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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Report of the Chairman of the Board to the Biennial Assembly, Houston, TX

November 18, 2005



By: Robert M. Heller

Living in a World of Choice

You may have heard the story about the congregant and clergyman who are chatting at a reception. A waiter passes by carrying a tray of Bloody Marys and the congregant takes one. Somewhat disdainfully, the clergyman says “I would rather commit adultery than let a drop of liquor pass my lips”. Hastily putting the drink back, the congregant says “I didn’t know we had a choice”.

I want to talk with you about choices this afternoon, but not about adultery and alcohol. Actually, many of us are already at the age where given a choice between two temptations we pick the one that gets us home earlier.

As people living in modernity we are blessed with any number of choices: choices about lifestyle and choices about life, about our identity. For many of us in my generation, being Jewish was not a choice. It was a given, an immutable fact like being tall or short. We would marry a Jew, raise Jewish kids, be part of the Jewish community within our American community and we would eventually be members of a congregation.

That is not today’s world. Old barriers have fallen. We can be anything we want, choose any religious identity that fits, or choose to have no religious identity and practice no religion. Choosing to be Jewish today involves an affirmative act, not passive acceptance.

The cliché is right: all of us are Jews by choice. Look around you and you will see people who were raised in diverse religious backgrounds, not only Reform, Conservative or Orthodox but also non-Jewish backgrounds of every hue.

We have chosen Reform Judaism because it stands for something, not because we are not Orthodox or not Conservative. I am no scholar or theologian and there are many people in this Movement better qualified to discuss all the implications of choosing a Reform Jewish identity, but some things I do know. One is that we Reform Jews see the challenges of a world in need of repair, and we respond to them. Many of you have expressed great pride because the Union professionals and volunteers responded to the Katrina crisis creatively, quickly and compassionately. Only the Union, with its infrastructure and culture of lay-professional collaboration, could have put together that collective response. We should be proud, but we should not be surprised. Being in the moment, not merely being present but being existentially there – and anticipating and responding to needs, to change, to challenges by doing what is just and right – is what we Reform Jews do. It is what the Union does so well.

Learning from Abraham

Another thing I know is that we are lifelong learners, serious about our texts and tradition and listening to what they say to us in this era. With that in mind, consider what Abraham’s life tells us about being in the moment. Like us, he faltered on occasion, missing the moment as when he agreed to banish Hagar and Ishmael. More than most of us though, he lived in the moment, striving to do what is just and right.

In this week’s portion, Vayera, Abraham welcomes and opens his home to three strangers. Rather than sitting idly in his tent in the heat of the day, Abraham is alert to what is going on outside. Sensing God’s presence – “The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre”. . . Abraham invites the passersby in. Perhaps he understood instinctively that these men, whether or not they were angels, were made in God’s image, b’tselem elohim.

When we Reform Jews insist upon pluralism, recognizing that no group holds a monopoly on truth, and when we draw lines to bring people in rather than isolate or exclude them, we are applying in contemporary times an understanding first illustrated by Abraham at that moment - the awareness that each of us is made in the image of God.

Abraham is again in the moment when God tells him that Sodom and Gomorrah are to be destroyed. He will not accept a God who is not just and righteous. Abraham asks “will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?. . .Far be it for you to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike”.

Abraham’s insistence on justice and his audacity in challenging God to be just speak directly to us. Tikkun olam, social justice and heeding the prophetic voice are core Reform principles. We know the messianic era depends on us – as Rabbi Roland Gittleson taught, God is not a “cosmic bellhop” interceding to do our will. We must be God’s hands doing what is just and right in this world.

Finally, what of the Akedah, the near-sacrifice of Isaac? The pshat or obvious reading, is that the story illustrates Abraham’s complete faith and submission to God’s will. Abraham was concerned about his legacy, yet his faith was so strong, he was prepared to sacrifice Isaac.

That reading of the text is problematic for many of us, especially today when we see the cruelties and even atrocities committed under the banner of blind faith in God. Another reading is possible. Perhaps Abraham, attuned to surrounding cultures which engaged in child sacrifice, misperceived God’s call. He is prepared to follow through, but because Abraham is in the moment and not merely acting by rote, he sees the ram and reconsiders. In so doing, he chooses to reject the cult of human sacrifice and death and moves to a new religious sensibility, substituting animal sacrifice for human.

The miracle then is not that a ram appeared, but that Abraham, lifted his eyes, saw the ram and took the first step toward a new religious understanding. Abraham’s step prefigures those that later generations took, especially after the Second Temple fell in 70 C.E., as they moved from a cult of temple and priests, ritual offerings and animal sacrifices to a religion of synagogue and home, of prayer and liturgy.

