If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. If you teach a man the Torah, he’ll pray for a lifetime.
What does it mean to be a teacher, a professor—a leader? Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is more than any title or prefix could describe. You could say he is an international teacher, a world-renowned Rabbi, a social justice activist—all of these would be true, but none of them would be enough to truly encapsulate him. Words can not properly describe this man…but let’s try anyway.
Shmuly was born in Toronto but moved to New Jersey, Chicago, and many other states in the union. Because he moved so much, he spent a great deal of his time isolated, alienated, and craving community. This would eventually lead him to make connections and communities all around the world…but I am getting ahead of myself.
Growing up in an interfaith home, with one Christian parent and one Jewish parent, was incredibly difficult for Shmuly. After being pulled in every spiritual direction, he finally decided he preferred Judaism…he made that choice when he was only ten years old. After that, it was bagels and lox as far as the eye could see. He fully immersed himself in Judaism, going as far as to become a full-fledged Rabbi. Bet you didn’t see that coming!
Although his path would eventually lead him to Rabbinical School, that path was not a straight one. After college (where he earned a doctorate in moral development), he started working at a corporate consulting firm and quickly realized that it would be the place where his soul would die. So, he moved to Israel and started studying the great arguments, debates, and philosophies surrounding Jewish values. That is when he finally realized his calling was to don the kippah and become a Rabbi. After Rabbinical School, he tried his hand at being a congregational Rabbi but soon found that path wasn’t for him. “I realized I wanted to be more of an educator and change maker. I wanted to do things a little more provocative and potentially transformative.”
Shmuly’s lifelong caring nature led him to become a social justice activist. During and after college, he volunteered on service learning missions throughout the global South. Visiting countries that needed aid made him realize that there were deeply rooted problems that had to be addressed. So, he started passionately fighting for worker rights, immigrant rights, animal rights, interfaith bridge building, business ethics, and the extinguishing of xenophobic hate speech. “I believe that my work was partially inspired by Jewish teachings and partially by my exposure to the global South.” Shmuly has created many non-profits to help these causes. He started L’Zedek, Yatom, Shamayim, Valley Beit Midrash, Arizona Jews For Justice, Colorado Jews for Justice, and Chadyim…just to name a few.
Does this man even sleep? Is there a rock under his mattress that keeps him out of bed, active, and alive? When asked about his work ethic he said, “It is my sense of mortality—the sense that life is short. It comes from my belief that life is less about happiness and more about service. I don’t think this is altruistic. I gain more than I give, through it all. Service makes me happy.”
Shmuly’s tenacity and generosity have landed him in spaces with some of the most powerful people in the world. He has sat with presidents, Nobel Peace Prize winners, and many others who, on a daily basis, change the world. Through all of this, he has remained as humble as could be. He may live in Arizona with his wife and children, but his job takes him all around the globe. Why? Because people want to hear what he has to say…and for good reason.
So, why would such a prominent Rabbi, a teacher of the world, want to spend the holiest days of the year with us, a bunch of recovering drug addicts? When asked he said, “I have been blown away, for years, by the integrity and depth of what Beit T’Shuvah is doing. This is the deepest work.” If you have attended any of our High Holiday services this year, you know how deeply he means every syllable he utters. To have him speak so highly about our organization (and, trust me, I cut about 25 minutes of him gushing about how much he loves BTS into that one quote) is an absolute honor.
For these High Holidays, we have all gathered in the sanctuary to learn what Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz has to teach us, but he has also come to learn from us. “I believe the people immersed in this are the real teachers. As much as I am looking to offer anything, I am honestly looking to learn and be impacted through the connections of the residents. I don’t look at it as ‘here is the teacher looking down’ I view it as a moment where we are both trying to heal—we are both trying to recover. We can strengthen each other.” He may be taking lessons away from what we do here, but we are certainly learning from him as well. He’s taught us more than just the Torah and the meaning of the holidays, but about ourselves and what it means to be human. When it is all said and sung, the fast has been broken, and the sanctuary goes back to being a place where rehab process groups are conducted, we will all be left with a newfound understanding of ourselves and the greater world around us. Words cannot express how grateful we are to spend the High Holidays with him. Far more than just a Rabbi, a Doctor, a social justice warrior. He is a teacher. He is a student. He is one of us. He is Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz…and he’s only human.