Rabbi Josh Bennett

by Vivian Henoch

Twenty five years ago, a new rabbi named Josh came to Temple Israel with faith in his future in Detroit, his degree in Psychology from the University of Illinois and his Masters of Hebrew Letters and Rabbinic Ordination from the Hebrew Union College (Cincinnati).

Today, Rabbi Josh is known well beyond the realm of his congregation: A spiritual leader, beloved colleague and mentor to many who were once his students and campers. A gifted teacher with boundless energy in his work with teens and leading missions to Israel. A community bridge-builder working for social justice on numerous civic boards, including service as President of the Michigan Board of Rabbis. A trusted counsel and best friend to an ever-widening circle. A marathon runner, a new gardener, persistent in every endeavor he sets his mind to achieve.  An avid Tigers fan, most fond of the ballgames played in his own backyard with his wife Meg and their children: Madison, Zachary and Jacob. 

By Zoom call, myJewishDetroit spoke with Rabbi Bennett in mid-August. As Covid numbers were resurging around the country, he had just returned from a trip to Miami University in Athens, Ohio, where his daughter, Madison, was about to begin her Junior year. With so much uncertainty still in the air, Rabbi Bennett answered the call with his usual upbeat demeanor and positive energy. Here’s what he had to say about the strength of Detroit’s Jewish community and life with Covid.  

On navigating the unknown

myJewishDetroit: Rabbi, in your view, so far, how has the Jewish community fared in navigating the way forward with a balance of caution and action?

Rabbi Josh: Let me start by sharing how proud I am of the Jewish community here in Detroit. From the earliest days of this pandemic, our community stood out as a thought-leader in response to the disease and its potential danger. Early on, rabbis and the leadership of our community, as well as the Federation leadership, gathered to take proactive measures to safeguard lives. I think our quick response at the time set us up – not only to make good decisions for our synagogues, our agencies and for Federation – but to save lives. And I say that unequivocally. I believe that the actions of the Jewish community to shut down our agencies, schools and institutions saved scores, if not hundreds, of lives in our community. I think our response also set the stage for the entire suburban Detroit community to be a successful model for what we can do to mitigate the disease.

myJewishDetroit: Have other communities come to Temple Israel for guidance?

My brother, 10 years my senior, Rabbi James Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth in St Louis, has reached out several times and honored the Detroit community for its strong and early work. Many communities are asking the same questions we ask; many have referred to us for guidance.

In our exchanges between Jewish congregations, I can attest to the strength of our clergy and educators throughout the community working together. We’re not looking to duplicate programming, to compete with one another or to divide the community in critical actions we need to take.  Instead, we are working in tandem to achieve a united front as a community to make critical decisions regarding the safety and well-being of all. 

myJewishDetroit: As the months have passed with no clear path through the pandemic and its aftermath, in what ways has life with Covid both challenged the role of the clergy and become the “new abnormal?” 

Back in March, our first challenge was to help navigate families through life cycle events – bar mitzvahs, weddings, funerals. In those moments which define us as rabbis and define us as Jewish community, we were forced very quickly to realign ourselves to technology that is not our natural medium. As rabbis, we work in relationship-building.  Person-to-person, face-to-face. As essential and lifesaving as it has proven to be, screen time is not conducive to relationship-building in the same way. So, we had to redefine what it means to be in relationship with our members. 

Fast forward: Our challenges have evolved, along with our services. Even as we navigate our connections through events and life cycle moments via our internet connections, we are faced with a rising level of anxiety and crisis in our community. Our families are worried – worried about their health and safety, worried about their long-term financial security and the well-being of loved ones. As rabbis and communal leaders, we may be challenged now as never before in our lives, but our essential role has not changed: We are called to respond.

On essential work

myJewishDetroit: As you are called upon to comfort, console and connect family, friends and community, what strengths do you draw upon? 

