Grateful for the Unexpected: Mussar on Vacation

Our family vacation didn’t entirely go as planned. A week-long Galapagos cruise turned into a four-day voyage when an airplane mechanical failure caused us to miss our original departure. Houston, even in a comfortable hotel and with every possible movie in the world’s largest multiplex, doesn’t match snorkeling with sea turtles or gazing at blue footed boobies.

I knew to be grateful, even to the airline that botched our departure rather than risk an unsafe flight. Thanks only to long practice of Mussar, I was able to keep my anger in check, not only about a situation out of everyone’s control, but when the airline inexplicably couldn’t produce our luggage for our unanticipated Houston layover. As Alan Morinis has taught, losing my temper wouldn’t change the outcome, but would only make me — and worse, the people around me — miserable; and I would model badly to my children. Other middot (soul-traits) helped, too, significantly including bitachon (trust). For the first 24 hours, we weren’t sure we would get to the Galapagos at all; but I continually told my family (and myself) that, whatever the outcome, we would be fine and we would have a good vacation. Oh, and I was grateful that, months ago, I had exhibited the zerizut (alacrity) to purchase the trip insurance that would make that outcome financially feasible.

I knew, too, that most people — indeed, even most Ecuadorians — never get to explore the Galapagos, that such a glorious vacation is out of the reach of most Americans, not to mention the entire human family. So our family remained grateful for four days in the Galapagos, even as we acknowledged our disappointment.

But it wasn’t until the end of the first full day of the cruise that I recognized the fullness of the goodness we had been granted. During one two-hour hike on the island of Espanola, we had the closest of encounters with a dozen sea lion colonies, including hundreds of young. We were within inches of thousands of Earth’s only sea-going iguanas, called “Christmas Iguanas” because the males take on bright red and green coloring only at one time of year, which happened to be the season of our trip. We watched up close as two couples of albatrosses, a monogamous species, engaged in elaborate love dances that even our guide had rarely seen. Among countless nesting Nasco Boobies, we spotted one day-old chick huddling under its mother. We gazed on as an immature albatross spread its wings and took its first few feet of flight.

1482877_675529182489913_1028566581_nOh, I forgot to mention: Espanola is home to lots and lots of dung: bird poop of every kind, sea lion poop, iguana poop, you name it, that island has it. One could, I suppose, spend those precious hours on Espanola disgusted by the poop. One could return to the ship, calculating the tons of excrement, instead of the scores of species. Similarly, we could return from our trip, recounting the delay and all its trials rather than the magnificence of our destination. Instead, hakarat ha-tov (gratitude, literally “recognizing the good”) prevailed. We returned to narrate our magnificent photographs of boobies and sea lions.

Our ancestors were slaves in Egypt for more than four centuries. The forty years that followed were no picnic either. Still, we tell that story as one of the greatest liberation humanity has ever known, culminating in the Promised Land. Even when there’s a lot of poop in the way — and in life, there always is — may we gratefully recognize and celebrate the wonder of life on Earth.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, AR.

Death Healing Rabbis

Mussar for Rabbis – Bitachon (Trust), Life, and Death

“Rabbi, I wouldn’t want your job,” congregants have often said to me, most often in connection with the rabbi’s proximity to death.  My response often surprises people:  “Being with those who are dying, and with families coping with the death of a loved one, is actually the most meaningful part of being a rabbi for me.”

Make no mistake:  The rabbi is not immune from feelings of sadness in the midst of mourners.  Having served more than two decades in one community, and now forging meaningful bonds in a new one, I frequently experience real personal loss at the death of a person who has become dear to me.

Still, the well-boundaried rabbi does not become consumed by grief at the death of a congregant.  With true caring for the person who is dying, or who has died, and for the family, the rabbi can play a unique role to bring healing.  The rabbi can leverage the liminal moment to draw people closer to the congregation, to the Covenant, and to God.  Most importantly, the rabbi can convey authentic faith, which I have come to understand most importantly as the middah of bitachon (the soul-trait of trust), thanks to my learning with Alan Morinis.

In significant measure, I take my cue from the Christian funeral, a comment I make in the context of a witticism I often share about Jews attending a Christian funeral:

A group of Jews gets in the car after a Christian funeral, after offering condolences to the family and kind, if not entirely sincere, words to the minister or priest.  The car windows are rolled up.  I have been in this car.  “Geez,” one person exclaims, “I thought we were going to Ploni’s funeral.  But I didn’t hear hardly anything about Ploni! Did we just attend Jesus’s funeral?”

