The following remarks were offered by Rabbi Rick Block, President of the CCAR, at the Opening Plenary of the URJ Biennial.
Good evening. I am honored to offer words of reflection and blessing on behalf of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and its more than 2000 rabbis, many of whom are with us in San Diego and who, together with professional colleagues and lay partners, lead, serve, teach, comfort, guide and inspire the congregations and congregants of our Movement and their communities and forge a vibrant future for Jewish life.
When I assumed the Conference presidency, I asked my wife, Susie, “In your wildest dreams, did you ever think I would be CCAR President?” And she said, “You’re not in my wildest dreams.”
Actually, she didn’t. But I begin with Susie because she and I, who will be married 45 years this June, God willing, met at age 17 at UAHC Camp Swig, to which our temples sent us on scholarship, because we were active in NFTY. My parents grew up in Reform congregations, and my father was a temple president. Susie’s parents, who enjoyed a marriage of extraordinary closeness for 71 years, met in their Reform temple’s youth group, and were active members their whole lives. Susie’s mother, 94, still is. Our sons and daughters-in-law and five delicious grandchildren now belong to Reform congregations themselves.
I share all this to make a point: That I owe much of what I value most – my family, my faith, my rabbinate – to Reform Judaism and the Movement that embodies and sustains it. And I bet that for many of you, in your own way, the same is true.
Reform Judaism is not a set of airy abstractions, nor is the Reform Movement a mere amalgam of organizations. They are powerful forces for good that shape, give meaning to, and transform lives, our lives, as they did for those who came before us and will do for those who come after. They enable us to link our personal stories, yearnings and journeys to the transcendent master narrative of the Jewish People. They connect us with something larger, more significant and more enduring than our individual, mortal, sometimes lonely and bewildered lives. They connect us with what is eternal and with the Eternal One.
That is why we gather here, thousands strong, to sing, study, pray and learn, to celebrate achievements, confront challenges and seize opportunities, to reaffirm our innermost values and renew our most passionate commitments, to hope, worry and dream together.
We are here because, even when we have difficulty articulating it, we know that Reform Judaism stands for something sacred both timely and timeless.
We are here because Reform Judaism embraces both tradition and innovation, both individual autonomy and religious obligation.
We are here because reform is not an aberration or an artifact of modernity, but a defining characteristic of Jewish history and a key to our People’s survival.
We are here because we affirm that intellectual freedom and scientific truth do not threaten Judaism, but validate and enrich it.
We are here because Reform Judaism doesn’t just offer appealing answers, but honors our doubts and questions.
We are here because we are devoted to Israel’s wellbeing, as a Jewish and democratic state, and because we cherish a vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors, within secure and recognized borders, where all citizens and expressions of Judaism are recognized and equal.
We are here because, as Reform Jews and as a Movement, we champion justice, diversity, equality, and inclusion, and are committed to partnering with God, each other, and all people of good will to repair and perfect the world.
We affirm that these things are true, even in an era of rapid and bewildering change, when religious identification, affiliation and practice are optional, the sanctions that once compelled Jewish observance have long since dissolved, the range of choices seems infinite, and the ability of existing institutions to satisfy them is in question. More than ever, our task is to construct what Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures,” the frameworks and settings in which Jewish observance makes powerful sense and infuses people’s lives with meaning and purpose.
Our task is daunting, but invigorating. Change is disruptive, but essential to renewal. Is not that, after all, what two centuries of Reform Judaism, its vibrant organizations and pioneering leaders have taught us? Let us go forward then, together, confident we can rise to the summons of our calling, because we must, and because we have each other.
We conclude with words of gratitude to those who came before us and for our obligations to those who will follow us: Barukh Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh haolam, shehehiyanu v’kiyemanu v’higianu laz’man hazeh. Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has kept us in life and sustained us, enabling us to reach this joyous occasion.
Rabbi Rick Block is Senior Rabbi of The Temple – Tifereth Israel in Cleveland and Beachwood, Ohio, and President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.