Posted tagged ‘Hebrew Union College’

Holding On and Letting Go: Yizkor Sermon

November 6, 2014

When I was in seminary, rabbinic students were required to take only one course in what was then called “Human Relations.” Its purpose was to teach us that being a rabbi was not just about scholarly matters such as acquiring a command of Hebrew and becoming knowledgeable in Jewish laws and customs but it also was about developing our human interaction skills so that we could be better serve our congregants in both their times of need and also in the daily round of manifold synagogue activities; serve them with sensitivity, compassion, and understanding. Of course, folding all of that into only one course is a tall order, impossible to fill. Thankfully, today the rabbinic students at the Hebrew Union College receive far more training in this important field.
As I recall that course, it seemed that our professor invested a majority of our time discussing issues surrounding death and funerals such as the mechanics of writing a eulogy and the dynamics of the conversations that take place in the limousine during the ride from the funeral to the cemetery, which may not make much sense to us here in the Quad Cities but does have some relevance in a community like New York City, where such a drive can take a considerable amount of time.
After ordination, it did not take my classmates or me long to discover that there was very little relationship between the content of that course and the reality of the interpersonal dynamics – the Human Relations – which are to be found in synagogue life. Indeed, considering how much time we spent exploring the role of the rabbi within the grief and mourning process, it was remarkable how out of touch with reality our curriculum had been.
So I, like most of of my contemporaries, found that whatever skills in matters of grief and mourning I would require, I would have to acquire on the job, so to speak. Over the years, I would learn from a growing body of experiences attained by standing beside so many grieving families as I attempted to offer whatever comfort and consolation I could. Yet still it require my own personal experiences of loss to take me to the next level; to understand, not just with my mind and my heart, but with every essence of my being, what it truly meant to lose someone you love.
Having assisted and supported so many mourners as they have accompanied their loved ones to the grave, I have had the opportunity to make many observations about how people deal with their grief. Of course, no two people are exactly alike in anything, and that includes how we deal with grief. Still patterns emerge, some of them good and what I consider to be healthy, and some not so much so.
One of the most difficult challenges I have seen mourners struggling with – and by mourners here, I do not just mean those who have suffered a recent loss but also those of us who have suffered loss whether it be recently or in the distant past – is the challenge of finding a healthy balance between holding on and letting go; holding on to our love and attachment to the one who is now gone and letting go of that person, not entirely but yet enough to enable ourselves to move on with our lives.
In my experiences, I have encountered those who cling so dearly to their loss that years go by and their grief is as fresh and as painful for them as it was on the day of their loved one’s passing. As strong as is their love, the memory of the one they love remains mostly a source of tears and pain for them. Often they bemoan, “How can I go on? Life will just never be the same!” Such people never allow the memory of their loved one to evolve into the warming presence that can bring them smiles and maybe even some laughter as well as tears. It remains more like a knife cutting into them rather than a loving companion, invisibly accompanying them with wisdom and insight as they continue their life journey.
How could we not admire such a profound love? What a testament it is to the person now gone. How could anyone in good conscience counsel, “You need to love that person less”? Yet these people hold on so tightly to their beloved dead; so tightly that their grief winds up strangling them. Somewhere along the line, they seem to have forgotten that this is probably the last thing the departed ever would have wished upon them; that they live the remainder of their life enveloped in grief and misery because of their loss.
Such people are so determined to hold on to what they can of their loved ones that they cannot begin to conceive that it is also perfectly permissible to let go of them as well. Not to forget them – God forbid, not to forget them – but to let go of the intensity of their grief and to permit those feelings to evolve into something more livable.
There is a story about a man so stricken with grief at the passing of his wife that on her headstone he has inscribed the message, “The light has gone out of my life!” Time passes and as fate would have it, he meets another woman and they fall in love. He wants to remarry but is wracked with guilt over the thought of betraying his first wife, especially considering the inscription on her headstone. So he goes to his rabbi for counsel. He tells the rabbi of his feelings and of the inscription. The rabbi thinks for a moment and then suggests, “Why don’t you have an additional inscription added to the stone right below the first?” Puzzled, the man inquires, “An additional inscription? What should it say?” The rabbi responded, “It should say, ‘But I struck another match.’”
