The rabbi who loves Bruce

The rabbi who loves Bruce

Caldwell synagogue hosts evening dedicated to the Boss

Rabbi David Kalb looks thrilled to be standing next to Bruce Springsteen.
Rabbi David Kalb looks thrilled to be standing next to Bruce Springsteen.

Bruce Springsteen music filled the communal room at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell on September 7 as the community got together for an unusual synagogue event. It was called “The Torah of Bruce.” Yes, as in Bruce Springsteen. The Boss. BRUUUUUCE.

Agudath Israel’s senior rabbi, Ari Lucas, welcomed the rabbi of the Jewish Learning Center of New York, David Kalb, to discuss how Bruce Springsteen’s music holds some very important Jewish lessons. Themes of redemption, introspection, and transformation are found throughout his lyrics. Rabbi Kalb likens Springsteen to a biblical prophet criticizing the world around him. Bruce sings about the sinners, saints, and the marginalized people of society, and Rabbi Kalb connected that to the way Jewish law prescribes supporting people who struggle rather than shunning them.

Rabbi Kalb has written extensively about his passion for Bruce’s music, drawing parallels with talmudic lessons and Jewish tradition. Songs like “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road,” he says, describe not just a physical journey but an emotional and spiritual trek as well. There are strong themes of growth and transformation throughout all the albums, and that’s only added to Rabbi Kalb’s enjoyment of the music.

“It really started when I first started listening to Bruce,” he wrote in an email the next day. “I was 16 years old. When I first heard the album ‘Greetings from Asbury Park,’ I was fascinated by the intersectionality between deep Jewish spiritual ideas and these incredible songs. As soon as I listened to the fifth song on the record, ‘Lost in the Flood,’ I made a connection to the story of Noah and the Ark.

“When I became a rabbi, I would give talks and classes referencing the songs, and people seemed to like it,” he continued.

That was evident from the turnout the synagogue had for the event — it drew more than 150 people on a muggy weeknight.

Rabbi Kalb of the Jewish Learning Center talks to the crowd at Agudath Israel in Caldwell about “The Torah of Bruce.”

The original plan called for a tailgate party in the parking lot before the program, but the special events committee pivoted to an indoor picnic when the rain drove them indoors. “We wanted to try something new and creative — something relevant,” Ami Talkow of North Caldwell, a member of the special events committee, said as she looked around the buzzing room. “I think the attendance speaks volumes.

“The committee is trying to connect with our congregants in new ways, with events that are multigenerational and that also appeal to Jews of all levels of observance.”

The idea for the evening developed when the committee learned that “there was this unique program out there and we were excited to bring it to our congregation,” committee member Laura Rubenstein of North Caldwell said.

And Susan Werk of Caldwell, Agudath Israel’s education director — and maybe even more importantly in this context, a huge Springsteen fan — knew about Rabbi Kalb, suggested the program, and became involved in planning it.

Rabbi Lucas began the evening by wishing Springsteen a refuah shlema — the Boss has had to cancel concerts recently because he’s been suffering from peptic ulcers. Next, he described his own connection with Springsteen — which was not a connection at all. He just wasn’t a huge fan. And then he realized that his lack of a natural connection to the music about which so many others were so passionate was itself very Jewish.

For some Jews, following traditions, belonging to a synagogue, and going to religious services just may not come naturally. “You may feel like a bit of an outsider,” Rabbi Lucas said. “But even if something doesn’t click right away, give it a chance.” (He’s still not a big Springsteen fan, he reports, but he does appreciate the music more now than he had before this exposure to it.)

Rabbi Kalb blows a shofar before a recent Springsteen concert in the Meadowlands.

While the synagogue was filled with a good number of people wearing Springsteen T-shirts, even aside from Rabbi Lucas, not everyone else there was a Bruce fan. That includes the people who helped put the evening together. “I’m not a fan of Bruce but I am a fan of community,” Ms. Talkow said.

Rabbi Kalb’s talk touched on themes of grace and forgiveness with a connection to tikkun olam. Congregants discussed the lyrics of Bruce’s “Land of Hope and Dreams” in relation to olam ha’ba-ah, the world to come.

The Jewish way is to do our best on earth, rather than focusing on heaven, Rabbi Kalb said; everyone is flawed, but we all do our best to help ourselves and others.

The audience shared the love of the album “Nebraska” and discussed the inherent loneliness of making an acoustic recording, with this one coming between Bruce’s biggest-selling albums, “The River” and “Born in the USA,” and seemed to represent the chance for Bruce to recharge.

Rabbi Kalb has seen Bruce in concert dozens of times. Before a recent show at MetLife Stadium, he stood in the parking lot and blew a shofar; his son videoed that performance and it’s on his Facebook page, along with a talk about the connection between Springsteen and the ram’s horn. The shofar symbolizes freedom, Rabbi Kalb said, and he connects it with the sound of the late Clarence Clemons of Springsteen’s E Street Band loudly playing his saxophone.

During the Q&A section of the program, Rabbi Kalb was asked if he’d ever met Bruce. “Just once,” he said. It was a book signing in 2016. When he had his chance to speak to Bruce briefly as he signed his book, Rabbi Kalb simply said, “Thank you. Thank you for these songs.” Bruce replied: “Thank you for saying that, and you are so welcome.”

Although this sounds like a fairly routine response, Rabbi Kalb felt it to be a very gracious, mensch-like interaction. He was struck by the simplicity, humility, and kindness of this man, who has had such a large effect on his life, Rabbi Kalb said.

read more: