Thursday, March 31, 2011

Reflections on CCAR

Okay, I'm back from NOLA. I've been mostly blogging at the official blog site, but for those who didn't keep up. I'll post what little I did this week. Then I'll be catching up on sleep and gearing up for Shabbat! I've added a little bit of video to what I posted before but the images are 'native' to the blog posts.

Just got into the hotel, sadly too late to register. Got to fly down with a ‘certainty’ of rabbis (as Peter Sagal insisted was the technical term for a plurality of rabbis), including William Kuhn, Peter Rigler, Eric Wisnia, Carolyn Bricklin and Andrea Weiss. Looking forward to catching up with more colleagues tomorrow!


I first read Roger Kamnetz’s The Jew in The Lotus around the same time as I was studying Kafka and Nachman of Bratzlav (separately) so it was bashert (or at least wonderful luck) that his new book, Burnt Books, converges on these very different yet similar topics. The book, which he discussed today in a pre-convention study session, is an intellectual biography (of sorts) of two wildly different individuals: the tormented hasidic master (to use Art Green’s turn of phrase) who may have been a tzaddik ha-dor and the tormented secular writer of the twenties, both of whom were consumed with the fire of their ‘torah’.

I’ve been reading the book with great interest; both are some of the great storytellers of ‘modernity’ (though Nachman would not have appreciated that term) and both deal with the very profound issues of spiritual alienation in their writing. And both burned their books. As Kamenetz writes: “The gesture suggests that the act of writing in itself is profoundly important, even if no one ever reads it, a prospect most writers today would find difficult.” And in fact, for both writers, it was the act of writing that was sacred; the fear, of course, was that the wrong readership would somehow malign their texts, reduce them and reimagine them inappropriately (which to some degree has come to pass: as Kamenetz points out, most scholars think Nachman was insane, and everyone has claimed Kafka as their own to the point that there are thousands of Kafkas running amok in bibliographies).

The discussion itself wasn’t so much about Kamenetz’s book (although it was about that) but about the nature of the spiritual discourse we engage in as rabbis. At least, that was my question. For many of us, to talk about God is to encounter a gatekeeper, much like the one in Kafka’s parable of the Law, or any number of Bratzlaver tales. We face obstacles to God encounters again and again, and the question becomes, what then are our spiritual values? Like the young Jews of Kafka’s era, we have become disillusioned with Modernity and are trying to reclaim something of the ascension of the soul, even while we face the twin atheisms (as Nachman put it) of critical thinking and the emptiness of the soul that happens when we descend to nothing. So what are we then left with? Secular values. To quote: “Chutzpah is not a jewish spiritual value. If you want to claim that it is a spiritual value, you’re going to have to do a lot of work. It is certainly a post-modern secular jewish value supreme. is chutzpah what the soul wants? Is it about the soul? That’s the question.”

So how do we answer the question? For Kamenetz, we must engage the soul through our feelings, and overcome the obstacles, work our way deeper into the pain we feel in order to approach God. For us, the question might be: how are we the Gatekeepers, and how are we the ones at the Gate? How do we remove obstacles and how do we help guide our congregants through their own spiritual obstacles? What can we do to help those around us encounter and engage their souls, and bring their souls back from the brink?

Like a Bratzlaver tale of a lost princess, the ending is not clear, except that we do overcome the obstacles. And we do so, at least from the vantage point of Kamenetz, by going to those places of hurt ourselves, and running the risk that we ourselves may not escape the descent.

Hope others who were at the session will chime in with their thoughts and observations…


There is something really wonderful about seeing a classmate in action. One of my friends (Rabbi Dan Fellman) observed today that we so rarely get to see each other ‘doing our thing’; that once we’re out of school we get together to study or for conventions, but most of us don’t get the chance to see how we’ve grown and developed as rabbis and who we’ve become since ordination.

For me and many of my classmates, today was one of those days, as Dr. Joshua Garroway, my classmate and friend, presented on the other side of the Prophetic voice. it was classic Josh: with great thoughtfulness and careful analysis of the text (with heaping servings of humor) we looked at the dark, disturbing side to the Prophetic Vision of the end of history; that is, for all the world to be one and God’s name to be one (as we read in Aleinu, quoting Zechariah) we must first encounter catastrophe, disaster, and destruction. Again and again the prophets put forward not just images of peace and justice and redemption but also suffering and turmoil, as a necessary precursor to the age of redemption. As Josh said: “Our prophets speak of war, devestation and destruction as inevitable forerunners of peace, justice and harmony at the end of history.”

