The tension that’s distorting and weakening the bonds that hold all of us together in this country is also an existential threat to all of us, Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, recognizes, with sadness.
But those bonds have not dissolved yet, despite the ways that they’re being tugged, he believes. And they don’t have to dissolve at all. In fact, they can be strengthened.
That’s what Rabbi Gewirtz sees as his mission, the goal at the heart of his rabbinate. As he details in his new book, “To Build a Brave Space: The Making of a Spiritual First Responder,” his life experiences, many of which he details in this part-memoir, part-philosophical or theological treatise, have led him to his belief in radical centrism.
He wrote the book — his second — “because I was existentially, professionally, and socially exhausted by the polarity all around me,” he said. “When it started, it seemed like we were just being civil to each other. Now, it feels like much more than that.
“We are talking to each other with incivility.”
When we Americans talk about anything – and even when we’re not talking about politics overtly, often we end up back there — “we are full-on taking each discussion as if our lives depend on it,” he said. “Not only do we tell each other that we’re wrong, but that our whole philosophy of the world is wrong.”
When he first heard of the concept of the radical center, “I liked it, but it sounded wimpy,” he said. But it grew on him. “I feel strongly that we have to make sure that we still have a democracy,” he said. “That we still talk to each other. That we understand that we each have to give up a little of what we want, so that this very diverse country can have as much as possible.”
Another way to describe the radical center is the exhausted majority, Rabbi Gewirtz continued. “At least 65 percent of us want to talk to each other, if we can do it in good faith.”
Once he’d defined the problem to himself, and outlined, at least in very general terms, how to fix it, he came up against another set of questions. “Can a spiritual leader play a role in getting people together?” he said. “Can we have good-faith, grown-up discussions that get us to a place where that 65 percent of us can agree or disagree, so that we can move the country forward?”
Both the political left and the political right have strong religious connections — albeit very different ones — Rabbi Gewirtz said, but “what about a radical center?”
Rabbi Gewirtz started writing about his political philosophy in 2018, when the country was already riven, but before it had gotten to where we are now. Then the pandemic struck, and he and his publisher reconsidered. Originally, he was going to write a work of theology, “but my publisher said, ‘I want this to be a memoir. I want you to take every crisis you confronted and show how you confronted it.’ His feeling was that if I build my bona fides with readers, then the readers might listen to my politics. Otherwise, they’re going to think, ‘Who is a rabbi to talk about politics?’”
Rabbi Gewirtz grew up first in Lynbrook, on Long Island, and then, after his parents divorced, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His Jewish education was broad, if perhaps shallow; he and his family belonged to a Reform synagogue; he went to HANC, an Orthodox day school, for two years, and after his parents’ divorce his father moved to Brooklyn and joined an Orthodox shtiebel there. Matt often would go there with his father, and the shtiebel’s rabbi, Elkanah Schwartz, was a strong influence on his life. “Don’t forget what authentic Judaism is,” Rabbi Schwartz told not-nearly-Rabbi Gewirtz.
“I was raised by two incredibly bright people, a college professor” — his father, Dr. Arthur Gewirtz -– “and a teacher,” — his mother, Tabitha Gewirtz — Rabbi Gewirtz said. They taught him to care deeply about issues of fairness and social justice, “but there was a lot more emotion than substance. When I got older, I knew what I believed in, but I wasn’t necessarily sure why. The issues got conflated with being in a warm Jewish home.”
He’s 58 now; when he was growing up, the Upper West Side was the home to very liberal, fairly secular Jews that it had been and continues to be, but it was a much rougher, more dangerous place. He often felt out of place, and occasionally was in real danger.
Between the Upper West Side and Brooklyn, “I was mugged 20 times,” he said. “I was prime meat, as a Long Island kid.” An unsophisticated out-of-towner. But he learned. He found ways to engage with the kids who had been his tormenters, “and that means that later in life, I was prepared for a lot. I had street smarts.” He also developed genuine empathy for people whose backgrounds were unlike his; people who could be dangerous but also had much real goodness.
Matt Gewirtz went to the High School of Music and Art. He played the violin — passably but not well, he says now. “I was above average. I was the last chair second violin. At the end of senior year, I got into the senior orchestra, so I got to play in Avery Fisher Hall. We played Beethoven’s First Symphony, and in the middle of it I stopped playing because I just wanted to look around.”
He didn’t play violin after high school, he said, but he’s very glad that he became good enough to get into Music and Art. “It kept me out of the trouble I would have been in otherwise. And playing violin is good for the brain.”
Rabbi Gewirtz got his undergraduate degree at Hofstra University, where his father taught. After three uninspiring years in the corporate world — where he was surprisingly employed, appreciated, and happy in his side gig as a Hebrew school teacher in Temple Beth Am in Merrick, because “they saw something in me that I didn’t see,” he said — he decided to go to rabbinical school. He applied to Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan, was accepted, and went off to Israel to begin his rabbinical school career, and the rest of his life.
After he was ordained, Rabbi Gewirtz became an assistant rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan, on his familiar Upper West Side.
He was at Rodeph during the terrorist attacks of September 11. It was then that Rabbi Gewirtz matured as a rabbi, saw, heard, and lived through that time’s unexpected horrors — members of his community died, and others were left widowed, orphaned, bereft, and he ministered to them — and learned greatly from them.
He wrote a book, “Grief,” that explores that period and how he and his congregation lived through it. There is a phenomenon that comes from grief, he said. “I call it the gift of grief. It is not grief, but no matter what, no matter who, when grief comes your way, it strips you bare. Do you become the same person again afterward, the same person you always were, or do you become someone else?
“Nachman of Bratslav says it makes you become who you were supposed to be.”
In 2006, Rabbi Gewirtz, then 41, became the senior rabbi of B’nai Jeshurun. It’s a large congregation in Short Hills, housed in an imposing modern building, sitting fortress-like at the top of a hill; it’s one of the communities that flourished in Newark and then moved to suburban Essex County, along with most of its congregants. To lead that congregation is to undertake a very public role.
Just two years after he arrived in Short Hills, the community dealt with another unforeseen but enormous crisis, the economic collapse of 2008. It affected the congregation deeply; that it pulled through, with most of its members intact, is a tribute to the community’s strength as well as to Rabbi Gewirtz’s leadership. (To be clear, Rabbi Gewirtz does not put it in those terms, but that truth is inescapable.)
During his tenure at B’nai Jeshurun, Rabbi Gewirtz has learned that there is life outside the bubble in which he grew up and lived. “I learned about the diversity in Jewish political thought, that there are Jews who think differently than they do on the Upper West Side. Growing up, liberal politics and the Jewish religion were one thing.
“Now, I have learned that a lot of Republicans are really great Jews. At first, they were as wary of me as I was of them.”
But he has changed. No, he hasn’t become a Republican, but he no longer is a Democrat. In order to minister most thoughtfully to his community, he now is an independent. “I know that some of them thought that I couldn’t pastor to them because their politics were different from mine. And that made me wonder what it was that they do think.
“So I started to have bike rides and coffees with them, and talk to them, and I realized that we have the same values.”
For example, “none of us believe that homelessness is something that this country should allow, but what’s different is how we get to a solution.
“Take immigration. We all believe in loving strangers as ourselves, and in having security on our borders. We don’t have to treat people horribly to be safe, and we don’t have to give away the country to be compassionate.
“What we want is the same. How we get there is different.”
Rabbi Gewirtz writes with great love about his wife, Lauren Rutkin, who runs a family foundation, and who has supported him throughout his career. They have three children, Jake, Natalia, and Sadie.