Judaism has changed in response to modernity and in resonance with or reaction to the surrounding culture wherever we have been from antiquity to now. We Reform Jews are the direct heirs of Abraham, of the prophets, sages and rabbis, and of all those Jews who dared to confront and, if necessary, smash the idols and practices of their day, who reformed and reshaped Judaism to incorporate human knowledge and understanding and to address the human condition in every era. We are the heirs of all those who over the centuries turned the Torah and turned it again in light of contemporary knowledge and the realities of their community. We extend that rich inheritance every day.

Indeed, the Reform Judaism we practice is not the Reform Judaism of Isaac Mayer Wise. It is not even your parent’s Reform Judaism. Our core values remain intact. But the Reform religious mainstream in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when my father served on the Union Board, was different in ritual and in some of its emphasis from today’s mainstream – that was before patrilineal descent, before outreach, before gender neutral prayer, before the ordination of women.

Building Reform Jewish Identity

I stress this for two reasons. First, too many Jews accept the canard that “Reform” means “minimal”. I am tired of jokes that suggest we are taking the easy road and are less than authentic.

Second, there is much rhetoric these days of our living in a post-denominational age. Do not accept it at face value. Yes, there are areas of convergence. We welcome that and we work with the other streams and expressions of Judaism to address issues of common concern whenever possible. But it would be a mistake to conclude that movements and institutions are unimportant or that there are no differences in intellectual underpinnings.

One way to become clearer about our Reform Jewish identity is through shared experiences like this Biennial. At this great family gathering of the Reform Movement we spend several days working on issues of concern, studying together and praying from a common siddur. We build community and shape our individual and collective identity. Let me suggest three ways we can strengthen those bonds of community within our Movement.

Shared liturgy. We would all benefit if more congregations decide to use the new Central Conference of American Rabbis siddur, Mishkan Tefillah. Since the 1960’s with their creative services on ditto paper, many congregations have developed their own services and some have published siddurim. They are continuing a creative process that never ends and benefits all of us. Let a thousand flowers bloom, let every congregation work to create meaningful worship experiences, but let there also be common ground in all our gardens so that we will always know we are home when we enter a Reform congregation anywhere in North America. We are 900 unique places yes, but let us not be unconnected, unrelated, isolated. By having Mishkan Tefillah in your pews along with any book or pamphlet your congregation may have created, you are connecting to the Movement. You say to your visitors, we are family; and you, your children and grandchildren will feel at home when your travels bring you to congregations far from where you live.

Shared curriculum. The Chai curriculum is now in use in over 230 congregational religious schools, including half of those in our largest congregations. The more congregations that use Chai and the newer Mitkadem Hebrew curriculum, the more likely it is that our next generation will come to maturity with a strong Reform Jewish identity and a connection to each other built on shared learning experiences even if they grew up a continent apart.

Shared experience. Congregational youth group and NFTY experiences are important for the same reason. Above all our camps are the places where we most effectively build Jewish identity and create Jewish memories that are enduring. Our children find friendships there that last a lifetime – I should know, Amy and I met 44 years ago at Eisner. I do not promise romance, but I do believe that you will be giving your child a lifetime gift if you send her or him to one of our camps. And I would add our NFTY in Israel programs as well.

Contemporary Challenges

You do not need me to tell you that our Movement is healthier and stronger than ever. The Union is the most dynamic, cohesive and creative synagogue organization in Jewish life and one of the most grassroots organizations, as your presence attests.

But we still face many challenges. Given the time constraints, I will address only two here. The hands on Social Action work of our congregations is extraordinary – feeding programs, homeless shelters, Mitzvah Days, interreligious dialogue. But advocacy is important too and that is where some shy away, preferring to leave it to the Religious Action Center or worse, erecting a wall of separation between our religious values and public policy, spirituality and social justice. If we want our children and grandchildren to choose to be Jewish in the 21st Century, our message cannot be “Embrace Judaism. It has nothing to say about issues that matter to you.”

Speaking out for what is just and right does not mean being partisan, but it does mean speaking out on policy issues that implicate our core values regardless of what party proposes or opposes them. If pieties about “family values” substitute for policies that value families, we should say so. If tax reductions for the wealthy mean we cannot fulfill our communal obligations to the least among us, we should advocate for them even as we do what we can to help them.

Another challenge. Progressive Jewish communities are coming to life around the globe. We must strengthen our ties to them. Representatives from communities in Israel, the former Soviet Union and Argentina, among others, are here enriching this Biennial with their music, worship and life stories. I hope you have the opportunity to meet some of them and see the linkages and goals we share, especially with the lay leaders building progressive communities in the diaspora. In a real sense, we are already one community. National borders are no longer a barrier to travel or commerce in much of the world. Amy and I have traveled to Europe, Russia, South America, Israel and Asia; our children, nieces and nephews have studied, worked and lived in one or more of those areas. Who knows where our grandchildren will be. Our family experience is not unique and will soon be commonplace.

