Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser on Jewish favorites and social justice issues


This week we talk with Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser of Temple Sinai in Cranston.

Goldwasser, 54, grew up in New York City. He has served as rabbi of Temple Sinai since 2014. Before arriving in Rhode Island, Goldwasser served congregations in North Adams, Massachusetts, from 2000 to 2011, and in Stuart, Florida, from 2011 to 2014. 

He earned his rabbinic ordination in 2000 from the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the seminary of Judaism’s Reform movement. Goldwasser is a member of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, the Cranston Clergy Association, and is the social action chair of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. He also serves on the steering committee of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty.

Before beginning rabbinic studies, Goldwasser worked as an organizer and writer in the environmental and labor movements. He and his wife, Jonquil Wolfson, live in East Greenwich. They are the parents of Talia who is 18 years old and Eliana who is 12. Goldwasser blogs at Judaism and life at rebjeff.com.

Here are his answers to questions posed by The Voice.

Q: What do you believe is the most pressing issue facing the Rhode Island Jewish community at this time?

A: I think the thing of greatest importance to us is to restore a sense of what it means to be a Jew. Judaism cannot just be about loyalty to an ethnicity and keeping up some old traditions. Our hopes for our children cannot just be that they marry someone Jewish and light Shabbat candles once in a while because that misses the point of what it means to be a Jew. We (our community) need to help grow the fire and passion of what it means to be part of this people who have changed the world.

Q: You’re a very involved member of the community, fighting for many social justice issues. What causes are you currently involved in/fighting for, and why have you chosen to do so?  

A: Most of the issues that I’ve become involved in have to do with poverty. When you read the Hebrew Bible, especially the Prophets, you find that the thing they care most about is taking care of the people that nobody thinks about. I think from its earliest forms, Judaism has been the tradition that constantly teaches that if your life is going to matter, your life has to be about more than what is in it for you. Right now, we are trying to get the [Rhode Island] state legislature to restore a bus pass program so that elderly and disabled people can ride the bus to get to their doctors’ appointments and do their shopping. It sounds so trivial, until you realize that in taking away that program, we are taking away peoples’ lifelines.

Q: If you could have three dinner guests, living or from history, who would they be and why?

A: The “Rambam,” Moses Maimonides. In my mind, he was the greatest Jewish mind of all time.

Golda Meir. David Ben-Gurion gets a lot of attention because he was the great genius behind the founding of the State of Israel. Golda wasn’t as lucky. She had to deal with Israel as an already established but still growing state, which didn’t know what it was going to become. She had to find a way to keep the vision going and I would love to have the chance to talk to her about her experiences.

Isaac Mayer Wise. He was the founder of Reform Judaism in the United States who basically created what Judaism in America is today.

Q: Favorite Jewish food?

A: Latkes. I not only love them, I am a bit of a snob about latkes. They must be thick and juicy, with a lot of applesauce and sour cream.

Q: Favorite Jewish holiday? Why?

A: Shabbat. Even though, as a congregational rabbi, I have to work on Shabbat, it really is the day of the week that I always look forward to. It’s a day where I can really clear my head and focus on my family, knowing that there is no interruption that takes precedent over me taking care of myself and me being with them.

Q: Favorite Jewish song?

A: All the songs of Debbie Friedman [a popular American Jewish singer-songwriter].

Q: Favorite Jewish movies?

A: “The Frisco Kid” and “A Serious Man.”

Q: Favorite Jewish celebrity?

A: Mel Brooks.

Q: Favorite Israeli city to visit? Why?

A: Tel Aviv. There are some really wonderful things in Tel Aviv, and if you want to take a really deep dive into what being a secular Israeli who hates Judaism and loves Judaism at the same time is like, spend a few days in Tel Aviv.

Q: Favorite Israeli city to live? Why?

A: Jerusalem. Jerusalem embodies everything that is wonderful, crazy, and agonizing about the Jewish people. It’s a place of contradictions where you have a great mixture of different types of Jews, somehow coming together to create something that’s poetic. It’s a city of people who can’t get along with each other, won’t get along with each other, and, yet, somehow manage to do so.

Q: Favorite Hebrew word?

A: Hitboded – to be alone with one’s self (relating to Hitbodedut, a type of Jewish meditation).

Q: Favorite Yiddish word?

A: Mishpucha – The people who are dear to you, who you depend on, who at the end of the day are the ones who matter most to you.

Q: Best part of keeping Kosher, worst part of keeping Kosher?

A: Best part – I’m a vegetarian, so keeping Kosher is a little easier for me. But, it allows you to confront the experience of eating in a soulful and reflective way every single day of your life.

Worst part – (Being a vegetarian) I don’t feel I have to deal with the “hard parts” of keeping Kosher. I don’t have to have a sink for meat and another for milk, etc.

Q: Favorite part of being Jewish?

A: Being Jewish is a whole, not a collection of parts. It is a way of looking at the world, relating to yourself, your family and your community. Judaism isn’t a way of doing; it’s a way of being. What I love about being Jewish is being Jewish.

Q: Favorite part of being a rabbi?

A: I love teaching, particularly teaching adults, because Judaism was not created to be a “pediatric” experience. Judaism is a tradition that is about the adult world – how adults treat each other and how they assume the responsibilities of adulthood. Additionally, in the world of a rabbi, you get to be with people in the moments of their lives that matter the very most. Both incredible, high moments like a wedding or a baby naming, and also really difficult moments like a death or a time of personal crisis. Being in a role in which people invite you into their lives when they are experiencing those kinds of extremes is immensely powerful.

Q: Favorite Jewish memory from your life/childhood?

A: When I was in nursery school, I had a close friend named Ralph, and I would often be at his house on Friday nights, where I got the chance to experience a lot of primary Jewish experiences with his family (that was more observant) that I did not experience with my own family, like Shabbat dinners and Passover Seders.

Q: Greatest piece of advice someone has given you, and who gave it to you? 

A: “It’s too late to change it now.” [Advice given by Goldwasser’s rabbi, in reference to Goldwasser speaking about his mistakes and regrets in life.] That is something that has stuck with me for all of my life. You can know about the difficulties and hardships you’ve had in life, and they can be present to you, but at the same time, recognize, well, that is my life, and I can’t reach back in time and change it. The task, instead, is to look toward the future and not dwell on the past.