Friday, March 30, 2012

Blogging the Exodus Day 7 (Part 2): Redemption and new directions

I'm going to ask you to bear with me on this one.

So this past week those of us in the Reform Movement have been getting emails on the national restructuring. This involved laying off half the staff, including (apparently) the entire education staff along with their education director, Rabbi Jan Katzew. We got an email from our own URJ consultant yesterday morning letting us know she was gone as of today (March 30th).

At the same time, Rick Jacobs, the head of our movement (I won't say new anymore: he's been in place for 90 days: it's his ship) put out an op-ed in the Jewish Week (reblogged on the RJ blog) that gave us a hint as to the direction the URJ is going. I'm going to quote the entirety here:

NEW YORK (JTA) -- A few months back I saw "Moneyball," a film about a creative reimagination of Major Leaguebaseball. In my favorite scene, Billy Beane, the legendary general manager of the Oakland Athletics, challenges his scouts to think differently about the game if they are to have any chance at success. Beane declares, “Adapt or die.” These words haven’t stopped echoing in my head.
In this new era of Jewish life -- an era defined for many by the abundance of choices we face in every aspect of our lives -- our synagogues must adapt or risk becoming ossified. Synagogue life is too important to be entrusted solely to those who already are within congregational walls. We must, emphatically, expand the notion of what a synagogue means. That's the path being blazed by the Union for Reform Judaism and others seeking to widen the embrace of Jewish life.
Today, less than 50 percent of American Jews are synagogue members. The fastest growing group in the Jewish community is what we too often call the “the unaffiliated.” The term, of course, puts the onus on them. I  prefer to call that group "the uninspired"; it’s our job to inspire and help them find their place in the Jewish community.
How? By reorientating our synagogues to address the needs of this group. Most of the time the synagogue is not reaching them. Synagogues must speak to the soul; they must challenge and educate.
Against a secular culture that places each individual at the center of the universe, we can choose to be part of something larger than just ourselves. Taking responsibility for others lifts us out of the indulgence and narrowness of self and connects us to a world of meaning and purpose. Rebuilding broken lives in the developing world is surely a part of our sacred calling, as is caring for our Jewish elders in Brighton Beach or the Ethiopian Jewish girl living in Beersheva amid rocket fire from Gaza.
Synagogues must be places where we extend ourselves to people we don’t know. It is easier to associate only with those who are just like us, but being part of a sacred community makes us responsible for those who think, earn, practice and vote differently than we do. That is how our souls get stretched beyond their narrow reach.
Our web of mutual responsibility doesn’t end with those in our congregation. Rather that’s where it begins.
Synagogues must reassess their focus on what happens outside their walls. Young Jews on the outside are not knocking on the door. It is our collective responsibility and challenge to reach them by breaking down the synagogue walls and engaging them, wherever they may be.
A growing network of urban congregations including Temple Israel in Boston, Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco and Temple Emanu-El in Dallas are doing just that. In Atlanta, St. Louis, Washington, Miami and elsewhere, Reform congregations are going where young people are -- to coffee shops and bars, gyms and apartments. Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y., sponsors Shabbat in the 'Hood: Unaffiliated Jews host a young rabbi in their homes for a festive and educational Shabbat dinner.
When I served as the senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., we hired a rabbinic intern from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and told him never to step inside the temple. We knew that most of our young people weren’t in the synagogue or even in the suburban neighborhood anymore; they were seeking new lives and careers in New York City, and that’s where they needed to be found.
A bright Jewish future requires us to widen our circles of responsibility and geography.
We must create a web of mutual extension that begins in the congregation and, in theory, is limitless. That web is something 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, making individuals into congregations, congregations into movements, movements into one united Jewish people and the Jewish people into a force for good and for God -- everywhere. The congregation is simply, and crucially, where the “me to we” begins.
In his commentary on Leviticus, the great scholar Nachmanides wonders why God had to summon Moses to enter the first praying place. His answer imagines that Moses hesitated to enter because he was intimidated by the holiness of the ancient Mishkan, or tabernacle. Today, too many of our people remain outside the walls of our synagogues sometimes intimidated, but even more often simply uninspired. We can change; we can adapt the enduring institution to this dramatic moment in Jewish history.
What are we waiting for?

So I post all of this under the rubric of Redemption because, simply, I'm torn. I'm torn between my cynicism regarding the bureaucratic animal that is the URJ and my hopes for its future.

Allow me a story to illustrate: 9 years ago at a biennial I went to a program on engaging 20s/30s. Every person on that panel was from a major metro area with a large population of Jewish folks: San Francisco, New York, LA, Boston. I asked a whole bunch of questions on what to do when not in a major metro area and offered to be a part of their endeavors. So I got myself a 20s/30s consultant from the (then) UAHC and scheduled a phone meeting. The chat was very pleasant, but she kept suggesting the kinds of things one does in the city. I finally stopped her and said, "look, I'm out here in Bucks County. If I leave the office and make a left turn, I hit a state park. The right, I hit a farm. What can you offer me?" The suggestions were to then partner up with someone downtown in Philly. Needless to say, I ignored the advice and found other 20s/30s individuals who were willing to create something different that worked for a non-urban setting.

