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The next World Zionist Congress will be held in October 2015.  More than 500 delegates from Israel and the Diaspora will gather in Jerusalem to discuss key issues confronting Israel, Zionism and world Jewry, and to determine allocations made by the World Zionist Organization.  These decisions are determined by the vote of delegates, who reflect a wide diversity of ideological and religious perspectives.

If you care about the Reform Movement in Israel, if you support egalitarian prayer, if you believe in freedom of religion, the right of Reform rabbis to conduct marriage, divorce, burial and conversion, if you believe that women should have equal status, here is your chance to make a difference.

The Zionist Congress is the World Zionist Organization’s (WZO) supreme institution and legislative body, holding elections every five years. The Congress influences policy throughout Israel and directs hundreds of millions of dollars towards Jewish life globally. The Reform Movement’s victories in the past WZO elections have empowered Israeli Reform Jews with increased support and respect. Many of us already support such efforts as members of ARZA—The Reform Israel Fund, www.arza.org. ARZA’s presence at the Zionist Congress has empowered the Movement to fight for Reform Judaism around the globe:

  • Support for Progressive Jews across the FSU and Israel
  • Training Israel’s next generation of Reform Rabbis
  • Reform Jewish programming on six continents
  • Almost $2 million dollars in annual funding to Israeli Reform Jewish projects

The time for elections is again upon us, and your support is vital to our success.

The first step towards victory will be voter registration. Registration campaigns will be initiated in every Reform synagogue around the world, and we are asking for your support throughout this election. Registration materials will be made available to our entire community. We hope that you will take the pledge to vote by registering here: www.reformjews4israel.org. This will give ARZA a way to contact you directly when it is time to vote later in the winter.

If you have any questions, contact Gene Carasick for more information at gcarasick @ gmail.com.

Help Beth Tikvah raise a voice of celebration and support for Reform Judaism!

Without a doubt, my favorite Jewish holy day is Sukkot. It is not a just a “holiday” since it is filled with sacred messages about life and faith.

I have always been drawn to the message that Passover is about our liberation from slavery; Shavuot is when we receive the Torah; and Sukkot marks our journey. Sukkot is about our journey — “real life.” While we dwell in these little huts that provide some basic protection, the reality is that they are still quite fragile. These sukkot represent our own lives. No matter how much insurance we have, how strong the walls of our houses might be, how many people are invested in our successes, we acknowledge during Sukkot that our lives are delicate and fragile, so we have to make the journey matter. What a great message to have once we completed Yom Kippur!

And what about this journey? Where are we going? Of course, to the Promised Land! We have a destination. Nevertheless, what matters most is not that we arrive, but that we move in the right direction and live a life filled with meaning, purpose and faith. That’s what it means to take the journey, as the famous poem from Rabbi Alvin Fine teaches:

Birth is a beginning,
And death a destination;
But life is a journey,
A going—a growing
From stage to stage.

From defeat to defeat to defeat —
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey,
state by stage – A sacred pilgrimage.

I am looking forward to our celebration at Beth Tikvah on Wednesday eve and Thursday morning — especially WITH OUR NEW SUKKAH! I hope that you will join me for the journey! (For info about Sukkot at TBT, visit http://www.bethtikvah.com.)

For more about Sukkot, check out http://www.myjewishlearning.com and http://www.ReformJudaism.org.

In the meantime, I hope your New Year will be sweet, with good health, and much joy.

This summer, many of you have read about or heard me speak about a young boy at one of our Reform movement camps who was struck by lightening. He wasn’t the only one, but he was the most significantly wounded.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, just wrote a blog post asking for help for his care from the members of our Reform Jewish Community.

Please, read his blog so respond to his request to help 13 year old Ethan Kadish. His family’s insurance will only take care of so much, so they need their community’s help. Rabbi Jacob’s words and information on how to help can be found here:

A Family in Our Community Needs Your Help

August 21, 2013

Ethan Kadish is a 13-year-old boy in great need of the Reform Jewish community’s help.

On June 29, 2013, the afternoon peace of Shabbat at URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) in Zionsville, IN, was shattered by a lightning strike that left three campers unresponsive on the athletic field. Thanks to the skill, courage, and quick thinking of the GUCI staff, all three campers made it to the hospital and survived this unimaginable tragedy.

This heartrending incident tested the GUCI family, the URJ camp community, and the entire Reform Movement, but none more than the families of the injured campers. Their strength has been nothing short of inspirational. Two of those families’ children, thankfully, recovered and returned home; one even returned to camp. The third camper, Ethan Kadish, remains hospitalized in Cincinnati, OH.

To date, Ethan’s recovery has included a series of successes that began with his survival and includes milestones like opening his eyes, breathing independently, and responding to stimuli. Ethan is in the care of a fantastic medical team and undergoes several hours of intense physical therapy every day. His family looks forward to the day he will return home, but they recognize, too, that even once he’s home, his challenges will continue. Ethan will require regular therapy and constant medical care, which, once he leaves the hospital, likely will not be covered by insurance. Ethan and his family face a long, hard, and, yes, expensive road ahead.

The Kadish family’s remarkable strength comes largely from their faith – faith in the healing power of God, faith in the skill and wisdom of Ethan’s physicians, and faith in the support of the URJ and GUCI communities. We are pledged to maintain that support, ensuring that throughout the challenges ahead, their faith in our communities will not waver.

This week – the week before Ethan was to have celebrated his bar mitzvah – a fundraising campaign in his honor has been launched with HelpHOPELive, a nonprofit organization that assists the transplant community and those who have sustained catastrophic injury. The funds will help Ethan’s family meet immense financial challenges associated with uninsured therapies, home modifications, and other injury-related expenses. All contributions made in Ethan’s honor will be administered by HelpHOPELive, specifically and solely for his injury-related expenses.

Our tradition teaches that Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh (all Jews are responsible one for the other). Indeed, together with HelpHOPELive, the Reform Jewish family can honor Ethan and his family, sending a strong message that we stand together with all of them during this time of need.

To make a charitable contribution by credit card, please call 800.642.8399 or visit Ethan’s page at helphopelive.org.

To make a donation by check, make checks payable to: HelpHOPELive and include this notation in the memo section: In honor of Ethan Kadish. Mail to:

HelpHOPELive
2 Radnor Corporate Center
100 Matsonford Road, Suite 100
Radnor, PA 19087

Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by the law. This campaign is being administered by HelpHOPELive – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit providing fundraising assistance to transplant and catastrophic injury patients – which will hold all funds raised in honor of Ethan in its Great Lakes Catastrophic Injury Fund.

http://blogs.rj.org/blog/2013/08/21/a-family-in-our-community-needs-your-help/?j=1001307&e=rabbigreene@bethtikvah.com&l=25128_HTML&u=24230571&mid=1065187&jb=0

This summer I embarked on a three week journey to New Jersey on a program called NFTY Mitzvah Corps. The Mitzvah Corps program is a URJ volunteer program that also exists in other locations such as Costa Rica, New Orleans, and New York. The New Jersey program, however, is the only Urban Mitzvah Corps (UMC) where we work in a city environment. When I signed up I did not realize that this experience would be a huge life changing event.

When I landed in New Jersey I knew no one, but once I arrived at the dorm I was greeted by the staff and other teens, and became friends with them instantly. The next day we were introduced to our job sites; we got to choose between four different sites for the session. I decided I wanted to work at Regency, which is a Jewish nursing home. Working there not only changed the Residents lives but mine as well. I mainly worked in the Alzheimer and Dementia unit. At first it was weird and I did not think this was right for me, but after meeting Roger, who always forgot peoples names, somehow he remembered me and was excited to see me everyday. There was another woman, Bobbi, she forgot everything about you in 10 minutes, but what was amazing is she knew seven different languages and could speak them fluently. One of my favorite people there was Martin. He was a quiet guy, but was always so happy to see me whenever I went in the the room to talk to him. He got so excited and asked if I could take him outside. All of these Residents changed my life while I was trying to brighten theirs.

It was not just the job sites that created such an impact on me; several programs changed me as well. The best program of my life was who police officers came in and talked about hate crimes. There was a slide show full of graphic images from the KKK to Neo-Nazis. It all became too real when he pulled up a map of all the organized groups in the U.S. and told us the number of groups was rising. Then he proceeded to show images of different attacks, such as James Byrd, Jr. who was dragged behind a pick up truck and gruesomely killed in 1998. After, the police officer told us he was gay and that he was out, and the other cop was his partner. The second officer, however, was not openly gay because he would be scared if he got into a bad situation that no one would help him because of his sexual orientation. This program made me think about what I can do to stop the hatred of others. Those officers  told us that it’s the simple steps that can stop hate crimes, such as telling people that saying offensive words are wrong.

Urban MItzvah Corps has changed me by giving me an opportunity to do something to help the larger community. Whether it was brightening the day of an elderly person or helping out at a Sandy victim’s house, I grew tremendously. This program as a whole is the best thing you can do for the summer.

Jacob is not only a great guy, but an 11th grader who completed Confirmation, a URJ Camp Coleman alum, a past participant in the Religious Action Center’s L’taken Seminar, and Temple Beth TIkvah’s youth group’s Membership VP.

Whenever I go to our nation’s Capitol, I get chills. The grandeur of the city, the seat of government, the idealism and commitment of people striving to do good. Yes, I am still among those who believe that most of the people who serve our nation in positions of leadership are good people trying to make a difference.

I am constantly inspired by the greatness of heroes, those whose names we know and so many of those we don’t. So to stand at the Lincoln Monument and read his words engraved on the walls is to stand in the center of greatness – not just in the shadow of a great sculpture, but of the words and values he espoused. 

But then I had a moment… Standing not far from Lincoln, just outside of the pavilion, I always visit the spot with words engraved on the floor, showing where Dr. Martin Luther King stood as he gave his great “I Have a Dream” speech. To be in that spot where he inspired not only the crowd, not only our nation, but the world with hopes of equality and justice, is for me to be on Holy Ground. But the one thing that made this moment even sweeter is to be there with my students in our Confirmation class.

Ltaken 2013I travel to Washington every year with our 10th grade students in Confirmation. The year is about learning Jewish sources that relate to God, Torah and Israel to help them Confirm who they are as young Jewish adults. So to stand at the site where King spoke, to witness their compassion and outrage in the Hall of Remembrance at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, to see their inspiration in their eyes at the new MLK Monument, is to see the next Jewish generation’s future.

These 15 year olds joined another 250 students at the L’taken Seminar of the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism. The term, “L’taken,” is the first word of L’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai – “To repair the world under the Kingdom of God.” Through the RAC, these Jewish teens from all across the country travel with their rabbis, educators and youth workers to learn about public policy issues from a Jewish perspective and then lobby our Members of Congress in their offices on Capitol Hill. They took what they learned from our seminars, from their visits to these monuments and memorials, and from our Jewish sources from centuries ago and from today… put them all together to make cogent arguments for change, justice and righteousness. They met representatives from the offices of Senator Chambliss, Senator Isakson, and Congressman Price. The students left DC feeling like they accomplished something. Even if our Members of Congress don’t vote in the direction our students requested, they did not sit quietly by. They learned about our system of government and they learned that our Jewish Tradition has a response to every issue.

I am proud of our students. I hope you are too. They took this opportunity seriously, shared their ideas with conviction and passion, and left as true young adults who care about their country as faithful Jews.

It was a sweet moment for me as a rabbi. “Much have I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues but most of all from my students.” (Taanit 7a)

Please mark your calendar to join our students for their Confirmation service on Friday, May 3 at 7:30pm.

For more information about the Reform movement’s positions on public policy issues, visit http://www.rac.org. To see the larger Jewish communal agenda on public policy, visit Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

There are many boys and girls in our Jewish community whose most favorite Jewish holidays is Chanukah.  That probably isn’t much of a surprise to many of you.  The festival has emerged over the past several decades in America to be the ultimate gift-giving holiday. 

