If you look at Rabbi Yehoshua Duskis’ background, you might reasonably have predicted that he would become a religious leader.
Duskis, a new rabbi at Elkins Park’s Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies, grew up at Moshav Mevo Modi’im, a communal village in Israel founded by the renowned Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, whom Duskis’ father, Moshe, played music with as part of the band, Moshav.
Moreover, Duskis’ grandfather on his mother’s side is Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who was one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal Movement and led its P’nai Or congregation in Philadelphia for more than 10 years.
And yet, as Duskis, 34, tells it, becoming a rabbi was far from inevitable.
His parents identified strongly with Carlebach, who was Orthodox and known as “The Singing Rabbi,” but gave Duskis latitude to decide how observant a lifestyle he wanted to live, he said. That freedom forced him to decide at various points in his life between a path that would deepen his connection to Judaism and one that could lead him to a less observant life.
“I was going with the flow like everyone else but then I went to the side of the river and held onto a branch and said, ‘Wait a minute, where is the river taking me?’ ”
When he was 8, Duskis’ family left the moshav located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem because his father hoped to expand a window treatment business in the United States. That change was illuminating, Duskas said, providing his first glimpse into different ways of life.
He moved from the village, which was like living with “one big family” with 40 homes, first to Orange County, Calif., and then to Atlanta, where his family lived almost an hour away from any traditional Jewish community.
That distance made it hard for the family to live a strictly observant lifestyle, “but in our house we tried to have that as much as possible,” said Duskis, who started this week at his new job and lives in the suburban neighborhood with his wife, Rochel, and four children, ages 3 to 9.
Once in the United States, Duskis’ father taught him how to play guitar and he started taking karate lessons at a local studio. He has since recorded two albums and become a double black belt.
When it came time for high school, his parents were facing financial hardship so they gave Duskis, the second oldest of six children, a choice: He could either attend a public school in Atlanta, or he could continue at the Orthodox Jewish school — but to do so, he would have to find a job and help pay tuition.
He started working for his father in order to attend the private school.
“Unless you are Abraham, who was able to go against the whole world’s influence, you have to choose to be around the right people. If I want to be a public school-type person, then that’s where I’ll go, but I realized, ‘I don’t want to be that,’ ” he said.
Some years later, Duskis again arrived at a crossroads. After graduating high school and spending a year at a yeshiva in Israel, Duskis completed his first year at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He was planning to become a doctor but his mother sensed “some slight depression” and advised her son to return to Israel for a few months, which he did.
He ultimately landed at Beth Medrash Govoha, a yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J., where he spent 10 years studying. In 2012, he became an ordained rabbi.
Now Duskis is taking all his experiences— listening to his father play with Rabbi Carlebach; admiring the style of his grandfather, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi; practicing mindfulness in the dojo; learning at the yeshivas in New Jersey and Israel — and hoping to make an impact at Etz Chaim, an Orthodox center that provides educational and spiritual programming.
The rabbi, who will lead youth and family activities, said he is still planning his programming but is considering activities such as latte and music sessions, father and son karate classes and painting classes.
“I want to use the talents that I have as a medium to help people build relationships with one another and with God,” Duskis said.
He may have made tough choices and given up his plans to become a doctor, he said, but he still wants to help heal people.
“Physically, I want people to feel good. I want people to feel happy,” he said. “In the same way that there are physical ailments, there are spiritual ailments. Really, all I did is shift a little bit, one step to the right, and refocus that shift of helping people.”