For Rabbi Jonah Pesner, life in the rabbinate is one that has combined teaching, service to the community and social justice as well as the life of a typical congregational rabbi. As the founding director of Just Congregations, an initiative of the Union for Reform Judaism, Pesner is a passionate believer in engagement and congregation-based community organizing, both for the Jewish community as well as the greater society.
And there’s the time he puts in with the Boston Federation as Scholar-in-Residence of their Acharei program. Acharei’s 18-month course combines study, analysis of today’s issues confronting the Jewish community and serious engagement with Israel and world Jewry. Rabbi Pesner enjoys his interaction with the program participants, who come primarily from the Reform and Conservative movements in Greater Boston. As he says, “[My] day job is for the Reform movement, my night job is for Federation.”
As part of Acharei, Rabbi Pesner recently came on a unique mission to Israel planned by Da’at, which took the group, all local leaders ages 35-50, on an emotional and educational trip to Poland and Israel. The trip was one of intense, emotional encounter.
“I had never been to Poland and the camps,” says Rabbi Pesner. “I felt over time as a rabbi that I had a responsibility to go and confront that part of history.” And they confronted it, with visits to Auschwitz/Birkenau’s greenly manicured lawns as well as Majdanek’s harsher remains, which he contends still have the “stench of death,” as well as a sense of the complicity of the neighboring Poles who lived right outside the camps’ gates.
Rabbi Pesner remarked that the question of new and emerging Jewish communities was a fascinating one to consider in Poland, especially after the group visited Reform communities in both Warsaw and Cracow. “Young Poles are discovering their Jewishness – what’s our responsibility to help them engage,” he commented, an issue that was a thematic element throughout the Poland trip along with important questions about the Holocaust and its effect on Jewish identity.
The trip continued on in Israel, with a mindset toward confronting the realities on the ground and defense issues. It included an insider’s tour of the security fence and hearing from top government officials as well as leadership from Israel’s Peace Now movement. There were also meetings with community leaders in Haifa, sharing immigrant stories with Ethiopian Israelis and visiting a groundbreaking employment program in the Israel Defense Forces that employs Ultra-Orthodox men. There were “lots of discussions,” said Rabbi Pesner, “[and attention given to the] balancing of human rights in commitment to justice and human rights needs.”
The processing, he explained, continued well after the entire group returned home to Boston.
“The action is in the reaction,” he said, something that will happen through follow up study sessions and conversation. He described a teaching that he pulled out of a hat during the trip. “I compared the words acharai or ‘follow me’ with achrayut or responsibility,” he said. “To be in leadership and have people follow you, implies a certain responsibility,” or, as a much-moved participant reported, “I always knew I was a Jew but didn’t know the responsibility that that carries.”