So what do we do with that voice? Our first instinct is to disregard it (apparently the RAMBAM agrees), or to leave that aspect of the prophetic vision to those nonliberal religious traditions that are focused on some vision of victory born from misery. Or, we could recapture the text, and here is where the innovation happens: that perhaps these texts could be reimagined. Not merely as descriptions of God’s wrath against Israel and the world, but also of the universal empathy that emerges after a crisis. That we, when faced with the horrifying (the tsunami in Japan, or the earthquakes in Haiti), reveal a profound universalist and compassionate streak as evoked in the Aleinu. For the Prophets, that crisis is necessary to create redemption; but what would it mean to capture that sense of care for all without the crisis? And how do we challenge our congregations (and ourselves) to engage in that kind of love in a meaningful way?

Needless to say, it was a marvelous chance to study, and a great opportunity to see a colleague and friend put forward his best self.

Finally (and self-indulgently) an apology for so late a report. One of the wonderful things about CCAR is all of the unplanned or semi-planned stuff: the conversations in the hotel lobby or walking down the street, dinner with classmates, late-night sessions talking about some project or another. Tonight had all of those wonderful encounters, so I find myself delayed, but rejoicing in the sacredness of each opportunity.


When I was asked to blog the convention, I found it really, really funny. Frankly, I still do. Sure, I Facebook, I blog, but those just feel like digital versions of what I do already. The blog is a bulletin article–a more interactive one to be sure, but similar in nature. Facebook is a 24/7 Oneg conversation: “Rabbi, there’s this article I saw…” “did you know so-and-so is in the hospital?” “Did you hear this joke?”

So the Freehof Institute seminar on Halacha and the Internet was of great interest to me, especially because of the eagerness on the part of rabbis and our congregants to use technology and the questions they raise. Does someone watching a live-stream service count in the minyan? And is it ethical or appropriate to even have a live-streamed service? How does our connectivity effect or ability to observe Shabbat or make sacred time for ourselves? Does that technology enhance or detract from the Shabbat experience.

Sadly, I was only able to hear the first two papers, but they raised great questions and important nuances. For the live-streaming of services, for example, there are compelling reasons to broadcast the worship of a congregation, not the least of which is bikkur cholim: a homebound congregant, the ill grandmother of a bar mitzvah who can’t travel. And, there is precedent in the tradition for the online viewer to be consideredyotzei through their participation (though they wouldn’t count as a 10th member of the minyan). However, what questions does it raise about copyright permission with regards to the liturgies and music being used? What about the permission of the worshippers (or lack thereof) to be photographed? And how does the presence of the camera change the service? Does tech support impugn the ability to lead a meaningful service for the congregation? And what happens if the service ends up on YouTube, especially if there’s something on the video embarrassing to one of the participants? All of these questions need to be tackled before just jumping at the chance to broadcast to the world.

The second part of the seminar–on connectivity and Shabbat–requires an equally nuanced view. Does technology add oneg and kedusha? For some, perhaps: the use of Skype to talk to grandma, or the ability for a worshiper to share his inspired feelings from a service on Facebook (at NFTY convention this year the participants were encouraged to tweet services, for example). But what if it’s the inability to put down Angry Birds at the cost of time spent with family. And of course, what about us, for whom Shabbat is already a ‘busman’s holiday’: does our need (real or imagined) to be on and available all the time make technology and even greater temptation to work when we should be enjoying some much-needed menucha?

As the presenters left the questions unanswered so shall I, but it’s worth asking the questions as we move toward ‘teching’ up our Jewish experiences more and more...

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Normally don't blog on Shabbes, but

I normally try to avoid blogging on Shabbat, but as part of my Shabbes reading, I came across this interview with Rick Jacobs, the newly designated head of the URJ. Worth a read. You can find it at the JTA. Two quotes:

"“There’s no anti. It’s all pro,” he said. “Nothing Jewish is alien to us. Reform Judaism is an evolving and profound expression of the Jewish tradition. Its essence is to respond to the call of God and to the imperatives of the day.”"

