Archive for the ‘Central Conference of American Rabbis’ category

Putting the New in the New Year

October 30, 2014

There is a Hasidic story about how a student of Rabbi Mordecai of Nadvorna approached his teacher prior to Rosh Hashanah in order ask permission to be dismissed. Rabbi Mordecai asked him, “What’s your hurry?” to which he responded: “I am leading the services back in my home village and I need time to study the prayer book and put my services in order.” Rabbi Mordecai then said to him: “The prayer book is the same as it was last year. It would be better for you to study your deeds and put yourself in order.”
Well, if Rabbi Mordecai said that to me this year, I would say to him: “That’s what you think, Rabbi Mordecai! Obviously you have not had a chance to look at any of the pilot services from the soon to be published new Reform High Holy Day prayer book, MISHKAN HANEFESH!”
Whether or not Rabbi Mordecai has had a chance to take a look at MISHKAN HANEFESH, and I doubt that he did, considering the fact that he lived in the 19th century, you – the members of our congregation – will get a chance to look at it, and pray from it, tomorrow morning. I suspect that some of you may love it and some of you may loathe it and the feelings of many of you probably will fall somewhere in between. But this I can promise you: It will offer us a High Holy Day worship experience which will be dramatically different from what we are used to after years of praying out of GATES OF REPENTANCE.
What can I tell you about the book? Will the service be longer? I know that is a question on many people’s minds. To be quite honest, I just don’t know. The fact that this particular service booklet has over 190 pages is not encouraging. However, the format of this book is so different – in some ways, but not in every way, similar to our Shabbat prayer book, MISHKAN T’FILAH – that many pages does not necessarily mean a long service. What about music? This service definitely has more music than the Rosh Hashanah morning service in our current prayer book. Of course music is a matter of taste but personally I like the music that has been added. I also can tell you that there are some English alternatives offered to traditional prayers that are unlike any text you probably would expect to encounter on the High Holy Days. The book also offers some surprises like various opportunities for study sessions in the midst of the service and wait until you see what they have done to the Shofar service. Love it or loathe it, one thing is definitely certain. This book will provide us with a new High Holy Day worship experience.
Now I know that when we encounter something new, often it takes a lot of getting used to. There is some¬thing about human nature – not for all of us but for most of us – which instinctively resists the new. So many of us far prefer to wrap ourselves up in the warm, cuddly, familiar blanket of the old ways.
Many of you might remember, back in 1996, when Bob Dole was the Republican candidate for President. In his nomination acceptance speech, he framed his campaign around the concept of building a bridge to the past; to an era more familiar and, at least in memory, more pleasant. Many found that approach very appealing. However, his opponent, Bill Clinton, was soon to counter that ideology by stating that it was not his intention to build a bridge to the past but rather to build a bridge to the future. And we know who won that contest. The book from which we have prayed this evening is Reform Judaism’s bridge to the past. The book from which we will pray tomorrow morning is Reform Judaism’s bridge to the future.
When you think about it, as new and as different as tomorrow morning’s service may be, it is all very much in keeping with the essential spirit of this holy day. For Rosh Hashanah is all about that which is new and our committing ourselves to a process of personal and communal renewal. Indeed, one of the significant traditional greetings for Rosh Hashanah is the greeting of “Titkadeish! – May You Be Renewed!”
For our tradition looks at the New Year as just that – a new year. It is a time to start our lives anew; to embrace new experiences; to make of ourselves new and better people. It is a time for renewal. To renew old dreams which somewhere along the way may have been laid aside. To renew old relationships which, for one reason or another, we may have left dormant. To renew our energy, our lust for life, our joy in living. To renew our commitment to our positive values – justice, right over wrong, caring, love, responsibility. To renew our connections to our Jewish identity, the Jewish people, and most importantly to God. It is a time for us to say, “Today need not be a carbon copy of yesterday, and tomorrow need not be a carbon copy of today.” To say it and to mean it. What better gift can we give to ourselves on the New Year than to start to make of ourselves a New Me?
Yet change is almost always a challenge. Habits are hard to break. Habits – that is what we allow our lives to become. We tend to live our lives habitually; doing the same things day in and day out; thinking the same thoughts, responding in the same ways. Throughout our lives we gather and acquire certain attitudes and perspectives and behaviors and we transform them into what become almost instinctual responses. How many parents have said to their children, “Go ask you father! Go ask your mother!” rather than grapple with the request their child has placed before them? In our household, that is still the Cantor’s and my instinctual go-to position – actually more mine than the Cantor’s – and our youngest child is 21 years old! It is as if we have our own personal catalogs of multipurpose answers and reactions, and we draw upon them as we seek to respond to whatever life hands us. And the content of those catalogs remain the same year in and year out.
In the end, it is all about growth, or lack thereof. It is a fundamental part of human nature to grow. Little children grow into full size adults, some fuller than others. With years of education and life experiences, most of us grow more knowledgeable and perhaps a bit wiser. Everyone of us, if we don’t fall victim to fatal accidents or terminal diseases, eventually grow old. When it comes to our bodies, growth is a lifelong process. So also should it be with our minds, our hearts, our attitudes and perspectives. But too often, for too many of us, somewhere along the line that growth is arrested, and what once was evolving within us somehow or other becomes carved in stone. We may even justify it by saying such things as “I am who I am.” But would it not be better for us to say “I am a work in progress and I look forward to what I will eventually become.”?
So Rosh Hashanah calls upon us to actively engage in seeking out change in our lives; to strive to become a new and better self. How do we begin to accomplish this? First off, I suggest that each and every one of us think back and remember last Rosh Hashanah and honestly ask ourselves, “Am I in any way, significant or otherwise, a different person today than I was then? If I am different, then how am I different and is that difference for the better or for the worse?” There will be those among us who will acknowledge that little if anything has changed from then until now. There also will be those among us who will be able to note definite changes. Yet as they consider the nature of those changes, they will come to recognize that those changes were not a matter of personal choice but rather as a matter of circumstance. God willing, there also will be those among us who will be able to say of themselves, “Yes. I am a different person today and I am different because I chose to be different, and hopefully the differences are for the better.”
If we are among those who have not changed, or who have experienced changes as a result of circumstances rather than of choice, then we need to challenge ourselves to make it possible that come next Rosh Hashanah we will be able to offer a different response; that we will be able to say, “Yes, I have changed because I chose to change, and I have changed for the better.” Even if we are among those who have experienced positive change over the past year, we still need to challenge ourselves to continue that process of positive change, for none of us is perfect. There always lies before us more of this road to travel.
Now at the same time, we need to be realistic. True change, lasting change does not happen all at once. Crash diets never sustain themselves. Durable change is an incremental and a gradual process. We need to start small and slowly, carefully, build one change upon another. There is a book on teenage suicide, entitled WHEN LIVING HURTS, which, at times, we have used with our Confirmands. Recognizing that adolescent – parent tensions can certainly contribute to teenage thoughts of suicide, one of the suggestions that the author offers is that the teenagers try a 1 week experiment in dealing with their parents. In this experiment, they should seek out ways to compliment their parents and also opportunities to volunteer to take on even small household tasks without being asked. As the experiment progresses, they should note whether or not the way their parents relate to them also changes for the better. I share this with you to illustrate that the type of change we seek can start with simple acts such as finding nice things to say to and about the people in our lives or by offering to do simple but nice deeds for them even before they ask us to do them. We can choose to make small changes which we can find will result in big differences; big differences in our lives; in our relationships; in the ways in which we interact with the world around us and in the ways in which the world around us interacts with us. As we do this and reap the benefits that these changes will bring, we will find that one small change will lead to another and another and another, as our pleasure in life continually grows. And it will grow because people who make themselves better also make themselves happier; happier with their life and with the person they are becoming – the new person they are becoming.
Just as tomorrow morning we will renew the way we worship on Rosh Hashanah, so should we, today, tomorrow, and all the tomorrows before us, seek to renew the people we are and the lives that we lead. May we embrace the High Holy Day blessing of “Titkadeish!” May each and every one of us be renewed as we seek to renew ourselves.