I believe that the Jewish community is doing and will continue to do what we have always done in the face of crisis. As people turn to us in need, we always respond. The Jewish community always has been a leader in helping people, taking them by the hand to find an opportunity of hope that lies in the future. I think that is our essential role. It has given us strength and resilience. And that brings me back to my opening statement: that I am proud of what we are doing as a Jewish community to help people now and to secure our future.  

“If there is one message that I want people to hear in this challenging time, it is this: We are a resilient people. If you go back to the biblical account of slavery and redemption, it begins there. And time and time again, it continues through every moment of challenge in our history to carry us through. For everything a season. And this too shall pass.”

Rabbi Josh Bennett

myJewishDetroit: What priorities have had to change?

Early in the course of our lockdown, one of the things that I spoke of at a digital service was the idea that we are creatures of connection. We long for that ability to touch one another, spiritually, physically — to use that ability to drive the community forward. That’s missing right now. And, yet we continue to actively seek new ways to make community happen.

For example, at Temple Israel, by way of a digital platform to connect people to Israel, we have conducted a three-part virtual tour we call “Breakfast in the Holy Land” with one of our Israeli guides.  

We also have a program called “Talmud and Tastings,” hosted by people in their homes, where we delivered a cheese sampling to their doorstep. (Future programs will include wine, halvah and other delicious treats.) We then teach Talmud and engage in a social hour through a digital format. Through programs like these – among numerous events – we have proven that we are good at pivoting into creative ways to connect. Our goal is to see the community back to health, to open our buildings once again and get back to that physical connection that has guided and driven the Jewish community for thousands of years.

myJewishDetroit: How are you pivoting in the religious school and Early Childhood Center?

Until the prevailing uncertainty of secular learning is settled in the greater community, our religious school programming is still a work in progress.  In our Early Childhood Center, we are developing a hybrid of small group models that allow pods of students with teachers to function independently of one another – as a measure of precaution should there be an outbreak of Covid in a singular pod. Of course, there are challenges with that format. Safety is of utmost importance and always the first consideration in every decision we make.   

One of the educational alternatives that we are considering – similar to Talmud and Tastings is  Religious School in a Box, a weekly package of home-delivered materials to engage families in arts and crafts, holiday activities and Jewish-based learning – all  supplemented by Zoom interactions with our teachers. We also are developing a similar kind of a model with our religious school and our youth group program. Our high school students are going to be doing some socially distanced gatherings in our pavilion.

On making virtual celebrations real

myJewishDetroit: How has necessity, ingenuity and a renewed sense of community enhanced the observance of Jewish ritual, services, holidays and simchas at Temple Israel in the New Year 5781?    

As a community, we agreed that we would remain at the state’s mandated number or, if the space allowed, we’d go inside our building with 25 people. Where families have chosen to have ritual bat or bar mitzvah or wedding ceremonies hosting up to 25 people, we have provided beautifully run services that are socially distanced. In making our decisions throughout the pandemic, we have relied on research and have been guided by consultation with medical professionals. Outdoors, as the weather still permits, many have taken advantage of our pavilion or tents for slightly larger crowds, up to 60 people, with table seating socially distanced in family units. That space has given us the option of beautiful celebrations outside in our garden. 

Given our current options, we have been able to provide families the opportunity to realign with that which has been lost. Wedding couples struggling with what to do with that big party in 2021 can choose to be married today in their own backyard or at Temple Israel in our pavilion. Those who choose to move forward with celebrations this fall are coming with the understanding of the modifications that are necessary. And, thanks to technology, we live-stream everything from our service to include family and friends around the country.

Regarding the rituals attendant to the end of life – this is one of the great tragedies about which we have not really spoken enough. Early on, in a decision with the Michigan Board of Rabbis in concert with our funeral directors, we agreed that we would not gather inside the funeral homes. All funeral services are now conducted graveside at the cemetery. We have set the limit of our gathering to 36, where we feel we can respectfully control people’s behavior. 

The real tragedy in all this is that families are not able to be with their loved ones in end-of-life moments at the hospital or in hospice care. Families are not able to be together. Out of an abundance of caution, the hugs and intimacy that we have seen in the past don’t happen, even at the cemetery. And shivas are happening digitally – if at all. Going through each stage of a funeral, shiva and shloshim is a very powerful process that moves people through mourning. I believe it’s one of the great losses that Covid has abducted.