Naturally, the Christian service doesn’t resonate to Jews.  We don’t share the theology proclaimed there.  We are not imbued with faith that Ploni has found the blessings of life eternal because of his/her relationship with Jesus.  That Christian funeral does not inspire bitachon (trust) in us.

IMG_2309The question remains, though:  Do our own funerals offer faith and hope to us and to our own people?

In our own day, people often ask why rabbis bother to give eulogies at all.  After all, family members are often eager to speak, and they knew the deceased better even than a rabbi who has shared a long relationship with the departed.  While I agree that the loving words of familial mourners are meaningful, and certainly called for (as in Proverbs 31), the rabbi can fill a role that most family members cannot.

I minister to dying individuals and their families, and I craft each eulogy, with a clear, rabbinical goal in mind:  I am there to offer bitachon, trust, despite the unhappy circumstance before us, that:

1) Life is an inestimable gift from God, exemplified by the life now ending or ended.  The dying or recently deceased person has made an important impact on this world which will not soon be forgotten and is indisputably not erased by death.

2) We who yet live can keep this person very much alive here on Earth by finding our own ways to live our dear one’s values.  I suggest that this responsibility to a person’s immortality on Earth is what we mean when we say that we are reciting Kaddish “for” somebody.  Literally, the Kaddish is an opportunity to praise God on behalf of one who no longer can do so.  We may interpret our Kaddish obligation more broadly as a duty to perform mitzvot, to offer cheesed (loving-kindness,) and tzedakah (righteous charitable giving), and/or to continue shalshelet hakabalah (the chain of Jewish tradition) on behalf of the one who no longer can do so, thereby granting immortality in this world.

3) Life after death for the departed in the World to Come is also a meaningful part of our Jewish faith.  This is the hard part, for countless reasons, not the least being that any honest discussion of Jewish theology in this regard doesn’t fit into a eulogy.   Still, I affirm that even poetic, oblique reference to eternal life in God’s embrace offers faith and hope that our funerals might otherwise fail to convey.

Serving my congregants at their times of greatest spiritual need, I have come to realize, has bolstered my own bitachon, my own ultimate trust in the Eternal.  Death is a difficult aspect of the human condition, from which rabbis are not exempt.  Striving to help others face death with faith serves as a constant reminder to me:  I must pursue tikkun middot, the repair of my own flaws, to deepen the meaning of my own earthly existence; I am charged to recall the goodness of my grandparents, of blessed memory, by striving to “say Kaddish” for them through my own actions; and I would do well to remember that I, too, am “but dust and ashes,” my body destined for the cemetery, my soul in the hands of God, a prospect I increasingly accept with bitachon, with faithful trust.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, AR.

Ethics Rabbis Reform Judaism

Mussar for Rabbis: Order

Alan Morinis teaches that each נשמה (neshamah – soul) has its own “curriculum.” In other words, each of us is out of balance with respect to this or that מידה (middah – soul trait) in ways that are unique to us.

When we come to סדר (seder – order), one can be out of balance in either direction. As Morinis writes, “The soul-trait of order is all about the middle way. Too little order gives birth to chaos, while at the other end, too much order ties us up in obsessive rigidity” (“Everyday Holiness,” p. 87). Most of us have “order” on our “curriculum,” even as each person’s challenges may be so different from another’s as to be opposite.

For rabbis, these extremes can be particularly problematic.

The disorganized rabbi may be chronically late for appointments, fail to submit a signed marriage license, or even miss a life cycle ceremony commitment.

The rigid rabbi may burden others with unrealistic expectations of timeliness and precision. We could become such “yekkes” that we insist on starting a service on time, even if the bus with the family and out-of-town guests has broken down, causing distress to the very family we are ostensibly serving. Order is by definition obsessive if we are valuing precision over human beings.

Alan Morinis has also taught me that imbalance with one מידה (middah – soul trait) is often best addressed by emphasizing another. Awareness of a need to change, while essential, isn’t sufficient to bring about the improved behavior. For example, a person who is chronically disorganized may well be aware of that shortcoming. S/he may even say to him/herself: “I need to become better organized!” We often know such things about ourselves; but if change were so easy, we would simply change.