Many suspect that the focal point of gift giving emerged in the twentieth century as Jewish parents wanted to compensate for the overwhelming presence of a Christmas-centered culture in our country.  Wanting to have our children feel good about Chanukah, traditionally a minor holiday without the major ritual moments of Passover or Sukkot, we began to give our children gifts each and every night.

As the Jewish community in America grew stronger and stronger, the gift-giving aspect did as well.  But in earlier times in Europe, Jewish children received something sweet (a little raisins and nuts) and gelt (“money” in Yiddish).  The practice of giving a little gelt is thought to have emerged when Jews would provide gifts of support the students studying in a yeshivah (seminary). Others think that it was to commemorate the coins minted by the first Hasmonean (the dynasty of Judah Maccabee) ruler in the Land of Israel. 

But today, it is the gift giving that overshadows the Festival itself. 

Chanukah is often translated as an act of “dedication.” When the Syrian Greeks ruled the Land of Israel and occupied The Holy Temple, a small band of Jewish fighters sought to liberate it.  After their victory, they re-consecrated the Temple and said this was a day of Chanukah.  The root in Chanukah is chet-nun-kaf.  The verb l’chanech is to educate.  In the Torah, its original meaning is “to initiate” or “to begin.”  There is an interesting spectrum of meaning of this word, chanukah – bringing together the messages of dedication, education and beginning.

For this Chanukah, may we…

  • begin our observance of Chanukahin a new way, with new priorities and new traditions.
  • dedicate ourselves to bringing light into our lives and into our world;
  • educate our children, grandchildren, students and young friends about the real importance of this festival: the significance of freedom and courage, resilience and securing our Jewish identity.

Some of the moms of our synagogue community have already been wrestling with these ideas: what do they want to teach about Chanukah, how do we show our children that it is not all about presents, and how do create authentic Jewish memories.  These mothers have come up with a program being launched by our Youth Committee called “Chanukah Lights and Mitzvah Nights.”

Instead of marking Chanukah with a new present each and every night, consider doing different things, together as a family.

I believe that children want our presence more than any single present.  And with our desire to raise a mensch, let’s think of new ways to observe, remember, teach and dedicate.  Here are just a few ideas…

Watch for more information from our Youth Committee about Chanukah Lights, Mitzvah Nights.  We hope that you come and celebrate with us on Saturday afternoon, December 15 at 4:00-5:30pm. We will conclude Shabbat together, have some fun activities for our families to bring light into other people’s lives and celebrate the Festival of Lights! Cost of admission: new or very gently used books to replace the East Rockaway elementary school’s library that was destroyed by Super Storm Sandy.

May your Chanukah be filled with light, and may you bring much light to our world.

hannukah nights

We spend a lot of time talking about Israel’s security. For good reason. However, how can we take care of the body properly if we don’t commit ourselves just as seriously to its soul?  We often hear from generals and security experts about the existential threats facing Israel. Iran is among the greatest threats Israel has ever faced, to be sure. But what about some of the internal struggles that Israel is facing?

Within Israel, we see an increasingly radicalized ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community engaging in acts of religious coercion. This segment of Israeli society has challenged women’s presence in the public domain. The Chief Rabbinate’s Office is emerging more and more fundamentalist, challenging other Orthodox rabbis and their conversions (never mind their exclusion of Reform and Conservative rabbis and our important work). Hostility and even physical attacks are brewed in these anti-Zionist fringe communities. Yet, despite their minority status in Israel, their political power is great due to Israel’s challenging parliamentary system.

This fraction of Israeli society has held a monopoly of state-sponsored Jewish religious expression for decades. In more recent years, the High Court of Israel has mandated that the Government support Reform and Conservative institutions and programs. Those programs and opportunities presented to Israel’s Jewish citizens have been positively received with overwhelming success. But the playing field is still not level.

While I wrote this for our June newsletter, since we published it, dramatic news has come out…the Attorney General of Israel paved the way for the government to support Reform and Conservative rabbis. It isn’t the perfect solution, but it is on the right path for proper equality and recognition of Reform and Conservative rabbis and liberal Jewish practices in Israel. Read more here.

Israel needs us. Not just our support in Congress for things like the Iron Dome Missile System, but to be a partner with Israelis to make sure that Israel’s democracy and Jewish pluralism is sound and strong. Because of what many consider to be a fundamentalist stranglehold over Judaism, many Israelis feel pushed away from developing their own faith and seeing a Jewish tradition that is spiritually compelling and meaningful.

So here is my unabashed plea for support for the Reform movement in Israel. This Reform Jewish community is expanding in new communities to respond to a real need amongst Israelis. In the past ten years our congregations have doubled, our nursery schools have tripled and are full. Today the Israeli Reform movement, led by native born and Hebrew-speaking lay and rabbinic leaders, touches the lives of 250,000 Israelis. It is through the continued growth of our Movement that we are influencing Israeli society for the better. They want a Jewish voice that will give them a community of inspiration, hope, and a view at Jewish sources that is modern and relevant.

Every one of us at Temple Beth Tikvah can be a part of supporting this effort to strengthen Israel as a democratic, inclusive Jewish community by belonging to ARZA, the Reform Fund for Israel. ARZA strengthens the Reform Zionist movement in the U.S., helps to fund Reform congregations in Israel, and supports the Israel Religious Action Center

As our Nadiv Lev materials go out to you, you will notice an optional (but encouraged) item for you to join ARZA. ARZA will use these funds to continue to educate America’s Jews about Israel, Zionism and Reform Judaism in Israel. It will fund emerging congregations in Israel and IRAC. Your $36 membership fee will go a long way if our community stands together and does its part. ARZA has committed itself to congregations like ours as it re-invests in our synagogue $2 out of the $36 to support Israel programming!

Your membership will enable ARZA to join with the Conservative Movement and the Jewish Federations of North America to continue the fight against religious exclusivity and coercion in Israel.

Zionism was always a big enough tent to include a spectrum of ideas, from Zeev Jabotinsky to Ahad Ha’Am, from David Ben-Gurion to Menachem Begin. While we join the common ground of supporting and showing our love for Israel, we are helping those share a voice reflecting our own, showing that there is more than one way to be Jewish.

