My “rock ‘n roll rabbi’s” mini-sabbatical will be epic

Randy+Fleisher+and+Bruce+Springsteen.+Photo+courtesy+or+Randy+Fleisher.+

Randy Fleisher and Bruce Springsteen. Photo courtesy or Randy Fleisher.

Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

My rabbi is taking a sabbatical.

Rabbi Randy Fleisher of Central Reform Congregation also happens to be a mentor. He was my first summer camp counselor in 1981, where he made sure I studied for my bar mitzvah instead of going to activities one hour a day. He introduced me to the writings of Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut and the music of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He co-officiated my wedding as a rabbinical student in 1998 and has been there for me every day since.

So, over lunch a year ago, I was not surprised when he told me his plans. My rabbi is taking a sabbatical and following Springsteen on the southern leg of the Boss’ new tour with the E Street Band, his first since the COVID lockdown. Well, maybe it’s really a ‘mini-sabbatical,’ like an extended purposeful vacation.”

“Two weeks, four concerts; reading and writing on the beach in between. A pure solo road trip experience,” said Fleisher. “I’m driving down to Miami, Florida and then I will travel to Tampa, Atlanta, Orlando and back to Miami.”

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Following Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band around the country attending concerts may not be what many would consider a typical rabbi sabbatical.

“I am well aware,” said Fleisher. “Generally, these consist of living for an extended time in Israel, studying at conferences, tending to a spiritual practice, or visiting far-flung Jewish communities. However, I was confident that the experiences, encounters, inspiration, elevation and yes, redemption, that would come my way as I chased the spirits in the night on tour with Bruce would cut to the heart of the very purpose of sabbatical — renewal for myself, for my family life and for my service to the congregation.”

“Fleisher, a Chicago native, was ordained in 2000. He joined CRC in 2002 where he works alongside one of his rabbinic mentors, CRC’s founding rabbi, Susan Talve. Rabbi Randy is known to accompany his services with a guitar slung over his shoulder. He’s known by many as a “rock-and-roll rabbi.”

“I imagined being able to drive from concert to concert, enjoying the freedom and the suspension of time and space via the nature of road tripping, taking in the landscapes, and meeting interesting people along the way. Rolling down the windows and letting the wind blow back my hair, as it were,” said Fleisher.

Fleisher is heading to Miami on Jan. 29th to establish his “base camp” and get ready for the first night of the long-anticipated Springsteen world tour.

“I’ll be in Tampa for the opening night of the tour on Feb. 1. Then I’ll drive to Atlanta for the show on Feb. 3, then back to Orlando for a show and finally back to Miami on Feb. 7th,” said Fleisher. “In between the shows and the road, I plan to beach, read, write and listen to Springsteen music, of course.”

His mini-sabbatical should wrap with a return to St. Louis by mid-February, but his touring is far from over. In March, he will travel to Washington, D.C. to take his 21-year-old son, Gabe, to his first Springsteen concert. Then near the end of the tour, he will attend one more show at the famed Madison Square Garden in New York with an extra day to tour Springsteen’s hometown of Asbury Park, N.J. and its historic boardwalk.

“As is written in the Torah, hineini, I am fully prepared and ready. Let the music, the stories and the transcendence begin!”

Me and the Rabbi, sending our kids to Camp Thunderbird in 2011.

In his own words: “How I found Springsteen”

In 1980, I was a sophomore in high school and already in love with rock music and the ‘counter-culture. I had bought Bruce Springsteen’s latest release, Darkness on the Edge of Town and followed up by gathering up all the albums that preceded it. I couldn’t believe my luck when my buddy Scott told me he had scored 4 tickets to see Bruce at the Uptown Theater in Chicago. It would be my first time seeing The Boss in concert, at an auspicious moment for him, as Springsteen was on the verge of moving from a critically acclaimed artist to a star.

We arrived at the Uptown (capacity 4,000; the next time Springsteen played a concert in Chicago, it was at an arena seating 19,000) with our dates for the evening. Quickly, I was thrilled and transfixed by the muscular and raucous yet also tender and evocative ‘wall of sound,’ Springsteen’s passionate stories about his tumultuous growing up years, and his astounding passionate energy as he leapt from speaker monitors, slid on his knees, danced across the stage and exhorted the crowd to join together as a singular force for joy, healing and redemption. The ending had me over the top, literally weeping along with the soaring drama of Jungleland, and jumping out of my skin during the “Detroit Medley” nod to soul music encore. When it was all over (3 ½ hours later), I knew that I had just experienced the most transcendent spiritual moment of my life to that point. It was very obvious to me that I had not witnessed some show business phoniness, that Springsteen’s commitment was real, his voice utterly authentic. The concert made me feel fully alive in a brand-new way, and I filled up with a sense of expanded horizons and liberation-within-community. It was, as Springsteen often proclaims to his audience, “A rock and roll exorcism/A rock and roll baptism/a rock and roll bar mitzvah, the ministry of rock and roll!” Now, more than 40 years later, I regret that I cannot remember the name of my date that night, but I have definitely never forgotten the first time I experienced the “spirit in the night” of a Bruce Springsteen concert. Springsteen has said, “The spirit of rock n’ roll is that it talks to kids in their secret hearts.” It sure worked for me!

Since that indelible moment, I have seen Bruce Springsteen around a dozen more times, including his slot on the Amnesty International ‘Conspiracy of Hope’ Tour, a solo acoustic concert, Bruce’s 1999 reunion with the E Street Band in the “motherland” (New Jersey), an extra-emotional “Rising” concert in the months after 9/11, a pre-election rally for John Kerry, a dynamic stand at my hometown ballpark Wrigley Field, and the iconic one-person show on Broadway. Even in this era of streaming, I proudly own every one of Springsteen’s recordings.

Today, I am happily married with two wonderful young adult children. By profession I am a rabbi, and I have been serving a dynamic, progressive, urban synagogue in St. Louis, MO for over 20 years. I lead services, officiate weddings and funerals; I marched with my fellow clergy in nearby Ferguson for racial justice. Through all that growing up, I have never lost my belief in the utterly transcendent power of rock music that began so long ago, back when I was a teen. I am definitely what Springsteen playfully calls a “prisoner of rock and roll,” and I’m here to tell you, I seem to be serving a life sentence!

Read the entire essay here.