A group of adventurers arrived at Morgur’s Mound, an archaeological site ringed with dragon bones. They found a treasure, scooped it up and made a run for it — but suddenly the ground began to shake.
“Four animated thunder beast skeletons erupt from the mound and attack you,” the dungeon master said. “You desecrated a holy site, and these are the guardians of the holy site. Everybody roll initiative.”
“Are you allowed to roll on Shabbos?” a player wondered, breaking the fourth wall of the game.
“You’re allowed to roll on Shabbos,” another answered, “but you’re not allowed to pick up a pencil and write down your hit points.”
So began a recent session of classic fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.
This group of eight D&D players are all rabbis. They live in Nevada, Ohio, New York and one lives in Arizona: Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley Rabbi Herschel ‘Brodie’ Aberson.
They’ve formed a friendship that has transcended denominational lines, providing general support during the isolating pandemic and a sounding board for the challenges they face serving their communities.
“The ability to play D&D, not just with rabbis, but with friends from all over the place, has been a key part of maintaining my own sanity, especially during this pandemic,”Aberson told Jewish News.
The rabbi’s D&D group formed in August 2020, and Aberson learned about it through a live-action-role-playing-game friend, who is also a rabbi. The eight rabbis in the group represent a cross-section of American Judaism, representing the major denominations, from Reconstructionist to Orthodox.
To Rabbi Shais Rishon, a prominent Black Orthodox rabbi and writer in New City, New York, the group represents a place where everyone can be their unfiltered, imperfect selves.
“This is a space where it‘s like, hey, there are things that we don’t know, and it’s OK to say that in this space without it being seen as a knock on our scholarship, or our knowledge base, or our authenticity,” he said.
Reform Rabbi Erik Uriarte, of Temple Israel in Lawrence, New York, said board game meetups had been “a big social outlet” for him, so when COVID closed off the opportunity to attend them, he was excited to join the D&D group.
“Rabbis are nerds,” Uriarte said when asked why a group of rabbis would want to play D&D together. “You kind of have to be if you want to do this job, so there is a lot of overlap with sci-fi, fantasy and gaming.”
Emily Dana, a third-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, said the group has shown her “it is possible to have people from incredibly different backgrounds be able to converse and debate in a friendly way with each other.”
Reform Rabbi Jonathan Freirich, the group’s dungeon master said the eight make “a supportive group of friends and colleagues.” His 13-year-old son, Jude, is also a member of the group.
For Rabbi Sara Zober, who is also Reform, playing D&D with her fellow rabbis has given her something to look forward to during the pandemic. In addition to leading Temple Sinai in Reno, Nevada, with her rabbi husband, Zober has four young children. She said she eagerly anticipates the game sessions, when she can shed her public persona and lose herself for a few hours in her character, a dwarven barbarian named Cadha Stoneshield.
“We all look for places where we’re not the rabbi, or where we’re not ‘Rabbi’ as our first name, and finding those spaces has been even harder since the pandemic because many of us are isolated,” Zober said. “This lets me be the ragey, shoot-em-up action figure that I wish I could be sometimes.” She added that she appreciates the relaxed atmosphere, where “if I drop an F-bomb, we’re not going to have a board meeting about it.”
Rabbi Emily Cohen, spiritual leader of the West End Synagogue in Manhattan, said her half-rogue character, Skreech, “has a little bit of me in it, being off the beaten track slightly from what people might expect.” She is a Reconstructionist rabbi and a self-identified queer millennial.
Aberson said the way the group engages with each other shows that denominational divides are more human-made than structural.
Most have never met each other in person, and the group was starting to talk about an in-person get together before the delta variant emerged as a threat.
“We were almost to the point where we were like, ‘OK, there’s a little hope at the end of the tunnel; then we had pandemic 2.0 happen,” Aberson said.
After the High Holiday season ends, he intends to introduce a D&D game to some students in the TBSEV religious school.
“Temple Beth Sholom is back to in-person on Sundays, and I haven’t had a week where a kid in the older class hasn’t come up to me and said, ‘Hey Rabbi, when are we going to do the D&D thing?’”
He said it’s a chance to have fun with the kids, and it’s a chance for kids to be social together.
“Role playing games are a really great way to help people get outside themselves and interact socially with other people,” Aberson said. They create an opportunity for people to take social risks that they would not be comfortable doing otherwise.
For now, the rabbis say they will continue to play on Zoom as their schedules permit. There is a waiting list of those who want to join their sessions, Freirich said, but “the group is as big as it can get right now.”
Back at Morgur’s Mound, the adventurers fought off the thunder beast skeletons with surprising efficiency with the help of some lucky dice rolls.
“So you have your relic, and you survived the thunder beasts’ assault,” the dungeon master told the group. “What are you guys going to do now?” JN