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Machzor Blog: A Personal Vision

photo-36For the last three years I have been privileged to serve on the core editorial team of the new Reform machzor, to be called Mishkan HaNefesh.  From the beginning of the process of creating a new machzor, the first one from scratch by the CCAR since 1894, I sat down and created a personal vision statement for the machzor.

Here is what I wrote:

 PERSONAL MACHZOR VISION STATEMENT

EDWIN COLE GOLDBERG

 There is an old joke that says baseball is a Jewish sport because, in the end, the point of the game is to head home.  There is something Jewish about returning home, remembering who we are and seeing the world not so much in a new way but rather with lenses that take in the new while restoring the old perspective.  For most (post) modern American Jews I think this metaphor works well: once a year we return to a familiar place for a rehearsed routine.  Most congregants, I would imagine, are content with efficient services and a sermon that tries to move them.  Wonderful music is a huge part of the equation, and these days an eclectic mix of stirring and participatory is usually best.  The architecture of the building, too, plays a role in the effectiveness of the worship.  Like baseball, the rules stay the same, the old rites comforting.  But no one minds a little well-paced drama.

And then there is the machzor.  For me, a good machzor is somewhat like a business suit on a man: if it calls too much attention to itself, it is not a good thing.  The machzor should facilitate effective (and affective) worship; it should not be the star.  As we create a new machzor, we should remember that what we create is one component in a large array of factors that contribute to a meaningful worship experience.

The unique challenge of a machzor, as opposed to a siddur, is the theological “elephant” in the sanctuary that cannot be sent to the side.  That old “Deuteronomic” view of God as the great Judge and King cannot be taken out of the machzor without the risk of turning the Days of Awe into merely Days.

And yet, I believe our machzor should focus primarily on the human experience of cheshbon nefesh.  Through accessible poetry and well-written translations, our focus should be on the possibility of change and the potential for human growth.  Our prayers and poems should reflect the reality that people are facing, living in a world of moral temptation, dizzying choice and 24/7 bombardment. 

I imagine, then, a machzor that speaks to amcha, not ignoring the role of God in our lives, but focusing primarily on our journey homeward, enabling us to rediscover the values we hold dear, the promises we made when younger, and the challenges before us that, if met, will lead us to lives of holiness.

Reading this statement over three years later, I am pleased that so much of our efforts have reflected the difficult challenge of inviting God into our lives at this critical time of year while at the same time not losing our own sense of personal responsibility for the choices we make.

There are going to be many theological views of God presented in the machzor, just as there will be diverse perspectives on our humanity.  Ultimately, I hope that our machzor will privilege the unique relationship between ourselves and God in bringing more holiness into our lives.

Even the title, Mishkan HaNefesh, evokes the work upon us, the Cheshbon HaNefesh, that will determine whether or not our Days of Awe live up to their pontential.

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg is a member of the Machzor Editorial Team.  He is the senior rabbi of Temple Judea in Coral Gables, FL, and will become the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom in Chicago, IL, this summer.  

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information about participating in piloting, email machzor@ccarnet.org.

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Books Machzor Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism

Machzor Blog: Cosmic Forgiveness

Somewhere between the tablet and the Tablet, there was a primitive invention known as the Etch A Sketch. You could take your mistakes, give them a hearty shake, and they were gone. A clean slate; you could start over. Unfortunately, all the brilliant, artistic work that you had created was also gone.

Teshuvah involves a certain amount of being shaken up. I do not imagine that I can keep all the neat lines of my life in place and just reset the one wrong turn. But, I do get to create another sketch of my life, another map of where I want to go.

We all understand that there is a limit to how much shaking a person can take. If you smash the Etch A Sketch on the ground, you won’t be able to make anything with it. Oh, but most of us are much more likely to think, “I don’t have to shake it that hard. Just a little nudge. Maybe I can just move that one line of my life…”

Real change requires a stronger push. Which leads me to wonder: just what are we asking God to do when we pray for forgiveness? What does it mean to say “S’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu?”

