Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz, who is celebrating his twenty-fifth year as the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel (CBI) in Tustin, is the only member of his graduating class to have remained with the same congregation for the duration of his career. He considers himself “lucky to come to a very young congregation in 1988,” adding that “Holding services in a rented warehouse, CBI was run like a chavurah. Today CBI still retains its grass-roots, participatory energy.”
Rabbi Spitz and CBI have grown together. Under his experimental and inclusive leadership, Congregation B’nai Israel’s not-so-conservative brand of Conservative Judaism continues to spread its welcoming branches across the county by deepening its roots in the variety and wonder of the Jewish tradition.
Born to Holocaust survivors in Phoenix, Arizona, Elie Spitz started undergraduate studies at Arizona State. Tranferring to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he studied Jewish philosophy and psychology. Rabbi Spitz earned a law degree from Boston University in 1978 and then began working towards his rabbinical ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He became a rabbi and moved to Orange County in 1988.
Rabbi Spitz is married to Linda Kaplan Spitz, a neurologist. They have three children, Joseph, Jonathan and Anna Rose. Joey is working for the Consul General of Israel in the area of college outreach. Jon is currently interviewing for medical school. Anna is finishing her freshman year at the University of Michigan.
While Elie Spitz’s study of Jewish law links him to the great tradition of rabbinic teaching, his interest in Jewish spirituality weds him to the modern search for meaning, healing and growth in the age of science and secularism. His book Does the Soul Survive? A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives, and Living with Purpose fearlessly moves beyond a merely cultural or social Judaism in order to ask big questions about the eternity of the soul and whether there is life after death. Examining phenomena that range from near-death experiences to reincarnation and past-life memory, Rabbi Spitz explores what we are really able to know about the afterlife. He turns to Jewish texts for their insights into the depths and capacities of the soul.
Rabbi Spitz’s second book, Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in a Broken World, approaches pain, depression and personal crisis as occasions for renewal. Rabbi Spitz discovers in his own life as well as the journeys of Moses, Maimonides, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Buber the inescapability of brokenness as an element of the human condition, and he entreats his readers to move from brokenness to healing through Jewish wisdom and the wisdom of neighboring traditions.
Rabbi Spitz’s work in Jewish meditation and guided imagery has led him to explore the wisdom of world religions, from eastern meditation to Christian monasticism. He is currently working on an e-book entitled Toward Wholeness: Guided Imagery, Prayer, and Meditation, a collection of Jewish spiritual exercises that draw on both ancient and modern devotional techniques. The multi-media project will include video and audio components designed to lead participants in experiences to explore and grow both inwards and upwards.
Like Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Spitz combines a deep respect for tradition with an openness to new horizons for Jewish life and thought. Rabbi Spitz will complete his reading of the entire Talmud with a celebration of Jewish learning at CBI on October 14. In the words of congregant Howard Mirowitz, “Rabbi Spitz uniquely fuses his intellectual approach to Judaism with its mystical elements. The energy of that fusion animates everything he does as a rabbi.”
We caught up with Rabbi Spitz to reflect on his 25 years as spiritual leader of CBI:
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Jews and Judaism in America today? The biggest challenge for the vitality of Jewish community in America is apathy, followed by superficiality. Judaism is what Jews do, grounded in what they believe and to what they commit. We are blessed to live in an open society with great acceptance. Our challenge is to justify being part of an ancient, sacred-seeking people amidst a secular cultural momentum of avoiding particularity and prioritizing materialistic gain.
What possible solutions do you see? Jews need to celebrate our distinctive quest for meaning and study the value-laden wisdom of our heritage. Community leaders need to courageously welcome change while humbly preserving continuity. We need to emphasize the joy of linking ourselves to the rhythms and rituals of Jewish communal celebration, compassion and commitment.
What is your favorite parsshah? My favorite parashah is whatever parashah I am reading. I continue to uncover nuggets of wisdom in the Biblical text and in the writings of our sages. Precisely because I have read the Torah so many times, each new insight from a close reading is amplified in significance for me.
What is your favorite commandment? My favorite commandment is the tenth, which I understand as a promised reward: If we observe the other nine commandments we will find contentment and will not covet what others have.
Who is your favorite Biblical hero? More and more, I am drawn to Moses, aware that he is described as a servant of God and that the key adjective for him is humble. I identify with the descriptions of his growth as a leader and how he negotiates the many burdens of leadership.
What is the most important contribution that Judaism has made to world civilization? Judaism’s greatest contribution is the image of God as the Parent of the whole of creation, which means that God cares deeply for our wellbeing, how we get along with others, and that we treat each person with respect, especially those who are the weakest.
What is Judaism’s greatest contribution to Jews?
The greatest contribution that Judaism has given Jews is the Sabbath, a day a week to step out of commerce and doing to know that our dignity and value do not come from what we produce and that we need to prioritize time to value our family, community and to honor the goodness of God’s many blessings.
Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz will be honored by congregation and community on Sunday, March 23, at 5 p.m. at CBI. The evening includes cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, live and silent auction, dinner and live music. Tickets are $154 per person. For information and rsvp, call (714) 730-9693 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.