Friday, November 27, 2015

Vayishlach and The Blessing of Gratitude

A Hasidic story tells of a young man who presented his teacher with the gift of water from a spring. The teacher tasted it, smiled, and thanked the student for the sweet-tasting water. His assistant, however, tasted it and spat it out. “Why did you say it was sweet when it’s bitter?” he asked. “Ah,” said the teacher, “you only tasted the water. I tasted the gift.” (Hat tip to Rabbi Amy Scheinerman's Ten Minutes of Torah)
Yesterday was a day to give thanks: thanks for what we have, for who we are, for where we are and what we do with our lives. To be sure, many of us have our challenges and struggles, but it is a moment to appreciate our gifts, whatever they may be. It is a moment to choose to be sated in our lives; to fulfill the words of Pirkei Avot: "Who is rich? The person who is satisfied with his portion." We see it reflected in our portion this week as well. Jacob, on his return home, has sent gift after gift with the intent of mollifying his brother Esau, who he imagines to still be in a rage, bent on his destruction. But when the brothers finally meet, Esau says simply, "I have enough".

The idea of 'enough' is a powerful one in our society--and on a day--of conspicuous consumption. There is a peace with 'enough', and even a joy. But let it be one we hold onto. Let's taste the gift, not just the water, and in that way, count ourselves always rich and blessed. And if we strive for more, let us strive for more opportunities to give Thanks, more opportunities to share it with others. Amen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Guest Blog Post by BESTY president Jason Kramer!

Jason Kramer is a senior in high school, a Kutz and Camp Harlam alumnus, out youth group president and an amazing teen leader. Recently he attended the URJ biennial with me and our Congregation Beth Emeth delegation. He shared this blog post on his experience.

I am a two time URJ Kutz Camp Alumni, President of my Temple Youth Group, BESTY, and have been to every single regional and North American NFTY made available to me. My entire focus at the time circulated around the youth. Engage the youth, get the youth to go to youth group events, get the youth to go to regional events, youth, youth, youth, youth. Although it was slightly overwhelming, I have never regretted any of this because I have been influenced tremendously by them. It is not because of the youth, though, that I was convinced to go to the URJ Biennial. It was because I was going to be treated as an equal.

    The URJ Biennial is the most exciting five days in the reform Jewish movement. Over five thousand people came to Orlando, Florida to learn, pray, and interact with each other. Biennial is NOT a NFTY event. It is not planned by a regional board and it is not dominated by teens. We, the youth, made up about five percent of the participants at Biennial. While these all seem like put offs, these reasons are what made it so great.

Biennial had been a prevailing thought in my head since last may, when I was asked by my regional President if I would be attending. I had heard of it before and had looked into it enough to know that I would not financially be able to go, but not enough to read into what happened there. What I hadn’t realized was that the entire platform of the URJ was: Moving the Youth Forward. Literally, all of Biennial would be about ways to help the youth and increase our involvement in the URJ, not just NFTY. At the time though, I had a lot of other things on my mind and Biennial fell into the back of my head.

    As the big week(end) grew closer, I started to hear questions from my friends. Would I go? Would I be there? I can’t wait to see you at Biennial! I began to do more research again. While looking for more information that might be able to convince my mom, I discovered there would be no NFTY track. There was no immediate focus on the youth (or so I thought). I knew Biennial was traditionally for adults, but in the past there had been a section for teens. Why they changed it this year was perplexing to me, but I accepted it and hoped that adults would see me as an equal not a subordinate because of my age.

    During BESTY’s first youth group board meeting of the year, I started talking to my Rabbi about Biennial. Right then and there he made everything clear. Biennial this year had no aim at the teens because the Biennial Committee wanted us, the teens, to be more engaged with the greater community. No longer were we to be isolated from the adults who could learn from a new generation, and we to learn from their life experience. No longer would we truly be treated like teens, but like adults who had something valuable to offer.

    This is why I ended up going to Biennial. Because as a teen, I had the same opportunities as everyone else to learn, talk, and be a part of something bigger than NFTY. I was a part of the URJ.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Some Reflections On Biennial

I'm writing this on the flight home from Orlando, traveling back with my family next to me. Normally when I  go to the URJ Biennial, I come back refreshed and renewed, having connected with colleagues and friends from around North America and beyond. This time is no different, with an additional sense of vitality and excitement for the work our Reform Movement and our congregation is doing. 

