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.

Reform Judaism Magazine - The Road to Redemption Blogging The Exodus: Redemption

An oldie but a goodie: Reform Judaism Magazine - The Road to Redemption:

'via Blog this'

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Blogging the Exodus Day 6: Freedom

It's my birthday today. Double Chai, which is lovely. And the building is closing due to an issue with our water (not too much for a change, but too little), so I'm just going to post briefly today, a quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Our era marks the end of complacency. We all face the dilemma expressed by Moses: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s suffering, the love of peace. God has a stake in the life of every man. He never exposes humanity to a challenge without giving humanity the power to face the challenge. Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are the same. We have a vision in common of Him in whose compassion all men’s prayers meet. 
Heschel, Abraham Joshua (1997-05-16). Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays (Kindle Locations 6326-6330). Macmillan. Kindle Edition. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Blogging the Exodus Day 5: Slavery

Check out Rabbi Jill Jacobs blog on modern slavery and resources for your Seder table this year.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Blogging the Exodus Day 4: Cleaning

Just a little poetic reflection for the day.

Mending Wall

Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn't love a wall, 
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, 
And spills the upper boulders in the sun, 
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast. 
The work of hunters is another thing: 
I have come after them and made repair 
Where they have left not one stone on a stone, 
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding, 
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean, 
No one has seen them made or heard them made, 
But at spring mending-time we find them there. 
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill; 
And on a day we meet to walk the line 
And set the wall between us once again. 
We keep the wall between us as we go. 
To each the boulders that have fallen to each. 
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls 
We have to use a spell to make them balance: 
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!' 
We wear our fingers rough with handling them. 
Oh, just another kind of out-door game, 
One on a side. It comes to little more: 
There where it is we do not need the wall: 
He is all pine and I am apple orchard. 
My apple trees will never get across 
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. 
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'. 
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder 
If I could put a notion in his head: 
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it 
Where there are cows? 
But here there are no cows. 
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know 
What I was walling in or walling out, 
And to whom I was like to give offence. 
Something there is that doesn't love a wall, 
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him, 
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather 
He said it for himself. I see him there 
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top 
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed. 
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~ 
Not of woods only and the shade of trees. 
He will not go behind his father's saying, 
And he likes having thought of it so well 
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Monday, March 26, 2012

Blogging the Exodus Day 3: Learning

I suppose I could say something wonderfully rabbinic about the importance of Torah Study. Instead I'm going to let happenstance speak instead. Today I'm leading a memorial service for a woman who (along with her husband), in her late 50s, after raising her children, converted to Judaism. She chose Judaism not because she was dissatisfied spiritually, but because her own studies of history and Torah led her on this path. She was what we all hope to be and what every rabbi wants in a congregant: she was a lifelong learner, not only in Judaism, but art, poetry, physical activity, etc. How many of us fail to learn beyond what we already know, seeking instead to reaffirm truths long held? Better to put ourselves out there and learn anew.

(This, by the way, is why I get excited when kids share their music with me. Of course I'm happy listening to my old REM stuff, but if I stay there, I'll never grow. Probably will never get dubstep, though.)

Below you'll find my eulogy for Jeanne Davis. Zichrona Livracha.

Jeanne Davis
Ariel Bat Avraham v’Sarah
 This week we read in Torah that there should be a flame burning on the altar in the ancient temple. Specifically the text says “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” (Lev. 6:6). Often this text is used to explain the ner tamid, the eternal light found in all synagogues. But there is a deeper meaning to this text as well: that the fire shall be kept burning on the altar of our hearts. That we should be, as we say in Yiddish, frabrenteh, literally ‘on fire’, passionate in our devotion to God and to each other.

Jeanne was someone who was frabrenta, who’s heart was an altar aflame. She led such a myriad life full of art and learning, of love and strength.

Jeanne was raised in Chicago. Her parents divorced in the 1930s, and both remarried, so in addition to her sister Judy, who today lives in Iowa, she grew up with two stepbrothers in her life. She met Ed when he was in the navy, in a cadet training program during World War II. Jeanne went to a program with her girlfriends and there was Eddie. They were married soon thereafter—he at age 20, she was 19. After the war Eddie went to work for DuPont and they found themselves first in Orange Texas, then to Nashville, where she took up golf for a time, and finally to Wilmington. They had been married 65 years, always supportive of each other, and brought two girls, Victoria and Beth, into this world. Which of course led to her grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren.
Jeanne was a strong lady. There are two pieces to that idea. First the strong part: she was one to accept things that are difficult to accept. The quintessential volunteer, she was a Girl Scout Troop leader, part of the Howard Pyle Audio group, and an officer in the National League of American Penn Women. She was colorful, literally and figuratively. She loved color, loved to party, belonging to 4 different bridge groups, and always going to socials, as well as having people over to entertain them. She painted, sculpted, created collages, and was always learning and stretching herself. She taught swimming for many years, and when she was promoted to a supervisor left the position because it took her away from the kids. She took up SCUBA diving at 50. Her choice of Judaism (along with Eddie) came late in life. She was swimming at the JCC and took a history class. Which lead to a Bible study, and this struck a chord with her (though she insists that she had always been a Jewish mother at the very least). Discovering that the two of them had always been philosophically Jewish, they took the plunge in 1986 when she was 59. And it goes without saying that she carried herself with tremendous strength even in those moments when you or I would choose not to be strong.

Now the lady part, because she was always a lady, and Ed was always a gentleman. Jeanne was poised and self-confident: enough for everyone. She was always totally tuned in to what was around her. She was the only person who could carry on two separate conversations and pay attention to three others simultaneously, and could juggle 2-3 thoughts at once. She and Eddie were greeters for new member programs at the Synagogue, and she loved to introduce herself to anyone, stranger or no. One time she did so and it turned out she had introduced herself to the DuPont who was hosting that particular party, in his manor. “Nice house” she said, without missing a beat. More recently, she began hosting tea parties for her great-granddaughter, along with 5 brothers. She brought out the china used when her mom hosted tea parties for her daughter, and in so doing brought out an old-fashioned sensibility of a woman being a lady.

Jeanne has departed. But her fire has not gone out. Her fire burns still, in our hearts, in our eyes, in our loves and our actions. Zichrona Livracha, may she be remembered for blessing. Amen. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Blogging the Exodus Day 2: Chameitz

Growing up, we never threw out anything that might vaguely, possibly be useful.

Case in point: when my parents got married (in 1972) they bought an avacado green Kitchenaid portable dishwasher (the kind with the butcher's block on top). This was in Cincinnati. They shlepped it with them to Indiana in '74, then Cape Cod in '78, where it immediately went to live in the garage. When I got back from Israel in 1999 and was getting ready to move to Cincinnati, my dad pulled it out, fired it up (for the first time since 1978 at least), discovered it still worked, and we ended up shlepping it BACK to the 'nati, 25 years after it left town. Marisa and I used it all 4 years in the 'nati, and despite having permission from my mom to finally throw it away, we brought it with us to Bucks County and now Wilmington, where it once again lives in the garage.

I tell this story in relation to today's theme of 'chameitz' (which I'd rather talk about than 'puffiness', if you please) because I think we have a tendency to think of the idea with an eye toward getting rid of what's extraneous in your life. chameitz is, of course, anything made of leaven, that we are supposed to clear out of our homes before Pesach in various practical and ritual forms. As such, it becomes quickly a metaphor for cleaning out all the 'extra', a spring cleaning of our lives and that which is weighing us down.

On the surface it has a whiff of New England Protestantism, a lament about why we have all this STUFF (full disclosure, both my wife and I are stuff people, who come from long lines of stuff people. I can show you my mother-in-law's aluminum serving piece collection as proof)? Why do we need all these things? But before we get all Ethan Frome on our homes, let me suggest another Yankee (like this guy, not this guy) alternative: while it's good to clean and replenish, we should hold on to things that we might need later on. Or to put another way, rather than see things as wasteful or useless, we should think creatively to see the potential in the things.

Look for example at things like Maker Faire and the Maker movement (along with Steampunk and other 'creative recycling movements' out there). These are people that, rather than discard things of yesterday, seek to utilize them creatively today, whether it's disk drives as musical instruments or something more modest.