“We want to make exciting synagogues the norm,” he said. “Synagogues cannot wait for people to walk into their buildings. The synagogue has to walk into the public square and engage people, particularly Jews in their 20s and 30s. People still crave and need a deep sense of community.”

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Including Jews With Financial Challenges by |

This article is very important, and you should read it. I'm proud of the way our congregation handles the issue of cost, but I know not everyone has a positive experience, not every synagogue (or JCC, or Day School, Preschool, etc.) knows how to handle the issue. This isn't a 'fault' issue, so much as well-meaning people trying to make something work and help people connect in a meaningful way to the Jewish community... I hope this effort by the JOI allows more congregations etc. bring more Jews into affiliated life.

Including Jews With Financial Challenges by |

Including Jews With Financial Challenges

By Paul Golin / March 24, 2011

This article originally appeared at E Jewish Philanthropy.

At any given time, the majority of US Jewish households are not affiliated with Jewish institutions like synagogues or JCCs. There are many reasons why, perhaps the most important being that the organized community hasn’t made a strong enough case for the meaning and value of being affiliated. There’s a subset of the unaffiliated, however, who already understand the meaning and value – or who, like most affiliated households, simply want or need the services provided – but do not affiliate because of their own personal financial situations. And the size of this subset has likely grown during the recent Great Recession. What can the Jewish community do to make sure that a financial challenge is not the reason keeping an individual from affiliating?

During the past decade, we at the Jewish Outreach Institute have conducted “environmental scans” of over 500 Jewish institutions in more than a dozen Jewish communities of all sizes, to determine how each looks to potential newcomers. On the issue of financial accessibility, models vary widely but the most common remains a set membership or fee, usually dependent upon household structure, often with accommodations made for age or current lifecycle (for example, most institutions have come to recognize that young adults in their 20s can’t join at the same financial level as their parents).

For others with financial challenges, there is almost universal agreement among Jewish communal professionals that their organizations will make accommodations. However, how that actually works is in no way uniform and in fact represents a serious barrier to participation. In most organizations, those accommodations are not advertised in any way – the impetus is on the financially-challenged to ask for assistance. It is safe to assume that for every individual who does ask, there are many more that don’t, either out of shame or simply because they were unaware it was even an option.

This challenge is currently being addressed by the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, an advocacy initiative coordinated by the Jewish Outreach Institute of over 450 organizations seeking a more inclusive community, in a campaign called, “There’s No Shame In Asking.”

We timed the campaign around Purim because we imagined what the hero of the story, Esther, must have experienced before approaching her husband the king to disclose a piece of her identity that she had previously kept private. She must have feared rejection or being made to feel ashamed. Thankfully for the countless generations of Jews since, she did come forward and she was met with sensitivity and understanding. If there are people today who want to be a part of our community, perhaps to educate their children Jewishly, but doesn’t come forward with their financial challenges because they fear rejection, who knows how many countless future Jews we might lose?

To provide a more uniformed message to those with financial challenges, member organizations in the Big Tent Judaism Coalition are being furnished with large-format cards [PDF version here] that they can distribute to potential new members. The cards provide two key pieces of information: encouragement, including a standard sentence to initiate the conversation, “I’d like to learn more about adjustments offered on your organization’s (membership/tuition/program) fees”; and the name and contact information of a specific individual at the organization that is distributing the cards. The contact person is essential because whoever is on the receiving end of that sentence needs to be able to reply with sensitivity and confidentiality, and to clearly articulate the organization’s policies.

We recognize the many challenges in such an advocacy campaign, and why so many organizations have been hesitant to make public their willingness to accommodate those with financial challenges. Many organizations are hurting financially as well, and this approach seems counterintuitive to their bottom line. Others fear that people might take advantage of an organization’s sensitivity by lying about their financial needs. To address these and other concerns, we’ve initiated a conversation among organizations to share best practices, and additional features of the campaign will include a webinar of what we’ve learned from the field.

But we initiated this campaign, especially during these difficult economic times, because we felt strongly that this was a barrier to participation in Jewish communal life that we could address for those who are currently financially challenged; and that by doing so we could showcase our values as a community. We want people inside our tent. We want to serve those who are struggling. Those of us who may have struggled in the past but are in a better place now and want to give back, want to bring more people with us, and doing so together as a community sends a powerful message that we are extending our hands from a position of moral strength rather than withdrawing due to a fear of economic uncertainty.

