There’s a lot of “kid” left in Neil Amswych, who at 41 retains some of the boyish good looks that helped him land acting jobs in commercials and films while a lad growing up in England.
He’s a self-professed “Star Wars” nut – a one-time runner-up in an X-Wing Miniatures Game in the United Kingdom – who keeps a collection of “Star Wars” memorabilia in his office at Santa Fe’s Temple Beth Shalom, where he has served as rabbi for the past two years.
“I always go to the films dressed up; I’m that kind of fan,” said Amswych, who is eagerly awaiting the arrival of a new costume, one of a Tusken raider; he adopted “The Tusken Tactician” as his X-Wing moniker.
He and his wife Jenny, who is also a rabbi and runs the pre-school program at Temple Beth Shalom, nearly named their daughter Sarah Leah, “Sarah” meaning “Princess” in Hebrew. (They settled on “Zafra,” which means “harvest,” instead.)
But there’s a serious side to Amswych, who in the past few months has popped up around town protesting the electric company’s proposed rate increase, denouncing proposed legislation at the Roundhouse seen as discriminatory against the LGBT community, and speaking up for immigrants and the homeless. His name also appears frequently in local newspapers, be it a letter to the editor, an op-ed piece or in news stories.
“You can’t just stand by and hope for salvation, you have to engage it,” he said in his pronounced British accent. “You have to literally go out and get your hands dirty and make the world a better place, which means you have to get political.”
Describing himself as “chatty,” Amswych’s not shy about speaking out on political topics. Part of the appeal of coming to Temple Beth Shalom, he says, was that it had a social justice director.
“It’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here,” said Amswych, who also advocates on social justice issues as president of the Interfaith Leadership Alliance of Santa Fe. “Because it’s a beacon for social justice and making the world a better place. For a rabbi, that’s a very exciting job.”
Prior to coming to America to live permanently, Amswych founded Interfaith Dorset Education and Action, which he says has become the largest interfaith environmental network in southern England.
Amswych often takes on environmental issues because they impact everyone.
“I’ve got a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old, and they are inheriting our mess,” he said of his daughter Zafra, 5, and son Asher, 3. “What do I do with that? Do I stand by and say, ‘Well, sorry kids. Crappy planet now’?
“To me, that’s not OK. And, to me, if we can be in tune with our planet, it means we can be more in tune with ourselves.”
Amswych says it all goes back to the story of Adam and Eve.
“God gave them a garden to tend to, to guard it, to keep it. So we, as descendants of Adam and Eve, should be attending to our garden,” he said.
Amswych expects to expound on his thoughts about the environment and how it relates to religion in a book he’s writing.
“I can’t say too much about it because it’s a completely different perspective of environmental theology than I’ve seen anybody write on before,” he said.
But, he added later, part of it “is about how the environmental movement is failing because it’s trying to get people to shop better – save the planet by changing your light bulbs, by getting an energy-efficient appliance,” he said. “It’s basically saying we can shop our way out of a crisis and we can’t do that … . It’s not about shopping, it’s about self. It’s about re-assessing our place in society, re-assessing our place in the world. And that, to me, is a deeply religious endeavor.”
Amswych is apt to take on any issue he feels is befouled by injustice. During this year’s legislative session, the rabbi spoke out against House Bill 55, which would effectively have allowed businesses to decide whom to serve based on their “sincerely held religious belief.”
“This is not religious freedom, but religious intolerance in sheep’s clothing,” he said at a news conference before the bill died in committee.
Since last September, Amswych’s name has appeared in no fewer than five news articles in Santa Fe’s daily newspaper, the New Mexican, addressing such topics as PNM’s proposed rate increase, climate change, the Pope’s visit to America, and Syrian refugees.
Just this week, he and three other local rabbis co-signed a letter to the editor of the weekly Santa Fe Reporter in response to another letter writer who described Jewish Zionists and Israelis as “the new Nazis.”
While Amswych says he welcomes open dialogue and discussion of controversial topics, such rhetoric is divisive, incites hatred and makes the work to propagate peace that much harder.
A Jedi for justice, Amswych says he sees parallels between his religion and the “Star Wars” series.
“I’ve even given sermons on it, actually,” he says. “Both ‘Star Wars’ and Judaism are about personal and communal redemption. They are about moving forward and addressing the dark side within ourselves and in society, and what that means for us – combatting it, fighting it, struggling with it. For me, it’s about that struggle – moving forward toward goodness and moving toward the light side.”