By Lee Chottiner
On Rabbi Joshua Corber’s recent visit to Louisville, somebody shared with him the city’s unofficial motto: “Keep Louisville weird.”
That’s when Corber, a 39-year-old Canadian rabbi, and the next spiritual leader of Adath Jeshurun, knew he was home.
“I’m an out-of-the-box individual; there is almost nothing normal about me,” Corber quipped. “I take weird as a compliment.”
Corber identifies with the offbeat and the laid back. He loves to tell of the story of his orientation week at his rabbinical school, American Jewish University (AJU) in Los Angeles, where he and his classmates jumped on a trampoline at the home of their dean, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson. Artson watched the scene with a glass of iced tea, sporting shorts and a Grateful Dead T-shirt.
It is that out-of-the-box way of living that Corber brings to his next rabbinate.
A lover of eastern spirituality, he will make meditation part of AJ life.
A fitness nut and a self-described “gym rabbi,” he will deliver devrei torah from a cardio machine at the Trager Family JCC.
A relationship builder, he will seek ways for congregants to share their own personal “Jewish stories.”
“I like the idea of small gatherings of different peers where we tell one another our Jewish story,” he said. “When someone asks you, ‘What’s your Jewish story?’ It makes you feel like you have a Jewish story.”
AJ announced in February that Corber, a Conservative rabbi at a synagogue in suburban Toronto, will succeed Rabbi Robert Slosberg, who is retiring after 41 years. The two rabbis will be on the job together for the coming year before Corber solos.
“Rabbi Slosberg has put a lot of thought into how he wants to make this transition happen,” Corber said. “Both of us are going to be on staff, and for that first year, it’s really going to be helpful to me to learn the ropes. I think his idea is to try in that first year to get me front and center as much as possible.”
A Conservative Jew – now, you could say Corber has spent his life sampling all that each Jewish denomination has to offer.
Born and raised in Vancouver, Corber grew up at a Reform synagogue, attending Jewish day school, summering at a pluralist-Zionist camp and getting active in Hillel at the University of British Columbia.
While he was at college, the Second Intifada flared up, leading to tension on campus.
“We began to experience antisemitism on campus,” he said. “In an ironic way, that kind of emboldened and strengthened our Jewish identity.”
By then, he was “dabbling” in multiple forms of spirituality, which would stay with him. “In Vancouver, you have a lot of eastern influence, and so I got very deep into meditation.”
A religion, literature and arts major, Corber landed in an exchange program in the United Kingdom, where he had a “transformative experience” while spending Passover with a Chabad family near of London.
“I had such a powerful experience with them that I decided I wanted to be shomer Shabbat and shomer kashruth, lay tefillin and pray every day,” he said. “It started from just those things, and then it grew.”
But he continued to identify as a Reform Jew even though he was practicing Orthodoxy. “I really like the philosophy, the emphasis on prophetic values of tikkun olam and inclusivity – all of those things we like in the liberal Jewish movement.”
Once he went to Jerusalem, though, to study at the Pardes Institute (and later to AJU), he started to figure out who he was as a Jew and what he wanted.
“There are porous boundaries between all the movements, but I didn’t really understand what made someone Reform or Conservative or Orthodox or Yeshivish until I was there [at Pardes], and then I really started to figure out, ‘OK I’m not Reform, I’m not Orthodox,’ and I didn’t think I was Conservative, but eventually it was [AJU] that really helped me realize that the Conservative movement was the best home for my way of being Jewish.”
He remains influenced by all his Jewish experiences, though.
“I was Lubavaform,” he said, “and now I’m Conservavich.”
He will use his hybrid Jewish/religious background to traverse the same challenges facing all pulpit rabbis, not the least of which is the decline in affiliation rates among younger generations.
Corber is realistic, yet optimistic about that trend.
“I don’t think we can reverse the tide,” he said, “but I think there’s still an opportunity to create positive experiences, to create memories and to tune in … to what our generation is looking for from their Judaism. I think eventually they will come to see the value.”
As for the future of organized Judaism, “I don’t think that organized Judaism is actually in any real existential danger,” he said. “I think perhaps the model of affiliation has to evolve a little bit, and it’s really about finding new ways to connect.
“It’s not enough to give a good sermon and do a good job at officiating at lifecycle events,” he added. “We have to find new programs, new ideas.”
Whatever those programs and ideas are, though, he stressed that they are merely vehicles for Jews to build their own relationships – what any Jew really wants out of a synagogue experience.
“The main driving force is relationships, it’s building human relationships,” Corber said. “If you’re looking for Jewish involvement, if you’re looking for social engagement or social justice engagement or spiritual engagement or learning, you want to do it where you feel a sense of belonging.”
Corber and his wife, Chloe, a trained graphic designer, have two children, Eliana, 5, and Isaac 3.
He plans to start July 1. Meanwhile, he and the congregation will navigate his visa application.
Corber called AJ “a warm caring, heimish place” which might just have a touch of the weirdness he’s always looking for.
“Everything about our experience there confirmed that maybe it’s not Grateful Dead T-shirt and a trampoline, but they certainly have that sense of informality.”