So it should be with those among us who hold on so tightly to the pain of our loss and struggle with the very thought of letting go, even if just a little. We, too, need to “strike another match.” We need to discover ways of letting go – not forgetting – but letting go enough so that we can bring some semblance of joy back into our lives. For this is not just what we need but it is what our loved ones would wholeheartedly want for us.
Just as there are those among us to who hold on too tightly to their loss and have trouble letting go, there also are those who are too quick to let go – too eager to let go – as if they are afraid to hold on to anything, perhaps because they fear that holding on will prove to be just too painful for them. I know that type of fear. Up until the day my mother died, there was nothing I feared more on this earth than the passing of my parents. There was a time when I and two friends were caught in a crossfire between the Israeli army and Hezbollah terrorists, and that did not frighten me nearly as much as the thought of losing my parents. I could not begin to imagine what the world would be like without those special people who had always been there for me throughout my life. Having felt the fear, I can understand how for some that fear becomes so overwhelming that the only way they feel they can deal with it is by refusing to confront their loss, making every effort to put it behind them as quickly as possible and get on with their life.
As a rabbi, too many have been the times when I have witnessed this type of reaction on the part of mourners. I cannot tell you how deeply saddened I am when someone from the congregation passes away and their children, living out of town, come to me with a request like, “Rabbi, our flight lands at 9:00 in the morning. Would it be possible for us to hold the service at 10:00 so that we can catch a 1:30 flight back home? I can’t afford the time away from the office and the children need to get back to school.” While there is a part of me which wants to scream at them, “Isn’t the memory of your mother / your father worth your spending at least one night in the Quad Cities? Can’t you leave a little time in your life for mourning?” still I want to believe that they truly are not so heartless, so uncaring as people that they view their parent’s passing as nothing more as a gross inconvenience in their lives. I want to believe that they love their parents and that their parent’s passing hurts them deeply; so deeply that they convince themselves that the only way they can deal with it is by not dealing with it; by getting the funeral over and done with as quickly as possible and returning to their normal routines, making believe nothing has changed. All they want to do is let go and move on, or so they think.
But in reality, when we lose a loved one, much has changed in our lives, whether or not we wish to admit it. Because of it, we cannot just let go and move on. We cannot attempt to bury our pain, along with our loved one, for our pain will not go away. We can strive to jam it into the background, but it will keep popping out – painfully popping out – whether we like it or not.
When our body is injured, we understand the need to create space in our lives for physical recovery. The same is true for our souls. The loss of a loved one is an injury – a deep wound – to our souls and our souls need time to recover. They need time to adjust to their changed condition, especially when you consider that the injury to soul inflicted by the death of one so dear will never completely heal. We will carry a part of it with us for the rest of our lives. Making believe that no wound exists is foolishness, for it does exist and we cannot simply wish it away. We must learn how to live with it. We must learn how to transform it from intense pain to a duller pain that carries with it its own gifts; the gifts of warm memories of all that was good and loving in the relationship we once shared. There is much we need to hold on to, for holding on in such a way can enhance our lives rather than detract from them. Such holding on keeps the deceased alive on this earth, through our memories and our sharing of those memories.
So it is the balance of holding on and letting go which we should be seeking in our lives. For if such a balance we can discover, we can both render proper and fitting honor to the memories of those we loved, and we can live our lives more fully and meaningfully, as those memories help to guide us as we seek to make the most of our lives. It is to the task of finding that balance that this service of Yizkor is dedicated, for it calls upon us to both remember – for the word “Yizkor” means “Remember” – and to move forward with our lives, carrying those memories with us in positive and constructive ways.

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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 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.

Temple Emanuel: Looking Toward Our Next 150 Years

September 10, 2010

If you wonder why I have not posted on this blog in some time, the answer is simple:  High Holy Days preparation.  Writing sermons and tending to countless other details prior to the advent of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur occupy nearly the totality of every congregational rabbi’s time.  So in my next few posts, I will be sharing with you the texts of the sermons that I presented to my congregation during the Holy Days.  Below is the text of my Rosh Hashanah Eve sermon.

There are New Years and then there are New Years, and this is certainly a New Year for us here at Temple Emanuel. For us, this Rosh Hashanah not only marks the beginning of the Jewish year of 5771, but it also marks the beginning of the celebration of our 150th anniversary as a congregation.

150 years! That is no small accomplishment. While ours was not the first synagogue established in the state of Iowa – for there were synagogues which preceded ours in both Dubuque and Keokuk – ours is the oldest Jewish congregation in continual existence in the state. Of that we can most justifiably be proud.

We sit here this evening in this fine 57 year old building, which, by the way, was the first house of worship in the Quad Cities which was constructed utilizing the designs of modern architecture. We sit here, not only as a viable but also as a vibrant congregation. There is so much about Temple Emanuel life which we take for granted, as if it was always so. But it was not. What we benefit from and enjoy today was handed down to us as the result of the dedication and labor of so many others who came before us; who strove to make Temple Emanuel possible, nevertheless vital and vibrant. Over the next 13 months, we will be celebrating their gifts to us, as we begin to learn more about our past and rededicate ourselves to the future of the congregation which they bequeathed to us.

Sitting here this evening, considering the life of Temple Emanuel today, let us try to imagine what Jewish life in this community was like for our founders back in 1861. In those days, the total population of Davenport was a meager 500. Of those 500, there were a scant one dozen Jewish families. Most, if not all of them were German Jews who had arrived in this community during the preceding ten years. They came to America, seeking freedom and democracy. They were part of a greater wave of German Jewish immigration that came to our shores fleeing Germany and Austria after the failures of the liberal revolutions of 1848. Yes, even then, Jews were social liberals. In fact, in our congregation today, we have direct descendants of one such famous socially liberal Jewish refugee who didn’t come to our area, but rather to Kansas. His name was August Bondi. Bringing to America his socially liberal values, August Bondi rode with the abolitionist John Brown, only to break with Brown for ethical reasons after the Potowatamy Massacre. Later, he would earn the Congressional Medal of Honor while serving the Union during the Civil War. He earned that honor by risking his life to bring wounded soldiers from both sides off of the battlefield and to safety. Hart Bondi, Greg Schermer, and their children, are his direct descendants. Those early German Jews who settled here, while maybe not as heroic as August Bondi, most certainly shared with him their motivation for coming to this country and their vision of what America should be.

So on Wednesday evening September 4, 1861 – Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5622 – our congregation held its first High Holy Day service. They had no building. They had no rabbi. So the services were led by a knowledgeable Jew by the name of Max Feder. Shortly after that, on October 21, 1861, they formally voted Congregation B’nai Israel into existence.

That’s right, Congregation B’nai Israel. That was, until recently, our original and official name. So where does the name Temple Emanuel come from? Back in 1885, we finally erected our first synagogue building. It was on Ripley Street, between 4th and 5th Avenues. At that time, belonging to our congregation was a very wealthy family by the name of Rothschild. In exchange for a major donation to the building fund, the congregation agreed to name the building after the patriarch of that family, Moses Emanuel Rothschild, who had recently passed away. So originally it was our building which was called Temple Emanuel, but with the passage of time, it was that name that stuck.

So our congregation came into being. Our first Board President was Isaac Berneis, and initially membership dues were a whopping $5.00 a year. Until we built that building in 1885, we rented space in which to meet, our first being a third floor room in a building at 3rd & Perry.

It was not until 1875 that our congregation acquired the services of a rabbi. Our first rabbi was Rabbi Isaac Fall. He served our congregation until 1890, which made him the longest serving rabbi of our congregation until yours truly. He is also the only rabbi buried in Mt. Nebo Cemetery. As part of our anniversary celebration, next October we will be holding a special ceremony at his grave. That ceremony, researched by the Cantor, is called a Hilu La Ceremony.