Let me offer examples of how imbalance on the מידה of סדר (the middah, soul trait, of seder, order) may be addressed by emphasis on another virtue altogether.

Perhaps the disorganized rabbi is nevertheless filled with זריזות (zerizut, enthusiasm) for a particular project. This rabbi will not make or keep a schedule for its own sake. S/he may typically be less than responsive to calls and emails. And yet, by summoning the passion s/he is devoting to the project at hand, perhaps the rabbi can summon a level of organization that doesn’t come naturally.

Are you that disorganized rabbi, whose passionately-pursued project is foundering? Perhaps you despair that you can suddenly become punctilious, even to accomplish a cherished goal. Try this method, adapted from Alan Morinis’ prescribed Mussar practice: Journal each evening about the project’s progress. Where is it succeeding, and where is it stalled? Who is questioning and criticizing you and what are their stated reasons for doing so? Even if your initial impulse is to ascribe those critiques to others’ impatience or lack of flexibility, try an experiment: Make a game out of just how timely and responsive you can be. Revel in the repentance of your erstwhile critics, and understand that their newfound partnership is a result of your סדר (seder), of your orderliness, however manufactured.

At the other end of the spectrum, the rigid rabbi may find relief in the מידה (middah, soul trait) of דן לכף זכות (dan l’chaf z’chut, benefit of the doubt). The hyper-organized may become frustrated when others don’t reply with our desired alacrity, constantly complaining that our colleagues or lay partners are poor at follow-through. Unable to imagine misplacing important papers, we may deem a less organized co-worker to be grossly irresponsible. We may not even believe that the bus with the out-of-town guests is lost, but rather assume that cousin Joe or Joanne was dawdling!

Soon, we start that service ruthlessly on time or pepper our partners with harassing emails. The disorganization of others is simply intolerable!

The ultra-organized person isn’t likely simply to accept that others’ standards of סדר (seder, order) are different and equally acceptable. Instead, we may work toward another solution. We may think twice about the motive (or lack of motivation) we ascribe to the less organized person. Make דן לכף זכותך
(dan l’chaf z’chut, benefit of the doubt) a “game.” Be imaginative! Work to make a list of all the possible good explanations for what you have regarded as disorganization. Perhaps the source of your frustration is absorbed in a critical project of which you’re unaware. Maybe he is stressed at home. Perhaps her computer crashed. Maybe the bus really is lost.

I close with a personal anecdote. I’m a pretty organized guy. All the same, from time to time, my office desk has become a disastrous mess. When that has occurred, I haven’t been able to summon סדר (seder, order) itself to clean my desk. I couldn’t convince myself to make order for its own sake. When I began studying and practicing Mussar, I considered what other מידה (middah, soul trait) could help me clean that desk. I identified כבוד (kavod, honor), and came to see that I was dishonoring the people who came to see me — in my case, to see “the rabbi” — indeed, that I was dishonoring the synagogue itself with that disgracefully messy desk. And so, I cleaned it.

Ethics Rabbis Reform Judaism

Mussar for Rabbis: Humility

Beginning a process of תיקון מידות (tikkun middot, repair of one’s soul traits) starts with ענוה (anavah – humility). Without humility, one cannot confess that one’s מידות (middot, soul-traits) require repair, so The Mussar Institute’s programs begin with that essential מידה (middah, soul trait). Even if I don’t imagine myself flawless, a haughty attitude would prevent my openness to Mussar teaching and its required rigorous practice to address my impatience, my lack of generosity or gratitude, or my failures of truth, for example.

My rabbinic humility was challenged from the moment that a new Temple Board member asked me whether we could undertake Mussar learning in my former congregation. Could I retain my regard in the eyes of this congregant if I confessed that I knew nothing beyond the most basic definition of Mussar literature? What kind of a rabbi isn’t well versed in any aspect of our Jewish textual tradition? I was chagrined as I haltingly admitted to being that kind of rabbi.

The congregant pointed me to the Mussar Institute. I was impressed with a lecture by Alan Morinis that I saw there, and I approached him about the possibility of a scholar-in-residence weekend. Seeking to maximize “bang for the buck,” I proposed to teach some of the texts in the months leading up to his visit. He would offer a Shabbat Eve talk during services, to reach a wide audience, and then we would hold a Shabbaton exclusively for those who had already studied the material.