So it is with chameitz. Rather than throw things away, perhaps we need to look at their use creatively. All that beer and all those chips demand a party, after all, and while the laws of Pesach forbid a party after the seder, certainly a celebration in advance using opened products (and donating the unopened) is a better use than the trash. Perhaps now is a good time to pull out those frozen ingredients and figure out what to do with them, then give them to friends (Jewish or no). Warren Buffett and Rabbi Jonathan Gross just used the selling of chameitz to illustrate the power of investing (and publicize the mitzvah).

Larry Kushner tells a story of how he had this set of t'fillin (phylacteries) and didn't know what to do with them. He himself didn't participate in the ritual, but he held onto them, until he met a young man who had gotten rid of his father's (some say, his grandfather's) before he fully appreciated their meaning, and now, with that person gone from his life, regrets and bemoans his hastiness. Rabbi Kushner then says, "now I know why I had these t'fillin. They weren't mine, they were yours all along, I was just holding on to them for you."

So, what have you regretted getting rid of? What have you wished you got rid of sooner?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Blogging the Exodus: The Narrow Places

"Mitzrayim", the Hebrew word for Egypt, means "narrow places". this makes sense geographically, as the country itself snaked along the Nile, a very narrow corridor of civilization surrounded by wasteland. Likewise, that word has been fodder for many commentator, speaking of Egypt as the "birth canal" from which a sacred people emerged (through narrow spaces: the Sea of Reeds), to the idea found in Mishkan T'fillah (and a hallmark of community organizing): 

“Standing on the parted shores of history, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai: that where ever we are, it is eternally Egypt that there is a better place a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes thru the wilderness, that there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands marching together.” 

All appropriate ideas about Mitzrayim: the allegorical, the midrashic, the metaphorical, the 'pshat' (plain meaning). But none of them are personal. Art Green, in speaking to the CCAR this past week, talked about personal theology and that part of it is the idea that we all have our own particular narrow places, our own mitzrayim. Part of personal theology or spirituality is having someone you can talk to about that narrowness, someone you can cry out to, in the same way Israel cried out to God.

So, what are your narrow places? Where do the walls close in on you? Is it in a relationship with another, or a set of expectations, a personal limitation or setback, or a memory that hems you in? What is your mitzrayim and who can you talk to about it?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Blogging the Exodus

I'll be joining Phyllis Sommer (@imabima) and many other colleagues to blog the Exodus, starting tomorrow (Rosh Chodesh Nisan), to anticipate Pesach. We start with the 'narrow places'/Mitzrayim (which is as good a place to start as any) but I think it's worth anticipating that with a little discussion of how we get to those narrow places in the first place. After all Egypt didn't start out as a 'narrow place' for Israel: it was a place of bounty, of refuge from food scarcity, a place of yichus as his son Joseph led the country, a place of reconciliation for his family, a place of growth (that whole 'going down as a small people and departing as a mixed multitude' thing). It was also a place of exile and alienation, with the expectation even at the end of Genesis that Israel's descendants would leave (so says Joseph as he asks the next generation to promise to take his bones out of Egypt).

So, before we discuss Narrow Places, our own personal "Mitzri'im", When have you found yourself in a place of seeming growth and health, that turned out to be a place of exile and 'bondage'?

Schedule for the blog is below, and thanks again to Phyllis for promoting it.

Monday, March 19, 2012

As I posted to the CCAR blogroll which you can find here:

So on my way to T’fillah I stopped by the gym for my morning workout I saw the words painted on the side of the wall: “LIfe Is a Challenge”. I’m sure it was meant to be a motivator for exercise, but at the CCAR it gives me pause. Sure it makes for good blues riffs, but good theology it ain’t. Yeah, I know if I’m looking to the wall of the gym for theology (especially in a hotel) then I’m in trouble, but if we take seriously the Chasidic notion that God is everywhere and opportunities for elevation are everywhere (thank you Mishkan T’fillah), then why not be challenged spiritually while on the treadmill. Baruch Atah Adonai: thank you God for the opportunity to be challenged to seek your Face even in a slogan on a wall. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Just a little meditating

Just sharing a favorite poem of mine, apropos of nothing in particular. But worth remembering in the times we live in. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Shabbat Chai: A Modest Proposal for our Religious School

For a couple of years, we've been talking about what we need to do to talk our religious school to the next level. Our kids (and their parents) are facing increasing challenges and commitments; they're here less frequently, losing those precious moments when they can build relationships. They love coming to youth group events, but have trouble making time for them. They love being here, but another day in desks isn't instilling the love of Torah and Judaism we would want. So, we needed to respond accordingly. We've knocked around ideas like Sabbath School (a la Beth Elohim in Brooklyn and Temple Beth El in Orange County, or going to a camp-style model like Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia. Regardless, we clearly need to get our kids up and moving. At the URJ biennial, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, our new president, gave us a mission: take the things we're doing well and make them better. Lift everything up. Engage our youth in a more dynamic fashion.