One thing I am pretty certain of is that it does not mean three different things, as if God subjects us to three different processes. We relate to the expression “s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu” as a kind of collective statement of our longing. It is poetic, not descriptive of God’s actions. It is three shakes, because one will not do.

In fact, I can’t accept that God actually “does” anything, in a transitive sense, to us. Just what do we imagine is happening in this selichah-mechilah-kaparah process? That God resets something? That we hand over the Etch A Sketch of our lives to God on an annual basis and plead “Please be gentle when you shake us?”

 The translation “forgive us, pardon us, help us atone” seems to be an attempt to modify the traditional theology, but only partly. Where Gates of Repentance said “grant us atonement,” a parallel to God forgiving us and pardoning us, the draft Machzor asks God to “help us atone,” implying that the real action is being done by us. At least, the action in the third verb, because the first two verbs still frame the action as taking place on God’s side.

 I have no objection to the translation; just an observation about the direction toward which the language points us.

When the rabbis wrote “kaper lanu,” they must have been thinking about the atoning power of sacrifice, and asking God to apply that same grace to us, even though the sacrificial altar is gone.

That’s just not how I think of God. I embrace the poetry of “s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu,” but not because it describes an action that God undertakes vis a vis us.

I long for cosmic forgiveness. What’s more, I believe it is possible. Not an insincere forgetfulness of the past, but an honest return to the position of possibility. If anything, teshuvah ought to mean that we do not forget what we have done. Rather, we have learned from it, and, as a consequence, no longer attach emotional weight to our past errors. I remember where I drew that line, and I won’t make that same mistake again.

 Longing for cosmic forgiveness is not the same as a plea to God to remake us. I would like to say that this is somehow rational, but I know that it is not. Rather, it is a question of the starting point of prayer. Laying words upon words is itself a kind of sketch; not a request for God to shake it all clean, but the careful beginning of a new drawing of our lives.

I am willing to live with the ambiguity of outward-directed prayer for what I know must ultimately be an inward process. But forgiveness seems to me to be among the most transcendent, precious and rare experiences we can know. If I am fortunate enough to acquire a clean slate, I experience that as a gift. It is the way that we experience transformative moments in our lives that imparts meaning to our prayers. Prayer is not an assertion about reality, but a way of giving expression to our deepest hopes. God may not actually forgive, but I know what cosmic forgiveness feels like.

 Rabbi Laurence Elis Milder, Ph.D., is the Reform rabbi of the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, NC.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information about participating in piloting, email machzor@ccarnet.org.

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Books General CCAR News Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism

Moving Trucks, Pallets, and the Jewish Future

Things I never thought my rabbinic school education would prepare me to do:

  1. Study sales figures on spread sheets
  2. Spend time considering the merits of 50 # or 60# paper
  3. Ask questions like “how many pallets will fit on the loading dock?”
  4. Regularly use terms like kerning, analytics, DRM (digital rights management) or FOB (freight on board).

As rabbis, we all have similar lists, even if the details are different. In the course of our careers, we’ve all acquired practical skills for which our pastoral and text-based educations did not prepare us.

Right now CCAR Press is in the process of a move from one warehouse to another. Carefully moving hundreds of pallets holding thousands of books, as well as all the associated customer and sales data, is no small task. The move itself has been preceded by months of planning, preparation and negotiations.  As you can imagine, there have been many meetings. Many, many meetings. We are eternally grateful to our wonderful, pro-bono lawyers from Proskauer and Rose.