Morinis seemed to like the plan, explaining that, to do what I proposed, if I would first have to take “Everyday Holiness” online and then take מנחים (manchim – leaders) training to enable me to offer a Mussar Institute course to my congregants.

What chutzpah! Who did this Alan Morinis think he was? “I’m a rabbi,” I thought; “Give me a text; I’ll study it, and then I can teach it.” Divine intervention is the only explanation for my I summoning humility I did not then possess, agreeing to Morinis’ lengthy demands.

The payoff has been beyond measure. My נשמה (neshamah – soul) continues to need repair, and always will; now, though, I do possess just enough humility to accept that somebody else — in this case, Alan Morinis and the Mussar Masters who preceded him — have a system better than any I could have created on my own. Through daily affirmation, repeated study and introspection, and journaling, coming to grips with my failures, I continually seek to become a better husband, a better father, a better rabbi, a better human being.

Humility or ענוה (anavah) is not exclusively about eschewing haughtiness, important as that is. The Mussar Institute’s recommended daily affirmation for ענוה (anavah – humility) is, “No more than my place, no less than my space.” The second half of the phrase suggests that one who is “too humble” isn’t humble at all. Now that’s a חידוש (chiddush, a new insight), particularly important for rabbis.

Moses, we know, is called “very humble, more than any other person on the face of the Earth” (Numbers 12:3). The context of that characterization is Korach’s rebellion, an incident during which Moses is anything but meek. He stands in his rightful place and chides the rebels for stepping beyond their own.

Rabbis could be tempted to “go along to get along,” not to take controversial stands or stand up to injustice or unethical behavior within our communities. Morinis cites a story from the Talmud (Gittin 55b-56a) to illustrate how failure to lead, excessive meekness, is a failure of ענוה (anavah – humility) which can have disastrous results.

We are taught, “The humility of Rabbi Zechariah Ben Avkulus caused the destruction of the [second] Temple in Jerusalem.” Actually, Zachariah’s failure is of taking up “less than his space.” The specifics of the story are unsavory. The Romans, encouraged by a Jewish accomplice, present the priests with a “Sophie’s choice,” either to sacrifice a blemished animal proffered by the Romans, thereby violating Torah, or insult the Romans and incur their wrath by refusing the offering. A harsh solution is proposed: Kill the Jewish accomplice, so that he can’t report to the Romans that the sacrifice has been declined. A decision is sought from Rabbi Zechariah, who analyzes the terrible consequences of each choice but declines to rule. The sacrifice is declined. In keeping with the accomplice’s plan, the Romans, convinced that the Jews are in open rebellion, proceeded to destroy the Temple.

Thankfully, contemporary Reform rabbis aren’t faced with such dire consequences. At the same time, we may well be tempted, like our predecessor Zechariah, to avoid difficult choices. Do we step into our proper role, responding with compassion-tempered תוכחה (tochechah – rebuke), each time we receive that oft-forwarded offensive email about how few Arabs and how many Jews have been awarded Nobel prizes? Do we respond with both caring and integrity when asked to make inappropriate accommodations for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah in a family of wealth and power? When a member of our staff is unjustly attack by a leader who could threaten our own tenure, do we clearly name the insult, at our own peril?

Humility is tough for rabbis — yes, because haughtiness may be an occupational hazard; and also because excessive meekness may be wrongly regarded as a rabbinic virtue.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, AR.

General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

We Are All the Interim Rabbi

In the opening months of my tenure at my new congregation, I said to a group of lay leaders, “I am the interim rabbi.”  No, I didn’t mean that I would move on at the end of a year, like the outstanding intentional interim colleague who served so well in that capacity before my arrival.  Still, I meant what I said.

There was a time that such a thought would have shocked me.  I served more than twenty years in one congregation, beginning a year after ordination.  I expected to serve there until retirement, then actively as rabbi emeritus until burial in that Temple’s cemetery.  I envisioned my rabbinate as intimately bound to that singular synagogue.

The future I envisioned was not to be.  After a traumatic upheaval, I submitted my resignation; then, however awkwardly, by mutual agreement, I continued to serve in limited ways during a year’s sabbatical.  Over the course of those months, I came to the realization — at first painful, and ultimately comforting — that the congregation and I would be just fine without one another.