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Who Stands for Kaddish?

June 14, 2013

Recently, on the Reform rabbinic list server. there has been a discussion  about the common Reform Jewish custom of having the entire congregation stand for the Kaddish Yatom (the Mourners’ Kaddish).  While I found the give-&-take interesting, up until now I had decided that this was one conversation which I would follow but not partake in.  However that changed after one of my friends posted a very touching account of  his own personal experience at the time of his father’s passing.  In it he testified to how much more meaningful it was for him at the time of his loss to stand alone, or with a cadre of fellow mourners when saying Kaddish, and how when he found himself in the more typical Reform setting where everyone stands for Kaddish, how the transformation of this prayer into a communal event diminished his Kaddish experience.

His story inspired me to share a personal story of my own – though my experiences have led me to approach this question from a very different perspective.  His feelings are his feelings, and as I respect him greatly so do I respect his feeling.  But we are all molded by our experiences and mine have sent me down a different path than his.  So here is my story and what I have taken away from it.

Growing up, my family belonged to a classical Reform congregation in the Bronx.  My parents were a microcosm of the make up of that congregation.  My father was raised as an Orthodox Jew and for years refused to practice any Judaism, so deep was is distaste for Orthodox Judaism.  On  the other hand, my mother was raised as a classical Reform Jew by parents who had a very limited involvement in their congregation, yet as an adult she felt the need to deepen her Jewish connection.  For several years, while my sister (who was 6 years my senior) went to religious school, my family belonged to an Orthodox congregation, at the insistence of my mother. She felt it important that my sister have a Jewish education and the Orthodox congregation was the closest one to our home.  We never attended services – not even the High Holy Days – and until the day of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah (a group service on a Sunday afternoon, with no Torah reading), my father never set foot in that synagogue.  As soon as my sister had her Bat Mitzvah, my parents quit that congregation.  However, about a year later, they were approached by neighbors who belonged to a Reform congregation.  With my mother insisting that I, too, receive a Jewish education (I was in 1st grade at the time), my parents gave it a try and both of them immediately fell in love with Reform Judaism, both becoming active members of the congregation.

I grew up with only one living grandparent; my grandmother on my mother’s side.  A few years after my family joined the Reform congregation, my grandmother passed away.  At that time (this was the late ’50’s) it was still the practice within Reform Judaism that only the mourners rise for the Kaddish.  For eleven months, every Friday night, my mother would stand and say Kaddish for her mother, often standing alone, attempting to read along with the rabbi.  I say “attempting” because as a child, my mother never learned to read Hebrew.  She struggled mightily with the transliteration of the Kaddish as found in the old Union Prayer Book.  Even as a child, I clearly recognized how painful it was for her to stand alone in the congregation and fumble over this prayer.  It had to be extremely embarrassing, but she bore it every Friday evening, a true act of dedication to the memory of her mother.

Throughout our movement, my mother was not alone in this predicament.  In those days, and even more so when my mother was a child, Hebrew study was not a priority for Reform Jews.  It was after my mother’s experience that our congregation instituted the practice of everyone rising for the Kaddish.  They said it was in memory of all the Jewish martyrs of ages past but in fact it was in support of those mourners of the day who could not fluently read the Hebrew and deserved not to be so publicly embarrassed.  Feeling the pain of my mother, I always deeply appreciated that act of kindness.

Then came the days of my own mourning, with the passing of my mother, then my father, and then my sister.  One Shabbat morning, when I was attending a Bat Mitzvah at our local pseudo-Conservative congregation, I experienced for the first time what it was like to stand for the Kaddish as a mourner without the non-mourners of the congregation standing alongside of me.  Like my friend and colleague, I keenly felt the healing power of the moment in ways that I never felt in my own congregation.  I immediately appreciated what had been lost with the institution of our communal Kaddish.  Yet the memory of my mother’s Kaddish ordeal remained a painful memory.  What to do?

Shortly after that experience, in my own congregation, I instituted the practice of introducing the Kaddish in such a way that the mourners had an opportunity to spend at least some time standing alone in memory of their loved ones before they were joined by the rest of the congregation in standing and reciting the Kaddish.  Three years ago, I added a beautiful addition to that practice.  Now I not only have them stand when their loved one’s name is recited in the Yahrzeit list, but I also give them the opportunity, if they choose to take it, of sharing some personal reflection on the life of the loved on they are recalling that Shabbat.  Not only is it powerfully cathartic for those mourners who choose to take advantage of that opportunity, but it personalizes and enhances the Kaddish experience for all those congregants who will stand and pray without a Yahrzeit of their own to observe.  I have found that it truly does capture the best of both worlds.

When Reform Rabbis Meet: What Really Happens at Those Regional Conferences?

February 2, 2013

The Quad Cities temperature was 7 degrees above 0, with a wind chill of about 19 degrees below, early last Saturday morning when I drove to the airport to catch my flight to Phoenix, Arizona – more precisely Scottsdale – and the annual conference of the Mid West Association of Reform Rabbis.  I would be lying if I told you that I was not looking forward to escaping the brutal winter cold for the desert warmth, even if just for those few days.  Indeed, I was.  As it turned out, arriving in Scottsdale I encountered some of the worst winter weather that area has endured for a while.  Indeed, in the 11 years our organization had been holding its January meetings in Scottsdale, the weather has never been that foul.  On all but one day it rained, and the temperatures ranged from the low 60’s in the day to the mid to upper 40’s at night.  So it must have been an odd sight for the locals to see this bunch of mid western rabbis continually exclaiming how wonderful was the weather!  Everything is relative!

Now I expect that there are those, in each of our congregations, who earnestly believe that the only reason we rabbis and our wives go to this conference is because of the weather; that this is some sort of rabbinic junket.  But truth be told, they are wrong – dead wrong.  There are many reasons why my colleagues and I attend this conference.  The weather just happens to be a great fringe benefit.

Aside from the weather, why do we go?

One reason is that we go to study with a true Jewish scholar on a professional level that we simply cannot achieve at home.  At home we spend a good part of our lives being teachers of Judaism and as such, the resident Jewish experts; the top of the local Jewish learning food chain.  However, at these conferences we revel in not being teachers but rather being students.  We gladly surrender our place on the top of the Jewish learning food chain to our scholar.  And then we marvel at the wonderful insights our colleagues contribute to our classroom discussions.  For those who love the very act of learning, our study sessions are festivals in intellectual renewal.

So what do we study and how relevant is it to our work back home?  The main topic varies from year to year.  Sometimes we study various aspects of our classical texts.  At those times most of our studying is done in Hebrew and Aramaic.  At other times we may be studying matters of theology or history or ethics or any number of Jewishly related topics.  Sometimes the content of our study is directly relevant to what we do in our congregations.  Sometimes it is indirectly relevant, and sometimes it is purely study for study’s sake, with no relevance to our roles as congregational rabbis.  Our tradition calls such study Torah LeShma – the Study of Torah for Its Own Sake – and considers it the highest form of study; the greatest study mitzvah there can be, for it is study for the sake of heaven and not for the sake of personal and professional gain.

This year we studied about early Christianity, its relationship to ancient Judaism, and how the rise of Christianity altered the then traditional Jewish attitudes toward Gentiles.  Our scholar was a young assistant professor at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.  He was brilliant, informative, entertaining, and personable.  We thoroughly enjoyed him, but he made me and my contemporaries feel old, especially when he spoke about growing up in the congregation of one of our classmates; my good friend and rabbinical school car pool buddy, Rabbi Alan Katz.  Was what we learned directly relevant to my work here?  Could I take my notes from his lectures and offer a class in our adult education program?  Not really, for in order to appreciate what he was teaching, one needs to have a somewhat significant background in Jewish knowledge.  But on the other hand, it was indirectly relevant to my life back here in the Quad Cities, for from his lectures, his handouts, and our discussions, I did obtain a deeper understanding and appreciation of Jewish-Christian relations; one that will enhance my interactions with our Christian neighbors.

Another reason is that we go to pray together.  As you know, we rabbis pray all the time, much of it from the bimah.  Prayer is important to us, and we try to communicate our love of prayer to our congregants.  But to be honest, congregational prayer, as many of you know, is also political.  One congregant wants our prayers to be this way.  Another congregant wants our prayer to be that way.  Sometimes we rabbis find ourselves simply praying that we can magically make everyone happy.  But when we gather as rabbis to pray, the only ones who we have to make happy are ourselves.  We are free to lose ourselves in prayer, knowing that everyone else in the room is likewise praying with abandon.  As our voices rise up in song – for most of our prayers are sung – we can sense our souls rising along with them.  Rabbis in prayer are a powerful prayer community.

Another reason is that we go to meet with and learn from representatives of some of the significant Reform Jewish organizations; organizations like the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Rabbinic Placement Commission, and the Reform Pension Board.  They advise us as to what is going on, and what is on the horizon, in their various organizations.  Through them we get a snapshot of the state of our movement, and of its future.

So, for example, we learned how the Central Conference of American Rabbis is getting ready to field test its new High Holy Day prayer book.  We also discussed how the landscape of the contemporary rabbinate has been altered by the rise of so many independent rabbinic seminaries, ranging anywhere from offering serious rabbinic education to online seminaries that offer almost instantaneous ordination.  Questions now arise as to which rabbinic degrees are to be considered legitimate and which not.  So we learned that our own organization – the Central Conference of American Rabbis – when considering legitimacy for serving Reform pulpits, has divided the seminaries into three categories: 1) Those that provide a competent rabbinic education and demonstrate a commitment to the ideals of Reform Judaism;  2) Those that provide a competent rabbinic education but whose commitment to Reform Jewish ideals are questionable;  and 3) Those that do not provide a competent rabbinic education and whose commitment to Reform Jewish ideals are questionable.  The more we discussed this matter, the more I realize that our congregations need to come to terms with it as well.  For with budgetary constraints, there is a great allure to hiring rabbis on the cheap.  But when a congregation places financial considerations above ideological ones, what are they letting themselves in for?

From the URJ representative we learned that the Union is going to be moving forward with its emphasis on new technologies.  What I heard described was something akin to an Iphone Siri that will provide guidance on all sorts of Jewishly related subjects from studying Talmud to synagogues with solar panels.  Also, interestingly enough, the Union is feeling the ill effects of having eliminated its regional structure.  So now they will be looking to re-create it, in a fashion, but with lay leadership instead of rabbinic.

Yet another reason that we go – and perhaps the most important reason – is for our sense of hevruta, community.  There is a special bond that ties rabbis together, especially if we are of the same ideological ilk.  We are a family, and as such, we understand, appreciate, and care for each other as no one else can.  We need each other for no one understands rabbis like other rabbis.  We love our congregations and the people who populate them.  We all have been fortunate to have in our congregations and in our communities friends whom we hold as especially dear, but still, at the end of the day, each of us is “The Rabbi” with all the expectations and limitations that go along with that title.  Only among our colleagues can we fully let our hair down; can we lower our guard and not be “The Rabbi” but simply be a thinking, feeling, flawed human being, and with it all, be unconditionally accepted and loved.  No, we are not just colleagues.  We are family, and such meetings are emotionally charged family reunions.  We know that we can reach out to each other anytime and be confident that the others will be there for us.  So, for example, when Rev. Ron Quay was diagnosed with lymphoma and was told that the doctor he needed to see – the best in the field – was in Omaha, I knew that if I picked up the phone and called Rabbi Aryeh Azriel in Omaha, and if he had the right connections, he would make it happen.  And so I did.  And so he did, with Rev. Quay receiving a call the very next day from the office of that doctor.  So we know that we are there for each other all the time, and that only makes it all the more powerful when we can be there for each other in person, rather than at a distance.

So every year the Cantor and I eagerly look forward to our January sojourn in Scottsdale.  Of course we enjoy stepping out of the mid western winter into the realm of the desert.  Even as the sun renews us, we are all the more renewed and revitalized by all that we share with our colleagues during those too few days in the Arizona sun.

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 8

July 18, 2011

In my first installment in this series, I spoke about merger discussions which were going on at the time between my congregation and a local independent pseudo-traditional congregation which withdrew from the Conservative movement several years ago.  At that time I stated that since I had addressed my institutional reasons for why the resulting congregation should affiliate with the Reform movement in my answer to one of the questions in the Merger Task Force’s rabbinic questionnaire, therefore in this series, I would restrict my focus to my personal ideological reasons for my love of and commitment to Reform Judaism.  However, as I now conclude this series, I wish to remove that self-imposed restriction and revisit why I feel so strongly about my congregation’s connection to the institutions and organizations of Reform Judaism.

While ideology, practice, culture, all are important, they do not exist in a vacuum.  They do not spring up overnight, born of thin air.  Rather they are the product of like-minded people coming together and investing their time, energy, thoughts, and emotions into formulating these ideologies, establishing these practices, and creating this culture.  That is precisely what has been, and continues to be, accomplished by the institutional branches of the Reform movement – the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ – formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations), the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the American Conference of Cantors (ACC), the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR),  the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE), the National Association of Temple Administrators (NATA), the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ – formerly the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods), Men of Reform Judaism (MRJ – formerly the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods), and the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY).  It is because of the work of these organizations that the ideals of Reform Judaism have been translated from thought into action; from dream into reality.  It has been through the organizations of Reform Judaism that our ideology has been given substance.

As a Reform rabbi, I probably am more conscious of this fact than many congregants, for throughout my career I have had the privilege of being on the “front lines,” participating in my own small way as so many of the principles of Reform Judaism have transitioned from discussion topics to Reform Judaism’s operative doctrines.  I was ordained with the second woman rabbi, in the same ceremony in which the first woman cantor was invested.  Indeed, at ordination, I walked down the aisle with the second woman rabbi.  My wife/cantor and I were the first clergy couple to meet and fall in love at the Hebrew Union College.  Today women rabbis and cantors, as well as Jewish clergy couples, abound.  I was there at the CCAR conventions when the principle of Patrilineal Descent was first proposed, then submitted to a task force for study, later to have that task force report on its findings, and then finally to have the body debate and vote this doctrine into being.  I, along with several of my congregants, was at the plenary session of the then Union of American Hebrew Congregations, as we considered and ultimately approved resolutions calling upon our congregations to be open, welcoming, and fully inclusive to all Jews regardless of sexual orientation.  Then later I was there when the Central Conference of American Rabbis voted to accept gay and lesbian rabbis, and later still, to support rabbinic officiation at same sex marriages.  These, and so many other significant issues were seriously studied and debated before they were voted on and established as Reform Jewish standards.  Today, so many of these ideals are considered as matter of fact on the liberal Jewish scene, but they would not exist today had it not been for the formal efforts of the institutions of Reform Judaism to give them birth and establish them as fixtures of contemporary Jewish life.  Others may have come along later and adopted them for themselves but there is a fundamental difference between adopting a principle and establishing one.  It is likewise fundamentally true that those who establish principles will continue to work to establish new principles while those who merely adopt the work and ideology of others will only continue to adopt the work and ideology of others, drawing from the well but never adding to the pot; never building for the future.  The institutions of Reform Judaism build for the future.

While establishing ideological principles is an important part of the work of the organizations of Reform Judaism, it is not the sum total of what they do.  There is so much they do which is practical and hands on for our congregations and their members, and for other Jews as well.  In my own congregation, one of the clearest examples of this is to be found in the Reform movement’s creation of the Chai Curriculum and its support materials, which is the curriculum which we have been using in our Joint Religious School.  The students from my congregation, as well as the students from the unaffiliated congregation, are receiving an excellent Jewish education as a direct result of the efforts of the Education Department of the Union for Reform Judaism.  Along with the Chai Curriculum, my religious school has greatly benefited from the counsel and expertise of educational consultants whose services have been provided to us by the URJ, free of charge.  Then there are the camps.  Over the years, so many of our children have greatly benefited from the excellent Jewish summer camp experiences which are to be found in the network of our movement’s Reform Jewish summer camps.  Likewise, there have been young people in my congregation whose knowledge of and commitment to the State of Israel are a direct result of their have gone on wonderful youth trips to Israel sponsored by NFTY.

However, do not think that belonging to the URJ only benefits the children.  It benefits the adults of a congregation as well as the congregation as a whole.  Educational consulting is only one of the consultation opportunities which is provided by the URJ.  On several occasions my Board of Trustees has benefited greatly from synagogue leadership workshops conducted by URJ staff members.  We have sought their counsel on financial matters, fund raising matters, administrative matters, and even on the subject of possible merger – something from which the members of the other local congregation also benefited.  The URJ also offers a host of materials to enhance adult education programs and worship.  Indeed, throughout most of the 150 year history of my congregation, whichever prayer book we used in our worship, it was a prayer book produced by the Reform movement.  Then there are the URJ’s online resources.  Congregants can participate in online adult education through such programs as “Ten Minutes of Torah.”  Our movement also provides online discussion groups for those interested in various aspects of Reform Jewish living.  If you wish to discuss worship practices, you can be a member of IWorship.  If you wish to discuss the particular issues that confront small congregations, you can be a member of Smalltalk.  An invaluable tool for every synagogue president in our movement is the discussion group Presconf.  Personally, I have derived great benefit from participating in the discussion groups for Reform rabbis (Ravkav) and HUC alumni (Hucalum).

Nor do the offerings of our movement end here.  Of course there are our affiliate organizations, such as the Women of Reform Judaism (of which my congregation’s Sisterhood is one of the founding members), Men of Reform Judaism, and NFTY (which has provided our community with regional and national youth group experiences for high school students from both of our local congregations).  Then there are the URJ’s subsidiary organizations such as the Hebrew Union College, the Religious Action Center (RAC), and ARZA.  The Hebrew Union College trains our rabbis, our cantors, and our educators so that they are not only highly educated Jewish professional but highly educated Reform Jewish professional, who are committed to Reform Jewish principles.  It is through the RAC that so many of the Tikkun Olam activities of our congregations originate and are coordinated.  Make no mistake about it!  It is due to efforts of the RAC that when it comes to Tikkun Olam activities on the American Jewish scene, it is Reform Judaism which is the unchallenged leader.  ARZA is the body which connects our movement to Israel and advocates for Reform Judaism in Israel.

As a result of all of this, it is the formal structures of our movement which weave our individual congregations into a powerful Reform Jewish family.  It is through this network of connections which we share with other Reform congregations that we draw strength, sustenance, and identity.  Others may imitate us but in the end, without these connections, they will always remain mere imitations; never the real deal!

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 7

May 9, 2011

Back in December, when I wrote the last installment in this series of articles, little did I dream that it would be May before I would write the next.  For that, I apologize.  This has not been an easy winter for me.  I underwent major surgery and almost died from post surgical complications.  But now I definitely am on the mend and my return to writing for this series of articles is but one more testimony to my daily improving health.

As I stated at the end of my last article in this series, in this article I wish to turn my attention to the commitment the Reform movement has made to matters of Tikkun Olam or, as we used to call it, Social Action.

I remember as a child being told that Reform Judaism is Prophetic Judaism.  What is Prophetic Judaism?  When we call Reform Judaism Prophetic Judaism we mean that at its heart are the teachings of the biblical prophets, and that those teachings are primarily the teachings of social justice.  Like the biblical prophets, Reform Judaism holds that ritual observance is empty unless it is accompanied by deeds of loving kindness directed toward the less fortunate of society.  I remember, in my childhood congregation, how seriously we took Isaiah’s message of social justice when we read it as the Haftarah on Yom Kippur morning:  “Is such the fast that I have chosen?  The day for a man to afflict his soul?  Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?  Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?  Is not this the fast that I have chosen?  To loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?  Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou shalt bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?  When thou seest the naked, thou shalt cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?  Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the Lord shall be thy rear-guard.”

I also remember that prayer in Shabbat evening service number 3 of the old UNION PRAYER BOOK, which read, “How much we owe to the labors of our brothers!  Day by day they dig far away from the sun that we may be warm.”  When I asked my rabbi to explain what that meant, he told about how our movement supported the efforts of the coal miners in their struggle to earn a living wage and to require their employers to establish safety standards for their working conditions.

I also remember how, when I was in my Confirmation year, the principal of our religious school arranged for our class to attend a weekend retreat with students from an Afro-American church (we called them “Negroes” at that time), co-sponsored by the NAACP and the Nation Conference of Christians and Jews.  Attending a predominantly Jewish public school, this was my first serious encounter with African Americans as a group.  It was on that weekend that I first learned the songs “We Shall Overcome” and “Go Down, Moses.”  It was on that weekend that I first became committed to the Civil Rights Movement.

I remember that it was from the pulpit of the Reform synagogue of my teenage years that I first heard a message opposing the war in Viet Nam; a message lifting up the principle of peace.  I have no doubt that marked the birth of my involvement in the anti-war movement; a movement which would have a serious impact upon my college years, including my decision – much to my parents’ chagrin – to turn in my graduation gown and join others in boycotting our college graduation in protest to the war.

As time marched on, in Reform Judaism, the terms “Social Justice” and “Social Action” were replaced by the Hebrew expression, “Tikkun Olam” meaning “Repair of the World.”  Yet while whatever we called it may have changed, Reform Judaism’s commitment to the values of making our world a better place to live for all people has remained constant for over well over a century.  One need only look at the long list of social justice resolutions passed by both the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis to witness how constant and how broad based was, and is, our commitment to the principle of Tikkun Olam.  Whenever injustice has reared its ugly head, either in our American society or in the world at large, our movement has not hesitated to stand up for what is right and decent.  More often than not, we have been among the first to do so.

Today, the Union for Reform Judaism can justifiably boast that it is the only Jewish congregational organization in North America that has established specific centers dedicated to the advancement of Tikkun Olam, both here in America – the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. – and in Israel – the Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem.  These two centers labor to keep all Reform Jews aware of the pressing social justice issues of our day and to engage us in the work of addressing those issues and righting those wrongs.

Indeed, I who am a person committed to the pursuit of Tikkun Olam, at times have to admit to feeling overwhelmed by all the issues which the Religious Action Center places before me and calls upon me to address.  There is just so much work to be done and our movement insists that we cannot ignore it.  If one were to go to the website of the Religious Action Center (http://rac.org/index.cfm?), they would find an extensive directory for “Key Topics” which would include issues concerning:  affirmative action, Africa, antisemitism & the Holocaust, arms control, bilingual education, bio-ethics, campaign finance reform, child soldiers, children’s issues, civil liberties, civil rights, conflict diamonds, crime & criminal justice, Darfur, death penalty, debt relief, disability rights, economic justice, education, election reform, environment, fair trade coffee, GLBT equality, global poverty, gun control, hate crimes, health care, HIV/Aids, housing and homelessness, human rights, human trafficking, hunger, immigration, intelligent design & creationism, interfaith affairs, Israel, judicial nominations, labor issues, living wage, mental health, privacy, race relations, religious liberty, religious persecution, reproductive rights, school prayer, school vouchers, separation of church & state, sexuality issues in public school, social security, socially responsible investment, stem cell research, substance abuse, torture, U.S. foreign policy, violence against women, welfare reform, women’s health, and world Jewry.  There is a list of equal length in regards to the work of the Israel Religious Action Center, with its focus being on Tikkun Olam issues particular to the State of Israel.

Orthodox, Conservative, Reform – we all agree that the father of modern Judaism was the great sage, Hillel the Elder, who lived in the first century B.C.E.  One of Hillel’s most famous sayings was:  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?” (PIRKE AVOT 1:14)  Reform Judaism, through its commitment to Tikkun Olam, strives to live up to Hillel’s standards.  As Jews, we are for ourselves, striving to live our Jewish lives more fully.  But if we are only for ourselves, then we are nothing.  Therefore, through our pursuit of Tikkun Olam – by being for others as well – we bring meaning to our Jewish selves.  “If not now, when?”  Our answer is crystal clear.  Now, most assuredly now!  As Reform Jews, we can neither wait to repair the world nor can we expect others to do it for us.  In committing ourselves to the work of Tikkun Olam, we are not only fulfilling ourselves as Jews but are also partnering with God in the ongoing work of perfecting creation.

In part 8, I will reflect upon why it is important for synagogues to band together into an ideological family, and how the Union for Reform Judaism has enabled its member synagogue to maximize their pursuit of living a modern, liberal approach to their Judaism.

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 6

January 20, 2011






Going hand-in-hand with the intermarriage issue are questions relating to the role of the non-Jewish spouse in the synagogue and the status of children of intermarriages.

In 1978, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who at that time was the President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (U.A.H.C. – the congregational organization of Reform Judaism, now called the Union for Reform Judaism – U.R.J.) offered a radical proposal to our movement.  He called it “Outreach.”  He proposed that rather than close the doors of our synagogues to interfaith couples, we should open them with a warm welcome.  He believed that if we made special efforts to help interfaith couples feel comfortable in our synagogues then we would stand a far better chance of holding onto them and their children for a brighter Jewish future.  In this he was proven right as these families flocked to our synagogues and their children filled our religious schools and camps.  The  movement developed educational programs for these couples which, for the first time, provided such families with the tools to seriously and positively address the challenges of what it means to be an interfaith family.  In fact, the efforts of the Outreach program were so successful that the movement found itself needing to address a new question – What should be the role of the non-Jewish partner in synagogue life?  This was a radical departure considering the fact that outside of Reform Judaism it was taken for granted that non-Jewish partners had no role in synagogue life.

Still there was the question of the status of children born of an intermarriage.  On this issue as well, Reform Judaism had a history of being inclusive.  According to traditional standards, a Jew by birth is one who is born of a Jewish mother.  However, in the reality of intermarriage, sometimes it is the mother who is Jewish; sometimes the father.  According to the standards of traditional Judaism, if the mother is not Jewish, then the children are not Jewish unless that child goes through a process of conversion.  For quite some time, the leaders of Reform Judaism saw such a double standard as unfair.  Back in 1947, the C.C.A.R. attempted to address this inequity by passing a resolution stating that children of an intermarriage where the mother is not Jewish would not be required to go through a conversion process or ceremony; that a typical religious school education would replace a conversion process and that a Confirmation service would replace a conversion ceremony.  What was started in 1947 was completed in 1983 when the C.C.A.R. passed a resolution on what it called “Patrilineal Descent.”  According to this resolution, a child with one Jewish parent – whether it be the father or the mother – was considered to be born a Jew if the parents raised that child exclusively as a Jew.  Not surprisingly, the passage of this resolution was thoroughly denounced by both the Conservative and Orthodox movements.  Indeed, to this day, Conservative congregations are not permitted to recognize patrilineal descent nor are they permitted to engage the services of rabbis who do recognize it.  When the Reform rabbis passed this resolution – and I was one of those who voted for it – we knew that it would severely damage our relationship with the Conservative and the Orthodox, yet we chose to take that risk because we believed that it was the just and humane thing to do.

While today, American society is deeply divided over sexual orientation issues, such as same-sex marriage, Reform Judaism has once again proven itself to be a leader in caring and inclusivity.  Back in 1977, our movement took a formal stand supporting the rights of homosexuals to equal protection under the law.  In 1987, the U.A.H.C., meeting in Chicago for one of its biennial conventions, passed a number of resolutions calling upon its member congregations to welcome gay and lesbian Jews into membership and permit them to share equally in all aspects of congregational life, including worship and leadership; to develop educational programs which would promote a greater understanding and respect for gays and lesbians; and to employ people on their staff without regard for sexual orientation.  How well I remember sitting with my congregation’s delegates at that plenary session, voting for these resolutions and being proud of the fact that our movement was willing to take such a principled stand on such a controversial issue.  Three years later, in 1990, the C.C.A.R. approved the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis.  Ten years after that, in 2000, it would be the first rabbinic organization to formally support rabbinic officiation at same-sex marriage ceremonies.  Since the Supreme Court of Iowa legalized same-sex marriage it has been my privilege to officiate at one such ceremony, and my cantor-wife’s, privilege to officiate at two of them.

While it is true that other movements and independent synagogues have subsequently adopted some, or even many, of Reform Judaism’s revolutionary stands on personal status issues, still for me, and for so many other Reform Jews, it is a point of enormous pride that it has been our movement that has served as the trailblazer on these issues.  Others may imitate us, especially after we have proved successful in our choices, but it has been Reform Judaism which has led the way and will continue to lead the way in welcoming into our fold those who have been unjustly excluded, both by society at large and by the Jewish world in particular.  We have done this, and will continue to do this, because while we look to Jewish tradition for guidance, we look to our hearts to lead us along the path of righteousness.

In part 7, I will reflect upon Reform Judaism’s long and illustrious commitment to Tikkun Olam, social justice.

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 5

December 29, 2010






While there are many things I love about being a Reform Jew, few make me prouder of our movement than its inspiring history of caring and sensitivity when it comes to issues of personal Jewish status.  It is here that our Reform leaders, both past and present, have demonstrated the courage to break with traditional Jewish perspectives in favor of opening their arms and hearts to others who were defined by the rest of the Jewish world as outsiders or unacceptable.

From the very earliest days of our movement, Reform Judaism has engaged in the sensitive yet important process of examining and altering age old Jewish standards when it comes to these issues.  Right out of the gate, our earliest Reform rabbis made significant changes in the status of women within the synagogue.  Until the advent of Reform Judaism, and still today in Orthodox settings, women were and are literally set apart from men during worship.  They were and are viewed as a distraction to “true” worshipers, and as those who, while they were permitted to worship, were not expected or required to do so.  In the traditional morning liturgy there is even a prayer thanking God “for not making me a woman.”  Early Reform Judaism was quick to address this inequity.  It did so first by eliminating separate seating and permitting men and women to sit together.  This change dates back to the 1850’s and is attributed to none other than the father of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.  In fact, Rabbi Wise was a major proponent of equality for women within Judaism.  He even admitted women to the Hebrew Union College though none completed the course of study for ordination until 1973 when the Hebrew Union College ordained Sally Priesand as the very first woman rabbi.  The investiture of women as cantors was soon to follow, with the first woman cantor, Barbara Ostfeld, being invested by the Hebrew Union College in 1975.  Along with the elimination of mixed seating, very early on in the history of our movement women were given the honor of blessing the Torah; something that they were not permitted to do in Conservative Judaism until the late 1970’s and are still not permitted to do in Orthodox Judaism.  I remember very well that while I was serving the Reform congregation of Lincoln, Nebraska (1977-1982), our neighbors in the Conservative congregation were embroiled in the debate as to whether or not to permit their women to bless the Torah on Shabbat.  I remember too how I simply shook my head in disbelief when they finally resolved to permit the women to do so one Shabbat a month.  It always fascinated me how much Conservative Judaism struggled with such women’s issues as blessing the Torah, rabbinic ordination and cantorial investiture whereas for Reform Judaism, these were simply a matter of doing the right thing and eliminating a previous injustice.  But here, once again, we see the power and the benefit of Reform Judaism’s willingness not to follow Jewish tradition blindly but rather to judge issues on their own merits.

While the status of women was one of the earliest personal status issues tackled by Reform Judaism, it was far from the last.  Compared to those issues which would follow, it may very well have been one of its least challenging.  So many of the issues which followed offered challenges which had the potential of shattering the fragile bonds which bound our movement to the other theological approaches to Judaism.  Yet in spite of those risks, our movement chose to grapple with these issues and, in the end, continued to follow the dictates of conscience rather than conformity.

One of the thorniest of these issues was that of intermarriage.  The longstanding opposition of our people to interfaith marriage is legend.  It was not that long ago that it was truly common for parents of those who married out of the faith to completely disassociate themselves from their children.  Images, such as that in the Neil Diamond movie, “The Jazz Singer,” in which a Jewish parent literally went into mourning, as if their child were dead, were more fact than fantasy.  When I was ordained, in 1975, the intermarriage rate was reported as beings around 20%, and that was considered a significant crisis in the Jewish community.  In fact, in my personal library, I have a book entitled HOW TO STOP AN INTERMARRIAGE.  Today, that rate stands at about 54%.  Whether or not to officiate at intermarriages; this was one of those issues over which the membership of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (C.C.A.R.) was deeply divided.  On the one hand there were, and are, those Reform rabbis who join with our Conservative and Orthodox colleagues who feel that intermarriage is the undoing of the Jewish people.  They are convinced that the majority of such marriages will result in the Jewish partner abandoning our people and faith, and even if the Jewish partner does not, the children will.  On the other hand there were, and are, those Reform rabbis who feel that you cannot swim against the tide; that by officiating at such marriages, under specific conditions which they set, even without the benefit of conversion for the non-Jewish partner, the family, feeling welcomed by the officiating rabbi, may very well be saved for Judaism.  This tension in the Reform rabbinate was accurately reflected in a resolution on intermarriage which the C.C.A.R. passed in 1973.  While this resolution stated the opposition of the Reform rabbinate to intermarriage, it also affirmed each Reform rabbi’s right to follow the dictates of conscience on this matter.  According to a recent survey of Reform rabbis, today approximately 48% of them do so officiate.

In part 6, I will continue these reflections on personal Jewish status issues, focusing on Reform Judaism’s approaches to Outreach to intermarried families, the role of the non-Jew in the synagogue, the Jewish status of children born of intermarriages, and the treatment of those Jews with a same sex sexual orientation.