That's why, for the past couple of weeks, I've been proposing a program we're calling Shabbat Chai (if it sounsd an awful lot like Beth El's program, that's because it is inspired by them. Don't tell, okay?). This is something that has been examined, questioned, and worked over carefully by our staff, teachers, and lay-leadership, and now we felt it was time to present it to the parents to solicit feedback and determine the way forward. You can find a modified version of my Powerpoint presentation here.

The idea is this: our kids need to live in Jewish time, be surrounded by a community of peers who love doing Judaism with each other, and experience (and create) authentic Jewish experiences. Imagine every session beginning with mixers and team-building to help create community, then moving on to interactive, engaging programs (including Tikkun Olam programs) that help the kids learn but also EXPERIENCE Judaism, getting closer to their Reform values. Imagine B'nai Mitzvah leading services for grades K-2, buddying up with our Consecrants, our 1st graders. Imagine the confidence, the community that this would create. Imagine parents and kids building relationships with each other and peers. Imagine monthly Tikkun Olam projects, helping our kids learn that tzedakah is as much about wisdom and work as wealth. Imagine us creating the Religious School experience WE would want to go to.

The controversial part of the program is that it would happen on Shabbat, taking the place of Sunday School. Obviously, any change of that drama requires feedback, so that's what we're looking to do now. We've had 2 parent meetings out of three. I've received emails, seen facebook postings, taken phone calls and sat down with folks individually. I've received response cards. Much of it has generated a fantastic discussion: what are our values and priorities as parents, as Jews? What role should the synagogue play in the development of a Jewish child? How do we navigate our myriad identities? How do we make compromises and when are they appropriate? How do we want to live our Jewish lives?

As you might imagine, some folks have been incredibly passionate on both sides. Some parents have said to me "this is what I've been looking for!" Others have said, "please don't do this!" Even with those who have been unenthusiastic about the change of days, I've been able to have real conversations about what might work, including curriculum ideas, doing Shabbat 1/month instead of 4x/month, doing Shabbat only during the winter months, moving Wednesday mid-week Hebrew school to Friday instead, and several other suggestions. I welcome all of them and the opportunity to talk to people about what all this means.

Nothing's been decided; we're just expanding our discussion to move beyond the leadership toward the families, and what we do will be predicated on the kind of feedback we're receiving, including alternative suggestions and ideas. But just as I (and the leadership) approach this from a position of learning and respect, my hope is that parents, grandparents and other interested folks will respond in kind.

At the end of my presentation, there's a quote: "If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea". (Antoine de Saint-Exupery). Our task as a congregation (and my task as a rabbi) is to inspire people to yearn for the sea of Torah, and to remind people of its inherent value. We spend too much time telling people to gather wood and divide the work, and not enough yearning. Our hope is this curriculum will change that.

So, all that said, whaddaya think?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Grousing, but also finding meaning.

So remind me next year not to bother with the "Gala" at AIPAC. This was (apparently) the first year they didn't do it as a dinner, and the result was, well, terrible. I felt herded like cattle through security. One of my congregants saw a couple of older people nearly pass out and need to be taken away. It was absolute bedlam. All so I could buy a lousy pre-packaged sandwich for $8, hear Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi deliver pretty paltry speeches, and see Binyamin Netanyahu hit a couple of softballs. The funniest part was that every time they wanted a standing ovation they brought the lights up. Hey, at least the music was good (Idan Raichel Project, Rick Recht, Maccabeats), but as I was watching them on a screen, who could tell? Supposedly it'll be different/better next year, but I'm inclined (assuming I come back) to skip it.

