Categories
News

Making America Great Again?

With the conclusion of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, echoes from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump are filling the airwaves, including Trump’s campaign tagline and promise to “Make America Great Again.”  It would be fair to say that nearly every presidential candidate has a vision for “making America great;” however, it is this campaign’s use of the word again which is somewhat irksome, especially at this season in the Jewish calendar.

This Shabbat is the 17th of Tammuz in the Jewish calendar, and the beginning of a period known as t’lata d’puranuta, “The Three Weeks of Admonition.”  (As the 17th is considered a minor fast day, the fast is delayed until Sunday.) The three weeks that follow are considered a time of mourning, leading to our communal observance of the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av), and our annual commemoration of the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem, and other calamities that have befallen the Jewish people throughout time.

One of the major ritual practices associated with Tisha b’Av is the chanting of the biblical book of Eicha (Lamentations).  The penultimate verse of the book reads, “Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself, / And let us come back; / Renew our days as of old” (Lamentations 5:21, Jewish Study Bible translation, p. 1602).  This particular verse offers a brief, uplifting moment of comfort at the conclusion of an otherwise bleak biblical text.  Additionally, the verse is recited at the conclusion of every Torah service in the synagogue, and is chanted when the Torah is returned to the Ark — hashiveinu A-do-nai ei-lecha v’nashuva, chadeish ya-meinu k’kedem. 

To be brought back to God, to have our days renewed, and to be given another chance in the wake of tragic circumstances all make sense.  But to have our days renewed as of old, implies that things used to be better, that there is some vision of the past that has been lost that we somehow need to recapture, and that God will somehow provide for us again.

The recitation of chadeish yameinu k’kedem (renew our days as of old) is familiar, comforting, and is a moment in the synagogue service where most people sing along.  Yet this verse presents a problematic view — namely, that our best days are truly behind us and we seek to return to them.  While it is most likely that the original text from Lamentations was written in a time of exile the destruction of the temple was fresh in the author’s mind, these days, we would do better to ask ourselves, “What is the as of old that we seek to return to Jewishly?”  Most of us are divested from the notion of rebuilding a sacrificial temple in Jerusalem, and two thousand years of distance from the ancient priestly rites means that what once was cannot lead to what will ultimately be. 

Similarly, suggesting that we should be engaged in the process of “making America great again,” implies that America, at one time or at various points in our history, was great, and we need to go back to reclaim that nostalgic understanding of greatness.  But America will never look like it once did.  How it might have appeared is different to each individual, a personalized painting of yesteryear, with brushstrokes smoothing over painful, long-buried realities, a fictionalized story that we tell ourselves so often that we convince ourselves of its veracity.  Life is never as glorious “as it used to be.”

Or can life and our world be somehow better?  We might do better to ask ourselves, “Where are we going?”  Every year at our celebration of the Pesach seder, we are (in the words of Rabban Gamliel) to see ourselves as if we went forth from slavery in Egypt.  Where some of our biblical ancestors may have waxed poetically about life in Egypt and expressed a desire to return, our seder reminds us that we must be eternally forward-looking, that l’shana ha-ba’ah bi-y’rushalayim (next year in Jerusalem) is not a hope whereby we return to the past, but a vision for hopeful future redemption, a better time, still ahead of us.  That the Torah itself concludes without the Israelites setting foot in the Promised Land, with Moses only seeing the land from afar, conveys the notion that the story, our collective journey, is not yet complete, and we are still completing the journey.

Our past, our days of old, can only serve to inform us and remind us of what was. We need to build for a better future, learning from “our days of old,” but we don’t need to go back in time to relive the concept of again, the idea of what once was.  Crafting a vision for the future is an immensely difficult task, but articulating a forward-thinking and forward-looking hope of a world redeemed, remains a characteristically Jewish idea.

Rabbi Paul Jacobson serves Temple Avodat in River Edge, New Jersey.

 

Categories
CCAR on the Road Israel News Rabbis Reform Judaism

What Matters in Israel

I continue to think about my recent mission to Israel in the midst of the Gaza Operation. I have written my political analysis, but there was another aspect to my trip. We rabbis went in order to see for ourselves the critical events of those days, but we also travelled there as a “solidarity” mission. We were trying to show the people of Israel that they were not alone or isolated. This was an opportunity for twelve American rabbis to connect with the people.