The level of detail involved is staggering. Luckily the CCAR is blessed with a great team of staff members working hard to track all the details and put everything in place, from the categorization of customer types to the transfer of AR data to establishing the discount schedule to writing the wording that will go out on order confirmation emails. Like all of us, there are those moments when I jokingly say: and for this I went to rabbinic school?

photo-30Yet just like any rabbi who spends time rearranging chairs in the sanctuary, there’s a bigger end goal here. It’s not about the chairs or the trucks or the spreadsheets, it’s about what we do in order to fulfill our mission and plan for the future.  The point of this warehouse move isn’t to become a specialist in sales, fulfillment, and distribution. All of this work of transferring pallets and boxes and data is really about providing rabbis, cantors, educators, chaplains, congregants, and students with the material they need.  What drives all of this is the core mission of the CCAR:

The CCAR enriches and strengthens the Jewish community by empowering Reform Rabbis to provide religious, spiritual and organizational leadership as it:

      • Fosters excellence in Reform Rabbis
      • Enhances Reform Rabbis’ professional and personal lives
      • Amplifies the voice of the Reform Rabbinate in the Reform Movement, the Jewish community and the world in which we live.

The CCAR Press supports the overall mission of the CCAR buy providing high quality publications for our members and for the Jewish community. Moving to a better, more up-to-date, efficient warehouse is thus one piece of the How, not the What.

We all know change doesn’t happen in an instant – there will surely be some bumps on the road as we transition to new software and processes. Converting to a new on-line ordering system is going to take some time.  But we are sure that once it’s all properly in place, we will be able to serve our customers much better than we have been able to do up to now.

We also know that the balance is shifting from traditional p-books (printed books) to newer forms of content transmission.  There is much we are doing everyday to meet these ever-changing needs.  We now offer e-books for various devices, PDF downloads and apps, and will continue to offer more and more every year.  In the meantime, many people still want p-books, especially for liturgical purposes, and so we must house them somewhere and ship them out somehow.

All of us in the Jewish world are thinking about the Jewish future.  How can we best prepare for the needs of the future?  How can we meet the challenges of the future?  What skills should we be learning?  What questions should we be asking?  What changes should we be making?  Here at the Press, this warehouse move is one way that we’re working on building the Jewish future, by improving the way that we provide you with the resources that you will use to strengthen, teach, unify, and inspire the Jewish community.  This is especially important as we begin to plan for the printing, ordering, and shipping of Mishkan HaNefeshthe new CCAR Machzor.  As our trucks load up and pull out onto the highway, taking Mishkan T’filah and all our other publications to their new, state-of-the-art home, they’re carrying our future on those pallets.

 Rabbi Hara Person is the Publisher of CCAR Press

Find some good bargains at our Clean-Out-the-Warehouse Sale, 3 days only!

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General CCAR News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Rabbis in the Military

Front row, l to r: Heather Borshof, Emily Rosenzweig, Sarah Schechter, Phillip Schechter Second row, l to r: David Frommer, Larry Freedman, Harold Robinson, Frank Waldorf (missing: Bonnie Koppell and Karen Berger)
Front row, l to r: Heather Borshof, Emily Rosenzweig, Sarah Schechter, Phillip Schechter
Second row, l to r: David Frommer, Larry Freedman, Harold Robinson, Frank Waldorf
(missing: Bonnie Koppell and Karen Berger)

10,000 Jews are in the uniform of the United States Armed Forces, and CCAR rabbis are among those who serve their spiritual and emotional needs. Those CCAR military chaplains and the other Jewish chaplains of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Veterans Administration gathered last week at the Commodore Levy Center of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Brought together by the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, about forty rabbis, cantors and lay leaders met for training, learning, praying and chevruta.  CCAR member and retired Rear Admiral, Rabbi Harold Robinson, directs the Jewish Chaplains Council and led the retreat. I was pleased to represent the CCAR officially and to sit with our colleagues for two days. We heard from the chief chaplains of the Navy, Army and Air Force, who spoke about the reductions in the Armed Forces and in the chaplaincy. Despite this, they said, there is still a huge need for Jewish chaplains. They also said that Jewish chaplains, unlike many other chaplains, genuinely understand the interreligious nature of chaplaincy work. Also in attendance was Major Reuben Livingstone, the only Jewish chaplain in the British Forces.  At the end of the retreat we were joined by the Chaplains Council Plenum, the advisory body for the JWB, at which our colleagues Rabbis Phil Schechter and Frank Waldorf were present. I was struck by several things: by the extraordinary devotion of the Reform Movement’s chaplains to the servicemen and women whom they care for; by the youthfulness of our Reform chaplains; and by the far greater number of women over men in the Reform chaplaincy. For over 150 years Jewish chaplains have provided spiritual and emotional support for our men and women in the military. Every member of the CCAR should take great pride in the ways that our colleagues carry on this tradition of caring, leadership and sacrifice. May God bless all the deeds of their hands.