I'm sure that paragraph will prove controversial (it's a little too 'first world problems' even for my taste, even as I feel like kvetching), but while it may be meaningful for many to hear speeches from our political leaders (and in this case at least, variations on the same speech over and over again) that's not where I live. It feels too much to me like self-aggrandizement. Perhaps it's the numbers, or the number of people who are politically so different than myself...Not that there's anything wrong with that, and normally I encourage diverse views and voices, but the near GLEE you hear from people who want to bomb Iran NOW, as if that's the only meaningful solution frankly scares me. And the sense that (and this was my biggest concern viz. AIPAC) disagreement regarding the military option directly correlates to lack of support of Israel is permeable.

That's not to say that there weren't moments of brightness: Bibi reaffirming his commitment to protecting the rights of judges and women in Israel was heartening (though it was a missed opportunity to speak to that point more thoroughly). And after the Gala, the chance to hear from Debbie Wasserman Schultz in a calmer, quieter setting (and Carl Levin and Rick Santorum so far this morning in a more low-key environment) was meaningful (and seeing her stoop to listen to a much, much older woman was really lovely). I think my problem is largely with the pomp--the cameras, the rock star/WWE music, the pretentiousness. And I'm sure I should have just expected that, but the moments that have been really good have been the ones where I got to listen to experts and leaders in quiet circles, where applause was not guaranteed (and standing O's not signaled), and where something closer to dialogue could take place. I guess you either think the energy is invigorating or neutralizing. For me it's the latter, but clearly many, many people find the former to be true.

Sadly, the part I'll miss the part of the program I was most excited about. In my foolishness, I scheduled my train for 1pm, thinking I'd have time to make it from the Russell Building to Union station in time. Sadly, that's not the case (I was thinking of the lobbying we did for L'taken, when 300 teens and a hundred or so rabbis and educators had to get through security, not 7000 rowdy adults, who we all know are harder to corral than teens). That, for me, is the meaningful part of AIPAC--building relationships. Probably no surprise that I say that being a rabbi, but it's true. I relish the opportunity to make relationships with fellow klei kodesh, with laypeople, and with our civic leadership. Thankfully I'll have the opportunity to do so when I get back and will be making appointments with my leadership (and inviting my laypeople to join me) to follow up from this past experience.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Day two of AIPAC, some observations

Started my day with the lobbying session: Got to run into some Shir Ami folks, including Alan Sheinberg (my old president) and two former students, Dara Gever and Noah Tankin, which was lovely!

Again, the presentation was pretty slick, with a video talking about how to lobby. Then again, I expected this. As they said, this is their core business, lobbying and building relationships. As it happens, that's easier for us Delaware folks, as our delegation votes the 'right' way, and Senator Coons is very on top of these things, co-sponsoring important legislation etc. Frankly, the RAC could learn a thing or two on how they do their lobbying prep. On the other hand, the inverse is also true.

What was really interesting to me was not just that they want us to push aid to Israel but the entire Foriegn Aid package, including the parts that don't really help Israel directly at all. I'm surprised more isn't said about this, especially in an election cycle when everyone wants to cut foreign aid (even though it only makes up 1% of the budget and most of the money comes back to the US).  I wonder how that would change the relationship Israel has with some countries if they knew AIPAC was working to support THEM as well.

Many of the folks during the Q&A sounded like frustrated policy wonks or wannabe analysts. I kind of wanted to remind folks that we're not Intelligence Officers and that we should stick to the script and keep it simple, lest we make fools of ourselves tomorrow.

Hrmn. Will I be able to make my train?

I proceeded from that to the clergy lunch. 400 Jewish clergy of all backgrounds: not too shabby! Probably the largest gathering of klei kodesh of multiple Jewish denominations this year AT ALL, and certainly bigger than CCAR. Amazing. Also gave me a chance to meet Shmuley Boteach. Whether you like him or not he certainly raises important conversations and pushes the envelope, and helps (as a friend wrote on my wall) draw the secular toward the sacred.

After lunch The Reform clergy had a chance to pow-wow, and there were quite a few of us meeting with Rabbis Daniel Allen, Rick Jacobs and David Saperstein. No way that would have happened ten years ago. Kudos to David Kaufman for organizing year after year--your work has borne fruit!

