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Our Personal Journeys, Part 1
Episode 920th May 2021 • Conversation with the Rabbi • Rabbi Michael Beyo | PHX.fm
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In this episode, Rabbi Michael Beyo and Dr. Adrian McIntyre talk openly about their religious and cultural backgrounds, their families, and their individual journeys through (and beyond) the belief systems they inherited from their respective communities.

Conversation with the Rabbi is a project of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, neighborhood organization that has served individuals and families inclusive of all races, religions, and cultures since 1972. Visit us online at https://www.evjcc.org

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B online radio station and podcast studio in Phoenix, Arizona. Learn more at https://phx.fm

Transcripts

Adrian McIntyre:

From PHX.fm, this is Conversation with the Rabbi, featuring open, honest dialogue and sometimes unconventional perspectives on the world we all share.

Adrian McIntyre:

Welcome to another Conversation with the Rabbi. I’m Adrian McIntyre. Our host for this conversation, as always, is Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of the East Valley JCC. Hi Rabbi.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Hello, Adrian. How are you? Good morning.

Adrian McIntyre:

Good morning. I am well, thanks. Today’s conversation is a little different because you’ve decided that rather than bring a guest on for this one, you and I should talk to each other about our own experiences. Our own spiritual journey. A lot of this is informing the conversations we’ve had here on the show, and it would be interesting to go maybe a little more personal than we do sometimes when we have guests. I’ll start with a question for you about that, which is: as someone who leads a very large organization that’s connected to a large and diverse community, you must find yourself at times walking a thin line as a leader between what’s in the best interest of the people you serve -- both at the JCC -- the staff, the various folks who are participating in programs and so on, and the broader community -- and then your own personal thoughts, convictions, needs, and so on. Get us a little bit into that world. What’s it like to lead the organization you lead, and what’s that like for you personally?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah. It’s a very good question and it’s a very difficult answer because it’s not a direct path. I guess it’s a lot of trial and error. There are certain things that absolutely I do and I lead as the leader of this organization, as a public figure, as the rabbi, or as a CEO here, that in my private life I deal with very differently. Like for example, at the J I have a policy that we don’t talk politics. So this takes away a lot of the problems. But for anybody that knows me, anybody that’s spent some time with me, they know that my politics are complex and you cannot summarize them in one sentence. I’m not a typical Republican. I’m not a typical Democrat. I’m not a typical Liberal. I’m not a typical Conservative. It’s complex. I’m a complex human being. I also think the fact that I was not born in this country, and I became an American citizen, and I accepted the values of this country, makes me more complex in my outlook because I was not raised with a specific American party line. So it’s definitely more complex.

Adrian McIntyre:

Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. One of the things that I’ve thought about here for sure is, for all of us that have a longer history. This is the polite way of saying it, we’re older than the kids these days. We have had many different engagements in different parts of the world, many different experiences. And although, I think I know you and I from some of our conversations, come at things very differently with very different commitments and very different interpretations. I also know that we’re able to talk about them because we’re bringing this certain richness and depth and diversity of our own backgrounds. We’ve arrived at this point with a ... and we’re not done evolving our outlook, our perspective. And yet, if I think about you as an immigrant, as a new citizen of the United States of America, sort of being dropped into the middle of where we are today, this would be an incredibly dislocating kind of experience because there’s so much rhetoric that makes it hard sometimes to find what’s underneath. Where are the foundations on which we stand and from where we can have these kind of productive dialogues and even disagreements.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah. I think it’s absolutely true that it’s difficult to find today people that are willing to have a conversation. People are happy having a Tweet. And they want to, even ... some people want to run a country based on Tweets, or foreign policy or domestic policy based on Tweets. Whether you agree with it or not, it doesn’t matter. You cannot ... it doesn’t work that way. And it doesn’t matter whether I like a certain Tweet or dislike a certain Tweet. But the Tweet mentality or the Facebook mentality, where you can have a conversation on Facebook. No you can’t. You cannot fully express your feelings and emotions and the depth of a conversation on Facebook. Or on Twitter for that matter, or TikToK. And I think that because we are a little bit older than our kids and maybe because we still remember a time when we did not have these technologies and people actually got together in a coffee shop to discuss, to talk about these important matters. I think that’s maybe why you and I, even though we come from different backgrounds and we also have maybe -- for sure on certain topics -- different political views, a different understanding of what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s even real. But I think we approach it with a desire to learn from each other and that each one of us doesn’t necessarily have all of the truth. There is a wonderful quote from ... I think he was a Christian priest or reverend, Ephraim Gottlieb, if I’m not remembering correctly [It was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing]. And he said, referring to God, “If God were to offer me the entire truth in his right hand and the perpetual quest for truth in his left hand, and he were to ask me to choose which hand do I want, I would humbly take the left because truth is God’s alone and our goal is the perpetual quest for truth, with a corollary of never really getting there.” And I think that we live in a society today, that everybody feels that they hold the truth and it can be expressed in 72 pixels, or letters, or ...

