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Rabbi Franklin shepherds a very diverse congregation

Rabbi Selwyn FranklinBorn and raised in South Africa, Rabbi Selwyn Franklin attended Yeshiva College where he received an undergraduate degree in philosophy. He also studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh and ITRI.

Franklin has served as a rabbi in New York, South Africa, Israel and Australia and has worked as an investment and finance representative in Israel and as a professor at Moriah College in Sydney, Australia.

In 2006, he came to BMH-BJ. He is married to Eileen, an Australian migration lawyer, and they have four children and 10 grandchildren.

SERVING as a rabbi, human rights activist and Jewish leader in cities across the globe, Rabbi Selwyn Franklin embodies the passion and dedication that maintains Jewish living.

As an activist in the apartheid era in South Africa, Rabbi Franklin understands the value behind justice and religious freedom.

He started the organization Jews for Justice and is dedicated to sharing the value behind Judaism with his congregants.

Franklin has taught high school programs in advanced Jewish studies and, in Denver, is on the board of JFS.

Q: Why rabbinical school?

A: I wanted to be a rabbi since I was a child. In South Africa, I was very active in the youth group, Bnei Akivah. I felt like I needed to impart the relevance of Jewish commitment in society and I thought the best vehicle for that was to become a rabbi.

I needed the wisdom to go with it, which required a rich understanding of the Talmud and Halachah, and to be acutely aware of human thought in general.

Q: Why did you choose to study philosophy?

A: It gave me a key insight into the world of ideas and different people and cultures, which offered me the comparative ability to communicate Jewish ideas to an educated public.

A rabbi is confronted by various perspectives and has to be able to appreciate and respect different points of view. Learning the ability to argue my own point of view effectively is what studying philosophy provided me.

Q: What brought you to BMH-BJ?

A: I was approached to lead services for the High Holidays. Then, I was offered the position as senior rabbi, which I accepted unequivocally because of the opportunity to respond to a call for spiritual guidance in this varied congregation.

BMH-BJ is unique. It is affiliated with the modern Orthodox Union, yet it has multiple religious and spiritual opportunities for people of all persuasions to find a meaningful religious life.

By in large, we are a non-observant Orthodox community made up of people who respect the traditions and still wish to have choice.

The nature of South African and Australian Jewry is a somewhat similar model, under which the vast majority of affiliated Jews choose to affiliate with Orthodox synagogues but express their Jewish living in multiple ways.

The role of a rabbi in these contexts is to educate and inspire the members to commit to a Jewish lifestyle.

Most Orthodox congregations in America are comprised of Jews that feel as if they have already “arrived,” whereas at BMH-BJ, there is an opportunity for people to grow spiritually and for the clergy and staff to facilitate that process. That has made my years at BMH-BJ very exciting and stimulating.

Q: What is new at BMH-BJ?

A: We are always looking for cutting edge ways to increase participation.

Most recently we have initiated the Sunburst Experience, extremely innovative in the Orthodox world. It has been spearheaded by Cantor Joel Lichterman and actively supported by the lay leadership.

The Sunburst Experience is a Friday afternoon, pre-Shabbat program providing a full musical Kabbalat Shabbat experience, followed by social interaction with excellent food and an opportunity for members and non-members to experience the vitality of Judaism.

We launched the Mesorah Learning Center, an in-house religious school. We were involved with Community Talmud Torah and we now have created our own educational program to increase the vitality and excitement for Judaism.

Our enrollment in the program grows daily.

Passion plays a great role in preserving Jewish continuity. We at BMH-BJ are especially focused on the passionate dimension of the Jewish world’s view — the excitement and exuberance of being Jewish.

Q: What is your favorite rabbinical work?

A: The personal contact I have with members and human beings in general.

Being able to assist people in need, facilitate their growth as individuals to find greater meaning in their life is what makes me feel very positive about being a rabbi.

Q: What is the hardest part of your work?

A: There are numerous calls for attention and support. Being able to be there for everyone when time is sensitive and undivided attention is necessary can make that commitment and work difficult.

Q: What is one thing you would change about your synagogue?

A: Greater participation in our programs and our activities.

Q: What makes you keep your position in Denver when most of your family is in Australia?

A:  Being a rabbi means responding to “the call” wherever it comes. My family members appreciate the importance of reaching out to spread the Torah’s message.

When BMH-BJ asked me to become rabbi, they understood my need to be with my family as often as possible.

We are very far from our family in Australia. Individuals here can usually get together with their family in parts of the US with more ease. We cannot do that because Australia is so remote. BMH-BJ understands this and makes it possible for me to see my family twice a year.

Q: What age group do you enjoy working with most?

A: I enjoy working with all ages. I am attracted to young families because they are the lifeblood of our congregation. Over 50% of our board is under 40 years old. We have had success in teaching to the younger demographic, and with our own very successful pre-school we can continue that path.

Q: Who is your role model?

A: The late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

He was a man educated both secularly and in Judaica. The scion of one of the greatest rabbinical families, he earned a PhD from the University of Berlin.

Q: What is the great value behind Jewish teachings?

A: The fact that all humans were born in the image of G-d and we must treat everyone favorably, irrespective of race color or creed.

Q: What has your involvement as a human rights activist consisted of?

A: I was deeply involved in the human rights struggle in South Africa, fighting against the apartheid regime. I made presentations to the Israeli government, which led to the detainment of arms shipments to South Africa.

When the South African leaders got wind of these shipments, they threatened to incarcerate me unless I left the county.

That was when I moved to Australia. There, I continued to be involved in organizations that promoted greater understanding between racial groups and indigenous Australian rights.

In the US, I participate in groups that encourage respect for different perspectives. I give talks about the common good at Regis University and various organizations in the wider community.

Q: What scares you most about the Jewish world today?

A: Assimilation is the serious threat to the continuity of the Jewish people.

While we are a fast growing Jewish community in Colorado, we are also a fast assimilating community.

Q: What is the future of BMH-BJ as an Orthodox synagogue?

A:  We have had discussions over the time that I have been here, formal and informal about our affiliation. The overwhelming opinion has been to maintain the status quo, which provides opportunities for a fully Orthodox, religious expression with traditional methods of ritual expression.

I foresee that the future of our congregation be similar to what we have now.

Q: What do you like to speak about on the bimah most? What do you stay away from?

A: Judaism is a philosophy and theology of multiple aspects of life. I deal with the entire array of Jewish perspectives. I try to convey the message that Judaism is a total living experience.

I feel quite courageous in expressing views that are important to express, and I do not hold back from bringing up a topic I feel is important, with sensitivity of course.

Q: Favorite Jewish holiday?

A: Yom Kippur gives us an opportunity to evaluate the direction we are going in, and to start fresh in committing ourselves to personal growth and communal contribution.

It’s a very satisfying experience. To many, Yom Kippur is a serious day because of the reconciliation between G-d and the Jewish people, but for me, it is a very happy day.

Q: What was the greatest milestone in Jewish history?

A: The establishment of the State of Israel was the greatest event in contemporary Jewish history.

When one thinks of the great tragedy of the Holocaust, and the subsequent restoration of Jewish sovereignty a mere three years later, there can be no greater event.

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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