Could a rabbi be the next self-help guru?

Could a rabbi be the next self-help guru?

In a 2006 episode of the television show “Grey’s Anatomy,” a Jewish character tells a non-Jewish character to sit shiva to cope with the death of her boyfriend.

This is one example of how Jewish philosophy has integrated into Hollywood, and CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership wants to move Jewish wisdom further into mainstream thought. The organization recently launched Rabbis Without Borders, which, organizers hope, will attract rabbis from across the religious spectrum and position them as spiritual leaders promoting Jewish teachings to all of America.

Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu

“We want to take Jewish wisdom and make it meaningful and accessible to all people beyond religious and cultural borders,” said Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, a Teaneck resident who is co-director of Rabbis Without Borders.

The program has been in development at New York-based CLAL since last spring when Sirbu, who is married to Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, joined the organization. She pointed to her previous employer, the JCC of Metrowest, as an example of a Jewish environment available to Jews and non-Jews alike.

Rabbis Without Borders had its first informational meeting in December, which attracted 30 interested rabbis. Since then, Sirbu said, she has spoken with about 50 who are interested in participating. Eventually, organizers would like to have a nationwide network of at least 200 rabbis.

Through a series of one-on-one meetings, phone conferences, and its Website, CLAL will train rabbis on how to position themselves as community resources.

The program will also target rabbinical students, Sirbu said. Students will be able to enroll in a three-year program to learn how to better address issues in contemporary American life, culminating with student proposals for projects to make Jewish wisdom more accessible.

“Right now in the 21st century there are really a lot of permeable borders,” Sirbu said. “People tend to change their religious affiliation as they age. We’re really a nation of seekers. As people are seeking, we want people to have Judaism to seek out.”
Even though the program is meant to bring Jewish philosophy to the non-Jewish public, Rabbis Without Borders is not proselytizing, Sirbu stressed. She compared the program to buying a self-help book. Just because you buy a book doesn’t mean you subscribe to the author’s entire philosophy, she said.

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox of Cong. Kesher in Englewood attended December’s meeting and said the group’s mission has “endless” potential. There needs to be interaction between Jewish wisdom and the non-Jewish world, he added.

“We have a lot to offer the world,” he said. “Unfortunately, what often ends up in the Times isn’t the best that we have to offer. It’s important for a group of people to be thinking strategically about how to put our best foot forward.”

Sirbu pointed to the “Grey’s Anatomy” episode, as well as the 1990s sitcom “Seinfeld,” which made many Jewish references and critics said employed Jewish humor.

“How much better could that be if it was rabbis – well -educated and well-versed in our wisdom – putting it out there rather than through Hollywood,” she said.

For more information on Rabbis Without Borders, call Sirbu at (212) 779-3300, ext. 122.

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