During the past four years, Rabbi David Segal has rejuvenated the Aspen Jewish Congregation into a growing community with an appeal to both older and younger people in this area.
His work hasn’t gone unnoticed, as Segal, 33, was one of 28 rabbis honored by The Jewish Daily Forward this month and was named one of America’s most inspiring rabbis. The Forward, based in New York, is one of the leading Jewish newspapers in the country.
The submission to nominate Segal came from part-time Aspen resident Larry Gellman, who pointed out how Segal has become an inspiration to many people of the Jewish faith in this region. Segal has energized his congregation with his enthusiasm and the variety of celebrations he offers.
“It’s very gratifying to be recognized for contributions to our community,” Segal said. “I’m also glad the write-up mentions my cantor and wife, Rollin (Simmons), as an integral part of the past four years here. I couldn’t have done this without her. She deserves so much credit for the music she brings to our services. For many people that join us on a regular basis, the music is the connection and brings them to a spiritual place. The variety of music she produces allows people to sing along or simply let the music wash over them.”
Segal learned to tie in the natural beauty of the Roaring Fork Valley with his services. One of the most successful services Segal organized since he’s been in Aspen was two years ago on the second day of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year’s celebration, which he held at the amphitheater at the Maroon Bells.
“We were blown away by the attendance,” said Segal, who writes a monthly column for The Aspen Times. “The year before, we had maybe 40 people at the chapel. When we did it at the Bells, there were close to 200 people and maybe 20 dogs. Many people find their spiritual center and peace in the outdoors. If you can find a way to channel something people are already doing into a Jewish experience, it’s a great opportunity for a successful event and to generate new connections. It would be great if someone who maybe has already written off organized religion sees this honor and decides to be more open-minded and give religion another look.”
The idea of researching and honoring America’s most inspiring rabbis came after a 2013 independent study of American Jews conducted by the Pew Research Center. That study revealed a widespread secularization among young Jews in America.
Pew conducted the survey at the suggestion of Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner, who approached the research group after the Jewish Federations of North America chose in 2010 not to conduct the decennial National Jewish Population Survey it had run in 1990 and 2000. Eisner also served on a committee advising the study.
“Some of this was also a reaction to the annual Newsweek list of top rabbis and other attempts to highlight spiritual leaders,” she said. “It always seemed like it was from the top down, not from the bottom up. We were hearing a lot about the people we already knew a lot about.”
Eisner said that nearly every day, the Forward runs stories that aren’t necessarily positive about the Jewish faith, and she felt it was important to begin highlighting some of the inspirational people who are also Jewish leaders within their communities.
“We’ve been focusing a lot on the challenges to the American rabbinate,” she said. “It is a challenged institution in all sorts of ways and suffering from the same trends that other religious institutions are suffering from. As part of our coverage, we realized we just can’t write about the challenges and criticisms, so let’s try to look for the people that are doing great work all over the country, not just in the big Jewish cities.”
Through research from the Web traffic at the Forward, Eisner could see people were interested in the inspiring-rabbis features. When the Forward ran the first-inspiring rabbis feature in 2013, it spiked its Web traffic to one of the highest marks of 2013. This year, there’s again been strong interest in the stories about the rabbis honored.
“This proves a point,” Eisner said. “We can write a lot of hard-hitting news, but there’s also a deep appetite to just read compelling stories. Stories that move our readers, and not just Jewish readers.”
Staff members sifted through hundreds of nominations and culled the selections down to 45 names. Eisner then made the final call on selecting the 28 rabbis honored this year.
The stories she read were diverse and ranged from inspiring to heartbreaking, stories that did indeed move her and her staff.
“I just love this project,” she said. “It makes me feel good to highlight these stories and show the diversity of the work being done. I think the age range from the nominees was 28 to 81. It’s great to hear from people outside of the big Jewish markets like New York and L.A. It’s very inspiring in many ways.”
Of the 28 rabbis honored, three are from Colorado, including Segal.
“Part of what we do right is we create a space where people feel welcome, where it’s accessible and relevant,” Segal said. “One of my teachers once told me that there’s no rule that religious life in general has to be boring. A lot of people come to expect religion to be institutional, cold, sterile and condescending even, talking about rules and what you can and can’t do rather than be inspired to learn and be supported. Whether it’s through happy or sad events, we want to give people a place they can come to and support one another like a true community.”
“It’s very gratifying to be recognized for contributions to our community.”
Rabbi David Segal