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July 23, 2015 7:00 am

‘Concierge Rabbi’ Envisions New Kind of Religious Experience

avatar by Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman / JNS.org

The recent ceremony at the opening of a new synagogue in Turkey. Photo: Karel Valansi.

A synagogue service. Photo: Karel Valansi.

JNS.org – In layman’s terms, “concierge” essentially means a personal assistant. So what exactly does a “concierge rabbi” do?

Just ask Rabbi David Greenspoon of Reisterstown, Md., who founded “Jewtique: Concierge Rabbinic Services.” Though Greenspoon recently took on a new full-time pulpit in Virginia, he hopes his concierge business will continue to feed the souls of both his congregation and other Jews seeking his guidance.

“You have to meet people where they are at and help them realize the depth and quality of the Jewish experience,” Greenspoon tells JNS.org.

A Conservative rabbi, Greenspoon started Jewtique after leaving a full-time pulpit in 2012. While he was exploring his next steps, several congregants approached him about running a High Holiday service. That year, Greenspoon offered an alternative experience in an area church, which turned out to be packed—by some former congregants, but also scores of unaffiliated individuals from the area.

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“I started getting calls to do pastoral counseling, religious services for other holidays, to meet people’s rabbinic needs,” Greenspoon recalls, noting the extensive list of services he now provides, from baby namings to funeral services.

What Greenspoon realized is that the growing population of unaffiliated Jews was met with two options when they had “Jewish needs”—turn to an Orthodox outreach professional, or “rent an unexperienced rabbi.” Greenspoon understood that he offered a commodity in America’s Mid-Atlantic region: someone worldly, modern, and just secular enough, with a rich rabbinical background and education.

“One thing I learned is that external appearances can either create a divide between you and other people or serve as a means to connect,” Greenspoon says, explaining why his wardrobe ranges from hippie garb, to polo shirt and slacks, to suit and tie.

“Some people want a rabbi in pinstripes and tie. Others want to meet at Starbucks and have a low-key conversation in plain sight, without anyone knowing they are meeting with the rabbi,” he says.

Jacalyn Babitz of Ellicott City, Md., says she has a deep appreciation for Greenspoon’s work. A religious Catholic woman, Babitz felt lost when her late husband—a Jew—passed away.

“I had no idea what to do, but I knew my late husband would want a traditional Jewish funeral,” says Babitz, who was referred to Greenspoon by the Jewish funeral home that was making arrangements for her husband.

Babitz says that even during her time of sadness, she immediately connected with Greenspoon and knew he could relate to her late husband.

“It turned out he was into rock and roll and guitar, and so the rabbi and my husband had something in common,” she says. “And he took the time to learn the rest. Rabbi Greenspoon made sure everything was laid out for a memorial service and he explained everything along the way from the way I should greet people, to the candle, to carrying the coffin. These were all things I didn’t know, but he never made me feel like an outsider.”

Babitz says she and her husband used to celebrate both Christian and Jewish holidays together. But she had never planned a Jewish memorial service.

“Sometimes people make you feel like an outsider and then you don’t want to do it at all, because you think, ‘People are going to look down on me.’ I was feeling like that, were the Jews going to think I was a sinner or my late husband wasn’t the perfect Jew because he was married to me. Rabbi Greenspoon says to me, ‘It doesn’t matter. … It doesn’t matter who you are, what religion you are. This event will bring people closer together.’ And it did,” says Babitz.

Greenspoon’s focus on the self-perceived “outsider” extends to the Jewish community itself. The Pew Research Center’s much-debated 2013 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” survey found that more than one-in-five Jewish adults (22 percent) say they are atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. The same study identified a 58-percent intermarriage rate among U.S. Jews. Greenspoon says his services are geared towards serving this sector of the Jewish population.

Rabbi Jessica Minnen, resident rabbi of New York’s OneTable initiative, which brings together Jews in their 20s and 30s for Shabbat dinners, says people with rabbinical degrees today have the opportunity to be “all kinds of rabbis.” The constituency of post-college/pre-family Jews, she says, “does not necessarily have access to the traditional pulpit rabbinate.”

“So it is about being present in the places and at the times that these people are trying to create their lives and determine what, if anything, Judaism has to do with them,” Minnen says, adding that “no one human being—not even the best pulpit rabbi—can meet all the needs of everyone who passes through the walls of his or her synagogue.”

Greenspoon says he sees his rabbinical colleagues beginning to follow in his footsteps, both to diversify their sources of income and to better build a community—not just a congregation.

“Concierge rabbis are going to be more and more common down the road,” he says. “For the rabbinate to survive—and the Jewish people to thrive—we’re going to have to be more nimble.”

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