Rabbi’s commitment: Davis leads Orthodox synagogue in a time of transition
In the classroom, the rabbi’s strong baritone voice and tall stature rise above the fray. The eighth-graders at Addlestone Hebrew Academy are learning about prayer, and they’ve been encouraged to bring in pop songs whose lyrics possess a spiritual dimension.
Lauren Rybe, 13, makes a list on the whiteboard, words and phrases that represent aspects of prayer, and she adds to it as her classmates describe the essential messages of the songs they play.
Gratitude. Finding oneself. Asking God for help. Looking toward the future.
Rabbi Moshe Davis, the new leader of the Orthodox synagogue Brith Sholom Beth Israel, teaches two classes at Addlestone and strikes a classroom balance between authority and indulgence.
He tells the story of the farmer who, in need of fresh seeds, travels to the king’s palace, where he asks for an audience with the monarch.
The farmer begins with flattery: “King, I love you, I love paying taxes, you are a marvelous ruler.”
“What can I do for you farmer?” responds the king.
“Well, since you ask, I could use some seeds,” the farmer says, a request immediately granted. “Thank you.”
Davis compares this story to prayer. Both contain the same three steps: praise, request, thanks — shevach, bekashah, hodah.
Prayer, Davis notes, always contains these elements and always presents them in this order.
And then he assigned the homework.
Getting it done
Davis, 31, arrived in Charleston with his wife, Ariela, and three young children a few months ago to assume leadership of the synagogue. They moved from Houston, where the couple spent four years with the United Orthodox Synagogues.
Moshe Davis was assistant rabbi and led outreach initiatives, extending the synagogues’ programs and services to the far reaches of the sizable Jewish community and working to persuade out-of-state Jews to relocate to one of the nation’s largest and most dynamic cities. Ariela Davis taught at the local Jewish day school.
Charleston’s a little different.
Brith Sholom Beth Israel is in transition, striving to strengthen its membership and Jewish Orthodoxy in the city. The Jewish population is a fraction of Houston’s 40,000 or so. Fresh kosher food is available only if Davis or his fellow Orthodox rabbi, Chabad’s Yossi Refson, makes it so — or imports it. They have traded a cosmopolitan lifestyle for a provincial one.
The work is not lacking. Davis is keeping very busy, directing things at the synagogue, providing pastoral care, teaching at Addlestone, getting to know people. He is working with the city to establish an eruv that extends private space to the public sphere so that observant Jews can get to the temple and keep the Sabbath at the same time.
According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to take certain actions on the Sabbath, especially in public. This includes pushing a stroller, carrying one’s car keys, a cane or a book, or transporting medicines. But by combining various private and public domains into a single space designated as private, religious Jews have more flexibility on various holy days and can more easily join together in worship.
Typically, the eruv is designated by “doors” made with poles and wires that define the perimeter. It requires cooperation from the city, and Davis has found Mayor Joe Riley and other officials accommodating, said incoming synagogue President Larry Haber.
Davis’ attention to the project is indicative of his general commitment to the community, Haber said.
“Here he is going around town, not only checking it (the eruv), but fixing it. That just speaks to the let’s-get-it-done, simple, straightforward approach. That’s what we (the search committee) saw, that’s what we were impressed by.”
Haber served as co-chairman of the search committee, which solicited resumes from all of the major and some of the minor seminaries that support alumni, he said. The committee considered perhaps 40 resumes, conducted short interviews with about half of the applicants to cull down the list, then decided who to interview more extensively, first with Skype, then in person.
Five candidates were brought to Charleston. Davis impressed from the beginning, Haber said.
“When you go through series of interviews, you develop an ability to sense who sticks out,” he said.
Davis struck the group as level-headed and scholarly with “superlative programming and educational experience” who is “so ambitious for our community,” Haber said.
“Orthodox Judaism tends to be a little bit New York-centric,” he added. “This isn’t New York. We wanted somebody who would truly be at peace with that.”
Searching for a rabbi is challenging.
“This isn’t hiring somebody,” Haber said. “This is a wedding; this is a marriage.”
And the rabbi’s wife, too, must want to embrace the new situation.
Upon arrival, Ariela Davis posted to her blog, constant comment.net, her impressions of an “incredibly charming” Charleston.
“I have met the incredibly warm and friendly staffs of the JCC (Jewish Community Center), and Jewish Federation, as well as the amazing staff of the Jewish Studies Program at the nearby College of Charleston, which, by the way, has to have the most beautiful campus I’ve ever seen.