So when you see your Nadiv Lev application this summer, I hope you check off the line to join ARZA and help Temple Beth Tikvah do its part as one community.

For those who are not members of Temple Beth Tikvah, you can join ARZA by clicking here.

If you would like to lend your support to a new initiative, helping to provide scholarships to Israeli Rabbinical Students at the Reform movemen’ts rabbinical school, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, contact me directly. I’d love to tell you more about how Atlanta’s Reform rabbis are coming together to strengthen a progressive Judaism in Israel by supporting an Israeli Reform rabbinical student!

Friends,

I am sharing with you the speech given by Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the new President of the Union for Reform Judaism.  I have known Rick for a number of years. I am thrilled that he is stepping up to be our Movement’s leader. He has vision, depth, and a profound understanding of congregational life. As devoted as he is to our Reform Jewish Movement — and committed to get it moving again(!) — he is as devoted to Clal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish People and to Israel.

At the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Conference last week, he gave this wonderful speech. I am posting it here for you, my congregation and friends to read.

Let’s talk about it! We need to discuss his vision, being part of a Movement, advancing Jewish learning and Jewish living. I know it is lengthy, but it is worth it! So have a seat, grab a cup of coffee, read his words…and then comment! Let’s talk about it so we can strengthen our synagogue community and the Jewish communities around us.

At the End of Two Years by Rabbi Richard Jacobs
This was originally published at the Reform movement’s blog, RJ.org — http://blogs.rj.org/blog/2011/12/18/at-the-end-of-two-years/
you can join in their conversation, too!

Prepared Remarks
Washington, DC Biennial 2011
December 18, 2011–22 Kislev 5772

This Biennial is almost over but we’re just getting started.  What a humbling responsibility you have placed on my shoulders; what a tremendous opportunity we have to shape the Jewish future with imagination, courage and commitment.

This week’s parasha says it right up front: Va’Yehi Miketz Shnatayim—At the end of two years.   What’s going to happen at the end of two years?  I’ll tell you what’s going to happen: we’re going to gather together in San Diego for the next Biennial, and at that time the new URJ will be well on its way to becoming the creative force for shaping a bright Jewish future.

I may be the tallest president in the history of our URJ but I’m following in the footsteps of giants.  In my mind’s eye, I see Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath carrying a Torah scroll alongside Dr. Martin Luther King.  He knew—but too many of us have forgotten—that our Torah should never be sequestered in our synagogues.  Rather, we must carry our prophetic mantel beyond the walls of our praying places to shape a more just and compassionate world for all of God’s children.

And I sense the poetic presence of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who boldly challenged us to share our Torah with the many interfaith families who felt barred from taking hold of our sacred inheritance.  Our congregations are stronger thanks to the many Jews–by–choice and non-Jews who have committed their families to lives of Torah.  And Alex made sure that the doors were open for all who felt shut out; our LGBT brothers and sisters would no longer sit in our congregations pretending to be other than the individuals that God created them to be.  Too many of the uninspired and disaffected are still kept from taking hold of our tree of life.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s animated vision of Reform Judaism with Torah at the Center has inspired my rabbinate and our Reform Movement.  Eric taught us that it is not enough to carry our Torah. Even more important, we must engage with it deeply through serious, lifelong study.  Going forward, we will ground our powerful spiritual expression of Judaism in thoughtful, creative Torah learning.  Proudly, we will carry our Torah into the world; we will share it with all who thirst for its wisdom.

So what will be my Torah for the coming years?  A rabbinic colleague told me, “Rick, I feel sorry for you. Eric did Torah and worship, Alex brought us outreach and inclusion, and Maurice showed us how social justice could transform our world.  You can’t even change the name.  They already did that.  So, what will you do?  A new logo?  Revive Shemini Atzeret?  Too bad there’s nothing left to do.”

So, I ask you all of you,
Is there nothing left for us to do?
Is this as good as it gets?

Your presence here this morning tells me your answer.  We are poised at one of the most critical and dramatic crossroads in all of Jewish history.  If we stay put and leave things as they are we will have failed the test of Jewish leadership.  But we’re not going to stay put.   We are the Reform Movement and we’re going to get MOVING.  We’re going to MOVE forward with strength and creativity.

Over the summer, a nice member of my congregation stopped me and said, “Rabbi Jacobs, I wish you well in your new position at the UJA.”  I thanked her but then gently corrected her that I would be working for the URJ, not the UJA.  “Is there a difference?” she replied.  I’m guessing there are many people in and outside of our Movement who ask that same question, because even though we are called the Reform Movement, we haven’t been acting like a movement.  Let’s be clear: all of the very serious challenges facing Jewish life require movement solutions.  We are beginning to transform our URJ for the journey ahead, but we can’t only focus on getting our own URJ “house in order.”  We’ve already begun to work more collaboratively with the various arms of the Movement.

During these past months, I’ve had initial conversations with almost a thousand Reform Jewish stakeholders: national leaders, professional colleagues, congregational presidents and others.  Over and over again, I heard about the serious economic challenges facing our congregations and our Movement.  So many of you are devoted to the various institutions of Jewish life, but we’re all asking how are we going to fund our local, national and overseas institutions.  I haven’t even had my first day on the job, but some questions are just too pressing to wait and this is one.

Just weeks ago, we brought the Union for Reform Judaism, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Central Conference of American Rabbis together to form a task force to figure out the best, most effective, most fair and transparent way for us to finance our Movement’s holy work.  This new group will be called the Task Force on Funding our Future.  Its purpose is to rethink our Movement’s funding structure, especially as it relates to the traditional MUM dues system.  A small steering committee will bring together the best thinking from inside and outside of our Movement to inform how we support the maintenance and growth of our Movement in all of its breadth and depth, including nurturing our congregations, educating our clergy and professionals, and engaging future generations of young Jews.