We invite all Jewish organizations to participate in this campaign by joining the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, which is free and only requires that the organization aspires to the “Ten Principles of Big Tent Judaism”; learn more and sign up here.

Paul Golin is associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which serves as the coordinating organization of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition.

Off To New Orleans

In case I don't get to post again until motzei Shabbat, I'm on my way to New Orleans for the CCAR conference (hashtag #ccar11). Somehow I got asked to blog the convention with some much smarter, more technologically savvy people than me, so you'll be able to follow along here starting on Sunday (it's not really live yet, so no peeking!).

CCAR is one of those things I look forward to every year, and not only because it's a chance to explore a new city and do a little networking (though that happens as well). It's a chance for me to recharge my spiritual and theological batteries. I get to gather with colleagues and longtime friends, people I respect tremendously, and catch up with them, study with them, commiserate with them, learn what's going on in their lives, daven with them. We share old jokes that still somehow manage to be fresh, trade 'war stories', and learn best practices. We get ideas for what to study or read next, sermon ideas, thoughts on adult ed courses to teach and programs to initiate. And for 'political' junkies like me there's opportunity aplenty to sit down and discuss the fate and direction of the movement and where we should go. It's more than a school reunion, more than camp for Jews. For me, it's a pilgrimage.
So, hope to see many of you there, and for those I don't, keep checking in!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Poetry in response to Bombs

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won't even mention the howl of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making
a circle with no end and no God.
--Yehuda Amichai

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Whither Reform Part II--Congratulating Rick Jacobs

Well, we got a partial answer today: Rabbi Rick Jacobs, senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale New York (one of the most dynamic congregations in the country and one of the original Synagogue 2000 congregations) has been selected to be the new President of the Union for Reform Judaism. Himself a founder of S2K, active in the wider Jewish world, scholarship, and dance (he's a former choreographer and dancer of the Avodah Dance company), I have no doubt in my mind that he will do some dynamic and engaging things with the Reform Movement (no pun intended). I know he'll take the URJ where it needs to go; I hope he'll have the freedom of movement he needs to make real and serious institutional changes, and help the movement recommit to a vision and mission that fits. B'hatzlacha to him on this wonderful achievement. May he go from strength to strength.

Whither Reform?

To begin this post, let me be clear: I'm not shrying gavult over the fate of the Reform Movement, nor am I worried about its future--Reform Synagogues will continue with strength, along with the Camps, the Religious Action Center, and the College-Institute. The ethos of Reform will thrive long after I'm gone: egalitarianism, welcoming others, social justice, and embracing a Jewish life fully inclusive of modernity and modern values. Having said that, there is an anxiety out there, reflected in the article by David Ellenson I posted last week, and several articles in the Forward (and other places) on the future of Reform, including an article from a month (or more) ago on the efforts of some Reform rabbis to enter dialogue with the movement institutions about their future--especially that of the URJ--right when Rabbi Eric Yoffie is stepping down as President. (an effort I've signed off on, by the way).

So it's pretty clear that the Reform Movement's institutions are at a crossroads. Reform has never been more relevant as a practice, but what should be the priority (or priorities), the direction, of the Reform Movement as practiced by her institutions? Where should Reform go as a movement? How should it be structured? Who should lead the way? What do you think?

Toward a more assertive liberal Judaism - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

You might not agree with this argument; there are parts of it I find a tad strident myself, which I suppose would be typical. After all, should not a liberal Jew who preaches tolerance be tolerant of others? However, there is much worthy food for thought as we reflect on what it means to be a liberal or progressive Jew...

Toward a more assertive liberal Judaism

The orthodox narrative about Judaism must be confronted, challenged, refuted: vocally, diligently, persistently; may this be the first step.

By Alex Sinclair Tags: Jewish World US Israel news

The pluralist agenda of the liberal Jewish movements, while admirable in principle, can sometimes lead us to be less vocal about why we differ from Orthodox Judaism, and why that difference is important.

