NEW YORK — Instead of merely saying the Sabbath-evening kiddush prayer, Rabbi Daniel Bortz has a meal-long “mindful eating experience.” His celebration of Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish holiday celebrating trees, involves using essential oils in additional to the traditional fruit plate, to help engage all the senses.
Bortz describes these practices, among others, as a way to relate to the millennial generation.
“I look at it as an opportunity to blend ancient wisdom with creativity from today,” he says.
Seeking to impact fellow Jews in such unlikely places as the hedonistic Coachella music festival in Indio, California, Bortz certainly doesn’t shy away from a creative approach.
Bortz is known widely on social media as the “Millennial Rabbi,” and in about two years has gathered more than 26,000 followers on Instagram, where he frequently posts inspirational messages for those who follow him. His messages vary from Torah talks to spirituality, meditation, and mindfulness.
Born in South Africa and raised in the United States, Bortz now roams the globe — often with his family in tow — trying to break the stereotypical image of an Orthodox rabbi, even if that means others might question his methods.
Instagram followers might see photos of him pretending to hold the sun in Gallipoli, Italy, or posing with a backwards baseball cap in one of Judaism’s holiest cities, Safed.
As he embarked on his post-high school studies at the Mayanot Yeshiva in Jerusalem, spirituality and mindfulness were a passion for Bortz early on. Bortz’s love for Torah grew, and five years later, he received his rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Yitzchak Yehuda Yaroslavsky, one of the top Chabad authorities in Israel.
Rather than start a synagogue and recruit members of the local community to attend, Bortz decided to try something different. He’s always been a world traveler, going to all ends of the Earth to see God’s creations and learn something new about himself each time.
“Just like to get to know an artist, you need to look at his artwork, I feel that way when I go around the world and see a different aspect of Hashem’s creation,” he says. “My Instagram page says ‘Elevating sparks’ because wherever you go, you can have a good intention, make a blessing and enjoy the beauty of the divine handiwork.”
Now, the Millennial Rabbi is Insta-famous, and his popularity grows with each new journey he documents. Thus far, there are more than 300 posts on Bortz’s Instagram page. Each has its own unique vibe, modernizing some of Judaism’s most ancient traditions.
Some of Bortz’s wildest posts are of him trying to find Jews at Coachella. The festival, full of electric music, sex, drugs and alcohol, is, to say the least, not so kosher. But three times, Bortz set up a tent and managed to find Jews willing to sit down and talk with him. His goal was to converse and engage in some sort of spiritual experience in the unlikeliest of places.
When he’s not traveling with his family, the San Diego-based rabbi works with teenagers and young adults in multiple groups, including JTeen San Diego, as well as Soul X, providing a way for youth to connect with their inner spirituality.
The Times of Israel spoke via telephone with a calm, soft-spoken Bortz, discussing his journey within Judaism and his message for his followers.
How did you come up with the idea to market yourself as the “Millennial Rabbi?”
It was actually the nickname someone in my community gave me since I was using today’s culture and technology, which came about through the burst of the internet and social media.
More than an age group, millennial, to me, is living in the time of change. I remember going to a friend of mine when I was first starting my Instagram page. I said, “I’m not an older rabbi. Who am I to be an authority in a teaching space?” He said, “You’re looking at it all wrong. Think about how many people will only resonate with your style of message, who you’re depriving without sharing.”
Each of us has a unique way to share. We might be doing a disservice by not sharing that with the world. Social media is my opportunity to do that. I really liked the opportunity to be quick and precise. I take a long, complex idea and find a parable or story that connects to that message.
Why did you choose this path? Why is this the way to spread Torah messages, spirituality and wellness all in one?
I am very aware of the reality on the ground. I work with youth and the community in California. I know where everyone’s eyes are and where their attention is. It’s important to reach them where they’re at, not to expect them to show up to a synagogue after school or on a Sunday. I go to them. That’s where their attention is. I want to connect with my community and the world.
What made you become a rabbi in the first place?