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Ethics News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

What Drives You to Do Social Justice?

The question was so simple.  “What drives you to do social justice?”  But the answer was so complex and varied.  The themes were similar: family role models, personal experiences of injustice, a sense of responsibility and moral obligation.  But each one of us had a story to tell, a piece to uncover, a truth to reveal.  After 15 months of knowing the people in the room with me, I realized that maybe I didn’t really know them that well at all.  And all it takes, to really get to know a person, is to ask a simple question and let their story unfold.

I just returned from the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience. As a 2012-2013 Brickner Rabbinic Fellow, this was the culminating event to months of study, prayer, and exploration on social advocacy, as it pertains to being a rabbi. But it was more than that.  It was the culmination of months of being in relationship with a great group that helped me realize what it means to be passionate about social justice, to rely on one another professionally to help better our world, and to live with holy intention in the work that we do.

And yet, there was something so powerful, so organically raw and moving in the room as we closed out our final moments together as a group.  Rabbi Steve Fox, Chief Executive of the CCAR, invited us to reflect for a moment.  In most cases, you would expect us to reflect back on the last 15 months and the experiences shared in the program.  But we didn’t do that.  We did something much more sacred, much more meaningful and much more useful.  We shared words with one another about our own personal journeys and lives in relation to changing, healing, and helping our broken world.  It had all the potential to be go wrong and be self-serving and egotistical.  But it wasn’t.  It was beautiful. In that moment, our group took the trust that had been building in those 15 months and we unleashed our stories – painful, funny, heartfelt – and we created sacred space to continue connecting our lives with one another.

That moment continued to teach us about social advocacy, about the holiness that comes from hearing and sharing stories and recognizing the beauty of the human spirit and the power of community.  Social advocacy is nothing without recognizing that we are all human beings, with complex stories and histories and lives, and that we are all in this world together, trying to create a better world so that all may live with dignity and freedom.  But it begins by listening and by sharing.

The question was so very simple.  But I am grateful that it was asked.  Because with it, I was able to understand what the last 15 months truly were about – making sacred connections so that I can be empowered to continue partnering with God and with my fellow human beings in order to help create a more perfect world through social advocacy, social justice and tikkun olam.

Rabbi Liz Wood is the Associate Rabbi Educator at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills, NY.

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Ethics General CCAR News Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism

Reflections of Remembrance and Healing from Boston

An unbelievably short time ago, on Friday, April 12th, I and members of our Central Reform Temple family were completing our ten day pilgrimage and study mission in Israel.

On that day, we were in Jerusalem, as preparations for the weekly celebration of the Sabbath were unfolding. In a palpable sense of cessation and anticipation unique to that holy city, the arrival of Shabbat is viscerally felt. Beginning at noon, the usually bustling streets almost magically become quiet and deserted…the traffic on the highways disappears…storefronts are shuttered… and a quiet peace descends upon the city as the golden hues of the sun begin to fade, ushering in the sacred day of prayer and rest.

Our group of Bostonians had experienced a week of intense emotion and inspiration, mixed with clear, unvarnished confrontations with the complex challenges , the tensions and pressures, encompassed in this “City of Peace” that has seen so much conflict. And yet, in the midst of the renewed threats coming from rocket attacks from the Syrian border during our visit, we all felt safe and secure. We reached that final day of our stay filled with gratitude that the peace of the Sabbath had indeed embraced us throughout our week in Israel.