Liberal Judaism makes a powerful claim, and the claim is that Orthodox Judaism is, at its core, wrong. Orthodox Judaism is built around a narrative that contains a foundational error: “The Torah was written by God and given to Moses on Mount Sinai”. This statement, and the orthodox religious narrative that emerges from it, has been disproven by generations of Biblical scholars, archaeologists, sociologists of religion, and historians. These scholars have demonstrated “beyond a reasonable doubt,” in the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ words, that the traditional, orthodox understanding of Jewish history is false. The origins of Judaism are much more complicated than that.

Why, then, do we still allow that discredited understanding to remain the dominant and default narrative in the Jewish world? Why do we allow it to be repeated in the public marketplace without censure? Why do we stay silent before those who believe it, rather than make clear the untenability of their position?

I want to suggest three reasons: complacency about the narrative’s danger; fear of disunity; and concern about assimilation.

We are complacent about the Orthodox narrative because our eyes are blinkered to the damage that it has already done, and the dangers that it holds.

The Orthodox narrative is the main rationale and driving force behind Israel’s mistaken settlement enterprise of the past 40 years. This is obvious when one thinks about the national religious movement (“God gave us this land”), but it’s also true, if less obvious, when one examines the tacit consent given by the non-orthodox majority to this ill-starred experiment. Many non-observant Jews believe the Orthodox narrative, and therefore have a grudging respect for those who live their lives by it. This Jewish guilt is particularly prevalent in the Sephardi community, where vast numbers of non-observant Jews vote for Shas because, in part, of a belief that they keep the flame of “real Judaism” burning. But it’s not confined to Sephardim.

Large sections of the Jewish people, particularly in Israel, have tolerated the right-wing settlement agenda because they respect the beliefs of orthodox settlers. The time has come to challenge those beliefs more assertively. Fundamentalist orthodox ideology is based on historically incorrect claims and dubious assumptions about Jewish history. It’s time we said so.

To be clear: I’m not denying the Jewish people’s historical connection with the land of Israel, nor am I questioning our right to political self-determination on part of that land.

What I am denying is the fundamentalist narrative that sees the connection as divinely ordained, and the subsequent use of that divine narrative to justify political actions.

Israel is increasingly controlled by those who are guided by the orthodox narrative. It’s not just the settlements, but also the place of non-Jews in Israeli society, the legitimacy of non-orthodox Jewish streams, the rights of minorities, educational subsidies, and a dozen other issues. Israel’s current government is a terrifying coalition of those who believe and live by the orthodox narrative (the ultra-orthodox and national orthodox), and what I call the “orthophiles”: non-observant Jews who may not live by the practices of orthodoxy, but nevertheless believe or respect the orthodox narrative (Shas’s voters, the Likud party, and even much of the supposedly secular Yisrael Beiteinu party). This coalition of the orthodox and the orthophiles is leading Israel towards several abysses at once.

Liberal Jews in both Israel and the Diaspora must try to stop this cultural and political coalition before it is too late, and one way we can do that is by challenging the core claims of the orthodox narrative.

A second reason that we allow the orthodox narrative to hold center stage is our own fear of Jewish disunity. We tread on eggshells for fear of saying that others’ opinions might be “wrong” or “false”. We nod our heads when we hear absurd and historically ridiculous statements spouted by orthodox friends, because we believe in everyone’s right to their own opinion, and because we want to be nice. We think it’s important to be united as a people, so we swallow our pride and allow the orthodox narrative to become the default Jewish position.

Ironically, it is Orthodox Judaism that is the main force leading to the destruction of the Jewish people’s unity. Liberal Jews are like, l’havdil, abused spouses. For decades, orthodox Jews have ignored our concerns, discriminated against our converts, insulted our rabbis, and used our money against us; yet we still smile weakly at them and cling to the hope that they’ll make nice. No. This is not about the unity of the Jewish people any more; it’s about the vision of the Jewish people. No longer can we allow that vision to be sacrificed on the altar of unity.

The third reason we tolerate the orthodox narrative as default is because we are concerned about assimilation, and deep down we wonder if the narrative, even if it’s false, might help stem the tide of Jews leaving the Jewish people. We are right to be concerned about assimilation, and we need to roll up our sleeves and develop passionate but liberal arguments for why Jewishness is a wonderful and enriching prism through which to live life. The fight against assimilation is certainly harder without the orthodox narrative, but we dare not sacrifice truth for Jewish continuity.

