Upon entering the synagogue during regular office hours, one could hear the soft strumming of a guitar and a gentle voice in song. From a distance, I observed the rabbi at Congregation Beth Evergreen (CBE) at his desk seemingly singing to his computer, learning later that he was rehearsing with another participant via Skype for an upcoming bat mitzvah.
Rabbi Jamie, as he’s known to his congregation, comes across as comfortable in conversation as he is in style with a guitar. His smile is natural, his eyes sincere. He’s soft-spoken and articulate. And his handshake conveys a welcoming personality.
He seems unbothered with the most basic of questions I pose to gain a superficial understanding of his religion.
CBE, he explains, subscribes to the Reconstructionist approach to the Jewish faith, which lies somewhere between the Reform and Conservative movements, with orthodox being the most traditional of the three major groups and Reform being the most liberal. Whereas the orthodox subscribe to definite roles for men and women, with women being prohibited from being rabbis, the more progressive, contemporary Reconstructionists are fully egalitarian.
“We tend to approach God more as a process rather than a being,” he said, explaining he considers his role to be that of an educator and facilitator. Rather than being tied only to tradition, the Reconstructionist movement practices the principle that every generation has the right to reconstruct. “We’re an evolving civilization.”
One constant in the approach is a sense of being part of the community. “Peoplehood,” he calls it. Members of the congregation are encouraged to be full participants in American life while preserving the Jewish traditions that originated in the Old World. Reconstructionists no longer refer to the Jewish people as being “the chosen people,” as they do not profess any superiority over others.
This is important to understanding why Rabbi Jamie has been so visible and involved in our community. He’s an active member (and past leader) of the Interfaith Group of about a dozen members of the clergy in Evergreen who represent a more progressive approach to religion.
The Interfaith Group is responsible for starting AtHome, a social objective initiative to opening the minds, hearts, and hands of locals to affordable housing in Evergreen. In that capacity, Rabbi Jamie has played a role in social networking to connect the players.
He’s also encouraged CBE’s representation on the board of Evergreen Christian Outreach, something that might seem incongruous with Judaism (because of the use of “Christian” in the name) but another example of his progressive approach. The congregation has long supported humanitarian efforts to help the needy.
In addition, he has met with Jefferson County school principals and the Diversity Council to effect greater awareness of Jewish holidays and encourage an interfaith dialogue. While Jewish holidays may not be widely recognized in our mountain community, those families who observe them can be inadvertently affected by the scheduling of school exams or class trips that might conflict with holy days, for instance, when Jewish children would be expected to be at home to celebrate with their families. He and his wife of 20 years, Marti, have three teenage children who attend public schools.
Representing his congregation in partnership with other faiths in the effort to broaden the initiatives to promote respect and tolerance for diversity is just one of the hats he wears.
On the broader scene, he is vice president of the Interfaith Alliance for Colorado, based in Denver, a progressive voice responding nationally to the conservative approach of groups like Focus on the Family.
He is one of three pastors starting a chaplaincy program for Jeffco law enforcement. He may sit in on a meeting or do a ride-along with a police officer in addition to being on-call for emergencies. This gives small groups of officers or individuals the opportunity to ask questions or converse on a personal level about issues with which they are faced either on the job or within their home lives.
In his seventh year as leader of the Jewish congregation, Rabbi Jamie has encouraged innovative ways to bring the members together, many of the ideas coming from the congregation itself. The Chicken Soup Challenge, CBE’s version of a chili cookoff, is just one example. He’s incorporated his love of music into services and special events, as evidenced by the listing of an upcoming Shabbat service with “Rabbi Jamie’s Rockin’ Reggae Shabbos Band.”
When his wife suggested a church softball league, 50 CBE members quickly signed up, representing two of the six teams that pit Baptists against Lutherans and Jews on the athletic field in great fun. In its fourth year, this has proven to be a favorite activity of the members who comprise the 200-family congregation.
It all ties into that sense of belonging, he points out, “events that bring people together for the sake of connection. It all fits with the approach to Jewish life.”
The Jewish religion is family oriented, he explains. In fact, when there are five weekends in a month, CBE designates that fifth weekend as one in which the family should stay at home with the family. “There are no sacraments that you need a synagogue for or a rabbi for,” he points out. Teaching the rituals to children at home is a well established tradition.
All activities and services at Congregation Beth Evergreen are open to the community; one need not be a Jew to attend. I can attest to the welcoming atmosphere from having attended several special events there.
Coming from a Jewish but non-synagogue-going family in Upstate New York, Benjamin Arnold found himself practicing Buddhism as a college student. His mother had been actively identified as a Jew, starting a small fellowship in the Rochester area, something he likened to a Jewish book club, comprised of those interested in Judaism from an intellectual viewpoint.
When they were dating, Marti was in the process of converting to Judaism of her own volition and made it clear that she wanted to bring up a family with the Jewish traditions. He began studying Judaism with the thought he might teach. Music, counseling and teaching represented a good combination of what he liked, and pursuing a career as a rabbi proved to be “a good thing not just for the household but also for me,” he disclosed. He loves what he does, and combining that with doing it in a small town makes it even better, he says.
In his spare time he can be found writing – children’s stories, a novel, educational curriculum – as well as working on a translation of 15th century spiritual text.
He calls himself an “athletic Jew.” His philosophy on what a person does to live recognizes and celebrates recreation more than a job. “I love Colorado – the climate, the geography, the mountains, the sunshine, and participating with the people of the community.”