Adrian McIntyre:

220 characters.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Exactly.

Adrian McIntyre:

Well, I think there’s something here that’s worth connecting to our own personal experience. Because I agree with you that the dogmatic insistence on “the Truth is my truth, and what I speak is THE Truth” does a real disservice, not just to society but to thought. And anyone who has been serious about engaging in questions, whether the avenue they engaged in them was mystical or scientific or historical-critical study of texts to unravel the mysteries within them, the interpretive mode and so on. The idea that you could have arrived at a simplistic answer would be deeply offensive to anyone who’s devoted themselves to the inquiry. And I think one way to characterize ... I don’t think it’s technology versus tradition in that simple way. I really do think it is: do you embrace the inquiry or are you trying to shortcut it? And then when you’re trying to shortcut it, we have to start talking about power relations. Because if you’re an insignificant person in the grand scheme of things -- as by the way I would assert we all are fundamentally -- then that’s okay at some level for you to have become convinced of your own hyperbole, right? But when you are leading a community, a country, a global conversation of any kind, this is where that becomes deeply troubling. Because the times in history when a large group of people have become coalesced around a single unifying idea as if it was the only truth have been some of the darkest moments of our human experience, not the brightest ones. The Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution were not moments of simplicity and clarity where everything was reduced to a singular monadic idea. They were moments of incredible diversity of opinion and discussion and debate. And the disproving of one’s ideas was what was driving the enterprise. We’ve gotten away from that.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I’m always very wary and in a certain sense, I distance myself from people that claim to hold THE Truth. They tend to be, as you said, history has shown us that people and movements and groups of people that believe that they hold the truth can be very dangerous. And we have seen those both coming from the scientific community, the religious community, political communities, they come from all walks of life. So it’s not in my opinion that a certain disciplines lead you to be more monastic than others. It’s just are you willing to accept that there is so much more out there that we don’t know? And as you said, that we’re all dust. Yes. I always quote, I often quote Abraham in Genesis says, that in Hebrew, it says [reciting a Hebrew phrase], “I am just dust.” And referring that I am nothing. I am barely here for a few years on this earth and you have the audacity to think that you have the truth? It’s like, it’s laughable.

Adrian McIntyre:

Yeah.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

It’s really laughable, but bringing it back ... So that’s why I’m bringing it back to your initial question. Because and since I do not think for a moment that I hold the truth. This tension or some tensions that exists between my private life and how I lead the community are much lessened because I approach everything that I do even in my own private life, not necessarily as the ultimate truth. And I am fully aware of my faults. I’m fully aware of my mistakes, and I’m fully aware that I’m not always consistent. When it comes to the community that I lead, I am a humble servant of my community. And therefore I need to do what is right for the community, not what is right for me. And that’s how I try to lead the JCC by looking at what I believe, together with my staff and the board, of what is the good for the community, whether in my own private life, I agree with it or not.

Adrian McIntyre:

It’s fascinating for me to hear you speak like this, because it directly reminds me of my own childhood experiences and my father. I was born into a Seventh-day Adventist Christian family. My great grandfather had been a Methodist minister. He was the kind who was like a turnaround pastor, a turnaround CEO. He would be sent into churches, mostly in the Northeast and Ohio, Pennsylvania, several deeply Scottish immigrant Methodist communities. When a church was struggling either, they had lost their way, the members weren’t showing up, whatever. And he would whip them into shape, get them fired up again, get them pointed in the right direction, get them paying their tithe again. Whatever it was that was involved. But he was also the kind of personality that they could only tolerate for 18 months to two years. So he would be brought in to whip the church into shape, and then he would move on to the next one while they had a more stable operating CEO/pastor to run the thing, right? Much like we see in business committee now. A startup CEO is not necessarily the temperament, right? Of somebody running an established company. His son, my grandfather, was also a Methodist minister for the first part of his life, but he was more the community builder. He was the one who would nurture a community and really grow the church and grow the connections between people. And he really took that kind of nurturing pastoral role very seriously. And then his son, my dad, did the same thing but took it in an unorthodox direction. Instead of leading churches, he started a radio station in southern California. When he started it two years before I was born, it was a one room on a college campus. The annual budget for the radio station was $3000 for the year. And it was only on the air from 3:00 PM until 10:00 PM, five days a week. It was a little college radio station, but he grew that ministry -- it was a Christian radio station -- over the next 35 years to being one of the largest independent nonprofit Christian radio stations in the country with ...