As this crucial work moves forward, I, along with our lay leadership, pledge to actively build relationships with donors who share our vision for the Jewish future.  We are committed to a transformative and visionary culture of excellence in the URJ.  Our vision includes a broad array of cutting edge, success-driven ways to strengthen congregations, engage the next generation in Jewish life while extending our reach into the ranks of the uninspired and unaffiliated.  We welcome foundations and Federations as our partners in a future that cannot do without a Reform Jewish presence. Ours is the Judaism of autonomy, inclusiveness, creativity, passion and relevance. We embrace the best of tradition and of modernity, science and spirituality, ourselves and our world. We are the Reform Movement for a new era, and it’s time we let the whole world know.

Ok, turn on your iPads; you’ll want to get this down.  Here are the three most pressing tasks for our URJ to focus on as we invite our partners to join in this critical work with us:

  1. Catalyzing congregational change
  2. Engaging the next generation
  3. Extending the circles of our responsibility

These three areas don’t run parallel, but they do overlap.

Congregations first. As always.

1. Twenty years ago at the Baltimore Biennial, Rabbi Alexander Schindler reminded all of us why synagogues are unique:  “The synagogue is where Jews are made, where the individual soul and the community are joined.  It is the place where modernity and eternity cross-fertilize, where seeds of Jewish identity are sown.  All other institutions in Jewish life are created by Jews.  Only the synagogue creates Jews, child by child, family by family…”

In this new era of Jewish life, synagogues are far from obsolete, but they must specialize in bringing depth to our lives; they must speak to the soul; they must keep up with the best human thought.  Such a synagogue will remain the central address for cultivating a deep and nourishing Jewish life. We need an extensive network of congregations that exude excellence for this next chapter.  To accomplish this crucial work, the URJ will need to undergo a transformation by rethinking and refocusing everything we do.

Here are some questions we should all be considering:

Is my congregation the most compelling Jewish community I can imagine?

What’s inspiring about my congregation?

What’s not working well?  What’s broken? What’s just plain shoddy, or ordinary, or so drab that no one cares whether it is broken or not? In a word, what’s “not really excellent?”

What would help me make my congregation the place I dream of?

I’ve spent the last thirty years as a congregational rabbi asking these questions daily and I’ve become convinced that the future of our people depends on transforming our synagogues.  I know transformation is not simple or easy—but it is possible.  And this transformative work changes everything, especially our sense of optimism for our collective future.

We have no intention of sitting at 633 Third Avenue in New York City telling congregations what they should be doing.  We plan to work with you to build the capacity of each of our congregations.  Many are struggling.  Others are doing ok.  Some are doing terrifically well.   The great congregations are not only in big cities or on the coasts; they come in all sizes are scattered throughout North America.  But even those that are great today won’t be tomorrow if they think they’ve figured everything out.  Great congregations are always searching for new ways to do their holy work better.  The URJ must become a catalyst and convener of best practices by sharing tools, methods and models so every one of our 900 congregations will flourish.

For decades, the dominant model of religious education for Jewish youth has been the service station approach.  Parents drop their kids off at synagogue as if it were a gas station, the place to fill up the next generation with “Jewish gas.”  After dropping their kids off, parents kept on driving, returning a few hours later to pick up their little ones now hopefully filled with enough Jewish gas to last until the next drop-off, and eventually, for a lifetime.

Our parents suffered through Hebrew school so they figured it was part of the tradition that they were supposed to pass on.  Did you have inspirational textbooks like: Pathways Through Jewish History, Pathways Through Jewish Prayer, and Pathways Through Jewish Holidays?  Truth be told, many of us are here today in spite of the Jewish schooling we received.  Many of us still suffer spiritual scars and emptiness from the religious education that gave us too little. We may be here today in spite of that Jewish schooling, not because of it.  That’s not what we mean by excellence!

Almost 20 years ago some congregations, my own included, helped pioneer models that closed the old gas station.  In one of them, kids are not just dropped off; instead, parents park their cars and accompany their children to a spirited prayer service, where each week a different family takes responsibility for reading and interpreting the Torah portion.  After checking in with one another during the oneg, kids go off to classrooms to learn while parents too stay to dig into the spiritual treasure trove of Judaism in adult study.  The young students no longer think Judaism is just for kids.  Post WWII pediatric Judaism is morphing into our new-and-improved community of lifelong Jewish learning.

Then there is the question of membership. While 80% of American Jews affiliate with a synagogue at some point during their lives, their engagement tends to be temporary and tenuous.  No more than 50% of American Jews are members of synagogues at any one time.  Jews once joined synagogues out of civic duty – it was just the proper thing to do; by the 1970s they joined at least for their children – to get a bar or bat mitzvah. But increasingly, they left with the last hora of the bar/bat mitzvah party.  Of all the movements, Reform Jews lead the way in leaving when childhood education is over.  So yes, we are growing faster than other denominations, but not with lifelong membership any more than lifelong learning. And a newer trend indicates fewer Jews than ever join at all, even for their children!  The fastest growing group in the Jewish community is the lifelong unaffiliated and the lifelong uninspired.  That’s not what we mean by excellence.

As a Movement, we have not fully figured out how to engage new members in a lifelong way, because inducing spiritual commitment is no simple matter.  We do know some things, however: before handing out membership forms or asking for dues, what if we first forged relationships of caring?  We could learn this important lesson from Chabad.  Let’s create relationships before collecting dues.  It’s a pretty simple concept but how many of us have adopted it?

Berachot Text Study

We’re not the first generation in Jewish history that needed to reimagine our Jewish world.  Let’s look together at a remarkably relevant text from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 28a.  The Sanhedrin has just selected a new Nasi or President.  This passage piqued my interest….

I hope we are clearer about the barriers that keep people outside our congregations.   Some are obvious, others less so, but we have to use our ingenuity to remove as many as possible.

Here’s another barrier to Jewish life: the walls of our congregations.  Too many synagogues wait for new people to knock on their doors begging to be let in.  Few congregations take responsibility for Jewish life outside their walls. A few years back, a 5th grader told her Jewish father and non-Jewish mother that she wanted a bat mitzvah.  Neither parent wanted to join a congregation so they told her to find a program without mandatory membership.  But no synagogue in the area—Reform included—would even talk to her, let alone accept her, except for one, a remarkable Orthodox congregation that offers religious education to non-members as part of its commitment to Jewish continuity.  So the girl attended the program and devoured her Jewish studies. What will she say about Reform after being ignored by us? That’s not what we mean by excellence. Can’t we too offer serious Jewish engagement for people like this girl? How many of our URJ congregations worry about Jewish life outside of our walls?

