Skip Navigation
November 23, 2014 | 1st Kislev 5775

Report of the Chairman to the 69th General Assembly, December 2007

CONTEMPORARY PEOPLE, ETERNAL CHALLENGES
Report of the Chairman of the Board to the
69th General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism
December 14, 2007

By Robert M. Heller

 Bob Heller

     As I reflected on the end of my term as chair, I was reminded of the story about three friends from the local congregation who asked each other, “When you’re in your casket, and friends and congregation members are mourning over you, what would you like them to say?” Sam said: “I would like them to say I was a wonderful husband, a fine role model, and a great family man.” Max commented: “I would like them to say I was a wonderful teacher and servant of God who made a huge difference in people’s lives.” Jim said: “I’d like them to say, ‘Look, he’s moving’!”

Or as Woody Allen put it, “I do not want to become immortal through my work. I want to become immortal through not dying.”

We do not get what Jim or Woody wants, another life or immortality, but Genesis tells us we do get second chances and the opportunity for new beginnings in the course of this one, even after cataclysmic events. Cataclysms abound in Genesis - flood, fire, famine - biblical tragedies all, rich in symbolism but, we think to ourselves, surely exaggerated, told with hyperbole to make a point. We read them metaphorically, but they do not describe real threats that are part of our contemporary reality.

Think again. For the third time in the last four biennials we meet just a few weeks after cataclysmic events struck close to where we are. In 2001, the wounds of 9/11 still fresh, we met in Boston, the city from which two of the planes involved in the terror attacks took off. In 2005 we met in Houston following the winds and waters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the destruction they wrought in New Orleans, along the Gulf Coast and in Florida. Our host city, itself damaged by the season’s storms, had served as a place of refuge for evacuees.

Today we are in San Diego, which only a few weeks ago was a place of refuge for some of the half million people who were evacuated and those who lost their homes to the hellfire spread on Santa Ana’s wings to areas a few miles from where we are.

Famine too is very much part of our world. Consider the refugees suffering from the manmade famine in Darfur, Sudan and Chad or the 35.1 million Americans, 2.4 million of them children, who are food insecure, often going to bed hungry even though there is no famine here. If anything, our times are more turbulent than those recorded in Genesis, riven by fundamentalist fanaticism, tribal conflicts and ethnic hatreds made even more dangerous by the potential spread of chemical and nuclear weapons capability into unstable hands.

Genesis counsels optimism. It is about beginnings more than endings, about renewal and hope, not despair. Every time it seems the world is coming to an end, there is a new beginning. God creates and re-creates the world several times, ready to learn from failure and to try again, not willing to abandon the human experiment in general and the Jewish experiment in particular.

This week’s portion, Vayigash, so beautifully rendered in the Woman of Reform Judaism’s new Torah Commentary, underscores the opportunity we have for new beginnings, the importance of finding the lessons even in our failures and our ability – more, our responsibility – to be resilient in the face of our mistakes, to grow and to renew ourselves.

Joseph has grown from the naïve, narcissistic youth cast into the pit to become the second most powerful person in Egypt – perhaps the most successful Diaspora Jew ever, and an intermarried one at that – because he suggested to Pharaoh what may be the earliest strategic plan in recorded history, a way to deal with impending famine: store excess crops from the good years and save them for the lean. His brother, Judah, has also grown. Life has not been kind to Judah since the time he went along with his brothers in punishing Joseph. He lost two sons of his own and, in the encounter with Tamar, he had to face up to his own human weaknesses.

Bearing the scars of those experiences, Judah takes their lessons to heart when Joseph directs the brothers to leave Benjamin behind. This is Judah’s hineni moment. He rises to it by confronting Pharaoh’s grand vizier, whom he does not recognize as his brother, explaining that their father, Jacob, will die of grief if the brothers return without Benjamin. Given the opportunity to repeat his past behavior and remain silent, in the face of great personal risk, Judah makes a different choice, a brave and compassionate one. He offers himself in Benjamin’s place, putting concern for Benjamin and Jacob ahead of his own well-being, showing that he has learned from his mistakes and is truly repentant. He is an exemplar of George Eliot’s saying “it is never too late to become what you might have been.”

Joseph is overcome when he sees how Judah has learned and been transformed; the time for reconciliation and healing has arrived. Jacob’s children embrace, soon Jacob adopts Joseph’s children as his own. The Jewish future is assured all because Judah, the namesake of us Jews and an imperfect human being not unlike us, had the capacity to learn, change and grow.

Today, I report to you a few of the ways in which over the past four years our Union has been and is growing and being transformed, learning from experience, responding to our hineni moments, speaking truth to power and building connections to the next generations. I also offer a few reflections on the continuing challenges we face.