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Is it still in existence?

Adrian McIntyre:

It’s still there. He moved on, but KSGN Radio became a shining example of what’s possible for growing a community and sharing a message and so on. So that little history aside, here’s the thing that really struck me as a boy growing up in this environment, and my family and the radio station were one and the same. I mean, I spent as much time at the station as I did at home or at school. And then our family also had our own radio show starting when I was five. And so we were recording a show, producing a show every week.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Wow.

Adrian McIntyre:

But here’s the thing. I started to observe the two faces of my father, the one where he put on his serving the community persona, which was very warm, charismatic, he would sit down with and pray intensely with little old ladies who needed guidance and support. He was not an ordained minister, but this was a ministry of sorts. And then I would see my dad at home increasingly the philosophical skeptic, increasingly questioning the pillars of this faith that he would then put on a suit and tie and very happily speak from within. And as a boy, I have to tell you, this wasn’t particularly heartwarming. In fact, it started to make me very cynical. I started to say, “Well, if this is just a costume, if this is just a mask you wear, then what’s real? What’s true?” And there was never any of the gross abuses that we often hear about, the embezzling money, the prostitute, none of this kind of sordid stuff. It was really in the line with what we were talking about, this kind of crisis of belief, crisis of faith until eventually he left the radio station and has not had a role in public life for the last 25 years. It’s interesting. And then I’ll share my ... when we get around to, it’s not about me, but my own sense of trying to find my way in a world where there was all this clarity and all this certainty ... until there wasn’t. And then I was left trying to make sense of it for myself. You must have had something similar. I mean, obviously different in circumstances, but talk us through your trajectory from your ultra-Orthodox roots through to the more contemporary kind of openness that you embrace.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

There is a quote. I think that, “When you look deep into the abyss, the abyss looks ...

Adrian McIntyre:

Looks back.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Back. [laughs] I grew up in a household where religion was very important. And at the same time, there were a lot of tension about religion between my father and my mother. And without going into too much of my family history, my mom and I did not always see things the same and have not had a good relationship for most of my life. And I had a very good relationship with my father. Although my father was the typical medieval father figure that he’s all loving, but what he says is the law. So as long as I was a fine with that, he was all fine and he was fine for me. And because that was also a way for me to connect to my father and that was for me also way maybe subconsciously to distance myself from my mother.

Adrian McIntyre:

By following your dad’s guidance. Yes.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Exactly. So I grew up in this environment where religious is important and then I, on my own chose to be much more passionate about religion. And I remember that I would dedicate every vacation that I had when I was still in the middle school or high school, every vacation that I had, I used to go to a rabbinical seminary to study instead of taking vacation. Instead of going to the, I don’t know, to a resort or beach with my parents or vacation. I would have to study more. And I was passionate about studying and wanting to learn more, wanting to connect with God.

Adrian McIntyre:

Reflecting back on that, how much would you say -- and I’m sure there’s some of both -- how much was driven by that inquiry, that desire for connection with God. And how much was driven by the fact that this was an accepted way out of your family dynamic. If you were going there, it was okay that you stepped out of the family and you didn’t have to experience some of the unpleasantness that you might’ve been experiencing.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

It was not also much of stepping out of the family. It was like a shield that I could use and that I was using to protect myself from my mom, because by being more observant and more religious, I had the protection of my father.

Adrian McIntyre:

You know, it’s fascinating in a very different ... I mean, yeah I had this similar thing with the radio station. I actually was able to use it as the shield. Because I had been working there since I was 14, but then when I was 16 and could have a full independent employee position, I took the weekend shifts at the radio station. So I had to be there instead of going to church with the family. I was actually at work, but it was at the radio station where I had to broadcast live church services from a number of different locations and so on. So it was okay with my mother that I wasn’t with them because after all I was still there, but it was absolutely a shield for me. It was how I started to separate myself from the expectation that I had to be with them at church, which at that point I was no longer willing to do.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah, I needed that shield from my mom. My mom was and she still is not well, and I grew up in an abusive, physical, emotional, mentally abusive environment. And it’s very difficult to grow up like that and saw the way religion became my escape. And it was easy because we were living in a very religious, ultra-Orthodox environment where all my friends came from even more observant families than we were. So absolutely religion became my escape. I remember that when I went to this high school, which was a Jewish high school, but not religious high school, but every day after a school, I would study with my rabbi for three or four hours every day. And that was awesome because that mean that I didn’t need it to go home when school ended. I went to study more because going home meant being home with my mom. And that was something that I was trying to avoid as much as possible. And so as soon as I could, which was when I was about 15 years old, I left. I left home to go to study in a rabbinical seminary. Now, if you asked me now to go back in time and tell them and ask, “How much was that to escape the family dynamics, or how much was that my true conviction?” It’s difficult to go back in time and say, 50-50, 70-60, whatever. But at a time, absolutely, I was fully embedded in what it’s called ultra-Orthodoxy. And I believed in it wholeheartedly and not only in ultra-Orthodoxy, I was embedded in a Hasidic group called Chabad-Lubavitch, which are even today are one of the most prominent Hasidic groups in the world. They do a lot of outreach to other Jews to engage them into what they believe is the true path of Judaism. And I was wholeheartedly embedded in that. That was my life. That was what I wanted. That was what I believed. And anybody that was not like me was wrong.