2.   Throughout this Biennial, you’ve heard a lot about our commitment to engaging the next generation, the largest cohort of Jews who are outside our walls, after all.  We’ve faced the hard truth about the staggering percentage of our b’nai mitzvah who are eyeing the door by the time they reach Ain K’elohaynu.  This exodus demands nothing short of a Movement-wide transformation of how we interact with our youth.  In plain talk, we’re focusing on relationships over programs.  From early childhood to b’nai mitzvah to high school and then to college, we need a giant web of sacred strategies to give our kids roots and wings to stay grounded while soaring through this confusing world. Toward that end, we are working—for the very first time—on  coordinating all of the essential pieces of youth engagement: summer camps, NFTY, NFTY in Israel, RAC teen seminars, congregational learning both formal and informal and more. This Movement-wide approach is going to link young people to each other, to their communities, to our people, to our Torah and to the Holy One who imbues their ever-changing lives with depth and purpose.

Please raise your hand if you are in your 20s or 30s.  For the first time ever we lowered the financial barrier that used to keep many of you from attending the Biennial, and now we have over 500 of you with us.  Two years from now, I want to see over a thousand!

This is a cohort that we rarely see in our congregations.  Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow found that over half of Americans between 21-45 years of age are “religiously uninvolved.” The percentage is higher for Jews, and there are over 1.5 million of them in the United States and Canada.  Compared to previous generations, young Jews in their 20s and 30s wait longer to marry and to have children, if they marry and have children at all.  Even with children, they do not automatically join synagogues.  They are averse to “joining” anything, and generally they are suspicious of denominational labels.

A growing network of our urban congregations including Temple Israel in Boston, Emanu-El in San Francisco and Dallas are actively engaging 20s and 30s inside and outside the walls of congregations.  One strategy is a national project of Synagogue3000 called Next Dor––dor is Hebrew for “generation.”  In Atlanta, St. Louis, Washington, DC, Miami and a growing number of cities, this approach has attracted our own URJ congregations because it meets these young Jews where they are––in coffee shops and bars, in gyms and private apartments—outside synagogue walls, that is. And it emphasizes relationships, not just programs—exactly the model I espouse.  And this is just one bold experiment to engage the next generation.  We need many more, and engaging 20s and 30s does not mean we aren’t also committed to nourishing the baby boomers in our midst.  

3.  The bright Jewish future requires us to extend the circle of our responsibility.  We know all too well that one need not join a congregation to participate in Jewish life.  In our individualistic society, many Jews have discovered that it is cheaper to hire a private bar/bat mitzvah tutor rather than commit to congregational membership.  For weddings and funerals too, you can usually find a rabbi-for-hire. And why not, if Judaism is only about the individual?  But ever since Abraham and Sarah, being Jewish has meant being part of something larger than ourselves.  Judaism is about “we,” not just “me.” Sacred community is not a Jewish Stop&Shop that offers what looks appetizing.  It is an extension beyond ourselves to those we may not know by name, people who are not “just like us,” those who think, earn, practice and vote differently than we do.

And this web of mutual extension that begins in the congregation is, in theory, limitless, one of those things that our morning service calls “elu d’varim she’ein lahem shiyur” – the things that have no boundaries, no limits, because the good they do goes on and on and on, making individuals into congregations, congregations into movements, movements into one single and united Jewish people, and the Jewish people into a force for good and for God—throughout the world. The congregation is simply where the “me to we” begins.

Earlier this fall, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that people today “are less likely to feel embedded on a moral landscape that transcends self.”  He quotes a troubling study that our young people “have not been given the resources—by schools, institutions and families—to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations. The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste.” (New York Times, 12 September 2011)

Individual taste?!? Surely you join me in shuddering at the thought that tz’dakah and tzedek are matters of taste.  If schools cannot teach this elementary human decency, then synagogues must. What other institution consistently grounds us in a moral landscape?  We join a sacred community not for what we will receive but for what we can give.  Two thousand years ago the Roman leader Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, if God loves poor people so much, why doesn’t God support them directly? Rabbi Akiva answered that God wishes to allow human beings to be partners in the spiritual creation of the world. (Baba Batra 10a) That Jewish worldview has distinguished us for millennia and it can inspire today’s Reform Jews as we live lives of service to others.  We partner with God by creating a better world through truths, not tastes.

The modern sage Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught, “If boiling water is poured on the head of a Moroccan Jew, the prim and proper Jew in Paris and London must scream.  And by feeling the pain, he is loyal to the people.”  We Reform Jews are Reform, but we are Reform JEWS, members of Clal Yisrael and Am Yisrael.

A year and a half ago, the rabbi of our neighboring Orthodox synagogue announced in the middle of Shabbat morning services that he had to leave.  He told his congregation that he was walking over to our Temple because his friend’s daughter was becoming a bat mitzvah.  When he walked into our daughter Sarah’s bat mitzvah it was the first time he had ever been in a mixed seating service where women were leading prayer and reading Torah.  But he came nonetheless.  He stretched himself because that’s what one does if you’re part of something larger.  How many of us stretch ourselves to reach across the many boundaries that keep us from connecting with Clal Yisrael?

This past summer, I had the privilege of welcoming a few busloads of our NFTY teens to Jerusalem.  Blindfolded, they stepped off their buses holding hands, moving slowly toward the edge of the Haas Promenade that overlooks the Temple Mount in the center of Jerusalem.  They were about to have their first glimpse of the City of Gold.  You cannot imagine the look of amazement and wonder on their faces as they opened their eyes to the setting sun over Jerusalem.  I watched these Reform teens fall in love with Israel, remembering my own love affair with Israel that was sparked during my junior year of college, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Ever since, I have spent much of my rabbinate working to strengthen Israel’s security and well-being – as I know so many of you have.  I want all of our URJ congregations to see Israel the way those teenagers did, with the sparkle of its promise searing our souls.