Change and Learning from Experience: Becoming a Learning Organization

Four years ago I said the Union would become more of a learning organization, a place where we value the act of learning as well as expertise, where we address issues comprehensively and systemically, not in silos, and where professionals and volunteers as caring, productive partners seek to envision the future we want and work to create it. Echoing what we see in Genesis, learning organizations, indeed, all great institutions, must constantly recreate themselves because the world outside and the challenges it presents are always changing.

We are making progress. We have been asking the tough questions, challenging our operating assumptions, working to reframe our longstanding organizational structure to take account of new realities. Now we are implementing Board-adopted priorities, based on an intensive 2½-year study by the Task Force on the Delivery of Union Services in the 21st Century, to create a more proactive, cost-effective Union to better serve you, our congregations and members.

We are making training for both staff and lay leadership a financial priority. Training is not a simple matter for us. We can teach skills – how to plan a meeting, what to say to a potential new member – but with volunteer-professional partnership as one of our tenets we have to go further and provide opportunities for partners to study and learn side-by-side, coming to a fuller understanding of their partnership and how they might better work together. Our leadership models must take into account that no two partnerships are identical – my partnership with my congregational rabbi was different from any of my predecessors or successors as is my partnership with our extraordinary leader, Rabbi Eric Yoffie. Each partnership must build on the individual partner’s strengths and shore up their weaknesses.

At the Union and in our congregations, the crucial assets are not our buildings, magnificent as some of them are, or other balance sheet items. Our assets are human, the professionals and lay leaders who guide us and the people we serve. Fundamentally, we must train leaders who understand that leadership is about prizing, respecting and motivating human beings, that we can - must - think strategically and feel empathetically, that being a leader in our world means leading from your head and also your heart.

In that vein, like Judah, we are evaluating and learning not just from our successes but from our failures too – as the saying goes, “when you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” Developing appropriate measures for evaluating our work is difficult. We are not an investment bank or even a small business where profit and loss provide ready metrics. We know that not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts. But we are determined to find the right measures for our work to help us use our always insufficient resources most effectively. An important starting point involves the development of evaluation models to measure the efficiency of new approaches to congregational service we are about to pilot in several regions.

Change is never easy. All of us, whether in our work or in our congregations, find a comfort zone and we do not want to be pushed out of it, especially in a successful organization like the Union where the discomfort of change is magnified by the risk of losing what we have attained. But our Board achieved consensus, indeed near unanimity, because we see what the Union – already a great success – can be: an innovative, skill-centered, resilient learning organization, continually renewing itself, thinking strategically and reframing our challenges in the light of emerging communal needs, and helping congregations to anticipate and meet those needs.

 

Responding to Hineni Moments and Speaking Truth to Power

Let me turn to some specific ways the Union is doing that. Like Joseph, the Union has responded effectively to its hineni moments – contemporary cataclysms and humanitarian crises at home and abroad. Two years ago it was Katrina. We raised millions of dollars to help victims, stocked and staffed a warehouse in Mississippi to provide the newly homeless with essentials, opened two of our summer camps for housing, and gave our congregations spiritual and financial support.

In 2006, during the war with Hezbollah, we stood with the Israeli people, opening an Emergency Relief Fund which helped our Progressive Movement there assist those in harm’s way, build shelters and provide essential services. This Fall, we responded after the firestorms of October, working closely with our congregations here to provide aid and support.

When it comes to speaking truth to power – I know some would say we are too free with our advice – we continue to be an effective advocate for our values in the public square, working to end the genocide in Darfur, speaking out on the war in Iraq and speaking for civil liberties, for stem cell research and against the politicization of science here at home. I have written extensively on the subject elsewhere, but I reaffirm to you today my pride in the Resolution on the War in Iraq passed by this body two years ago and updated in March of this year by the Executive Committee. Your action in seeking an orderly end to the war – which has cost the lives of nearly 4,000 American soldiers and countless Iraqis, maimed many times that number physically and psychologically, poisoned our civil society here and diminished our standing abroad – is consistent with the Union’s proud history of engaging the great moral issues, including issues of war and peace, in every generation. Our actions then and now have not been without controversy; there has never been unanimity on such matters. We have encouraged vigorous debate and been respectful of those who may disagree as to what our history teaches. However, where there is strong consensus as to what our texts and tradition require, we must never be intimidated into silence about such matters.

I am also proud of our new social justice program, “Just Congregations”, which in its first year has reached 95 congregations in twenty-four states. It makes the search for consensus and for real solutions to social problems part of the fabric of our congregations. Effective advocacy through engagement with other community groups across lines of faith, class and race, is part of the mandate, but its essence is about building a congregational community in which action for the public good is integrated with ritual and education life.