 We had our numerous official meetings, and they were significant. We met with Knesset members, military leaders, local politicians, and government spokespeople. We talked with our Israeli Reform rabbinic colleagues, social justice activists, journalists, and writers. But our most significant conversations most often occurred in informal, unplanned, spontaneous moments. In only five days I tried to see as many of my friends as possible. I wanted to know their thoughts, feelings, and concerns. I sat and talked with Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians I know well. I spent time in conversations with cab drivers, waiters and waitresses, and shopkeepers. I grabbed lunch with soldiers taking short breaks from the Gaza battles.

 Perhaps my favorite encounter occurred completely by accident. We went to a mall outside Ashkelon, near the border with Gaza. We wanted to find a clothing or sporting goods store where we could buy socks, t-shirts, energy bars, and other items for the Lone Soldier Center in Jerusalem. A few of us walked into a camping store and encountered five soldiers just back from Gaza. I asked them what they needed, and they said they were looking for camping headlamps. It turned out that they were part of a unit of twenty-five soldiers attached to a tank division. Their job was to repair the tanks at night after whatever battle took place during the day. It didn’t take long for our small group of Reform rabbis to purchase enough headlamps for all the members of the unit. In the process, we made friends and spent the afternoon talking with them over coffee at Cafe Aroma. One worked at Google. Another owned a pub. One was an engineer. We shared pictures of children and grandchildren and told our various stories. I am not sure I will remember the military briefings or talks from Members of Knesset, but I will remember the conversations with those IDF reservists at the mall in Ashkelon.

 For me, that is what matters in Israel. The politics can be infuriating. The leadership is often deeply disappointing. There are troubling forces at play in Israeli society. I have no patience for the Ultra-Orthodox control of family law or the messianic fanaticism of the Settlers. But the ordinary Israeli people are remarkable, and every conversation seems intense and passionate. The Israelis I know truly want to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbors. They want to live a good life with meaning and values in a beautiful Mediterranean setting rich with history and significance.

 I always return to Israel because I feel an intense connection with the people who live there. Let us pray that they will find peace in this next year.

Rabbi Samuel Gordon serves Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, IL.

Categories
Ethics General CCAR News Rabbis Reform Judaism

A Reform Congregation Emerges from the Flood

On Rosh HaShanah we celebrated Creation, and by Yom Kippur we had been hit by the flood.

The deluge began Thursday afternoon.  I posted pictures to Twitter and Facebook, amused by the enormous puddles everywhere.  Two hours later, it was clear that this was no joke.  The four lane road in front of our Congregation, Har HaShem, was now a rushing river. Muddy water poured in everywhere.   Our Executive Director Gary Fifer and I waded through more than a foot of water in the parking lot, grabbed the sifrei torah from the ark, wrapped them in plastic and put them in a high place.  We cut the power and headed for high ground.

IMG_8399The situation at Har HaShem remains critical as we recover from this 500-year flood. In all, we estimate that we sustained about $150,000 to $200,000 worth of damage and we now know that our insurance policy will cover only a tiny fraction of this.  We have established a fund, to which you may donate here (or through our website). Our entire lower level, with eight classrooms, was destroyed. Carpet, drywall, furniture, shelving, school supplies, congregational archives – gone.  Our sanctuary, social hall and South Building flooded as did two residential houses we own.  Our parking lot was covered with inches of mud and debris.

While all of this has been painful and difficult, there were no significant injuries or deaths in the Jewish community. We pray that God grants strength and comfort to the many in the region who have lost so much more.

A little light dispels great darkness, our Sages taught.  Indeed.  Many people have come together to bring the synagogue back to life.  The neighborhood system we created this past year enabled the 30 neighborhood  captains, responsible for creating community and fostering Jewish living in their neighborhoods , to quickly and locally identify need and volunteers.  It was moving to see members in need being helped by neighbor-congregants they may not have known hours before.  At the synagogue itself roughly 50 member volunteers have worked tirelessly to get us cleaned up.  Our Youth Group kids spent the unexpected no-school here, inspiring other volunteers by working their hearts out.  Nechama, a Jewish Response to Disaster, has done untold good in Boulder and have been lifesavers for Har HaShem.  They’re helping us rebuild.

