10 to Watch

Elan Babchuck

What he does:Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El on the East Side since 2012 Why we like him: Young, dynamic clergyman reinvigorating a temple that turns 90 this year. Has a background as both a …

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What he does:
Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El on the East Side since 2012

Why we like him:

  • Young, dynamic clergyman reinvigorating a temple that turns 90 this year.
  • Has a background as both a community organizer and an entrepreneur.
  • Holds an MBA in nonprofit management.
  • Uses both the outreach techniques of a community organizer (“Meeting people where they are” is a favorite phrase of his) and the marketing savvy of a business professional to re-engage the congregation.

Why he’s different:
“For a long time religious organizations have asked the question, ‘How can you help us?’ The rubric has been using people to build Jewish organizations – what I’m interested in is leveraging Jewish organizations to build people.”

The results:

  • Temple Emanu-El is instituting a change in its membership model from the traditional assessed dues model to a voluntary contribution. 
  • Babchuck is responsible for the marketing of this campaign, which has brought over 30 new families to the temple since June.

“If we’re asking people to come to us, pay our institutions, and then do only what we allow them and tell them to do, religion will be a bankrupt business. But if we’re meeting people where they are – geographically and existentially, getting to know what makes them tick, finding out what they desire in life, engaging them with the rich wisdom that our religions offer, and giving them space to grow within that framework, then we’ll not only survive – we’ll thrive.”

  • Babchuck created a first of its kind in RI prayer service and group for families and children with special needs; is now in talks with a national Jewish organization to use it as a pilot for other synagogues around the country.

Why this matters:
Religious organizations of all stripes around the state are losing membership and fighting to remain relevant in their communities. Babchuck represents a new way of doing that that’s more in tune with the wants and needs of a younger generation.

“Churches and synagogues used to sustain themselves simply by existing. People would knock on their doors… These days, religious communities need to work outside the boundaries of their buildings to provide value-added experiences and opportunities for folks. We need to meet people where they are, not expect them to come to us.”

On the need for religious institutions to adapt:
“The more that people can view religions and religious institutions as adaptive, agile, and open environments, the more likely they will be to come test the waters. Many of the changes that I’ve made in my time as a rabbi came from suggestions from lay leaders. Rather than responding with, ‘No, that’s not how we do things here’, I respond with the fundamental line that every improv comedian learns on day one: ‘Yes, and…’”

What he’s doing about it:

  • In collaboration with Erin Mosely of the Jewish Alliance, Rabbi Sarah Mack of Temple Beth El and Rabbi Barry Dolinger of Congregation Beth Sholom, instituted 401J, Rhode Island’s first community-oriented Jewish young professionals group.
  • Launched in December with an event at The Grange, a hip, West Side restaurant.
  • Mixes old school community organizing techniques with modern social media to engage young professionals.
  • Mailing list already includes hundreds of young professionals, and 401J’s offerings will include member-driven groups and activities like book clubs, adventure sports and Jewish text studies.


What he means by “meeting people where they are”:
“Rather than studying Talmud in the confines of my warm and cozy office, I hold office hours at Seven Stars Bakery on Hope Street. Someone will inevitably see me wearing a kippah, studying this ancient text, and ask me, ‘Are you a rabbi?’ I always have a couple of interesting stories in my back pocket, and we’ll eventually get to talking about life. A couple of strangers are brought together by a 1,500 year old text, a great cup of coffee, and a core desire to connect to something bigger than ourselves.”

Fast fact:
Great-grandfather on mother’s side was chief rabbi of Tiberias in Israel; grandfather on father’s side was labor organizer.

Big honor:
Was one of 24 rabbis nationwide chosen for a fellowship with the New York-based organization Rabbis without Borders; completes his fellowship in April.

On the future of religion:
“Transactional religion is a dying trend; transformational religion is the future. That means that religious institutions need to adapt community organizing methods – leadership development, cultivating and leveraging stories, creating space for leaders to actually lead, grassroots campaigns, etc. – to allow for transformation to happen.”

Follow Elan on Twitter @ElanBabchuck