Adrian McIntyre:

Isn’t it interesting that we started this conversation with reflecting on the dogmatic nature of discourse in contemporary politics and how uncomfortable we both are now with those who insist on the truth of their framework?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah.

Adrian McIntyre:

And yet how much that was a part of your life. Mine too, but I was watching other people do it. I didn’t myself follow down that path. I peeled off a little earlier in the trajectory. But very much aware .... I mean, Seventh-day Adventism is a missionary tradition within the Protestant family, if you will. It’s one of several. So there were Adventists all over the world. Now, they’re not the door-knocking, pamphlet kind. They conduct their missionary outreach through two primary avenues, education and healthcare. So there are often Adventist hospitals or clinics in many parts of the world where they’re serving underserved communities, which by the way, that’s great.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Sure.

Adrian McIntyre:

I mean, I certainly got from that exposure early in my life, a lot of what then guided me later in my own humanitarian activities. But it is connected to this idea that there is one truth, we have it, and at some point if you want to be saved, in the parlance of Christianity, you will need to have it too. You will need to embrace this point of view or you will not, in fact, be saved. And while they’re not as hellfire and brimstone about it as some of the other Protestants, the implicit underpinnings are still there. Like, you’re not going to end up in the good place, you’re going to end up in the bad place, is the basic framework.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah. So I am now 15 years old. I am learning in a rabbinical seminary in London, and I love it. I love it. I am taking it all in. I am embracing it. I am like, “Ah, it’s wonderful.” It’s wonderful, until it stops being wonderful.

Adrian McIntyre:

Before we get to that, take us into that scene for a minute. So you’re 15 years old. You’re living in a city far away from your family. What are the conditions you’re living in? Who’s around you? Are you with other young men?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

So, I am in a rabbinical seminary. It’s a wonderful, nice ... relatively nice. I mean, it’s not a five-star hotel, but it’s a nice dorm, nice facilities, I have... There is the dorm. I think we were about 40 students in a two different classes. It was the first year and the second year. And then there were some other older guys that they were there as well. And we had three rabbis. There was the head rabbi and then two other main rabbis. And we would wake up in the morning around, I believe, seven. We would go to the mikveh every day. That’s the ritual bath, ritual immersion in a purifying bath every morning. And then we would study for about an hour, mystical teachings and Hasidic teachings. Then we would pray. Then there was breakfast, and then we would study for a few hours the Talmud. Then we would have lunch, I believe like maybe another hour of free time. And then we would come back and study more Talmud and then we will study Jewish law, and then it would be dinner and then evening prayers. And then in the evening, we would study more Hasidic teachings and mystical teachings. And that would go on until I would say, roughly, I don’t know, nine o’clock at night, something like that. And it was wonderful. Well, it was wonderful. Once a week then, because Chabad is an intra-Jewish missionary group, on Friday, in pairs of two we would go on different parts of the city to find Jewish people, either in the streets or businesses where we would go. And we would talk to them a little bit about Judaism, ask them if they wanted to wear the phylactery, the tefillin, and try to lead them little by little to accept to do a mitzvah, you know either lighting Shabbat candles, or observing the laws of Kosher or taking on some elements of Shabbat, et cetera, et cetera. This is going out in the streets. And I remember even standing in the street and asking people, “Excuse me, sir. Are you Jewish? Would you like to wear the tefillin?” And people say, “Yes, no, whatever.” It’s was an experience.

Adrian McIntyre:

Absolutely.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

It was a full experience.

Adrian McIntyre:

In part two of this conversation, let’s pick up here. Because you’ve hinted at something coming in the narrative that “everything is wonderful until it isn’t.” So when we resume this conversation, we’ll pick up with the story of how this exuberant immersive experience you were having as a 15 year old led to what’s next.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Perfect. Thank you very much, Adrian.

Adrian McIntyre:

If you enjoyed today’s show, please subscribe to Conversation with the Rabbi on your favorite podcast app. You can also find the latest episodes online at ConversationWithTheRabbi.com. For all of us here at PHX.fm, I’m Adrian McIntyre. Thanks for listening. And please join us for the next Conversation with the Rabbi.