more. We’re wanting to be engaged. We also work with the NAACP. It feels really good to have things here that have to do with being American and touch all different types of people to bring them together.

What does the Hebrew Center do to engage the Island’s Jewish community?

We want to reach out to young families with kids, we want to be a welcoming place, we do advertise at the beginning of our Hebrew school year and around Chanukah time, certainly in the summer. Our lecture and film series is very well advertised; we also do Shabbat on the beach.

What is a good way for people to become involved?

First, people are welcome to come and dip their toe in and see what it’s like. We want people to be members because it’s a way to support the community on the Island, and we need people to come in and support it. Nobody is ever turned away. There’s annual dues, either single or family, but compared with other synagogues, it’s low. And we feel very strongly that nobody is turned away if they can’t afford the dues; we want it to be as progressive as possible.

People who aren’t members shouldn’t be shy. We really want and welcome everyone here. If they’re curious about their Jewish heritage, and what’s that about? It’s a great time to just come and explore.

Does Shlomi come with you every day?

No, it’s a special treat today.