One week later…to the very hour…  at noon this past Friday, April 19th, the exact same scene of deserted streets and shuttered stores was replicated here in Boston. But this was not a sign of the arrival of the Sabbath peace.  It was the fearful and anxiety-filled unfolding of the final chapter of the tragedy that has engulfed all of us over the past few days. The dramatic irony was overwhelming for those of us who had just returned from 10 safe and peaceful days in the world’s most volatile and dangerous region – only to face terrorism here in our own city.

Even articulating these words, “terrorism in Boston”- seems surreal and unimaginable. At this moment, not even one week after the horror that changed all of our lives, it still seems impossible that all of this could have really happened…

And yet – it did happen – and the terrible reality is a gaping would in our minds and hearts. Once again, we have experienced a transforming “where were you when” moment in our lives – a day, a week that none of us will ever forget… and many of our neighbors will continue to painfully relive daily for the rest of their lives.

Coming together for a Service of Remembrance and Healing, in shared support and loving friendship, cannot but bring to mind the other times of national tragedy that we have endured together over the years. The emotions of the past few days have brought back so many echoes of Oklahoma City…of September 11th…of Newtown. And as with so many historic events of our rime, we all experienced the dramatic developments of this past week in real time – either at the very location of the tragedy, within a few short blocks of this very place… or glued to our television screens or computer monitors. It has been a week of powerful visual images that are seared into our consciousness. And it has also been an unending flow of words…the breathless updates of reporters… the commentary of pundits and experts… the truly inspiring and comforting messages of our local and national leaders.

We have heard the reflections of various religious representatives – some conventionally parochial and others genuinely moving, healing and prophetic, reaching out to embrace all of us…

And we have also been challenged and encouraged by the very powerful messages of our civic leaders- the dogged determination of Mayor Menino… the clear vision and strong leadership of Governor Patrick…and, once again, the rich imagery and soaring eloquence of President Obama. Their words of hope and confidence, their messages of compassion for the families of the dead and those who were  injured, their praise for the courage of the first responders and for the generosity of spirit that poured forth from the people of Boston, were all enormously helpful and healing for all of us. So much so, that perhaps too many more words, beyond those of prayer and song, may indeed be excessive and presumptuous at this time.

Just being able to come together…just having been able to leave our homes and arrive here safely… just being able to be together- after a harrowing week of fear and isolation –this is enough of a message for this moment… as are the emotions that cannot be expressed by the further multiplication of words and attempts at wisdom. The human stories of courage and selflessness that will continue to emerge will be the most eloquent sermons.  And so, I will not speak too many more words this morning. The wisdom has already been imparted… the stirring messages and challenges have already been spoken.

So let me share just a few impressions that remain in the forefront of my consciousness. I hope that they might reflect many of your own feelings and thoughts, and perhaps help you to process the deep emotions we have all been confronting over the past few days.

I am thinking of the tearful encounters with the Marathon runners I spoke with on Tuesday, right after the attack, when I and my fellow Back Bay clergy colleagues took to the streets to meet with and offer support for the throngs of shell-shocked visitors who were still out following the violent end of the race. I spoke with people from Minneapolis, Washington DC, and Utah. In the midst of their own trauma, each of them wanted to thank the people of this great and beautiful city. They vowed to return – both to visit and to run again.  And I could not help but think that perhaps the conventional, clichéd images of Boston – perpetuated by lurid Southie mobster movies and Saturday Night Live skits  might finally melt away… and once again we could reclaim our role as the “City on the Hill”… a place of learning and creativity… the cradle of liberty. Not only the home of the Red Socks, Celtics and Bruins, but the very essence of the ”Spirit of America.”

Another impression I come away with this week is of the countless messages that I- and I’m sure, each of you- received from so many friends and even distant acquaintances, from around the world. Emails, Facebook posts and phone calls, all expressing deep concern and sharing their sadness for what we were going through here in Boston. These genuine human connections were so helpful and encouraging for all of us- and I hope that such personal ties of sensitivity and support will remain one of the many positive things that may come out of this difficult time.

