My Jewish Journey: Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig

Elul begins today. This final month of the Hebrew calendar is a time of reflection in our religion, and many Jews take time during Elul to consider their relationships with family and friends, their connection to community, and their faith. On our blog throughout Elul, you will find personal reflections written by Washington Hebrew Congregation members. We hope this series, called “My Jewish Journey,” inspires you to reflect on your own Jewish Journey.

Today, L’Chi Lach — Cantor Manevich’s signature song — echoed in my heart. It is from the Torah portion Lech L’cha, which begins with God’s command to Abraham, “Go forth from your land, from the place of your birth, from your father’s house, go forth to the place that I will show you.”

It is God’s eternal command to us to go forth. We each have a story, a journey to pursue. There is something unique and very Jewish when we engage in the revelation of the intersection of time, place, meaning, and memory. It is at that intersection where I find myself today. I write to you from Jerusalem after an intense but fascinating day at the Hartman Institute where I am privileged to be a Rabbinic Fellow. We spent the day with Israeli rabbis discussing the realities, the frustrations, and the shared concerns about both the American Jewish community and the Israeli community (more on that discussion at another time). Our session opened with a question to each: “Explain your Jewish Journey. What led you to your rabbinate?”

Time-Place-Memory explored made the text of Genesis ring true. In the last week, I have been in three of the places that have influenced me the most in my Jewish Journey. The sudden death of my father had me back home in Nashville. I then flew to D.C. for shiva at my home and received the powerful warmth of Washington Hebrew Congregation, my community for more than 30 years. The next morning, I flew to Jerusalem for my fellowship work.

Nashville is the place where my Jewish Journey began and continues to be the anchor of my story. It was the place my mother’s family came as refugees and Holocaust survivors to make a new life. My mother loves Nashville because this — then simple — Southern city gave her a chance for a new life with America’s gifts of freedom and safety. For this, she has never tired of giving thanks. Being the child of a survivor growing up as a Southern Jew (read as “often the only Jew”) colored my experience. You have heard countless stories of the warmth and wonder of my grandparents, my Oma and Opa, who made Judaism, family, and love synonymous. My mother, an artist, is a creative and strong woman who made my childhood so positive and upbeat in both attitude and action. Yet, the ugliness of anti-Semitism, racism, and bigotry also saturated my world as a child and young adult in the South. I was proud to be a Jew, and I also knew the cost my mother’s family had paid for being Jewish in Nazi Germany. Then, the Nashville community presented a scholarship to me and said, “Go forth” to a new educational experience called High School in Israel (HSI).

HSI was an experiential high school where we studied the history of Israel while traveling to the very sites we studied. We read the story of Jericho in Jericho. We visited Jerusalem each time it played a key role in the history of our people. We stood on the Temple Mount and read the binding of Isaac. We explored the excavations of the Second Temple. We walked on the very stone streets the Romans built after the destruction of the Temple. We read the words, “The Temple Mount is in our hands,” spoken by Israeli soldiers 50 years ago at the place where they liberated Jerusalem after 2,000 years of longing. I also visited Yad Vashem, and in the archives read the names of unknown family members who perished in the camps at the hands of the Nazis. The list was bigger than my entire Confirmation class in Nashville. I wept at what had been lost and wondered what my responsibility was to have survived such an event. That question and my experiences at Reform Jewish summer camps turned my attention from photography to Jewish studies and then to rabbinical school. My love of Jewish camping made me Rabbi Weinberg’s, z”l, first choice to run WHC’s retreat program and join him as he became Senior Rabbi.

That was nearly 32 years ago, and WHC has enriched my Jewish Journey beyond all belief. I get to be part of what another Rabbinic Fellow calls longitudinal Judaism. Under the chuppah, I join the bride I consecrated and the groom whose Bar Mitzvah I officiated. I confirmed both of them as well. I see and feel the rhythms of Jewish life in the souls of this vibrant community. I have had the privilege to be part of your Jewish Journeys.

I sit in my rented apartment in Jerusalem. I still visit the places where Judaism and Jewish history happened, but now I know I am part of the making of that history as well. I study here to help us shape Judaism’s future. I am here still searching Judaism’s legacy of learning for meaning and moments that will lead me and others to God and one step closer to the place God has promised each of us. If we are willing to lech l’cha … go forth.


Rabbi Lustig