All this is not to say that we should cease being pluralist. Liberal Jews must continue to talk with and learn from each other, wherever they are on the denominational spectrum.

We must also talk with and learn from thinking orthodox Jews who are open to such dialogues, and there are many. But pluralism, dialogue, and mutual learning must no longer be allowed to obscure the genuine disputes about history and ideology that separate us, and we liberal Jews must be more prepared to dispute the fundamentalist orthodox position in our dialogues with orthodox friends and colleagues.

A new world Jewish movement is needed: a movement of Jews who are no longer prepared to remain quiet and cede Jewishness to a fundamentalist, incorrect orthodox narrative. This orthodox narrative must be confronted, challenged, refuted: vocally, diligently, persistently. May this be the first step.

Dr Alex Sinclair is the director of programs in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary. He lives In Modiin, Israel.

Toward a more assertive liberal Judaism - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

Thursday, March 17, 2011

David Ellenson: Reform Judaism Isn’t an Island –

As always, our teacher David Ellenson speaks words of truth:

These days, everyone seems to have something to say about what they think is wrong with Reform Judaism.

We have heard that the Reform movement is, at best, in stasis and, at worst, facing a significant decline in its membership rolls. Some argue that Reform institutions are insufficiently nimble and overly bureaucratic. Others point to what they see as an underlying ideological or theological malaise, suggesting that Reform Judaism does not galvanize Reform Jews to acknowledge and act upon their covenantal obligations.

Many of the critiques come from within our movement, others from outside it. Most are offered as constructive criticism, while a few are mean-spirited polemics. (Glenn Beck has even got in on the act!)

Amid this wave of criticism and consternation, we should not lose sight of the great strengths that Reform Judaism displays. As I travel throughout the United States and Canada, I see synagogues where attendance at services is significant and worship is spiritually inspiring. I see thriving Reform day and afternoon religious schools, and summer camps where Judaism is a richly lived experience. I also see countless numbers of Reform Jews engaged in meaningful Torah study, acts of social justice and the forging of inclusive communities. Still, one need not ignore these triumphs to recognize that there is more than a modicum of truth in many of the expressions of concern and the critiques that we are hearing.

The organizational structures of the Reform movement often do not act in purposeful and coordinated ways to address the many challenges confronting the Jewish people. Too seldom is there an overarching vision of liberal Judaism present to guide the Reform movement as we attempt to address the great demographic and religious issues of our day.

To be sure, the fuller context of North American Jewish life as a whole must be taken into account if the challenges that the Reform movement faces are to be properly assessed and appreciated. After all, the unprecedented opportunities that Jews on this continent enjoy have resulted in ever-increasing assimilation and indifference among millions of North American Jews. This is the communal price exacted for living in an open and accepting society.

In such a setting of individualism, where traditional kinship and associational patterns among Jews have been eroded by mobility and acculturation, each Jew is now a “sovereign self,” and it is not easy to “command” Jewish participation. These forces that challenge the continuity and relevance of Judaism for so many Jews constitute a sociological storm with which the Reform movement has had to cope.

It is only fair to remember that this is a challenge for all Jews, not just for the Reform movement. However, the Reform movement is committed to outreach and inclusion, to not neglecting any Jew. Our hope is that we can inspire and motivate those persons on the periphery of our community and bring them back to a center. Reform Judaism calls upon itself to address Jews of “thin” Jewish culture, i.e., those who lack a strong background of Jewish education and involvement, while not neglecting those who were raised in an environment of “thick” Jewish commitments and affiliations. Of course, this is no easy task.

There is no magic bullet to resolve the challenges we face. Organizational reform is surely desirable, but institutional reorganization cannot accomplish the task of making Reform Judaism relevant to all Jews. Similarly, theology and vision are crucial. Nevertheless, we should not be naïve and assume that a commanding and compelling theology will inspire all Jews to participate meaningfully in Jewish life.

Here we must recognize that Judaism is an adult religion. We must acknowledge that the complexity and plurality that mark modern life do not allow for simple answers to multivalent and textured problems. Indeed, I harbor no illusions that there are any quick fixes to the problems that confront North American Judaism.