My head and heart are still swimming as I reflect on the experience I and our delegation shared. As I look at the texts and handouts and review the videos from various sessions it's clear that it's going to take me some time to unpack everything, but I have already have some initial thoughts. 

If you've never been to a biennial (this was my 10th) it may be hard to appreciate how important this gathering of some 5000 Reform Jews of all ages is. To be sure, it is a chance to learn best practices, compare notes with other board members, rabbis and educators, learn from URJ staff and HUC faculty, and celebrate Shabbat joyfully and musically. But so much more happens as well.

To illustrate why Biennial is important: I want to share with you a few of the things I'm bringing home on this morning flight. I'll be using the same rubrics that the URJ suggested on a notepad they passed out at sessions: Inspirational thought or idea, Partners in this Sacred Work, and Next Action Steps. 

I. Inspirational Thoughts or Ideas

The Power of Welcoming: so much of this (and the last) biennial was about the work of Outreach and Audacious Hospitality . Often, it seems as if we think about how to be welcoming as a one-time event, and the work of outreach as a combination of simple gestures. What's been increasingly clear is the need to always be looking at how we welcome others, regardless of circumstance, identity or background. It's not enough to say we're welcoming, and it's not merely for our survival as a congregation (more on that later) but because diversity makes us stronger. We ourselves brought 13 delegates, ranging in age from late teens to late 80s and everything in between, including those born and raised Reform, those who chose Reform having grown up in other movements, and those who were not born Jewish but chose Judaism and, as result, chose us. This reflected the diversity of attendees. The Resolution on welcoming Transgender individuals and the change in how we as congregations support the movement financially should not be merely a moment of kvelling  but also an opportunity for reflection. To whit: 

1. How do we make LGBTQ individuals feel welcome? Can we change our bathrooms to be more inclusive, our paperwork, the way we talk about involvement at the congregation? 

2. Is everyone able to learn, worship and participate at Beth Emeth regardless of ability? How can we do more to make that feasible? 

3. It is clear that we are doing a lot of things right when it comes to Stewardship: our fair share dues structure does a lot to guarrentee the dignity of others. We have a confidential process with no forms, no request for income tax or pay stubs, and (hopefully) no judgment. And we have multiple opportunities for our leadership to connect with our membership. But could we be doing more? Could we flatten our levels even further? Could we move toward a completely voluntary giving structure (while making clear what it costs per person to run the congregation)? Could we use our High Holiday calls to solicit feedback and make sure people are as connected as possible with their community? 

II. Partners in our Sacred Work

I am endlessly amazed and inspired by the work our movement is doing. This year, rather than offer mere babysitting, Biennial had daycamp (based on our own Harlam Day Camp). It was a great opportunity for people to see what camp does for our kids, but it was also a reminder of how our camps are not merely destinations; they are partners. Likewise learning from my former HUC professors reminded me not only of the joy of scholarship but how much HUC has to offer aside from degree programs. What opportunities for partnership with movement organizations are we leaving on the table? How can we leverage camp professionals and programming, and the faculty of the College-Institute to do more for our congregants? With HUC, there are online and distance learning opportunities designed for laypeople that we could include in our adult ed programming; with camp, I know that they will provide help and support for things like Purim Carnivals, but also showcase how we can reimagine the work we do. 

This Biennial also had more overlap with the Women of Reform Judaism and NFTY than ever before, which begs the question: rather than see our auxillaries (Sisterhood, Brotherhood, the Chavurot, BESTY) as separate, related entities, can we start to think of their work as our collective work? The partnering we're all doing for adult ed is a good example; could we do even more? 

And who says we have to do everything on our own? There are natural allies, such as those churches we've worked with in the past, plus organizations like Family Promise. And there are those synagogues here in town that we partner with from time to time. But we should also look to our friends in Philadelphia and its suburbs for help and support, and to share programming initiatives with. 

III. Next Steps: 

Over the next several months, we will be speaking as a delegation, as a leadership, and as a staff about what we can implement short term, how we can focus our resources appropriately, how we can partner with those around us. But most importantly, we--I--will need your help to think about these different ideas and values and how to make them real. Will you join me? 

I'll be talking more about my Biennial experience this Friday. Hope to see you there!

CORRECTION: Rabbi Koppel is preaching this week, but PS stay tuned!