When it comes to faith, Niles Goldstein seems to have it in spades -- at least the faith in his own survival. After all, when the 36-year-old rabbi went on a quest to find God, he didn't play musical synagogues or do a Beatles-style sit-in with the Maharishi. Instead, he set out on a variety of dangerous pilgrimages, ranging from trekking along the unpredictable Silk Road of Central Asia to cruising with federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents through the South Bronx.
Being chased by a ravenous grizzly bear out in the wilderness may seem like an odd approach to exploring the tug-of-war between uncertainty and faith, but Goldstein came away with a deeper understanding of this universal struggle, which he shared with fellow spirituality-seekers at The New Shul, his three-year-old multidenominational congregation in New York's Greenwich Village.
Then came Sept. 11, and with the nation's faith tested to a previously unimaginable degree, Goldstein high-tailed it to Ground Zero.
"A priest colleague used the phrase 'ministry of presence,' and I think that applies to how I was trying to help," he explains. "Just coming together and being there made people believe in the flip side of despair."
Now, from April 19-21, Goldstein will be in Los Angeles for the Faith and Leadership Conference. He will discuss the impact of the attacks on faith -- his own and others' -- as well as the relationship between faith and leadership on both a global and day-to-day level.
"Human nature hasn't changed," says Goldstein of the post-Sept. 11 zeitgeist, "but we got a glimpse of a world that people like us generally don't see. Now, even the most progressive Jews are finding that faith can offer spiritual nourishment in the form of ritual."
Ritual is not a word normally associated with this unconventional hipster, who is most often found in faded jeans and a T-shirt. A karate blackbelt and well-known author, Goldstein co-founded The New Shul, "a downtown shul with a downtown sensibility," along with two Emmy Award-winning theater professionals. Yet, while some have described The New Shul's sensibility as avant-garde, Goldstein sees it another way. "The independent congregation frees us up to honor our tradition and excavate old rituals that have fallen into disuse and can be made relevant today." Rituals like the 2,000-year-old Jewish rain dance, which the rabbi says has residues in Orthodox liturgy, has been reinterpreted by him with chanting and music.
Then there are the Goldstein-led Jewish Outward Bound trips. "These challenges and bonding experiences can be used to teach Jewish values," Goldstein says.
It is not surprising that the poster boy for being "on the edge" is at the forefront of exploring the link between faith and leadership in everything from community activism to entertainment industry moguldom. "Any business entrepreneur knows that the willingness to take risks is critical," Goldstein says. "Kierkegaard said that faith is a leap. When you operate from a place of faith, you risk falling down and making mistakes. But that's far more satisfying than embracing status quo."
As part of the Faith and Leadership Weekend, Rabbi Niles Goldstein will speak on Friday, April 19, at 7:30 p.m., on "Brushes With the Sacred: An Experimental Approach to Mitzvah" at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way; and at the all-day conference on Sunday, April 21 from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Stephen S. Wise Temple, 15550 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 761-8674.