NAME: Sam Weiss, 28
HEBREW NAME: Shmuel
CURRENTLY LIVING IN: New York City
ALMA MATERS: Phillips Academy Andover ’09, University of California at Berkeley ’14
CURRENT SCHOOL: Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion ’22
JOB: Rabbinical student
FAVORITE FOOD: Sushi and burritos
FAVORITE MUSIC: Folk music, ambient music, and punk
FAVORITE BOOK: “Mr. Palomar” by Italo Calvino
FAVORITE MOVIES: “There Will Be Blood,” “Moonlight,” “The Birds”
FAVORITE TV SHOWS: “True Detective,” “Top Chef”
FAVORITE TRAVEL DESTINATIONS: Spain, would like to go to Argentina
FAVORITE JEWISH PERSON NOT IN YOUR FAMILY: Sigmund Freud
FAVORITE JEWISH HOLIDAY: Rosh Hashanah
WHAT WAS YOUR JEWISH BACKGROUND GROWING UP?
I grew up in a Reform congregation in Andover, Temple Emanuel. I started there as a preschooler and continued my Jewish education there until confirmation in 10th grade. My family there was very active in the synagogue, particularly my mom, and it was always a special place to be. I was very fond of my rabbi, Rabbi [Robert] Goldstein, and always understood that something special in particular happened in temple that didn’t happen in the rest of my life.
HOW DID YOU END UP IN RABBINICAL SCHOOL?
In college I took kind of a winding path. I went to McGill in Montreal for a semester, but I left after that semester and worked a little retail and a little bit of food service. I saved up and moved out to Oakland, Calif., where I pursued being in bands and eventually after some years there I started at Berkeley City College, in the community college system of the East Bay, and I transferred to UC Berkeley where I graduated with a degree in rhetoric.
[My Jewish identity] waned – it became a point of difference that I wasn’t interested in wearing on my sleeve. I had aspirations with art and music, and those are very broad, humanistic pursuits – you want to connect with something. What I came to see in my unique Jewish perspective was something to avoid, or push aside for the time being. I didn’t make it very far doing that – I found myself after some years in Oakland finding my way back to services. I’d walk there and back to services. A big part of my Shabbat services became taking walks like that. At the time I was just looking to connect with myself, and my culture, and that unique sort of world view.
Rabbi Robert Goldstein has a daughter named Rabbi Hannah Goldstein, who was leading a trip to Israel, and I had moved back from the West Coast, and was starting to go to different traveling minyanim around Cambridge, where I was living, and it seemed like a time to learn more about Judaism, and myself, and family, and heritage, and I went, and it was on a Shabbat. We were in Jerusalem on Shabbat and saw how Hannah had taken this group of young people between age 20 and 25, and was facilitating their really learning something about themselves, and developing and connecting to one another. It was something more profound than a shared interest. It’s a very powerful thing for a group to come together around a type of music, or whatever, but the specifics of the lives of the young people who were there were so different, but we felt very close to each other based on this very old thing, and I thought that revealing that sort of common thread between people – people who are either born in Judaism or had chosen to take on that practice – that was a really worthwhile endeavor. I got home from that trip and I started studying Hebrew on my own and that lit a fire in me as well, and I sort of put one foot in front of the other and applied to [rabbinical] school.
WHAT DO YOU THINK MILLENNIALS ARE LOOKING FOR IN THEIR RABBIS?
Definitely millennials are looking for something different. I think that religious institutions are struggling in the way that many institutions are to gain the trust of a generation that sees it as a value to question everything, push back. I think that personally that the way forward for a rabbi attempting to serve millennials is to try to keep a clear head as to the value of a spiritual component of living. I think that many millennial Jewish institutions are going wrong in trying to say, ‘Well, millennials are not connected to Jewish life or our Jewish institutions, so what sort of things are they into?’ Such-and-such TV show, or craft beer, and they adapt those things as bait. But I think that’s undermining your own value in a culture that’s so hungry for authenticity. So in terms of how to be a millennial rabbi, or build a synagogue or Jewish community that millennials would want to be a part of, I think they need to be really clear about what we’re offering and why we believe it’s essential to others.