The Shabbat we celebrated in Moscow with some 400 progressive Jews from around the world at the World Union convention is a harbinger of a new era. You and I have a stake in the success of those communities that is personal as well as moral or philosophical. Our goal must be to make Reform Judaism more than mainstream North American Judaism and to see it grow as the mainstream Jewish movement worldwide.

Learning Organization Initiatives

Two years ago I said the Union would build on its strengths by becoming more of a learning organization. As one example of our putting theory into practice, Rabbi Yoffie made the membership initiative the subject of a dialogue with the Movement through our website and Reform Judaism Magazine. Many of you participated either by sending in suggestions or reading the postings. Three other learning organization initiatives should be a central focus of the next two years.

Rethinking Service Delivery in the 21st Century: Just as we need new siddurim and curricula, we need to rethink and renew the organizational structure in which we work. Our basic structure has not changed in many decades. Yet in the past decade alone, there have been radical advances in technology, telecommunications and computerization. These changes have created a new universe of service delivery systems and forever altered the way our society conducts its business.

I have established a Task Force to take a reflective look at how best to harness this revolution in order to streamline the Union’s delivery of programs and services. Businesses across the continent are wrestling with these questions and devising innovative solutions made possible by today’s technology; we will as well.

Building the Partnership: Our success in accomplishing the agenda we have before us depends on a real partnership between our volunteers and professionals. For some years now we have seen the increasing professionalization of our congregations and of the Union itself. Lay-professional partnership is one of the tenets of Reform Judaism, albeit not one I attribute to Abraham, but there are different forms of partnership - ranging from full, to limited, to silent. In today’s era of professionalization, partnership often means we are directors: “You should do this or you should plan that.” Or we are sideline observers or critics as professionals do their work.

We volunteers must reassert lay ownership and responsibility for fulfillment of the Union’s mission as full partners with our professionals. I am not asking that we try to do the jobs of our professionals, but we can get the training and expertise needed to play a more robust role - as the North American MUM Committee members do, as the Marketing and Communication Committee members do as lay leaders in some of our synagogues do.

I do not underestimate the difficulties in relying on volunteers as our workdays grow and discretionary time shrinks. We must be smart about the tasks we assign to volunteers to assure the work is fulfilling and can be done effectively in the time they have to offer. It is especially important that we develop volunteer jobs for young people with growing families. Our Boards must be evergreen, always attracting and nurturing the next generation so they choose to become active partners in Reform Judaism.

If we tap lay people’s talents, energy and passion more fully we will multiply our effectiveness many fold.

Creating a North American Training Institute: Training is the key to making all this work. Too many people elected to positions of leadership in our congregations and in the Union structure feel inadequately prepared or are unclear about their responsibilities. If we are going to ask more of our volunteers we must give them the tools they need to be successful.

We are beginning to do that for the North American Board with an orientation program and Board Manual that I expect will become a model for the Regional Councils as well. We do it for congregational presidents with the Scheidt seminar. And we now have the technology to send every incoming congregational officer and committee chair – if we get their names – welcoming materials including web-based orientation resources.

Imagine what we could do with adequate resources. Imagine web-based interactive training courses for congregational officers, committee chairs and board members or for our own Board and regional Councils. Imagine lay and professional partners studying side by side to come to a fuller understanding of their partnership and how they might better work together. Imagine enhanced professional development opportunities for our Union staff. Imagine that and more and you still barely scratch the surface.

I ask you to envision that sort of future with me because I believe it is within our grasp. We have built a great history but we must think of our future more than the past. Like Abraham, our legacy depends on our children and the identity we help them create. But it also depends on each other.

My friends, we know our challenges. They are significant, but so are our resources. You and I, our volunteers and professionals, our leaders and members, are the real strength of our Movement. We must each act as though everything depends on us, but we know that no one of us can accomplish the task on our own. Each of us may have only one candle to light and one candle alone does not dispel the darkness. But, if you light yours and I light mine, our two candles radiate, reflect and refract off each other adding more light. Let each of us add our own light, creativity and joy to our work.

This is our moment. Like Abraham, let us be in the moment and respond to it with vigor and clarity. Let our response be bold and brave, and always right and just.

Together we will shape a vibrant Movement, a compelling Reform Judaism that our children and grandchildren will choose and embrace. Together our candles will cast a glow that illumines and enlightens a world sorely in need of light and warmth.

Keyn y’hi ratson.

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