I say this not to toot my own horn, but to illustrate one of the profound difficulties the URJ has traditionally had in dealing with congregations that don't have all the money or all the natural resources available to, say, a large metro congregation.

I've been a part of the Reform Movement my whole life. I'm a product of its camps and youth programs, its seminary. I've sat on committees, gone to retreats, been to more biennials than anyone my age should be able to admit. In my rabbiniate, i have been fully invested in transforming synagogue life into one that was inclusive, diverse, that stretched the definition of what it meant to be a synagogue and part of the community.

I've also struggled, and this transition gives me pause.  Resources for this kind of programming is often hard to find. I can't hire staff to serve different needs, and my volunteers' time is stretched thin already serving those who are already in the congregation. I do what I can to be out in the community (and certainly my congregation sees that as an essential part of my job), but I have to balance that against serving the needs of those congregants who are already 'inspired'. I don't have the advantage of being in a major metropolitan area. I don't have money to do the kinds of programming I'd like to do (and the URJ thinks I ought).  Frequently I've asked for help from the URJ, and as illustrated, frequently received none, or worse, bad advice. I've also volunteered and often been told that my energies weren't wanted or needed (to be fair, the URJ has done a better job than, say, the CCAR in that regard). When I signed onto the Rabbinic Vision Initiative back in the spring, it was with the hopes that this would reenergize the movement and move us away from the bad habits of the past. When I emailed my RVI contact after the High Holidays I received nary a response.

So I need redemption. Specifically I need redemption from my own lousy expectations. I don't want to be cynical, or sad. I like Rabbi Jacobs; I think he's a smart guy with a lot of good ideas. He's been a congregational rabbi his whole career, so he KNOWS what it means to be out there doing the work. But I also see a lack of transparency that has been pervasive in the URJ. I see a setting of expectations and a use of modelling that again, focuses too much on the urban areas and not enough on places like Bucks County, or Wilmington, or other exurbs (never mind small towns and the like). I see a call for our help and creativity but have too many memories of when I responded to those calls and no one reached back.

When Israel was redeemed from Egypt, it required miracles and marvels, not only to prove to the Egyptians that God was all-powerful, but to prove to Israel that this was the real deal; that redemption, put off for 400  years (or 425, but who's counting?) was really at hand. We poo-poo Israel for needing "signs and portents and wonders", but you know what? That's what I need for my own Redemption. That's what I need to know that this is the real deal. I need real, meaningful conversations that help us--help ME--do the kind of transformational and inspirational work that my community needs.  I need to see that the Union is doing what it can to help those 30-odd educators and rabbis and committed staff-members land on their feet. I know how hard it is to do that kind of work, to earn that kind of trust, to help people see the vision and share in the vision. It takes a lot of reassurance. That's what I need right now too.

Abraham Joshua Heschel Wrote:

ONE OF THE MALADIES of our time is shattered confidence in human nature. We are inclined to believe that the world is a pandemonium, that there is no sense in virtue, no import to integrity; that we only graft goodness upon selfishness, and relish self-indulgence in all values; that we cannot but violate truth with evasion. Honesty is held to be wishful thinking, purity the squaring of the circle of human nature. The hysteria of suspicion has made us unreliable to ourselves, trusting neither our aspirations nor our convictions. Suspiciousness, not skepticism, is the beginning of our thinking. This sneering doctrine holds many of us in its spell. It has profoundly affected the character and life of modern man. The man of today shrinks from the light. He is afraid to think as he feels, afraid to admit what he believes, afraid to love what he admires. Going astray he blames others for his failure and decides to be more evasive, smooth-tongued, and deceitful. Living in fear he thinks that the ambush is the normal dwelling place of all men. He has failed to pick up in his youth the clue of the unbroken thread of truthfulness that would guide him through the labyrinth. 
Heschel, Abraham Joshua (1997-05-16). Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays (Kindle Locations 658-666). Macmillan. Kindle Edition. 

Dear God, Redeem me from the labyrinth of my suspicions. Amen.


  1. Dear Yair,
    I share your thoughts, and they are very important and well stated. Please send this on to Rick Jacobs, Steve Sachs, Jonah Pezner, and the rest of the new leadership team.
    Shabbat shalom and chag sameach!
    Arnie Gluck

  2. I will Arnie. I just hope I'm heard as respectful but concerned, not as a curmudgeon (got enough of those in the Jewish world as it is!). Shabbat Shalom and Zissen Pesach!