Discovering A Sense Of Belonging


Abigail Pogrebin’s entryway to Judaism is through study — finding teachers, asking questions, engaging in conversations. If there’s a thread connecting her books, articles, public interviews and volunteer work, it’s her tremendous curiosity.

Her latest book, “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew” (Fig Tree Books), is her lively, thoughtful tale of learning about and fully experiencing the cycle of Jewish holidays.

The book was also a deep foray into Jewish communal life: In her research, she consulted more than 60 rabbis around the country, along with organizational leaders and scholars from a variety of backgrounds.

“The Jewish holidays force you again and again to look at how you are living,” she says, reflecting on how writing this book affected her. “I knew the research would be demanding, I knew the learning would be bottomless. What especially changed in the course of researching and experiencing every holiday is the sense of the fragility of life — it’s something that has galvanized and focused me.”

“The Jewish holidays force you again and again to look at how you are living.”

She also came to appreciate the communal nature of Judaism. “In this day and age, when everything is at our fingertips without leaving our apartments, you don’t have to be with other people. But Judaism forces you to show up, and it reminds you what can happen when you’re in a room with other people. I think there’s magic and power in the communal moment of observance.”

For the past three years, Pogrebin has been president of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue — with its 2,300 families and more than 600 on the waiting list — and says that a lot of her leadership style hinges on listening. She meets often with congregants for coffee, hearing directly from them about what matters to them, and what, if anything, is missing in their experience at Central. She sees her role chiefly to support Rabbi Angela Buchdahl and her team and the vision they pursue.

“One of the most profound daily realizations is how much people need their clergy in times of struggle and celebration. Twenty years ago, I would have said that I didn’t need a synagogue. But I was wrong,” she says.

“It’s not just about you. You have to leave space and time and attention beyond your corner of the world.”

Growing up, Pogrebin had no formal Jewish education. Her family would attend a synagogue for the holidays, but not always the same one; she didn’t feel anchored. As an undergraduate at Yale, she felt some stirrings about her Jewishness, took Beginning Hebrew, a Jewish literature seminar and began thinking more seriously about Judaism. A few years later, after she married Skokie, Illinois, native David Shapiro, she felt powerfully at their son’s bris that she wanted to know more about the religion they were now passing on — that was a moment of reckoning.

At around the same time, she began conducting interviews for her book “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish” (Broadway Books), which features profiles of 62 American Jewish luminaries in theater, law, journalism and other fields, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Dustin Hoffman and Nora Ephron, talking about their Jewish identity — a topic that many hadn’t spoken of publicly before. (The book was adapted into an Off-Broadway musical.)

When her interview subjects would express ambivalence about Jewish tradition and observance, or tell her that “Judaism just doesn’t do it” for them, she felt that many had rejected something they hadn’t completely explored.

Those conversations inspired her to examine Judaism more deeply, and she began learning with Rabbi Jennifer Krause. At age 40, Pogrebin had a bat mitzvah. And that led her to convene a regular study with a group of friends led by Rabbi Burton Visotzky of The Jewish Theological Seminary and then Rabbi Shai Held and Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of Mechon Hadar, a traditional egalitarian yeshiva. After attending a friend’s event at Central, she was moved to join and became close with Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, who was then senior rabbi, and his successor, Rabbi Buchdahl.

Did she ever expect to be a synagogue president?

“Never in a million years. But it has been without question one of the most meaningful things in my life, ever.”

Pogrebin is warm, articulate and energetic, and it’s easy to see how she got so many people to engage with her about Judaism in her research. When we met last week, she had just returned from a study mission to Italy with a group from Central, and in the next few days was scheduled to speak about her book in St. Louis, moderate a conversation with George W. Bush’s twin daughters (with her own twin sister, Robin Pogrebin) at Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center, interview Rabbi Yitz and Blu Greenberg on behalf of Limmud NY and then race uptown to hear her mother, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, interview Hillary Clinton at the Streicker Center. She admits to working well in overdrive; most weeks are like that. These days, she’s on the road a lot, speaking about the book in synagogues and JCCs.

“I am living proof that you can come to tradition later in life, and feel that you belong.”

As much as she enjoys traveling, meeting people and being exposed to individuals with different points of view, she’s happy to come home to her family and home on the Upper East Side — where she defected from her West Side roots, in order to be closer to her kids’ school and shul. Now, her son and daughter, ages 20 and 18, are away at college. She describes them as “my greatest ballast and cheerleaders. They have watched me evolve in this exploration without judgment.” Since so many of the holidays have a basis at home, she tried out newly acquired traditions and discussions at their table. What they absorbed, she explains, “is the electricity of some of the ideas in the holidays, and my curiosity and joy in all of this.” She’s pleased that her family feels very much at home at Central.

“I am living proof that you can come to tradition later in life, and feel that you belong.”

For The Jewish Week, Pogrebin has been part of the series of forums the paper sponsors, which convenes important conversations at venues around the city. She has moderated several programs featuring, among others, Rabbi David Wolpe and leading Middle East analyst David Makovsky and “Startup Nation” co-author Dan Senor. The moderator of an acclaimed interview series at JCC Manhattan, she was formerly a broadcast producer at PBS and then for Ed Bradley and Mike Wallace at “60 Minutes.” She’s also the author of “One and the Same” (Doubleday), about growing up as a twin, and the bestselling Amazon Kindle Single, “Showstopper,” recounting her role as a teenager in Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.”

Pogrebin’s Judaism is also based in action. She mentors an eighth grade student at the Storefront Academy in Harlem — they have lunch together weekly — and she serves on the board of the Doe Fund, helping formerly incarcerated homeless men get education, jobs and places to live.

“It’s not just about you,” she says. “You have to leave space and time and attention beyond your corner of the world. That’s the hardest challenge that the tradition is asking of us.”