Written by Rabbi Noah Farkas, Rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California
In December 2011, I had the privilege of attending JOIN’s national public narrative training with the Harvard professor and noted community organizer, Marshall Ganz. Being a national training over video conference, this Angelino had to wake up many hours before the dawn to make it to the conference site. As I stopped at the local coffee shop to fill up, I found myself thinking, “I’m a rabbi. Communicating is what I do for a living, so what new can I learn about telling stories?”
It turns out, everything. As I listened to Dr. Ganz speak about how stories shape who we are as individuals and as a community, I realized that story-telling is a true art form. Public narratives are sacred dramas that inspire empathy, a feeling of urgency, and most importantly a sense of empowerment to take action.
In our small groups, we practice telling our stories in two minute intervals. A time limit of only a couple of minutes put the pressure on me to think hard about what I was going to say. It’s like trying to sum up one’s entire existence in a couple of seconds. I was challenged to craft a story of myself that clearly explained who I am and why I live my life the way I do- all in 120 seconds. I am reminded of Rabbi Hillel who had to explain the Torah in about the same amount of time, who said famously, “Love your neighbor as yourself, (Lev. 19:16) all the rest is commentary.” After working on my story with my small group, I came to realize the pith in Hillel’s words, and that their true power lies not in their brevity, but in their universality. To me he was saying, “Act on your values, tell that story.”
My story includes a little girl who I met on the last night I lived in Africa, and whose distended stomach and glazed-over eyes are seared into my memory as a lasting accusation against the injustice our world creates. But her gaze also serves as an eternal invitation to me to dedicate much of my work as a rabbi to create a Jewish community with justice at its core.
Sitting in the training room and watching the screen as fellow organizer’s practiced their story of themselves and of Jewish organizing, I felt invigorated that we really were getting at something. I saw an emergent Judaism of real relationships and not just of programs, of empowerment of all people and not just professionals, a Judaism that speaks to the world we live in, and most importantly, a Judaism that holds the world accountable to the covenanted values of our tradition. This is the Judaism that makes real change in people’s lives both Jew and non-Jew alike.
As I left to for home, I thought of the final mitzvah of the Torah. The Sefer Chinuch writes that each of us has the obligation to pen our own Torah Scroll. For me, listening to these new stories, I learned that each of us has a story to tell, a Torah, that shares our values and inspire others.
Rabbi Noah Farkas is an alumnus of the Seminary Leadership Project and is a current JOIN for Justice board member. Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas serves as a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. In addition to his work at VBS, Noah has co-founded Netiya: the LA Jewish Coalition on Food, Environment, and Social Justice.