You might find this hard to believe, but Rabbi Fall was an Orthodox rabbi. That is not as strange as it might seem, considering the fact that in 1875 we were an Orthodox congregation. Granted, we were a liberal Orthodox congregation, but we were Orthodox nonetheless. But even at that time, we were seriously considering change. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations – which today we call the Union for Reform Judaism – the official North American organization of Reform congregations, was founded in 1873. Whether or not our congregation should join it, leave Orthodoxy and officially become a Reform congregation, was the subject of heated debate. It was not until 1879 that we decided to make that move. But even as the congregation voted to join the Reform movement, the president of our congregation at that time, John Ochs – you may have seen the Ochs mausoleum in our cemetery – resigned his post as president because of it.

Nor did the struggle over our Reform identity end with that vote. It went on for many years, painfully dividing our congregation. The planning of the dedication ceremony for our first building was embraced by the proponents of Reform as an opportunity to bring the practices of our congregation closer to their way of thinking. It was in that spirit that the Board voted that no hats were to be worn during the ceremony. They also invited a rabbi from Chicago to deliver the main address, in English. You have to understand. Up until that point, only Hebrew and German were spoken on our bimah. With this act, they introduced the use of English into our service. Later, in August of 1889, the Board voted to affirm the decision of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, to include the counting of women in the minyan.

It should be noted that through all of this, Rabbi Fall tried to be responsive to all his congregants. As an Orthodox rabbi, he demonstrated himself to be extremely flexible and open to the changes proposed by the proponents of Reform. But he was walking a tight rope, with some finding him too open to change and others finding him not open enough to change. Finally, in August of 1890, the Board released him and turned around, engaging the services of their first rabbi who was a graduate of the Hebrew Union College.

Rabbi Samuel Freuder was ordained from the Hebrew Union College in 1886. He came to our community, having previously served a congregation in San Diego. However, his tenure at Temple Emanuel was short lived. He was a living example of the caution, “Beware lest you get what you asked for.” The congregation felt that they wanted someone more progressive than Rabbi Fall, and in Rabbi Freuder they found him. However, Rabbi Freuder went too far in the other direction. As one chronicler put it, whatever was forbidden, he considered permitted. The dissatisfaction with him was so great that in July of 1891, the Board released him. However, you could imagine their dismay when the local newspaper published an article in which Rabbi Freuder announced that he had resigned and was renouncing the Jewish faith altogether.

In our lobby, you will find a handwritten letter to our congregation from Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the father of American Reform Judaism; the founding president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the founding president of the Hebrew Union College, and the founding president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. In it he expressed his apologies for not being able to provide us with a student rabbi to conduct our High Holy Day services, but recommended that we contact an unemployed rabbi living in New York. On the surface, this is a very disappointing letter. Indeed, when Joan McGee found that letter in our records, as she was organizing our 125th anniversary celebration, her comment was, “Damned Union! Didn’t do anything for us then and is still not doing anything for us!” However, you have to look at the date – September 12, 1891 – and understand it in our historical context. For obviously, it was after our congregation went through this trauma with Rabbi Freuder, and probably conducted an unsuccessful rabbinic search, that we applied to the Hebrew Union College for a student rabbi for the holy days. But by then, it was too late. All the students had High Holy Day pulpits. This was but another manifestation of how I congregation suffered in the wake of its struggle over its Jewish identity.

That struggle would continue for quite some time, only ultimately finding resolution during the rabbinate of William Fineshriber. Rabbi Fineshriber, a graduate of the Hebrew Union College, came to our community in 1900. It was through his efforts that the old wounds were ultimately healed and it was under his leadership that we finally established ourselves solidly as a Reform congregation, with the formal conclusion of the struggle being our adoption, in 1902, of the UNION PRAYER BOOK, a prayer book which we would worship from, in its various incarnations, until, in the mid 1970’s, when we adopted GATES OF PRAYER, the prayer book which replaced the UNION PRAYER BOOK as the worship text of Reform Judaism.

It was also through Rabbi Fineshriber’s efforts that our congregation seriously embarked upon its mission to pursue social justice causes and to become a voice and a presence for social justice in this community; a mission which we still pursue today, as earlier this evening I testified to, as I called upon you to support our hunger relief efforts. It is not surprising that it was through Rabbi Fineshriber’s social justice efforts that our congregation came to assume a new position of esteem and respect in the eyes of our general community; a position we still hold today, in good part due to our Tikkun Olam efforts.

I share with you these tidbits from the early history of our congregation because we need to know our past in order to appreciate our present and to start to build for our future. History, whether it be world history or American history or Jewish history or the history of our congregation, is not made up of quantum independent moments in time. Rather, it is linear; it is cumulative. Our ancient rabbis understood this all too well when they coined the concept of “Shalshelet HaKabbalah – the Chain of Tradition.” What we are today is due in great part to the gifts bequeathed to us by those who came before us. What comprises the future will be due in great part to the gifts we pass on to those who come after us. Today, we stand as one moment in time along the time line of Temple Emanuel. So much of what we are today as a congregation, whether we realize it or not, is great part owing to those who came before us. What will happen to this congregation, and this Jewish community, in the future, will be due, in great part, to the decisions we make and the actions we take; we, our generation of Temple Emanuelites.

For the first 40 years of its existence, our congregation struggled desperately with issues of its Jewish identity. Should we be a Reform congregation? What does it mean to be a Reform congregation? How much change is not enough? How much change is too much?

Struggling with our Jewish identity as a congregation is not new to this congregation. In fact, it is a very old story as far as Temple Emanuel is concerned. But from that story we must learn important lessons.

Lesson Number One: Openness to change is an intrinsic part of the nature of this congregation, as it is an intrinsic part of the nature of Reform Judaism itself. We should not be afraid of change but neither should we embrace it blindly. Change can be good, but only when it is purposeful and thoughtfully arrived at. Every possible change must be evaluated on its own merits. Is this a change for the good? Will this serve to advance our goal of being a contemporary meaningful expression of Judaism for our congregants? Will this change serve us for the good in the long run, or only in the short run? Will this change stand the test of time? Where will it take us ten years down the road? Twenty years down the road? A hundred & fifty years down the road? On the other hand, are our ties to the past founded upon the innate values of the past or only because the past is comfortable while change is disconcerting? The changes we make today, and the changes we choose not to make today, are the legacies we leave for tomorrow. Before we make them or don’t make them, we need to honestly ask ourselves whether or not this is what we wish to be remembered for.

Lesson Number Two: As the philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who fail to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” The early history of our congregation was a very difficult history – a very painful history – because of the ways in which we dealt with, or failed to deal with successfully, the issues of change. It was a history filled with conflict and controversy. Too many people drew lines. Too many people took sides. As my mother, of blessed memory, was fond of saying, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.” It would appear that our Temple Emanuel forebears did not always appear to grasp that concept, and as a result, the congregation as a whole suffered.

Today, we, too, struggle with questions of change, both within the current life of our congregation, and especially as we consider the possibility of merger with the Tri City Jewish Center. The changes we are considering, and the decisions we will make about them, will most certainly impact the future of this congregation; the next 150 years of Temple Emanuel, or whatever it is we become if we decide to merge. As we grapple with these issues of change, we constantly need to ask ourselves two questions: (1) By making these changes, can we honestly claim that we are remaining true to our past, to our heritage? And (2) By making these changes, can we honestly claim that these are the legacies we wish to bequeath to our children and those who come after us?

As we go about our business, considering the future – the next 150 years – we need to constantly remind ourselves that we can disagree without being disagreeable. We can understand that others hold viewpoints which may differ from ours; viewpoints which may differ greatly from ours. Yet just because they differ from us does not mean that they are wrong. Each and every one of us holds the future of this congregation gently and lovingly within our hearts, within our minds, and within our hands. We all strive to do what we think will be best for our congregation and for its future. Though we may differ on approach, we do not differ on intent. And we need to respect that. We need to respect that though someone may disagree with us, they do so honestly and they do so lovingly when it comes to the Temple. Therefore, even though we may disagree, we need to maintain a respectful dialogue. We need to truly listen to each other; not just listen for the points we can dispute, but listen in order that we can come to understand where each of us is coming from. For only when we develop that groundwork of respectful understanding, can we build from that a successful compromise; a successful consensus; a successful meeting of the minds. And it is in that meeting of the minds that we will find the strongest future for Temple Emanuel. I do not know what that future will be. No one does. But let us explore it together.