The Jewish Experience will hold its annual event, Wine, Cheese & Chocolate, Saturday, Feb. 2, 8 p.m., at History Colorado Center.
The event will honor Rabbi Raphael Leban on his 10th anniversary with TJE. The IJN recently posed questions to Rabbi Leban regarding his decade in Denver:
You’ve been promoted to managing director of The Jewish Experience. Why?
When I first started at TJE 10 years ago, it was a much smaller organization. Rabbi Ahron Wasserman was the director, Aliza Bulow was the program coordinator and I was hired as the outreach director.
As the organization grew, and we hired more outreach staff and more support staff, the number of programs, classes and events grew, and the budget went in the same direction. There was an increasing element of management and fundraising in my role. As of Jan. 1, 2013, the role became official.
Rabbi Wasserman became executive director and I became managing director. We still collaborate as much as ever. But for now I am knee-deep in the day-to-day operations and outreach, and he gets involved in the big picture issues.
As for my own outreach, I do just as much teaching as ever, and I am just as available as I always was. Even though the title is new, my responsibilities have slowly increased over time, so it’s not such a shock to the system.
You have said that when you accepted the job with TJE in Denver, a factor in your choice was your love of skiing. You proceeded to incorporate this and other outdoor activities with your outreach programming.
Rocky Mountain skiing is breathtaking, and so close to home.It definitely plays a role in my outreach. When I first came to Denver, I introduced a TJE spring ski trip and BBQ at A-Basin, which we have done almost every year since.
Everybody does lunch and learns. I think TJE is probably the only Jewish outreach organization of its kind to offer “Turn and Learn.” Doug Seserman actually coined the phrase, meaning skiing and learning Torah.
I don’t think that people come skiing with us and then suddenly develop an interest in Judaism. It’s not a bait and switch. On the other hand, skiing is a great way to relate to people in Colorado. It provides an easy point of connection and conversation. There’s lots of time to discuss meaningful things on the lift.
It also shows people that you can lead a highly engaged Jewish life and still enjoy yourself. For some reason, people don’t always realize this, and having a kosher sandwich and wearing a yarmulke under my ski helmet on a powder day really brings home the point.
You seem to always be thinking “outside the box” for programming ideas.
The key to outreach is to be “out” there. You have to figure out where people’s interests lie and show them how they can find whatever fulfillment that they are looking for in the Torah itself.
If we are to redress the disinterest in Judaism that many Jews feel, we have to approach them in new and creative ways. Yet we do that without changing Judaism in any way. We just find the right access points.
Events like Wine, Cheese & Chocolate, which is a fundraiser that’s more about fun than funds, and the Shabbos Dinner Club, which is a delicious, intimate experience of Shabbos, emerge from our efforts to bring Jews to Judaism they’ll want to grab. And thereby open the door to a rich world of Judaism that they didn’t know existed.
Which programs are you most proud of?
The Sunday Experience, run by Esther Feldheim, and all the great work done by Rabbi Gadi and Eve Levy. The Sunday Experience provides a highly engaging Jewish education for kids and parents who would not otherwise be getting it.
Rabbi and Mrs. Levy are innovative and welcoming. They have added new programs, like the Chamsa Chavurah, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Jewish Marriages seminars, the Professionals Bais Medrash program and the Bat Mitzvah Experience.
What tangible changes have you seen people make as a result of their involvement in TJE?
Joining a synagogue for the first time, learning Torah regularly, keeping a kosher home, putting up mezzuzahs, affiliating to a greater degree, supporting community institutions financially, and in a myriad of other ways.
Beyond the personal changes we see individuals and families making, these last 10 years Denver have seen a tremendous increase in community connection. There’s much less of an “us-them” mentality, with different affiliations and different parts of town feeling alienated from one another, and much more of a sense of broader community interaction and unity.
Friendships, mutual respect and camaraderie cross the lines. I hope that TJE has been a part of this. It’s always been our part of our mission.
Does it frustrate you if see people come to classes year after year but do not move forward in their Jewish observance?
Frustration is not such a great attitude to adopt in outreach. In Pirkei Avos, Hillel teaches that a person who is impatient cannot teach. My job is to offer people access to the richness and wisdom of the Torah, and they have to decide for themselves what to do about it. We are never pushy or demanding.
You’ve been at TJE 10 years. What has kept you here?
I often say in jest that there’s a lot of job security doing outreach in Denver. There are thousands of Jews who are “under-affiliated,” as Rabbi Wasserman gently puts it. And why would I leave? I feel blessed here at TJE with wonderful colleagues, a fantastic community and terrific people to learn with. And did I mention the skiing?
Future plans for TJE?
We are always cooking up something new around here. Keep your eyes peeled for a new TJE center in Denver.
I have tremendous gratitude to Yeshiva Toras Chaim, the Wassermans and the Kagans for bringing us here. And to all the people that make up the Jewish community of Denver, whether on the East Side where we live or wherever they come from. You have made our first decade in Denver a beautiful experience. We look forward to the next one!
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News