Congregation Kehilat Shalom Rabbi Susan L. Falk is moving to Brooklyn to live with her partner and to begin a new chapter in her life sure to be steeped in tikkun olam, meaning “the repair of the world” — the idea that Jews (and human beings, in general) bear responsibility for the welfare of society at large.
The Montgomery News editor sat down with Rabbi Falk to chat about matters of faith.
Q: What was your upbringing in relation to religion?
A: I grew up in a small, conservative synagogue in northern New Jersey. My upbringing included my mother converting to Judaism when I was 8 years old. This had a huge impact on me and the whole family. My father’s family was not religious, so it was as if we were all learning and converting with her. As you can see, I eventually became a rabbi.
Q: What is a question you found yourself asking over and over again this year?
A: I have had to ask myself how I, as a rabbi, Jew, American, and human being, can do the most good in the world given the national and international threats to democracy, human rights, and to the health and viability of our planet. The only answer I have right now is that I feel a pull to be more directly involved in tikkun olam, the Jewish term for social action or justice.
Q: Who really enriched your life in a big way in the past year or two?
A: Recently, I have been deeply inspired by the words and actions of the Reverend William Barber, who founded Repairers of the Breach — a nonpartisan nonprofit organization concerned with how society treats the poor, women, LGBTQ people, children, workers, immigrants, communities of color, and the sick. The current “Poor People’s Campaign,” and his original campaign, “Changing the Conversation,” get to the heart of the matter. We need a decisive change in our national priorities. Many of my colleagues have been involved in this campaign of protest and civil disobedience.
I hope to join them.
Q: It was a year of resistance for many people. What did you resist most effectively? What did you surrender to?
A: First, I don’t plan on surrendering to anything that has to do with social justice for all people, or to any attacks on our democracy or Constitution. But, at a certain point, one has to surrender to what you can or cannot reasonably accomplish, pull back, and take care of yourself.
At the congregation, I believe we have been particularly effective at joining in with the actions of HIAS (previously the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, now the official name is the acronym and the mission extends to all religious and political refugees).
Q: And, finally, in honor of Krista Tippett’s On Being, what made you despair and what gives you hope right now.
A: Despair. As a Jew, I know that silence and inaction equals death. As a member of the (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, and Queer (LGBTQ) community, who lived and worked in New York City during the height of the AIDS crisis, in fact, this was our motto: Silence = Death.
When we don’t stand up and fight against cruelty, oppression, or tyranny, and fight for building inclusive, just and compassionate societies, people suffer and do, sometimes, literally, die.
Hope. For sure, the kids give me hope. The Parkland kids, our kids at Congregation Kehilat Shalom, and kids all over the country are thoughtful, caring, intelligent, creative, and ready to engage with the world. I listen to what our kids at the synagogue have to say, watch them leading services or helping in our school. They give me hope. ■
Rabbi Falk was born in Glen Rock, NJ, where her parents were teachers. She and her family lived in France for part of her childhood. She earned a degree in English Literature from Barnard College; directed a women’s HIV/AIDS and health education program in New York City; then graduated from Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She served as the Hospice Director for the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia. In 2007, she became rabbi of Kehilat Shalom in Belle Mead, leading the congregation for 11 years. Her last day was June 30.