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A memoir of becoming, To Build a Brave Space takes the reader on one rabbi’s journey of self-discovery and intellectual evolution—from a free-spirited liberal teenager to the leader of a large suburban congregation, through several national and global crises and countless personal experiences.
When I was a boy, I told my mother I wanted to become a rabbi on a motorcycle. This was a joke in our family for many years. As a young man, despite my love of Israel and a strong spiritual and cultural connection to Judaism, I would not have believed that my own childhood prediction would become a reality. And yet, for over twenty-five years, I have served large synagogue congregations and shepherded hundreds of families through unspeakable tragedy, unfettered joy, and complicated times in our country’s history.
This book is a reflection on where I came from and how I got to my current place as the Senior Rabbi of a Temple, B’nai Jeshurun of Short Hills, NJ. Not only have I grown and changed professionally from my early days of rabbinical school, but my philosophy on how to lead a community and how to bring people together during trying times has evolved over many years of trial and error. My hope is to inspire other clergy and people in general to find a way to help their communities thrive, even during our current climate of fractured politics and overt hostility among one another.
About the Author
Matthew D. Gewirtz has served as the Senior Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, the largest synagogue in New Jersey, for sixteen years. He serves as the President of the Coalition of Religious Leaders for the State of New Jersey.
A regular contributor to a number of publications, he is also the author of The Gift of Grief: Finding Peace, Transformation, and Renewed Life after Great Sorrow.
He appears as a religious commentator on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and CNN’s State of the Union. For several years, he served as a tri-anchor of PBS’s A Matter of Faith with a Bishop, an Imam and a Rabbi.
He is married to Lauren Rutkin, the director of a philanthropic family foundation. They are the proud parents of Jake, Talia, and Sadie. They reside in Maplewood, New Jersey.
“An inherently interesting, insightful, informative, entertaining, well-written, and ultimately inspiring life story, To Build a Brave Space: The Making of a Spiritual First Responder by Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz will be of special appeal to readers with an interest in Contemporary Judaic Memoirs.” — Midwest Book Review
“Clergy have a front row to the most intense moments of people's lives, like marriage and birth, death and divorce. And yet there are very few excellent memoirs by clergy (maybe it's because they spend so much time writing sermons). So it's especially auspicious to get this touching, thoughtful book, in which a leading rabbi candidly discusses his own journey, from his own childhood as an indifferent student through his years as a spiritual first responder to 9/11, COVID, and more.” — Mark Oppenheimer, author of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood
“A memoir, a lesson and a deeply personal meditation on being a spiritual leader in a time of polarization and successive crises. Matt Gewirtz reaches beyond his pulpit to touch his reader’s souls.” — Rabbi David Wolpe, Senior Rabbi, Sinai Temple, Los Angeles
“Matthew Gewirtz’s To Build a Brave Space is an insightful, honest and ultimately hopeful memoir of the journey of a rabbi through unprecedented times. His vulnerability and humor in storytelling only deepen his humanity. Prepare to be inspired by this authentic portrait of the joys and trials of a life of service and spiritual leadership.” — Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Senior Rabbi, Central Synagogue, NYC
“When the creators of Rabbinic Judaism conceived of a synagogue and its ideal leader, they had in mind Matt Gewirtz. A man of compassion and learning, probing thoughtfulness and commensurate wisdom and remarkable leadership in all seasons, Rabbi Gewirtz is beloved and revered by seemingly all in his community. In this remarkable memoir/reflection, readers everywhere can do what his congregants have for a quarter century¾learn from and grow with a master.” — Mark Gerson, Chairman of United Hatzalah and Author of The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life
“Writing from the intersection of spiritual autobiography and Jewish wisdom literature, Matt Gewirtz points us toward a better future, and offers real tools for how to build it. A wise and beautiful gift from a gifted religious leader.” — Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, President of CLAL
“Rabbi Gewirtz’s telling of his journey to the rabbinate, his emergence as a community leader, and his arrival at the ‘radical center’ is engaging, heart-warming, and inspiring. In it, we can see ourselves reflected through the prism of his experiences from the mean streets of 1970s New York City to navigating COVID-19 quarantines just last year. We each need ‘To Build a Brave Space’¾now more than ever.” — Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback, Senior Rabbi, Stephen S. Wise Temple, Los Angeles
“Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz’s journey to become a spiritual first responder is a story of hope and inspiration. Through his gifted and evocative writing, we learn intimately what it means to be a Rabbi living and leading in the 21st century, helping us to aim higher and perhaps even to build a brave space of our own in the difficult and challenging world we inhabit. I loved his deeply personal life stories! To Build a Brave Space is a book you will want to read more than once and gift to your friends and their friends.” — Rabbi Sydney Mintz, Temple Emanuel, San Francisco
“I am a HUGE fan of Rabbi Matt Gewirtz and have had my life enriched by his wisdom and friendship. I am not Jewish and yet I can say the Rabbi's transcendent spiritual clarity, practical moral mentoring, and unwavering work for healing and justice has inspired me and so many. To Build a Brave Space is an invaluable look into his life and the growth of a young man into a spiritual leader. For anyone interested in living a good life¾in being a light worker¾there is much to gain from this book.” — Senator Cory Booker
“Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz is an important thinker and spiritual voice in this time of growing division in our country. As Co-Chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, I have worked hard to find common ground in Congress, and Rabbi Gewirtz’s focus on the spiritual grounding for our work to find the best in each other and seek ways to work together is a valuable message for our fractured nation.” — Congressman Josh Gottheimer