The main conversation was over whether we could develop some kind of consensus around Iran. David asked that the conversation be 'off the record' so I won't put down any opinions here, but I appreciate how they cultivated a very broad and diverse conversation including lots of voices going in lots of different directions without pushing one or the other agenda.

From there, a session on whether sanctions are working or not against Iran. Clearly, from that presentation, Iran is being made to feel the pain. The point was made that this administration is not just taking direct sanctions but also second and third party/country sanctions seriously for the first time, and that's really starting to cut into Iran's GDP. Sadly, there seems to be no evidence that they've stopped their program. They will take a lot of pain economically before they stop that program. So a credible threat of Military action is an important dynamic of this working. This, of course, terrifies me, as the results of either American or Israeli intervention are potentially disastrous, but if left with no other choice...

There is clearly a belief that we're on a short time frame, and while the Peaceful option is the best option but it has to work. Sadly, I feel like I've heard this out of AIPAC for a while. Much of this is credible threat by Iran, of course, but how much of this is real? That is the question.

So now I'm waiting to go into the Gala (and am charging both laptop and phone). Let's see what the evening brings (other than tired feet!).

So What Does J-Street Think?

So I'm at AIPAC, but what is J-Street (who's policy conference is in a few weeks) think? Well, I just got an email from Jeremy Ben-Ami (yes, I know, it was a mass email from the main office) and here's what it says:

Yesterday President Obama delivered a pro-Israel, pro-peace message at – of all places – AIPAC’s annual conference.
On Iran, he said that while the regime cannot be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons, there is still time for sanctions and diplomacy to continue to work.
"Loose talk of war," he said, only benefits Iran, and "for the sake of Israel's security, America's security and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster."
Join us in thanking the President for taking a sensible approach on Iran and for calling out those who are needlessly beating the drums of war.Unfortunately, Mr. Obama's political opponents immediately began to bluster.
Mitt Romney charged that if President Obama is re-elected, Iran will get nuclear weapons. He also falsely claimed that the President had not "imposed crippling sanctions" and has "failed to communicate that it's unacceptable to America for Iran to have a nuclear weapon."
Yet that's exactly what he's done.
Undoubtedly, the White House is hearing today from those in our community who were hoping for a more hawkish posture.
It's up to us to rally a strong show of support for the President and his sensible approach on this difficult issue.
Click here to join us in thanking President Obama for his rational and thoughtful approach on Iran.The President also reiterated his commitment to the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying:
The President went on to say that, "if during this political season you hear some question my Administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts. And remember that the U.S.-Israel relationship is simply too important to be distorted by partisan politics."
Mr. President, we agree. And so does a very large portion of Israel's supporters throughout the United States.
The President has personally challenged me – and many of you – in the pro-Israel, pro-peace community to do a better job of making our voice heard.
Today is a perfect example of when the President needs to hear that we support him.
Join me in sending the President a thank-you for standing up for peace and diplomacy as central tools for promoting both American and Israeli long-term interests.
Thank you for all that you do,
Jeremy Ben-Ami
President, J Street
"I believe that peace is profoundly in Israel’s security interest. The reality that Israel faces – from shifting demographics, to emerging technologies, to an extremely difficult international environment – demands a resolution of this issue. And I believe that peace with the Palestinians is consistent with Israel’s founding values – because of our shared belief in self-determination; and because Israel’s place as a Jewish and democratic state must be protected."