“And the members of BSBI, I can’t even begin to describe how much we feel that we’ve been embraced, how kind people have been — from the barbecue the synagogue made in our honor, to the stuffed animals they gave our children, to the care packages they have dropped off, the offers of baby-sitting and simply countless amounts of times that people I have and have never met before have told me sincerely, ‘We’re so glad you’re here.’ Is there a way to possibly make a person feel more wanted than by making such a comment?”
Ariela Davis was raised in North Woodmere, N.Y., on the western end of Long Island, a stone’s throw from JFK Airport. Her whole experience growing up was New York-centric, she said. Everything and everyone she knew were connected in some way to the city.
Moshe Davis was from another world altogether: Chicago. They met during a summer teaching program they both attended in Atlanta in 2004, “and I picked him up,” she said. He was tall, confident, handsome, smart. What was not to like?
It was a little like a meeting of the House of Capulet and the House of Montague, except the romance did not end tragically. Instead, Chicago family and friends descended on New York for a traditional Jewish wedding that perhaps 250 attended.
Moshe Davis continued his studies at Yeshiva University in New York while simultaneously developing an outreach program he started in his dorm room three years earlier called the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot.
The program helped Jewish women who were victims of domestic violence and abuse secure what’s called a “Get”: consent from the husband to get a divorce.
Sometimes a Get is hard to get. Recalcitrant men withhold it, often for selfish reasons. So Davis and his supporters would cajole, prod, negotiate, encourage and persuade. Occasionally, they would encounter an uncooperative husband, and that sometimes led to public action, Davis said.
“When everything else fails, we protest,” he said.
Groups of volunteers would picket the man’s house or workplace, holding signs designed to shame him into doing the right thing.
Today, the organization, still based in New York, is a full-fledged nonprofit with a staff and proper budget, Davis said. It operates around the world with help from a network of Jewish courts.
His organizational skills were put to use in Houston, too. The couple moved there to join the United Orthodox Synagogues, where Moshe Davis worked on a communitywide initiative that brought all Orthodox institutions together, seven shuls and six schools, to bolster Jewish traditions and culture, and to attract Jews from other states.
The effort was a partnership with the Orthodox Union, and that made Houston a “destination city.”
Shira Yoshor, a Houston resident, former president of United Orthodox Synagogues and the daughter of David Radinsky, who was rabbi of BSBI from 1970 to 2004, called Davis “a very good person, nice person, thoughtful, considerate, not flashy, but really very committed.” He and Ariela are eager to share their religious and cultural passions with others. “They are both excellent teachers.”
The Charleston-Houston link is significant. Yoshor grew up here. Her uncle, David Radinsky’s brother, Joseph, was rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogues from 1976-2003. Joseph Radinsky also was a study partner of Moshe Davis.
In Houston, Davis provided educational programming for adults and youths, “and he tried to do a lot of family programming as well,” Yoshor said. To engage young people, he offered some innovative activities: a trivia contest for middle school kids, a block party for the Purim holiday.
“He was well-respected not just in our synagogue, but among members of other synagogues,” Yoshor said. “This was important because in our community there’s a lot of collaboration.”
Davis said he hopes to develop innovative programs in Charleston, too. But first things first: He must engage members of his new synagogue, attend to their needs, listen and learn. His goal is to provide a Jewish experience 24/7, he said: daily minyans (prayer groups), regular Sabbath rituals, weekend events and activities, adult education and more.
“People are embracing and excited,” Davis said. “I sense an energy here.”
He has taken the reins at a delicate moment, when some restoration is perhaps needed. This summer, a group of worshippers left BSBI to start a new Orthodox synagogue, Dor Tikvah, in West Ashley, a part of the metropolitan area that’s become the suburban center of the Jewish community, many have said.
This fall, Davis participated in his first Three Rabbi Panel, sponsored by the College of Charleston’s Jewish Studies Program, tackling the meaty topic of “Revelation, Prophecy, and Rabbinic Authority.”
And at Addlestone, he is making an impression. It isn’t every day a rabbi uses pop music to explain prayer. But it’s a lot easier to transmit important, even profound, ideas when the vehicle is something accessible and well-liked by the middle-schoolers. So why not rap a little praise? Or nudge the students to the “Edge of Glory”?
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.