The recognition of the enormity of the tasks that confront the Reform movement does not excuse us from our responsibilities. If anything, this knowledge requires us to ask with urgency how the movement can best be organized and act. Our goal must be to inspire modern Jews to affirm traditional Jewish commitments to God, Torah and Israel while simultaneously insisting upon an open and honest engagement with the modern world.

Rabbi Leo Baeck once wrote, “An inheritance cannot be fabricated, let alone forced. It can only be assumed by a freedom that has the ability to build on it. When a man forms his life, he begins to create community. He is not only born into community as if by fate, but he has now been called to the task of molding it.” We who are his heirs must live up to this call.

Rabbi David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

David Ellenson: Reform Judaism Isn’t an Island –

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Equality in Delaware

Okay, so the joke about the Reform movement is that it's a list of Democratic Party initiatives with some holidays thrown in, but I'm going to live up to that joke for this post.

I try not to get political, but this is, for me, a Human Rights issue, rather than a political one, though it's manifesting itself politically.

I have recently added my name to a list of clergy (Jewish and Christian) supporting an initiative by State Senator David Sokola and Representative Melanie George to introduce Civil Partnership in the State of Delaware. This bill will create a recognized legal relationship for same-sex couples, with all benefits and obligations. This is fully in accordance with the values espoused by the Reform Movement (both the URJ and the CCAR), and are not new issues for our movement (Gay marriage has been endorsed since at least the 1990s).

The bill is supposed to be filed on March 22nd. I'm not sure I'll be able to be in Dover for the formal filing, but I sincerely hope it succeeds and will do what I can to support it. If you are a Delaware Resident, I encourage you to voice your support for this bill by contacting your representative and State Senator.

For more information, please go to

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Earthquake and Tsunami relief

There are many places to help with relief efforts for Japan. I'm going to highlight two from the Jewish world.

the URJ:


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Hey Jack Kerouac

So yesterday (Saturday the 12th) was Jack Kerouac's birthday. In theory, not very relevant to a Jewish blog (he was a spiritual Catholic and sometime Zen Buddhist, after all). Except for me, where the connection was obvious and personal. When I was exploring my own spirituality in adolescence and early adulthood, Kerouac's own journeys--described in On The Road, The Dharma Bums and Pomes All Sizes, which had just come out when I was in college--served as guides for me. His own struggles for connection with God and people resonated with me (and still do) and in a way reflect my own quasi-mystical explorations for understanding what Divinity is and how to encounter it. That his books have not become like, say, Salinger's Catcher in the Rye; that is, scrubbed clean for use in school curricula, is a very good thing in my mind. His work is still fearless and dangerous and filled with both a sense of awe and appreciation for what is unknowable, and waits, like any good Mystery, to be discovered by each new generation of seekers.

So happy birthday "Ti Jean".

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Jewish parenting and Day Schools

I don't normally talk about Jewish parenting here, in part because there are those who do a better job of discussing the subject (Rabbi Phyllis Sommer's imaonthebima blog--look in my blogroll--is a good example). But Marisa and have regular conversations about day schools, which are becoming more and more relevant as Elishai gets older (he'll be in pre-K next year). So when Phyllis posted this blog post from the Frugal Ima and her family's debate of day-school vs. summer camp, I was intrigued and thought it was worth reposting here. Even if you aren't interested in Day Schools (or even if you do), I think there are arguments here about living a meaningful Jewish life and imparting Jewish tradition to your kids that are relevant. This list in particular of what you can do without a day school education (and should do regardless):
I truly believe that any family can impart a sense of love for being Jewish and tidbits of Jewish and Hebrew learning in their home if they are even a little bit determined. It takes hard work, yes:
  • You have to to celebrate Shabbat - every week.
  • You have to read Jewish books and listen to Jewish music - all the time.
  • You have to take your kids to shul, and not just for their friends' bnei mitzvah.
  • If you keep kosher, you have to pack lunch for them - every day.
  • Jewish values language has to become part of your everyday vocabulary.
  • You have to make a big deal about preparing for and celebrating the holidays - every holiday.
  • You have to prepare yourself to answer your kids' questions about Judaism and God, or at least know how to find the answers with them.
  • When you send your children to Hebrew school, you have to make it a priority, take it seriously, review/reinforce at home, and make sure they attend - every class.
I think we in the organizational world think that day schools are some kind of magic bullet, but the reality is that families who send their kids to day schools are also more likely to make shabbat, engage in Jewish art and cultural activities, keep kosher, use Jewish language, celebrate holidays in the home and go to shul. And just about any educational or parenting expert will tell you, kids learn by having their experiences reinforced at home. That's as true for helping with Math homework as it is with Jewish identity. This isn't to discourage from us as parents sending our kids to day schools--far from it! Rather it's a good reminder that we can't simply entrust outside 'experts'--synagogues, day schools, camp, etc.--to make our kids Jewish. That's something that only we as parents can do. And as one congregant reminded me this past week when I did some God Talk (and thanks Jeff for the reminder): parents have as much responsibility--if not more--than any rabbi or synagogue to teach their kids to value their Jewishness and maintain it.