It is up to all of us to foster a deep love for and engagement with Israel among Reform Jews of North America, young and old. We need Israel and Israel needs us. Israel is not a vaccine against assimilation, but rather an inspiring source of Jewish creativity and identity.  Israel is not only a bundle of issues and challenges; she is our dynamic, complex and inspiring Jewish homeland. We make common cause with our burgeoning Israeli Reform Movement that has much to teach us about effective outreach.  By necessity, Israeli Reform leaders have learned to be more assertive and entrepreneurial in engaging those previously disaffected from Jewish life than we in North America.

When Israel gets into our hearts, then I know that we stand with Israel never ceasing to fight for a Jewish homeland that is secure, religiously free, guided by justice and dwelling in peace.

So what will our collective Jewish future look like?  It is way too early to say exactly, but with your help I’d like us to begin by catalyzing congregational change, engaging the next generation and extending the circles of our responsibility.

In a couple of hours, most of you will be well on your way home, where  new possibilities for our Movement will continue to fill your minds.  On your way home and in the coming weeks, I want you to send me thousands of emails about the great experiments you are ready to try in your congregations.  The new URJ wants to learn about all of your great ideas, especially the ones that signal a deep paradigm shift in the way we conduct our holy work.  You pick the area: catalyzing congregational change, engaging the next generation or extending the circles of our responsibility beyond the wall of our synagogues.

In the coming months, I’m going to hit the road along with other senior leaders of the URJ.  In person or virtually, we plan to come to your community to see how your experiments are developing.  We also want to learn about unique challenges and opportunities in different corners of our North American Movement.  Yesterday I heard an impassioned plea from a Rabbi from Altoona, Pennsylvania.   Her congregation is struggling, they don’t have many youth to engage and they need our help, and we will be there for them.  Some of your experiments we will be able to support with new incubator grants and others we’ll support with creative thinking and refinement.

And while we’re in town or nearby, we’ll share with you ideas for reinventing the day-to-day work of the URJ and solicit your input, so that we can make great things happen throughout our Movement.

This Biennial is almost over, but we’re just getting started.  Va’Yehi Miketz Shnatayim—At the end of two years.  What’s going to happen at the end of two years?  I’ll tell you what’s going to happen.  We’re going to gather together in San Diego for the next Biennial and at that time the new URJ will be well on its way to becoming the creative force for shaping a bright Jewish future.

Rabbi Meir of Premishlan taught that by someone’s dream it is possible to know a person.  Jacob dreamt of a ladder reaching to the heavens.  Pharaoh dreamt only of cows.  Not all dreams are equal!  And not all of them are converted into reality. That’s where Joseph comes in. We are Jacob, envisioning ladders to heaven; but we are Joseph also, making dreams into reality, combating a world of want and challenge through concrete plans that seize opportunities, weathering tough times, and lighting the way forward with Torah as our guide.

I accept the faith you show in me today with humility and gratitude; I need you with me, however. Together we will seize this moment and shape a better tomorrow for our congregations, our Movement, our people and our world.  Help me open our doors, our minds and our imaginations.  Grasp the Torah with me as we carry it out of seclusion. We are the Reform Movement, so let’s get MOVING!

The Modern Israeli Poet David Rokeach gives us a glimpse of what awaits us:

למצפים התהילה
כי להם העתיד
העומדים מול ההר ואינם נרתעים
יעלו אל פסגתו

Glory to those who hope!
For the future is theirs;
Those who stand unflinching against the mountain
Shall gain its summit….

We are the ones who hope.

We will stand unflinching against the mountain.

And together, in the coming years, we will gain the summit!

So I am often asked, “What does it mean to be a traditional Reform synagogue?”

Oy. Who knows!

It is often confused with a synagogue that has a Classical Reform orientation. Because that was an earlier prominent orientation of Reform Judaism, some think that is what is “traditional.”  As much as I admire Classical Reform, that is not where I daven.

I believe in a pluralistic, open tent perspective of Judaism. I connect to that orientation through the Reform Jewish movement. And while I am open to and enjoy many different perspectives on prayer and ritual, I do ultimately believe that we have certain obligations as a people in covenant with God and the Jewish People. That is challenge these days — especially as our society tells us that we can do almost anything we want and it ought to be tolerated.

One of the things I often note is that American Jews — a fiercly independent bunch (a good thing) — often mistranslate the term “mitzvah.” It has become known to mean a “good deed” or “an act of virtue.” But traditionally it is understood as a “commandment.” How did it come to be that the understanding of mitzvah — something that was God wants us to do — was transformed into doing something nice for somebody else? Well, that is certainly something that God wants us to do. However, there are other things that God expects of us that do go beyond volunteering, ,things like learning Torah, exploring our texts, celebrating Shabbat, just to name a few. Without ever doing any research, my gut tells me that having mitzvah translated as “good deed” was because America’s Jews don’t like being told what to do! (Not even by God.)

You see, I believe that being independent and ambitious can be wonderful things. But we need something to keep us grounded. That is where Jewish tradition and observance come in. The world isn’t all about us. We are often caught up with pursuing success, but what about pursuing significance? That is where I depend on our rituals. To remind us, gently (sometimes not so gently), that there is more out there than just me…and I have to contract a little bit to make room for others.

These traditions that we have inherited, they do have boundaries — “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” As our American Jewish community becomes more and more integrated, we tend to remove some of these boundaries. We might consider them as too exclusive or out of date. Sometimes, that is true. That is a big part of my choosing Reform Judaism. I am a Reform Jew not for Judaism to be convenient, but to have the opportunity to consider, explore, and challenge our teachings in light of what we know and experience today.