On silver linings

myJewishDetroit: What surprises, silver-linings or new opportunities have you discovered along the way?  

Sure, everyone is looking for silver linings. I see silver linings on both a personal and communal level. Personally, what I have observed crosses the boundaries of many of our families. If we have been lucky enough to be sequestered in our homes – even alone – many of us have used this time to find new opportunities for engagement with the people we love.

So, the idea that people are now hosting Zoom Shabbat dinners together with family and friends around the country, the idea that people are finding time for family dinners more often — these are really  beautiful moments that have allowed connections to happen in ways that perhaps we’ve let slip away in our fast-paced modern society. It’s a core value of Judaism to have families celebrate moments together. The idea that people are finding backyards to have a bonfires and gather socially distanced with friends is a really wonderful way of celebrating Jewish life.

And there’s a communal silver lining – a development I see on the horizon – that really excites me. In my opinion, we will never go back to Judaism at Temple Israel and in the Detroit community as it once looked. And I say that not with despair, but with hope . . . and with the evidence of our history that Judaism has developed and evolved – even in the most Orthodox communities – over thousands of years. 

One of the most exciting things that we are experiencing today is what I call “Temple 2.0” – our newest version of reaching out and connecting with people. Prior to Covid, we held Friday night services in our building and, typically, on the best of nights, we’d gather hundreds, if not thousands of people. We were proud of those numbers, drawing our crowds with creative music and worship. 

Fast-forward to Covid,  and here we are on our Zoom calls, reimagining and creating beautiful digital services, some of them pre-produced and, in the process, inventing new hybrids that tell our stories, live- streaming them for everyone to share at home. And who would imagine that our attendance for those services would jump from hundreds to tens of thousands? 

My vision, my hope for the future is that we don’t lose track of that level of engagement. And talk about new connections, I have been inspired online by what other congregations have shared. One of the benefits for me in pre-recording some of our services prior to Shabbat – is that for the first time in my career, I have the opportunity to Zoom into the 5:00 pm. service at Shir Shalom, watch Temple Israel’s service at 7:00, then sit in with Shaarey Zedek on Shabbat morning. 

On family life

myJewishDetroit: As a parent of three, what advice do you give parents to help their families through these challenging times?

My advice? Simply this: take the pressure off your kids. And take the pressure off yourself with the knowledge that what we are experiencing today is a temporary situation. As parents, we are concerned about the setback in our students’ education. But I believe that the fear of some irreparable loss is not warranted and that any academic loss that happens this year is not permanent. So, I say to parents: take a deep breath. Give yourself a break with the assurance that we are a resilient people and our children are even more resilient than we are. 

myJewishDetroit: What do you do to help yourself de-stress and cope?

That’s a good question. First, I have used the pandemic to find balance and center myself as well. I have welcomed the time to exercise. I’m a runner. I’ve run five marathons, so I continue to keep myself healthy in a physical way. I’ve also taken a free course offered by a Yale professor, Laurie Santos,  on “The Science of Well Being” – a deep dive into self-reflection that engages in some personal practices. For me, it’s been meditation. So, I have begun some new habits: meditating, exercising and finding joy in my own personal pursuits. For the first time, I have a garden in my backyard. Little things that have allowed me to refuel and feel normal in a very abnormal time. (My shakshuka has been exceptional this summer.)

Reading now (and again)

I am one of those people who have about eight books at my bedside:

  • Reading now, and continuing what has been a decade-long pursuit: the teachings of Musar– the Jewish spiritual practice that gives concrete instructions on how to live a meaningful and ethical life; also reading White Fragility by Robin Diangelo and Friendly Fire by Ami Ayalon
  • Just finished:  Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, The History of the World in Six Glasses, by Tom Standage and the entire collection of short stories, by Stephen King
  • Enjoyed re-reading with my kids: The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien