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Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Biennial 13: Reflections from a Biennial-o-phile Rabbi

I attended my first Biennial in 1987 in Chicago, when I was 16. Rachel Shabbat Beit-Halachmi, then a leader in our synagogue and NFTY, invited me to attend. Anatoly Sharansky (now Natan Sharansky), symbol of Refusnik’s worldwide, had just been released and came to the Biennial.

And when they brought him to the dais, the NFTY members spontaneously ran forward, armed linked, singing as only chutzpadik youth can:

Anatoly as long as you are there /We the children of Israel share your prayer. /Anatoly as long as you’re not free /Neither are we. (Doug Mishkin)

Our hearts soared—we welcomed a dissident, a global leader for freedom. Ani v’atah n’shaneh et haolam. We believed we could change the world. And we did.

I’ve been to every Biennial since 1987, save for two. Why keep going? Beyond the programming and the gathering and the worship and the leadership development, somewhere in the back of my psyche I’ve been hungering to recreate that perfect moment from my youth. There have been terrific conventions along the way and memorable speeches and worship and awards. But this past week in San Diego, I felt that same energy, that same sense of Jewish promise and potential, that same hope and belief that we could transform the world as I did 26 years ago. There isn’t “one” thing that made this Biennial so magical; all the parts fit together to make a more beautiful whole.

1477632_718678161477877_637043718_nIt was Duncan on the bimah, a 13 year old advocating for marriage equality, because his rabbis and his congregation call forth their youth to believe in justice and speak for human dignity and it was Jonah Pesner’s stirring tribute to Nelson Mandela.

It was the soaring Shabbat morning worship with Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Cantor/Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl (a classmate of whom the kvelling knows no end).

It was learning Torah with Paul Kipnes, Donniel Hartman and Amichai Lau Lavie and Shira Klein and Sharon Brous, Yehuda Kurtzer and Ruth Messinger who stirred our souls in ways that were provocative and soul stirring and agonizing and inspiring.

When David Ellenson placed his hands on Aaron Panken’s head and blessed him as he becomes President of HUC-JIR, it felt as though we were watching the first s’micha.

Rick’s Thursday night address was captivating and bold and creative, as were many of the workshops.

The URJ Professional leadership didn’t shy away from the tough issues facing congregations and our relationships with the URJ and the world, but they weren’t defeatist or depressive. The Campaign for Youth Engagement is serious, compelling, and resourced.

Friday night’s D’var Torah was a personal, clarion call to engage in gun violence prevention on the eve of the first anniversary of Sandy Hook. We celebrated Women of Reform Judaism and Anat Hoffman, who lifts our souls and whose tenacious advocacy for an Israel hospitable to our values and our dignity and our worth is prophetic.

At Biennial, we wept together, as colleagues and friends, for Phyllis and Michael Sommer, as they held their dying son Superman Sam, who was their son and touched all our hearts. The bitter and the sweet, darkness and light, together.

In Chicago 87, I met Dolores Wilkenfeld, a strong, elegant, gracious leader of WRJ. She was a courageous role model, a visionary supporter of NFTY and women’s reproductive health care. On motzei Shabbat, I embraced Dolores again. She’s a bit older now, as WRJ celebrates their 100th Anniversary and NFTY 75th. But seeing her, remembering all that we have done and become in the past quarter century, I was transported back to the future. Old friends, a new beginning.

1395226_10201045463995621_1517806018_nTo all the URJ leadership, professional and lay, who organized this Biennial 13; for all our colleagues who taught sessions and lead worship and embraced each other with ideas and weeping and tenderness; for everyone who continues to challenge us to be the most creative, welcoming, inviting movement in Jewish life, who demands we surpass our prophetic ideals of justice and compassion, who will settle for nothing less than spiritual excellence, I lift up my heart in my hands and offer deep, profound, humble gratitude. Thank you.

Rabbi Michael Adam Latz serves Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, MN.

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News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Biennial Benediction by the President of the CCAR

The following remarks were offered by Rabbi Rick Block, President of the CCAR, at the Opening Plenary of the URJ Biennial. 

Good evening. I am honored to offer words of reflection and blessing on behalf of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and its more than 2000 rabbis, many of whom are with us in San Diego and who, together with professional colleagues and lay partners, lead, serve, teach, comfort, guide and inspire the congregations and congregants of our Movement and their communities and forge a vibrant future for Jewish life.

When I assumed the Conference presidency, I asked my wife, Susie, “In your wildest dreams, did you ever think I would be CCAR President?” And she said, “You’re not in my wildest dreams.”

Actually, she didn’t. But I begin with Susie because she and I, who will be married 45 years this June, God willing, met at age 17 at UAHC Camp Swig, to which our temples sent us on scholarship, because we were active in NFTY. My parents grew up in Reform congregations, and my father was a temple president. Susie’s parents, who enjoyed a marriage of extraordinary closeness for 71 years, met in their Reform temple’s youth group, and were active members their whole lives. Susie’s mother, 94, still is. Our sons and daughters-in-law and five delicious grandchildren now belong to Reform congregations themselves.

I share all this to make a point: That I owe much of what I value most – my family, my faith, my rabbinate – to Reform Judaism and the Movement that embodies and sustains it. And I bet that for many of you, in your own way, the same is true.

Reform Judaism is not a set of airy abstractions, nor is the Reform Movement a mere amalgam of organizations. They are powerful forces for good that shape, give meaning to, and transform lives, our lives, as they did for those who came before us and will do for those who come after. They enable us to link our personal stories, yearnings and journeys to the transcendent master narrative of the Jewish People. They connect us with something larger, more significant and more enduring than our individual, mortal, sometimes lonely and bewildered lives. They connect us with what is eternal and with the Eternal One.

That is why we gather here, thousands strong, to sing, study, pray and learn, to celebrate achievements, confront challenges and seize opportunities, to reaffirm our innermost values and renew our most passionate commitments, to hope, worry and dream together.

We are here because, even when we have difficulty articulating it, we know that Reform Judaism stands for something sacred both timely and timeless.

We are here because Reform Judaism embraces both tradition and innovation, both individual autonomy and religious obligation.

We are here because reform is not an aberration or an artifact of modernity, but a defining characteristic of Jewish history and a key to our People’s survival.

We are here because we affirm that intellectual freedom and scientific truth do not threaten Judaism, but validate and enrich it.

We are here because Reform Judaism doesn’t just offer appealing  answers, but honors our doubts and questions.

We are here because we are devoted to Israel’s wellbeing, as a Jewish and democratic state, and because we cherish a vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors, within secure and recognized borders, where all citizens and expressions of Judaism are recognized and equal.

We are here because, as Reform Jews and as a Movement, we champion justice, diversity, equality, and inclusion, and are committed to partnering with God, each other, and all people of good will to repair and perfect the world.

We affirm that these things are true, even in an era of rapid and bewildering change, when religious identification, affiliation and practice are optional, the sanctions that once compelled Jewish observance have long since dissolved, the range of choices seems infinite, and the ability of existing institutions to satisfy them is in question. More than ever, our task is to construct what Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures,” the frameworks and settings in which Jewish observance makes powerful sense and infuses people’s lives with meaning and purpose.

Our task is daunting, but invigorating. Change is disruptive, but essential to renewal. Is not that, after all, what two centuries of Reform Judaism, its vibrant organizations and pioneering leaders have taught us? Let us go forward then, together, confident we can rise to the summons of our calling, because we must, and because we have each other.

We conclude with words of gratitude to those who came before us and for our obligations to those who will follow us: Barukh Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh haolam, shehehiyanu v’kiyemanu v’higianu laz’man hazeh. Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has kept us in life and sustained us, enabling us to reach this joyous occasion.