IMG_8277More light: we are a homeless overflow shelter in the winter and summer months and offered several homeless folks who are guests during the year an hourly wage to help downstairs.  We are deeply impressed by their energy and dedication.  My family won’t forget having them over for kiddush and lunch in our sukkah (I live next door to the synagogue) during a lunch break.

The entire Boulder community came together during this crisis.  Students from CU Chabad, members of the neighboring Conservative congregation, whose synagogue was also badly damaged, strangers off the street – so many have reached out.  The Federation has been wonderful, the JCC is by our side, Jewish Family Service has been a lifeline to many.

Several folks from across the country have reached out.  Rabbi Hara Person of the CCAR and Rabbi Jan Offel of the URJ helped us get some books to replace those that were destroyed. Rabbi Deborah Prinz of the CCAR has reached out to help.  And I’ve been so moved that several of you have extended a hand as well.

We have a lot of work ahead.  Most significant is addressing the huge financial setback. If you are moved to donate, you may do so here (or through our website), or through URJ Disaster Relief.  Of course there are other challenges, from finding space for our delayed religious school start, to an overextended staff, to maintaining other programming during the coming weeks.

The deep connections between the creation story of Bereishit and the flood story are well known.  Bereishit Rabbah teaches that initially God’s light was unobscured and could be seen from one end of the earth to the other.  Acts of evil, including those of the generation of the flood, caused that light to be removed and concealed.  Here, in these early days of the new creation of 5774 and in the wake of our flood, we have seen the unmistakable glow of divine light in the many acts of righteousness within our community and from far beyond.   May we be strengthened to rebuild in the coming weeks and months.

Rabbi Joshua Rose is the rabbi of Congregation Har HaShem, in Boulder, CO. 

 

Categories
General CCAR News Reform Judaism

Introducing…Ravblog!

Welcome to Ravblog, the blog of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

The world in which we live continues to change rapidly, including shifts in the Reform Movement and broader Jewish community.  This includes changes in demographics, finances and religious practice, as well as the way we gather as communities.

The CCAR itself is changing, as are the 2,000 rabbis who make up our membership, and the 1.5 million Jews we now serve in all walks of life including congregational and community settings. The CCAR’s mission, as it has been since 1889, is to strengthen and enrich the Jewish community.  We do this in many new ways be it through life-long learning, liturgical and Jewish practice publications, as well as cutting edge digital publications and Apps. We are also anchored in tradition as we apply Jewish principles to contemporary issues.

One way we continue to learn and grow is through engagement — engagement with our own rabbis, with other Jewish professionals, lay leadership in the Reform Movement, and with members of the broader Jewish community.

It has been great to hear from you and engage in conversations when we see each other in person at CCAR Conventions, national Biennials, professional conferences, congregational visits, universities, and even on military basis (yes, our rabbis serve Jews in the military).

To talk more often, we¹ve created Ravblog, as an ongoing space for us to interact.  Together we¹ll look at issues facing the CCAR, the Reform Movement, Israel, and the Jewish world as a whole.  We¹ll look at issues of today, and of tomorrow.  What are we all thinking about?  What are we working on?  What challenges are you facing?  What are the big ideas on our minds?

Some of our staff members will blog, as will CCAR leadership, and you¹ll also hear from a number of guest bloggers.  To our members who are great bloggers, and others who participate in this great online Jewish conversation — you have inspired us and set the bar high.

Let us know what you think and keep teaching us.

Koltuv,

Rabbis Steve Fox, Hara Person, Debbie Prinz, Alan Henkin, and Dan Medwin

(The CCAR Rabbinic Staff)

Categories
Books

New Title from CCAR Press: Beyond Breaking the Glass

Beyond Breaking the Glass: A Spiritual Guide to Your Jewish Wedding, Revised Edition

Nancy H. Wiener, D.Min.

This is the book for all of today’s couples. Explores the rich history of Jewish wedding customs and rituals throughout the centuries while providing contemporary interpretations and creative options. Buy Beyond Breaking the Glass.