I always follow my gut, soul and my intuition with what really calls to me. It’s not that I wanted to have the title “rabbi.” I didn’t even want to get semicha [rabbinical ordination], but I ended up doing it. I want to share Jewish knowledge with my people and the world. Being a rabbi means an ability to connect with people. I love people. I love to teach. I love to be somebody people can rely on and get help from. What’s also cool about being a rabbi is I love different subjects, from sports, martial arts, music, philosophy and psychology. They’re all a form of connecting to someone new. I like that aspect of being a rabbi. I love going past small talk. I love going into deep discussions. I get questions all the time, like, “Why do bad things happen?” And I like that.
How did you get into mixed martial arts and how does it help you connect with those who you’re trying to reach?
I always like to break the stereotypes: “For sure, an Orthodox Jew and a rabbi can’t do something we expect them not to do.” I like to break the mold. I work with a lot of young people, and I found something they can relate to. I was teaching a boy for his bar mitzvah and his father was into jiu-jitsu, and he told me to try it out. I did boxing in high school, so I tried out a new sport. It keeps you in shape and it’s very addicting because there’s so many different skills to learn in jiu-jitsu. I really believe in pushing yourself past challenges to grow. The best way to grow is to do something that might be tough, but it’s uncomfortable because you’re growing.
What makes you travel to all of these different and exotic places?
When I’m on a trip, I take as many pictures as I can at unique spots. I travel quite a lot. Part of it is that my parents — my father is South African and my mother is from France — would take us traveling growing up. We were a worldly family. I always found that everything we see is something we can learn from and connect to God through.
How many places have you traveled to just this year?
Last month, we went on a family trip to Italy, the English countryside and Scotland. The beauties of nature there are quite incredible. When I was going through Scotland and England, there’s just tons of empty terrain. Many of our forefathers and prophets were shepherds, living in the fields with their flock. They had a lot of quiet time to sit and contemplate. It’s very hard to get to that point of elevated consciousness that we’re capable of. I led a Jewish retreat in the Poconos, and I led an amazing “sound bath” before Shabbat. We were sitting in the forest, and I find it to be a much more powerful opportunity of connection when you’re in nature.
So you’re talking about being part of nature, but what about your other techniques? Why would you want to go to Coachella?
That was quite the interesting experience. When you’re there, you realize something about meeting people. When you’re meeting people out in the open, when they’re in a place they’re more relaxed and open-minded — we were just giving out free food and drinks — I made an incredible realization. I thought back to how did Judaism begin? It began with Abraham and Sarah, standing in the middle of a desert in a tent, giving out free food and drinks to passersby and having conversations about monotheism. A lot of what I’m trying to accomplish is going back to how Judaism always was. Sometimes, we get removed from that experience.
What were some of the challenges?
It’s very difficult physical conditions because it’s extremely hot. It’s very dusty and dry. It’s windy at night, so your tent can fly away. You’re witnessing a lot of people on some sort of substance. Trying to find people is hard, but a lot of people gravitate to you. For the most part, it’s nice, curious souls coming to check out what’s going on.
Spiritually, there’s a lot there that’s not what you want to have around you. But when you’re busy trying to be a good influence, it’s very different from when you’re coming into an experience looking to receive and let everything affect you. You’re the one trying to influence your surroundings with a different feeling. That’s the most inspiring experience for me.
What’s your goal moving forward with not only social media, but your students in California?
We’re at an interesting time in history. Most people I know in California don’t practice much, but they’re willing to learn. What I’m doing is showing the beauty in Judaism and the joy, with the loving approach that Judaism has. There’s a big push for health, wellness and meditation, and there’s many forms. It’s an incredible time to take advantage of all the tools we have and the openness of our community to experience what Judaism really has to offer in a way that’s different than how it’s always been done. We have to create an environment, whether it’s sitting outside and learning something or meditation through a Jewish lens.
What’s the fine line in terms of going from traditional Orthodoxy to modernizing it while still keeping the traditions?
The barometer is halacha [Jewish law]. There’s a lot of room to do creative things. But Hasidism, [its founder, Rabbi Israel son of Eliezer, the] Baal Shem Tov, and Judaism as a whole agree that the ultimate goal is to bring our awareness and consciousness of spirituality and the divine… into our daily physical lives. I think it’s the goal we’re trying to accomplish with our spiritual service. It’s taking the principle of “And you should know God in all your ways,” and finding different ways of elevating everything we come in contact with.