Another visual image that remains in my consciousness… as we were all sitting in front of our TV screens on Friday evening, breathlessly watching the drama of the capture in Watertown, I wonder if some of you may have also noticed something at once incongruous and yet so overwhelmingly powerful about the scene. In the midst of the wall of police vehicles and SWAT trucks, and the crowds of heavily armed troops converging on the street where the fugitive suspect was being apprehended, there stood- at the very center of the  television camera’s view – the most beautiful azalea tree and budding forsythia bushes…

I hope that it does not sound trite that in the unbearable anxiety of those moments, when a final suicide explosion could well have detonated and taken more lives before our very eyes – I felt the need to focus my attention on those beautiful signs of life…of calm…of the eternal hope of rebirth and renewal of this season. There was something about the brilliant colors of the pink and yellow blossoms, in the midst of the blazing police lights and the fearful events being played out before us, that somehow gave me hope that this nightmare would end…

And one final impression… later that Sabbath Eve, when the drama had concluded, I reflected once again back on the previous week, in Jerusalem. I felt deeply that Boston had also emerged as a Holy City. Prevented by the emergency from gathering with our congregation in worship that night, I closed my eyes and sensed that God had indeed been with us throughout this painful week.  The selfless courage, the boundless compassion, the determination and resilience, the shared prayers, were all signs of the Divine Presence in our midst.  Many surely questioned where God was in the brutal deaths of a smiling gap-toothed little boy and two lovely young women, who had come to be part of a time of happy gathering of our community. And we know that indeed, God was with us… in the pain and sorrow, and in the nobility of our collective response to the pain and sorrow.

The Boston Globe columnist, Juliette Kayyem, in an insightful reflection a few days ago on the challenge we now face to carry on and move forward, began her essay with a surprising and obscure quote from- of all people- my old Seminary professor, Rabbi Stanley Chyet. I have no idea where she found this passage, which I had never heard. Having known him well- as both a Jewish historian and a gifted poet, I was so moved by this unexpected encounter with the memory of my old friend and teacher. These words offer us a fitting message as we resolve to begin the healing of our beloved city…

We ought not pray for what we have never known:

Unbroken peace…unmixed blessing…

No.

Better to pray for the will to see and touch…

The power to do good…and to make new.

 

To which we say… Amen!

Rabbi Howard Berman A. Berman is Founding Rabbi of Central Reform Temple, two blocks from the bomb site. He is also Rabbi Emeritus of Chicago Sinai Congregation, and the Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism.  These words are adapted from a sermon delivered after the tragedy in Boston.  

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CCAR on the Road Ethics Immigration News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Serve the Eternal With Joy

4583201560_2797e92db7_oThe Psalmist calls to us, “Serve the Eternal with joy!”

For three days, participants of the Consultation on Conscience heard from pollsters about faith and Tikkun Olam; we sat at the feet of US Ambassador Susan Rice, Sister Simone Campbell and “Nuns on the Bus,” and Rabbi Sharon Brous to discuss the role of faith in our pursuit of progressive social change; and we learned from staff at the Religious Action Center about how to lobby more effectively, about outstanding local social justice programs for our communities, and about the energetic Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Campaign for fair and humane immigration reform. We discussed violence against the human spirit, were weighted down with stories of gun violence and human rights abuses, and discussed how to face the obstacles of cynicism, callousness, and despair.

For a group of Balfour Brickner Rabbinic Fellows, we added powerful stories of the moments that called us to social justice; for some it was being bullied and beaten up years ago in high school; for others, it was the recognition we had been that bully. Powerful, prescient, evocative stories about the Divine spark bursting our hearts open and demanding we respond to the great moral injustices of our day with compassion, fortitude, and determination to make tikkun real.