Sunday, March 4, 2012

AIPAC first impressions

AIPAC policy conference initial observations:
1. even in a see of a tremendous numbers of people--13k!--I can still run into people I know, like Rabbis Mark Dov Shapiro and Simcha Bob, as well as Wilmingtonians (50 strong!)
2. I've heard criticism of President Obama's speech this morning as 'political'. What makes a speech political? It was centered around policy--foreign and defense--but these are political endeavors. He's the president, not a policy wonk from the Cato Institute. How could it not be political?
3. Disappointed by the Afternoon plenary, but still found certain things fascinating. For example:
-The emphasis on diversity--political but also religious diversity. Not just Jews but repeatedly referring to "people of all faiths". Show's where AIPAC--once a purely "Jewish" endeavor--could be heading.
-The use of text, specifically around Esther and Purim and the idea of Speaking Truth to Power (though some may argue that AIPAC has quite a bit of power itself). Jewish text and Jewish subtext, despite diversity.
-This event is HIGHLY, HIGHLY SCRIPTED. Even more than URJ (and certainly more than CCAR). To the point of being Slick. Has the feel of being a tent revival.
-Going out of their way to appear bipartisan--lots of diversity.
-Talking about Michael Kassen (the incoming president): at length, very slickly done, lots of references from varied politicians. "He understands that History doesn't just happen: we can all shape history".Though when he speaks, there's a sense that he's fishing for applause with certain lines and ideas.
-There is this focus on idea of Israel being under greater threat than any time in last four decades. Sense that Arab Spring is a threat not an opportunity. Israel an inoccent bystander, ETC. Very much pushing the "Israel is under existential threat" idea, which isn't WRONG per se, but you'd think the last 30 years hadn't happened. This is a really red meat program and crowd. Lots of military talk, not so much on foriegn policy.

Kassen's speech was followed by Frank Sesno moderating a 'panel' of AIPAC staffers. Since when did AIPAC start providing money to candidates?! Raise money for 'friends and potential friends' to 'educate' them 'but there are no guarrentees.' I can safely say that I don't see that emphasized at the local level by AIPAC. Perhaps I'm not enough in the know (always possibly with me) but that took me by surprise.

Parts of the first panel was very interesting. For example, modeling what it's like to build a relationship with your political leaders. Coming from Delaware, we're spoiled, but I still get nervous talking to our elected officials, so it was gratifying to hear how one might develop those relationships. On the other hand, I can see why elected officials see Jews as a one-issue kind of group, based on this experience thus far.

One of the panelists--the only woman (sadly I didn't catch her name, will follow up) pushed the idea that more women need to participate in AIPAC, especially in the political process, and I was glad to hear that.

Sesno moderated a second panel of William Kristol, Paul Begala, Michael Murphy and Donna Brazille on the presidential race. Boy, there are lots of ways to say "I don't know".

After getting our delegation photograph (I felt badly for our local guys, Seth Mirowitz and Josh Schoenberg, as it degenerated into complete bedlam, including the absence of an official photographer--we ended up doing a DE group shot and calling it a night) we went to the Mid-Atlantic dinner. It was a Culinary disappointment, but I expected that. The company was good, albeit exhausted.

I did make my way to the RAC/URJ/ARZA reception at the Old Dominion Tavern. This was the first year the Reform Movement had a real presence and as I told them, I was so grateful for that. It made me feel a little less out of my element.

I'm skipping Avigdor Lieberman at the Plenary tomorrow, so we'll see what the clergy program brings.

Blurrycam pic of hotem room


After a very busy day I'm now at the AIPAC conference. I'll blog my experiences and questions and hopefully catch up with folks. Nice drive down with my youth director, Cantor and a board member and we've already run into another. I do an also safely say this is the nicest (and least expensive) conference hotel I've been in. Very mod boutique hotel called the Donovan on 14th. We'll have to check out their bar later.

Off to register and catch a session!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Religious Action Center - Limbaugh Remarks Deeply Offensive to Women and Health Advocates

"We insist that every woman is entitled to access contraception as a matter of basic rights and fundamental God-given dignity. We urge Limbaugh to issue an apology and to retract his statement"

In response to Rush Limbaugh's comments that Georgetown University student and birth control advocate Sandra Fluke is a "slut" and "prostitute" as well as his follow up remarks that she (and other women's health advocates) ought to make sex videos in exchange for contraception coverage, Barbara Weinstein, Legislative Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

“Public personalities have an obligation to base arguments on facts - not to resort to petty insults. That is all the more true when talking about an issue as serious as health care for women. A direct attack on any private citizen, let alone one who had the courage to make public her personal experiences to stand up for women's health, is deeply outrageous.

Jewish tradition teaches that health care is the most important communal service, and therefore should be available to all. We insist that every woman is entitled to access contraception as a matter of basic rights and fundamental God-given dignity. We urge Limbaugh to issue an apology and to retract his statement.

Friday Night: My Preschooler Made Us Celebrate Shabbat | Raising Kvell

Many thanks to my classmate (Oberlin '98) Elana Gartner for sharing this. THIS is what it means to make Shabbat!