Rabbi Rick Block is Senior Rabbi of The Temple – Tifereth Israel in Cleveland and Beachwood, Ohio, and President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.   

Categories
Ethics General CCAR News Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism

Coming Together in Times of Crisis

As we all try and process the horrors of the Boston marathon bombing, we must remember to stop and appreciate the good works that often gets overshadowed by the seemingly endless parade of horrible we read about each day.

Volunteers removing the flooring at West End Temple after Superstorm Sandy.
Volunteers removing the flooring at West End Temple after Superstorm Sandy.

Almost six months ago almost the entire east coast was rocked by Superstorm Sandy.  While many of us have picked up and moved on, two New York-area congregations, Temple Sinai in Massapequa and West End Temple in Neponsit, are still picking up the pieces.  Like many coastal-area homes and businesses, the synagogues suffered severe storm damage which included extreme flooding and loss of property.

We are proud to announce that the CCAR has donated over 400 new copies of Mishkan T’filah, the Reform Movement prayerbook, to the synagogues to help them to continue to move forward in their rebuilding process.

“We were heartbroken when we saw how the storm had ravaged these synagogues and uprooted the lives of people in their communities,” said Rabbi Steven A. Fox, Chief Executive of the CCAR. “We donated these prayerbooks to help individuals and congregations heal.”  He continued “As creators and publishers of Mishkan T’filah, we understand the important and powerful role that prayer can play in bringing a community together and allowing them to feel whole again.”

Colleagues helping colleagues - Rabbi Margie Slome surrounded by, l to r,  Rabbi Hara Person, Rabbi Amy Ehrlich, Cantorial Intern Amanda WInter, and Rabbi Steve Fox.
Colleagues helping colleagues – Rabbi Margie Slome surrounded by, l to r, Rabbi Hara Person, Rabbi Amy Ehrlich, Cantorial Intern Amanda WInter, and Rabbi Steve Fox.

Rabbi Marjorie Slome of West End Temple was thrilled to receive the new prayerbooks, as extreme flooding destroyed her synagogue’s entire library. “We are so grateful for the CCAR’s generous support and donation to our temple,” said Rabbi Slome. “Receiving these books is truly a blessing as we rebuild.”

The CCAR facilitated the donation of the prayerbooks with funds donated by Rabbi Jonathan Stein, Immediate Past President of the CCAR and Senior Rabbi at Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan.

For Rabbi Stein, supporting these synagogues in their time of need was a given. “When I heard about the storm’s destruction; it was almost a visceral response,” he said. “I instantly committed myself to make this gift happen.” He continued “This is the kind of thing we do for each other in times of crisis.”

“During the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, as we at Temple Sinai reached out for help and there were many who embraced our wet hands.  As our community helped us we helped our community.  It is was not easy for us to say: “We need help”.  But, we soon learned that there are two sides to tzedakah – to give and to receive, both with dignity and humility.  Temple Sinai has been blessed to receive help/tzedakah from individuals, synagogues, and non-profits near and far.  One such is the CCAR.  With the CCAR’s contribution of Mishkan Tefila (prayerbooks) a renewed sense of worship has been given to us.  Knowing that the CCAR responded to our need, our members have a sense of connectedness which never before existed.  We are eternally grateful to the CCAR for their contribution,” said Rabbi Janise Poticha of Temple Sinai.

Flooding at Temple Sinai after Superstorm Sandy.
Flooding at Temple Sinai after Superstorm Sandy.

The CCAR’s donation is just one of the many ways that the Reform Jewish community has come together to support one another in times of need.  In the days and weeks after the storm, CCAR member rabbis, who serve both congregations and community organizations, galvanized their memberships to provide on-the-ground support and supplies to those in some of the hardest hit areas. The Union for Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have also played a leading role in the Jewish response to Sandy, including raising more than $750,000 for disaster relief efforts and coordinating donations of essential supplies to synagogues, community centers and families.