Anyway, check out the whole posting as it's quite relevant.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Thanks for your answers and another question

So thanks for all your answers (on Facebook and in private) to my question about co-op hours and 'incentivized' volunteer time. Not sure what I'm doing with the information yet but it's something I want to explore. And thanks to Ken Kamm for pointing out The Kavanah Co-Op, a 'congregation' predicated on the idea of shared, participatory and collaborative work among its members.

This is something that's been resonating with me for a while. I'm always asking myself the question, "if I wasn't a pulpit rabbi, what synagogue would I join?" Chances are, it would look a lot like an independant minyan or chavurah; an informal, relatively unstructured community of peers coming together to create meaningful encounters with Judaism. At its heart, that's what all synagogues are. In fact, many (at least from what I've seen) were spontaneous expressions of a desire on the part of a group of Jews to create a supportive community that met their individual spiritual needs. Somewhere along the way, they accrued more and more structure: tasks that used to be done informally become formal and organized. You hire staff to do what volunteers used to do, you add more programmatic and physical offerings (events, a building, etc.) to meet expanding and varying generational needs. Mission creep sets in--or the synagogue truly evolves with the times and changing leadership.

Lance Sussman once said something in a gathering of Reform rabbis that I quote frequently: synagogues are dealing with a 19th century infrastructure (dues, boards, hierarchies, buildings, etc.) with congregants who have a 21st century mentality (destructured and decentralized lives, portability, etc.), and we have to figure out how to catch up to them fast. Or, as my youth director said quoting last week's NFTY convention: innovate or die. But the synagogue has always done this, from its earliest beginnings in the Babylonian Exile. And I have no doubt that, even through tectonic shifts in generational understanding, demographics, and Movement redefinition, the healthy synagogues will survive and be stronger for it, and be radically different, as different as the grand edifices of the 19th century were from the shteibles that preceded them and the suburban quasi-JCCs that followed.

A lot of that transition will come from how we talk about God. That sounds funny, as most synagogue talk (at least organizationally) is about physical, governmental and organizational structures, and not really about theology. At least one Reform Rabbi suggests that this is the problem: we spend all of our time talking about empowering the individual and creating programming without strengthening the theological underpinnings that lead to greater observance and personal practice, essentially creating empty shells. While I disagree with the conclusions and some of the assumptions of the writer (even if we bought into a more hierarchical theology, who's to say that anyone would find it credible?), he does raise a very interesting point, one that is also being made by the Independant Minyanim: Synagogues need to be about creating meaningful, spiritual and sacred encounters with Judaism and Jewish tradition, not only for 'mere' self-preservation, but (as Art Green argues in Radical Judaism) to empower Jews (and those who would participate) in living out a universal message of shared responsibility for our world and each other, created in the image of God. Classical Reform, for all its cold distance, got that, as surely as Neo-Chasidism and its warm fuzzies does today (now there's an image, neh?). But so long as we spend more time talking about stuff and less time talking about meaning, the less likely people are going to engage for any reason other than for services rendered (or as Menachem Creditor once quipped to me: "We get it--now let's make Torah together!").

This is especially relevant for me tomorrow, as I'm talking with the Brotherhood about God, and especially my own theological thoughts, which should be interesting since, as one congregant and friend once put it, my head is in Cincinnati, but my heart is in Lubavitch (well, at least Bratslav, or maybe Apt).

So, for those who can't make it tomorrow, let me ask you a double-barreled question:

1. What would you ask about God and encountering God (however defined by you)?
2. What do you expect to encounter in the synagogue (or your house of worship) and what do you want to encounter?