And then, after sowing tears of pain and trauma, we responded to the call to Serve the Eternal with joy:

More than 20 of us went to a local Washington, DC bar where young professionals head after work. Teams of people were engaged in a karaoke competition, the contemporary version of a camp sing down.

What were a bunch of serious, social justice rabbis to do?

With words projected on the screen against the backdrop of contestants adorned in costumes from the fanciful Village People to the absurd Rocky Horry Picture Show to the romantic Dirty Dancing and music blared through the room, we danced.

934150_10151582488811113_1513506451_nIt was powerful, joyous, effervescent. With laughter and movement, humor and a bit of awkward brilliance, we belted out lyrics to Time Warp and Time of My Life; we paused in the midst of our learning and pursuit of social justice to touch a different—and yet vital—part of our souls that longed to soar.

It was funny and fabulous and rejuvenating. And some of our colleagues can dance! For a few hours amidst the sacred work of the Consultation on Conscience, we opened our hearts and joyously sang a new song unto God.

“It’s astounding;
Time is fleeting;
Madness takes its toll.
But listen closely…”

Let’s do the time warp again!

Rabbi Michael Latz is the senior rabbi of Shir Tikvah in Minneapolis, MN.

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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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Ethics Immigration News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Finding Inspiration at the Consultation on Conscience

Attending the Religious Action Center’s (RAC) Consultation on Conscience is always immensely inspiring. Attendees are exposed to a multitude of speakers on the urgent issues of the day, as well as to social justice leaders who share their passion and their drive. At the end of the second day this year, several speakers provided me with renewed motivation to pursue this work. Rabbi Sid Schwartz offered a remedy for burnout: connecting our push for social justice to our tradition. He reminded us that Jews are “no longer the most vulnerable members of society” so that we must think beyond tribalism and embrace “the responsibility of privilege.” He urged us to implement a regular service trip to the developing world in our congregations.

Sister Simone Campbell
Sister Simone Campbell

Thinking beyond the boundaries of institutions, and a deep concern for the other were the themes of a session with Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, and Rabbi Sharon Brous of the emergent congregation, Ikar, in Los Angeles. Sister Campbell’s organization has focused on systemic reform in the areas of health care, immigration, peace and economic justice. Sister Campbell was instrumental in organizing the “Nuns on the Bus” tour in 2012 to oppose the Ryan budget. She was reprimanded by the Vatican for promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” During the session, she was quite sanguine about the criticism she has received from the officials of the Church. She affirmed that our faith values regarding community are desperately needed to maintain our democracy. She believes that people are starved for this kind of leadership which the Catholic Church is not providing. “We are called to be manna for the world so we can nourish the world and act responsibly together.”

Rabbi Brous said there are two questions posed by God in the Torah that we must keep asking: “Ayecha?” I.e., “Where are you spiritually?” and “Ay hevel achicha?” “Where is your brother/your sister?” (from Genesis 4:9). She cautioned that we must move “from individual dignity to communal purpose…We are  on the verge of meaninglessness if we don’t bring the kingdom of heaven down to earth.”

One MIllion Bones Project
One Million Bones Project

The most surprisingly moving session, however, was Naomi Natale’s “On the Power of Art to Confront Genocide.” When I saw that title in the program, I was skeptical that this would be a worthhile session. In fact, Natale’s work is transformative. Her project, called “One Million Bones,” aims to educate and connect people in a visceral way to the genocides still occurring in the world, most notably in Sudan, Congo and Somalia. She and her team work with communities to make bones out of clay and then lay them out in strategic places. The bones are meant to honor the victims of genocide and mass atrocities. Natale has brought this project to a number of state capitals. The visual effect of 50,000 bones lined up and piled up two feet wide and tens of feet long is incredibly powerful and affecting. Natale plans to bring a million bones to the National Mall in Washington, DC June 8-9.

I am terribly grateful to the RAC for exposing us to these amazing people.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer is the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Riverside, California.

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Ethics General CCAR Immigration Israel News Rabbis Reform Judaism

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.