Experimental NY rabbi engages by keeping Judaism honest
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Experimental NY rabbi engages by keeping Judaism honest

Rabbi Dan Ain's 'Because Jewish' project offers a motley group of artistic New Yorkers a human community in an era of tech-driven isolation

Rabbi Dan Ain (center) ponders life with singer Matisyahu (left) and editor Mike Greenhaus at a recent February 2016 Friday Night Jam. (Christopher Townsend)
Rabbi Dan Ain (center) ponders life with singer Matisyahu (left) and editor Mike Greenhaus at a recent February 2016 Friday Night Jam. (Christopher Townsend)

NEW YORK — On a given Friday night, Rabbi Dan Ain can more likely be found celebrating Shabbat in a jazz club or in a Brooklyn warehouse than in a synagogue. Known to many as “Rabbi Dan,” Ain seems just like any other one of his congregants — a motley group of musicians and concert goers, shakers and seekers, and young families looking to get spiritual.

“To really be a rabbi, you’re in the community, you’re part of those people,” Ain says. “If I’m in this community, I want to create something that I want to be a part of and that other people will coalesce around who are also connecting to it.”

And so to help people connect to Judaism on their own terms — to foster an experience at once poignant and imperfect, honest and experimental — Ain created his “Because Jewish” project.

The name of his singular project, “Because Jewish,” comes from a common theme Ain has overheard at several Jewish conferences: “be Jewish because of your grandparents, because of the Holocaust, because of social justice, so your grandchildren will be Jewish.”

Instead, Ain wants to create a Jewish experience that doesn’t need excuses.

Rabbi Dan Ain, blowing a shofar, is knocking down conventional Judaism's walls and making the profane sacred. (Belathee Photography)
Rabbi Dan Ain, blowing a shofar, is knocking down conventional Judaism’s walls and making the profane sacred. (Belathee Photography)

“Because Jewish” represents the zeitgeist of Jewish Brooklyn, circa 2016. Its raison d’être is to offer community and presence amidst the racing speed and technological isolation of the here and now.

With people looking to make sense of the world, says Ain, Shabbat seems more attractive.

“When I was growing up in the Eighties, it was hard to do a sale for Shabbat. People wanted to go to the mall or go golfing,” he says. But at its best, Judaism provides, meaning, language and rituals allowing people access to the deepest parts of themselves, says Ain. He calls himself a “preacher and connector” in his role at the project; he was ordained in the Conservative movement at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“People want to find a way to have honest prayer, looking for settings that feel comfortable. And at home, to actually see, what do we mean when we talk about praying to God, how do we do that in a way that’s both Jewish and not done for grandparents or grandchildren, but because it’s important to us right now?” says Ain.

‘The idea is to create a context where people can tap into Judaism through what they love doing’

The “Because Jewish” project consists of the “Friday night jam,” “Korban Shabbat,” and “Saturday mornings,” which accommodate people who feel most comfortable in non-traditional spaces.

“There’s a real niche of people who experience spirituality in communal concert settings, who go to festivals, to Burning Man, and to Phish shows,” says Ain. “The idea is to create a context where people can tap into Judaism through what they love doing.”

The “Friday night jam” series in particular caters to that niche — candle-lighting, and traditional blessings over wine and challah precede live interviews and performances by guests such as Matisyahu, Israeli pop trio A-Wa, Guster lead singer Ryan Miller, and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye.

“I think across all Dan’s platforms, in all the experiences he’s created, is how you have a spiritual experience in a secular community,” says Mike Greenhaus, editor-in-chief of Relix, who helps produce the Friday night jams. “I think the idea is you want to pull out some of the ideals, traditions, and values from these holidays and vet them in alternative and very modern situations or backdrops.”

In light of that goal, “Korban Shabbat” is a more free-form experience in warehouses or living rooms. As “korban” means “sacrifice,” members of the group offer something for prayer. In the past, participants have recited poetry, sung Hasidic niggunim, performed shamanic drumming, led meditation, and played guitar songs.

‘People want to create something that feels authentically personal and at the same time genuinely spiritual’

“No matter if you’re coming from an area of fundamentalism or coming from an area of secularism, people want to create something that feels authentically personal and at the same time genuinely spiritual,” says Ain. “I think a lot of people who are unaffiliated want more. That’s why we call it ‘korban.’ We want people to come and make their offerings and help us create that experience.”

And finally, the “Saturday mornings” are described as “adult smart, kid friendly, jazz infused.” Kids can pick up on when their parents don’t want to be at services, Ain says.

“My thinking has always been, if I can inspire the parents and the children can see their parents inspired, can see their parents praying, that will make all the difference,” says Ain. With jazz, coffee, and Torah discussion, families say it feels like a Saturday morning.

With all its various platforms, “Because Jewish” is not even six months old; it officially launched in September with “Bowl Hashanah.” The Rosh Hashanah service took place at Brooklyn Bowl, a concert venue in Williamsburg.

“People don’t necessarily want to practice in fashions and aesthetics from 1700s Poland any more than they do from 1980 Long Island,” says Ain.

Rabbi Dan Ain blessing a young family. 'If I can inspire the parents and the children can see their parents inspired that will make all the difference.' (Gina Schmeling)
Rabbi Dan Ain blessing a young family. ‘If I can inspire the parents and the children can see their parents inspired that will make all the difference.’ (Gina Schmeling)

Hailing from 1980s Long Island, himself, Ain hadn’t always planned to be a rabbi. In 2001, he was a 24-year-old law school grad who had optioned his sci-fi screenplay in Hollywood. Then 9/11 happened.

“I was sleeping in my brother’s apartment on an air mattress and I realized I had absolutely nothing to offer,” Ain says. He says he felt “frozen in fear” on the Upper West Side with nothing to contribute.

He then discovered his yearning to bring solace and meaning to people’s lives.

As seen from the New Jersey Turnpike, smoke billows from the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City after airplanes crashed into both towers, September 11, 2001. (JTA/AP/Gene Boyars)
As seen from the New Jersey Turnpike, smoke billows from the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City after airplanes crashed into both towers, September 11, 2001. (JTA/AP/Gene Boyars)

“I saw my peers looking for meaning and what they got was the same old type of religion that I had gotten growing up in the Seventies and Eighties. I felt like this was a missed opportunity,” he says. While many of his generation grew up with felt like a “fake” or surface-level Jewish experience, Ain wanted to offer something authentic.

Despite his long beard, accented with a few streaks of grey, Ain is a far cry from the stereotypical rabbi preaching from an altar.

“Sometimes we don’t think that person is going to be real with us, we don’t think that person can shoot the shit with us. And as a result, we feel like God or Judaism is somehow inaccessible to us,” says Ain. “I try to get people outside their comfort zones, outside preconceived notions of what a Jewish service can be.”

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