I began to divide the ways of that congregation into three categories:  1) Practices that predated my rabbinate there; 2) Aspects that colleagues, congregants and I had built together; and 3) Innovations that sprang into being after me, before I was even fully out the door.

My division of that congregation’s world, though, was false. Even if I was there much too long to have been what we derisively term an “unintentional interim,” I had been the interim rabbi.  We all are.  Congregations have stories that begin before we arrive and continue after we leave.  Even our most lasting and well-remembered impact would likely have happened, in one form or another, had somebody else been in “our” pulpit.  בלעדי, Yoseph said, “Without me, God (and unseen forces of history) will see to (the congregation’s) welfare.”

This realization requires a humility, a ביטול היש, that challenges everyone, perhaps particularly rabbis.  Its acceptance, though, may lead to a healthier, happier rabbinate, not to mention more successful congregational transitions.

Whether we serve five years or fifty, we can help our congregants become the Jews they can best become, facilitate meaning and service in our communities, and summon the Divine Presence.  If we see ourselves as interim rabbi, for four years or forty, we can leave our congregations healthy.  Read that last sentence again; it’s an intentional double entendre:  Both we and our congregations need to be healthy at the end of our tenures.

When an interim rabbi leaves, at the end of one year or a full career, s/he can find a new, fulfilling life, potentially including meaningful rabbinical service, outside that congregation.  When an interim rabbi leaves, after two years or twenty, the congregation can be primed to welcome a new rabbinical leader, to continue its history into its future, from strength to greater strength.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, AR.


The Blessing of CCAR Chevruta

Much more than a decade ago, our colleague Rabbi Bob Loewy spoke to SWARR (Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis) members from the pulpit of Congregation House of Israel in Hot Sprints Arkansas, where we were gathered for a Kallah.  Bob was the President of SWARR at the time, and he described that position as the greatest honor of his career to date.

Truth be told, the SWARR presidency is determined by seniority, i.e., the President is the most senior member of SWARR who has been active in the region and not yet served as president.  Therefore, Bob wasn’t chosen as SWARR president as an honor, per se, nor was I several years later.  So why did Bob describe that position as כבוד (honor)?

Bob has served in this region throughout his career.  I have, too, except for one year.  I resonated strongly to Bob’s discussion of the importance of SWARR to his rabbinate.

SWARR is a far-flung region.  We gather annually, not monthly.  Our Kallot feature significant study and important communication from the CCAR.

More importantly, SWARR is an important place for sharing, in a way that our fabulous but very large CCAR conventions cannot be.

I write from SWARR, in Memphis this week.

This morning, over breakfast, a colleague and his spouse talked with me about their journey from the traumatic end of a congregational tenure to healing, now in their fifth year in a new position.  Their message was important for me to hear, at an earlier stage in my own similar journey.

The conversation then grew to include others at the table.  We contemplated a panel discussion of rabbis and rabbinic families who have lived through professional trauma.  We reflected on past SWARR conversations that have been particularly moving.  We met in Oklahoma City shortly after the bombing of the Murrah Building, and we heard from David Packman about rabbinic leadership in a community crisis. On the same panel, Ken Roseman, whose wife had died after a long struggle with cancer, talked about living through that tragedy in his family, congregation, and community.  We shared a similarly meaningful moment when we met after Katrina, hearing from our New Orleans colleagues, an encounter so moving that it was repeated at a CCAR Convention.  A couple years ago, we heard from a panel of Rabbis Emeritus about the joys and challenges they face in the pews of congregations led by their successors.

Each year, we lovingly remember recently departed colleagues who served in our region.  Often, few in the room knew the colleagues described, long since retired.  The personal אזכרות, each delivered by a rabbi who enjoyed a personal relationship with the departed, deepen our bonds across the generations.  Along those same lines, I am acutely aware that, at 50, I am no longer a young rabbi.  My encounters with new colleagues at SWARR, engaging in intentional conversation over dinner or in the hospitality room, have deepened my rabbinate meaningfully each year.

I am grateful for my SWARR חברותה (chevruta), and pray that all CCAR colleagues enjoy a similar opportunity.

 Rabbi Barry Block is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, AR.

Ethics General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Taking out the (Sacred?) Trash

Leviticus assigns some very messy duties to the Cohanim, the Priests of otherwise exalted status in the ancient Temple.  Not only is the Priest charged with slaughtering the sacrificial animal and sprinkling blood according to prescribed ritual, he is also required to clean up after the ritual is complete.