Nevertheless, I do recognize that there are responsiblities I have as a Jew. These ideas come from God, and they come from my community.  The idea of mitzvah as a sacred Jewish obligation is still compelling to me and I want it to be compelling to others. It isn’t necessarily one particular mitzvah that I hope people would connect to…but the idea of being connected to observance that links us to our people, to our heritage, and to God. And since there are mitzvot that are incumbent upon me to perform (not just the ethical, but also the ritual), then I need to figure out how to engage them in authentic, meaningful ways. Naturally, that doesn’t happen because I simply want it to….  It is like a baby learning to walk. It takes time doing it — living it — until it might make sense and become a natural feeling.

With all of that said, I do believe in boundaries — in expectations. I have never believed that Reform Judaism is a version of “Judaism lite.” It has never been defined by what I don’t do. For me, I have agreed to be obligated to participate in a journey with my people towards a meaningful life with God leading the way.  So while I believe in having boundaries, I think where they are located are going to be different in different communities. I am ok with that. But…these boundaries were never meant to be barriers to Jewish life and they ought not be barriers to entrance into the Jewish community. At first glance, it might be easy to see them this way. But for Judaism to be more than a reflection of the practices of a particular ethnic group, then we need to carve out a little space to protect and cherish the ideas and ideals we have inherited and reclaimed in our age.

I wonder what do other people think about the boundaries of Judaism. Are we just past all of that?

Do we think that they are good, but I just don’t want to be bound ot them?

How do we feel about shifting them?

Can boundaries preserve what seems to be a shrinking population of Jews? 

Oh, one last thing. Since you went this far, I thought I would share what I consider to be a very thoughtful statement. It is the most recent platform from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform movement’s rabbinical organization) and is referred to as our “Statement of Principles” (1999). All of the past platforms are listed here, but I think every Reform Jew should spend a little time unpacking this statement: http://ccarnet.org/documentsandpositions/platforms/

I look forward to seeing what you think…

OK. Just so we are clear…I am not a Reformed Jew.

As a religious orientation or an expression of conviction, “reformed” doesn’t really work for me. And while we are at it, neither does “really Reform.” That might even be worse!

The term “reform” means: to put or change into an improved form or condition. If it was a Reformed Judaism, then whatever changes or modifications to our community were already done and we have nothing new to learn. We would just keep doing what we have been doing.

Well, that isn’t what I signed up for.

Reform Judaism is — for me — a beautiful, principled, provocative Jewish orientation that has driven a movement to do amazing, inspiring things. Once upon a time, I thought the early reformers (before there was a Reform Jewish movement) were simply assimilationists. I bought into the idea that they just wanted to be accepted by their Christian neighbors and that all they wanted to do was to find an easy route and blend in. I frowned upon those early Classical Reform Jews.

As I learned more about these movers and shakers in Judaism, I realized that I was so wrong. While I don’t subscribe to a Classical Reform orientation — the perspectives of rational Jewish thought, an ultimate universalism, its emphasis on piety, among other things — I do believe that these Jewish revolutionaries set the stage for the creative and innovative expressions of Judaism that we have today. They deliberated at great length, using Jewish sources to bring about new opinions on how to live righteous Jewish lives. While they might have gone in directions too far to the left for me in the year 2011, I am grateful for their courage to say that the reform of Judaism was necessary  to remain relevant and compelling to the majority of Jews (as it has always been).

And here’s another thing (since you have read this far…): Reform Judaism isn’t “Judaism lite.”  When folks talk about “really Reform,” it implies that they don’t observe anything. Reform is not a synonym for non-observant; it is not a term to imply illiteracy. Reform Judaism is not a haven for convenience, although for some it has been just that. We must stop implying that Reform is the same as doing less or even doing nothing. It does not reflect ourselves accurately and it fuels the fires of division amongst our people.

Sure, there are folks who are members of Reform synagogues who may not be so well equipped to explain aspects of Jewish tradition or Reform Jewish positions. Others are highly engaged in Jewish life. The essence, though, of this branch of Judaism has always been about making principled decisions about Jewish life in an effort to walk in God’s ways that are consistent with modern ways of thinking.

Here are a few things that I find so compelling within the Reform movement:

  • its unfailing commitment to women’s equality and egalitarianism.
  • the idea that Revelation (the idea that God has a message for the Jewish people which, traditionally was “revealed” at Sinai and given to the generations that followed) is ongoing. It wasn’t given only at Sinai. God’s Truth has been revealed and shared in every generation since Sinai.
  • prayer is a dynamic experience. It adapts/reforms to the realities of the times and the truths we discover in every generation to bring meaning into our lives.
  • it stands on the shoulders of our ancestors who have adapted to new situations to make our Tradition relevant and compelling.
  • its unwavering commitment to social justice and repairing a broken world.
  • it speaks to my soul – Reform Jews strive to find the delicate balance between contemporary society and longstanding tradition.
  • its devotion to Zionism and a pluralistic, democratic Jewish State of Israel.
  • it is OK to say out loud that there is a human hand in the authorship of Torah, and simultaneously believe that God is present in it (don’t worry…there is a future blog post on this one topic).

I can go on and on.

The reform of Judaism has never stopped and it never will. Our innovations, balanced with commitment to tradition, lead to paths where many find what they seek — meaning, spiritual fulfillment, ethical guidance, comfort, a connection to community and People, and yes…a relationship with the Kadosh Baruch Hu (The Holy One of Blessing).

So yes, you can be religious, observant, and still be a Reform Jew. We don’t have to compare ourselves to someone else’s standard. We don’t have to compare ourselves to our more traditional sisters and brothers. I subscribe to a “Torah – true” Judaism. Finding truth in Torah is not reserved only for Orthodoxy. I am happy to accept the paradox that we find Truth on different paths, nevertheless, we are one people who serve one God.

So if you consider yourself a Reform Jew, say it proudly. Our movement has accomplished a lot. Many have benefited (not only Reform Jews!). But there is so much more to do.

With all that said…more than identifying as Reform, I identify as a Jew. Period. Labels have the power to confuse us of what is important. The “Reform” describes the path of Judaism I choose. But essentially, we are Jews forever connected with one another. God didn’t give a different Torah to Conservative Jews and another to Reconstructionist Jews, etc. God gave the Jewish People the Torah. The difference is how we engage it.

For the curious learner, a few recent things to note:

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