Rabbi Mark Robbins

I’ve loved hearing people’s life stories as long as I can remember. As a rabbi, the passion became a profession – listening to people’s stories, validating their experiences, capturing their narratives at the end of life for family and friends, and linking their stories to our flourishing story as a Jewish people going back to the time of Moses — our greatest life storyteller. And now, I create jewishlifestory, so you can walk in Moses’ footsteps, vitally alive, preserving your stories, legacies and lessons for your children and grandchildren.


My jewishlifestory in brief

I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island (USA), and remain today a proud New Englander.  From the beginning, family, Jewish community and Israel were at the center of my existence.

I relished family occasions – Shabbat, holidays, smachot  (happy occasions), and other get-togethers. I savored the stories of my grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and parents.  The relationship between my father and grandfather running a small textile mill.  How, in World War I, my grandfather survived the crushing poverty of Jerusalem and then Vienna.  My grandmother’s correspondence, in Hebrew, with her father in the mid 1920’s – she a teen in Lithuania, he in Brooklyn preparing the way for his family’s immigration.

I remember the way family members told stories.  The wistful, nostalgic, sometimes sad and other times happy looks on their faces.  The rushed excitement or the pregnant pauses of their words.  I was always ready with follow-up questions.

Their stories became mine, part of my self-understanding.  The stories connected me to the family members, to the world, and to the heritage of an exceptional people.  In the company of family and community, I never felt alone.

My parents taught my two older sisters and me how to be mensches.  They modeled a serious but joyful approach to Jewish observance and sent us to Jewish day schools and summer camps.

I was an introverted child grounded in the old, worn-in, and comfortable. As a kid and teen, I went to school, did my homework and played sports all afternoon.  Yet I was always excited about the news and things new – and would write about them as a columnist and then editor of my high school newspaper.  I also loved the novelty in traveling.  I remember watching my first bit of Israeli television in 1981 — watching the Space Shuttle Columbia touch down after its inaugural mission.  Going to Israel was life-changing, and pointed me eastward.

I later received my B.A. from Harvard College.  College was a bumpy ride – outside of my delightful junior year abroad in Israel.  Harvard unwrapped for me a world both of possibility and limitation, of thrilling diversity and parochial prejudice.  Both in the classroom and in extra-curricular venues, I sharpened my understanding of American history and politics, and honed my writing and interview skills.  In 1988, I remember vividly taking the bus home to Providence in order to cast my first US Presidential vote – for Michael Dukakis.  Oh well.

I continued to refine my writing after college – first soliciting contributions for a campaign in Texas, then drafting diplomatic correspondence and op-eds as an international relations associate in Washington, and then as a restless rabbinical student in Manhattan.

Rabbinical school – particularly my extensive training as a hospital chaplain – taught me how to listen, to validate others and to elicit their feelings.  I am most proud of my role as pastor in my 10 years in the rabbinate, first as a campus rabbi at Georgetown University, then as a congregational rabbi in Philadelphia.

In the congregation, I derived tremendous satisfaction from working with seniors to review their lives and taking families through the process of death and mourning.  Individuals and families regularly complimented me on my ability to set them at ease, draw out their stories, and then articulate their narratives – in eulogies, divrei torah (sermons), and inspirational charges at happy occasions.  Through these experiences, I understood, better than ever, the irrepressible drive of human beings to pass on their stories, their legacies, and their values.

Better then, I thought, why not help people review their lives, chart their futures, and preserve their legacies when they are healthily in life?  That’s what brings me now to jewishlifestory and the shifted career that I have begun as an immigrant to Israel.

My wife Amy and I reviewed our own jewishlifestories, exhaustively, as we decided on aliyah.  We long shared the dream of moving to Israel, and we turned the dream into reality after two intensive years of reflection and planning.  We arrived in the summer of 2009, along with our two children, Adina and Coby.

The process of absorption still goes on, and will for some time.  So many transitions, in such a brief time – but also the pleasure of being in Israel, living according to the Jewish calendar, and seeing our kids become Hebrew speakers.  It’s truly thrilling.  The stories we have from our first year and a half are legion.

In my free-time  I love to write (surprise, surprise) — both poetry and prose.  Helped by the wonders of modern communication, I remain a passionate American sports fan.  I love to walk the quaint back streets and terraced hillside pathways of Modi’in, with only a fleece on in the middle of winter!  I do not miss the cold and snow of the American Northeast. And stealing away with a book — historical fiction and current affairs are my favorites — still remains my best guarantor of a good night sleep.

So that’s a bit about me.

How about you, and your jewishlifestory?

Mark Robbins

Pictures (top to bottom):  me;  Coby, Amy, Adina and I in Haifa, 2008;  Adina and Coby at the Kibbutz Degania chocolate factory, Purim, 2010;  Bubby Yetta and Adina, 2005;  cousins Shana and Eli, at cousin Josh’s wedding, 2005;  Dad Arthur and Coby, at Coby’s bris, 2004;  evening view from our apartment in Modi’in, August 2009

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