Yes, that’s right.  The same Priest who presides over the sacrificial ritual is the custodian.  He changes clothes, sweeps up the ashes, and takes them to the dumping ground outside the camp — to the dumpster, if you will.

We may be surprised that Torah assigns this garbage run to the Priest himself.  After all, Levites are charged to assist the Priests by taking on less exalted duties connected to the Temple service.

So what’s the lesson?

Recently, I transitioned from service as rabbi of a larger congregation of about 1000 households to a medium-sized synagogue of some 350 families.  My new congregation employs one full-time custodian who doesn’t work on Saturday or Sunday.  (I write “Saturday” rather than “Shabbat,” because he does work Friday evenings.)

We have a robust attendance at Shabbat Torah study, which always includes a breakfast snack provided by volunteers among the participants; and our Men’s Club assures that a lovely Kiddush follows Shabbat morning worship.  Shortly after I arrived, an insect infestation inspired a decision that the garbage from this Shabbat morning gathering would need to be taken to the dumpster at the end of the morning’s activities rather than sitting in the inside trash can until Monday.

As the only staff member regularly present on Shabbat morning, I’m often the guy who takes the trash to the dumpster.  Suffice it to say that I never took trash to the dumpster even once in 21 years at my previous congregation.

While I never reacted badly to this garbage duty, or imagined it beneath my station, I also didn’t find it edifying.  Slowly, though, I began to see קדושה in the duty.  No, I’m not a Cohen, but the trash is sacred:  It is the refuse of the holy endeavors or Torah study and worship.

At my new congregation, every member, including the rabbi, needs to be a custodian.  After Shabbat Kiddush, if I’m visiting with a congregant in need or a newcomer, or if I need to rush out to a pastoral or family obligation, a lay leader will take out our sacred Shabbat garbage.

The word “custodian” is often treated as a synonym of “janitor.”  However, if we pay attention to the word, we will note that a custodian is one who has custody, who maintains a responsibility, often for something holy.  Indeed, our most regular usage of the  word “custody” refers to children!

Being a custodian wasn’t what I expected when I became a rabbi, or even when I sought placement in a smaller congregation, but I am grateful to have found meaning in taking out the sacred garbage.

 Rabbi Barry Block is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, AR.

CCAR on the Road Ethics News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Who Is Our Next Generation of Leadership?

Two members of Temple Beth-El's young leadership at the Consultation
Two members of Temple Beth-El’s young leadership at the Consultation

We in institutional Jewish life keep hearing how we are challenged by the under-35 demographic.  They supposedly aren’t joiners.  They “won’t” pay for Jewish life.  To the extent there’s a secret to attracting them, we are told that eliminating the “institutional footprint” is the key.

But I’ve been at the Consultation on Conscience this week with a delegation of nine from Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, four of them young adults.  That’s up from tiny delegations when there were any at all, and certainly no young adults, throughout my 21 years at the congregation.  Admittedly, winning a Fain Award attracted some of us. But young adults are the real difference.

Rabbi Elisa Koppel recruited four 20-somethings to join us at the Consultation, aided by the RAC’s recognition of this demographic’s importance:  The registration fee for the under 35 crowd was a manageable $50.

So who are these young adults?  Three are Jews-by-Choice, and the fourth is well along the path to conversion.  They are all LGBT:  one lesbian and three gay men, including a couple whose marriage I officiated last month.

All four jumped at the opportunity to be part of our Reform Movement’s commitment to social justice, which was key to attracting them to Judaism.  But these are not single-issue Reform Jews.  The married couple keeps a kosher home.  All four celebrate Shabbat regularly at Temple and at home.  They are active in Machar, the Temple’s young adult engagement, and they volunteer at the free summer day camp, Beth-El Food and Fun, for underprivileged kids who live in the Temple’s neighborhood, the project
recognized by the Fain Award.

In other words, the “institutional footprint” is heavy in these young adults’ Jewish lives.

And here they are, using two days of their precious few annual vacation days, and plunking down real money for the experience, albeit appropriately reduced by the RAC and with some help from  rabbinic discretionary funds toward the flights.

This Consultation experience, and Machar’s success, suggest a model for engaging the next generation of Reform Jewish leadership.  Without dismissing other models, please consider this combination:

Social justice work.
Participating in social justice.

1.  Meaningful tikkun olam opportunities, engaging young adults both in groups of their contemporaries and in more diverse groups (like the Brickner Fellowship unites  rabbis of different generations).
2. A public rabbinic voice for social justice, heard widely in the community, not only by those already engaged in our Jewish institutions.
3.  Pricing structures that require young adults to make a commitment but are appropriate to their circumstances.
4.  Celebrating a community that already includes Jews-by-birth and -by-choice, straight and LGBT, partnered and single, families of all kinds, who come on Shabbat and who don’t, etc., demonstrating the real diversity that comes naturally to this age group is key.
5.  A relevant Shabbat worship experience, spiritually and intellectually stimulating, with regular reference to social justice.
6.  Opportunities like the Consultation for the most engaged to celebrate their involvement and find partners across North America.

The slides in the front of the room at the Consultation this morning make clear that the under-35 crowd is changing America.  In their demographic, even the majority of evangelicals support same-sex marriage!  Jews, more than most Americans, understand celebrate the ways our society has changed since the 1950’s.  We should be eager to embrace the changes that millennial even to our hallowed institutions.

When I sit with my young adult friends at the Consultation, this almost-50 rabbi is re-energized by their social justice commitment, by their rich Jewish lives, and above all by their vision of a society freed of discrimination and hatred, poverty and hunger, where “justice will roll down like a stream!”

Rabbi Barry Block has been named Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, beginning July 1, 2013. Currently, Rabbi Block is on sabbatical as Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas, where he has served since 1992.

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What Matters to Us: Reflections from the Consultation on Conscience

The disconnect is striking.

“The Jewish vote,” we were told last year, is all about support for Israel.

But here I am at the Consultation on Conscience.  Israel is on the agenda, to be sure.   But it’s a crowded agenda.  And our friends in Washington seem to “get” that better than the pre-election press.

4347252961_4923cd8cd0_oThe Consultation’s keynote was a conversation between Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Ambassador Susan Rice.  They talked about Israel.  But they also struggled with Sudan and Syria.  They emphasized international LGBT human rights.

Senators and members of Congress of both parties are poised to talk with us Tuesday about immigration reform and economic fairness, the environment and international human rights.  And about Israel.

Danny Gordis claims that too few of us prioritize our own people.  He argues that our universalism, unique in Jewish history, harms our own people.  But the argument between universalism and particularism goes back to the Bible itself.  Ruth suggests that redemption can come from anywhere, even Moab. Ezra takes the opposite view. The best of our prophetic books, Isaiah, cries out for justice, seamlessly, for Israelite and foreigner alike.

So what energizes the crowd at the Consultation?

Judging by the applause, marriage equality is a critical concern, along with its near relative, LGBT employment non-discrimination.  For me, that’s personal:  my mom is a lesbian.  As a congregational rabbi, LGBT equality is a concern in our own Texas community, where our members can and do lose jobs because they are LGBT. But admittedly, these issues are universal.  My read of the prophets tells me to join Rabbi Jacobs and Ambassador Rice, concerned about persecution for LGBT folks worldwide, in countries with no Jews.

Immigration reform is high on our agenda, particularly for the rabbis at the Consultation who are leading Rabbis Organizing Rabbis.  Some of our Jewish communities include immigrants whose status would be affected, but most are outside the Jewish community.  So perhaps we should be surprised that the polling data before us shows that American Jews photo-16overwhelmingly agree that a path to citizenship must be included in comprehensive immigration reform.  For me, and I’m not alone, this view is motivated by Torah:  We are commanded to remember the stranger, for we were strangers in Egypt.  And my views on immigration are motivated by the American Jewish experience:  We Jews, better than some other Americans, recall our people’s immigrant experience and identify immigrants’ journeys with those of our own forbears.

But make no mistake:  Israel’s peace and security remains very much on the minds of Consultation attendees and our speakers.  We lauded Ambassador Rice on the partnership she and the administration have shared with Israel at the UN, facing adversity together, and she told us about Israeli strides at the UN that were news to many of us.

All of the above are concerns at the Consultation.  All are Jewish social justice priorities.  All are universally important, and all are particularly Jewish.

Rabbi Barry Block has been named Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, beginning July 1, 2013. Currently, Rabbi Block is on sabbatical as Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas, where he has served since 1992.