 

Building a Reform Jewish Future

Everything the Union does is intended to help build communities of meaning within our congregations, create a vibrant Reform Judaism and strengthen the connections of our next generations. Few things do that so visibly as our camping system. We added a new jewel to that crown this year with the opening of Camp Kalsman outside Seattle. The camps are among your congregation’s most valuable assets, magical places – I should know, Amy and I met at Eisner in 1962 and we were married three years later – where your children and grandchildren can find community and build their Jewish memories and Jewish identity.

My grandchildren are not ready for camp yet, but they are in Central Synagogue’s early childhood programs and that, too, has a profound impact. In 2006 as a 3 year old, Madeline made her own Seder plate, which she used to tell us about the Passover symbols, and her own frog mask to illustrate the plagues -- although she momentarily forgot which “bad guy”, Pharaoh or Haman was the victim. This year she sang the four questions. She and her one and a half year old sister Charlotte, who is in a Mommy and Me program at Central, are completely at home in our congregation’s sanctuary, in the halls of our religious school and with Rabbi Peter Rubinstein and our other wonderful clergy. For them as for our campers, being Jewish is fun.

Recognizing the vital role early childhood education plays in building Jewish identity, the Union created a new affiliate, the Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism to provide a forum for our early childhood educators, enhance their stature and emphasize the importance of what they do.

There is much more I could report to you about our education work alone, not least the first Board Kallah last year, making leadership through learning a serious priority, or the pre biennial conference earlier this week on Gender and Jewish Education, a collaboration among several Union departments, NATE, the Women of Reform Judaism and the Men of Reform Judaism – a good example of a learning organization in action. And I have not touched upon the extraordinary work of most of our other departments. I will sum it up this way: the Union is your congregation’s partner in its sacred work, our success and our futures bound together. If the Union did not exist, Reform congregations would seek to invent it, not simply as a partner but as a part of their being, essential to fulfilling their mission and enabling them to be part of a flourishing Movement.

 

Our Eternal Challenges

Many of the programs I have mentioned, and others I have not, address directly challenges I spoke about at the 2005 Biennial – the challenges of renewal and change facing any learning organization, of developing our Reform Jewish identity, of strengthening our ties to Israel and progressive Jewish communities as we have sought to do through our new World Jewry Committee, by adding the World Union for Progressive Judaism to the Reform Jewish Appeal and through ARZA’s educational, travel and other programs.

But we did not come to San Diego to congratulate ourselves and declare “Mission Accomplished.” It does not diminish our accomplishments to acknowledge that we have a long way to go. I want to talk with you about two other formidable challenges that we have struggled with for decades.

First, we still do not fund our congregations or the institutions of Reform Judaism adequately. Our congregations are the building blocks of communal Jewish life, but, with rare though welcome exceptions, our philanthropists and community fundraising organizations do not provide resources to congregations commensurate with the work they do. Oddly, megadonors seek to create programs to build Jewish identity without strengthening the very home of Jewish identity.

The Union does not do much better. Our annual campaign, the Fund for Reform Judaism, has been relatively flat for several years, potential contributors planning charitable dispositions do not think of our endowment fund and we have not made significant efforts to interest philanthropists in endowing “chairs” or programs in many of our departments.

There are some bright spots. With the help of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, support from the Foundation for Jewish Camping, and dedicated efforts by Camp Directors and Camp Commissions, we have raised several million dollars this year for new facilities in many of our camps, and that is in addition to the funds raised to build Camp Kalsman.

People do give for bricks and mortar, but there is a deeper lesson here. To strengthen our Movement, we must offer a coherent, compelling vision for people to invest in. Dream with me for a minute. Why can’t the Union build an endowment campaign in partnership with our congregations to double the endowment with the understanding that, say, 50 percent of the return on the funds raised would be allocated to grants to congregations for defined purposes, for example, subventing congregational memberships for people from 21 to 39 years old, with another 10 percent used to subvent Union/ARZA trips to Israel, and so on, with the balance to support other Union programs? That is just one thought but the larger point is that we know the resources exist in our community to do that and to similarly double FRJ, if we bring a vision and engaging, powerful ideas to the table – and if we work together. There was a time in our history when wealthy members of our community gave generously to the Union, the College and their own congregations because they wanted their institutions to be the very best in Jewish life. We have to give this generation of donors reasons to feel that way.

The second challenge involves the unaffiliated. Here, again, we have made progress. Outreach has moved from the periphery two decades ago and is now a core program for us. We have seen the number of Jews by choice increase – one consequence: today about half of the 130 thousand children in our congregational schools have at least one parent who did not have a Jewish childhood – and all of our congregations have been strengthened by welcoming intermarried families and converts to their midst who contribute in so many ways to congregational life. The Membership Initiative has made our congregations more inviting and helped them open their doors to new members and retain existing ones.

And yet, far too many Jews remain outside our doors, uninspired or turned off by what we offer them. The National Jewish Population survey found that 35 percent of American Jewish adults (they did not survey Canadian Jewry) self-identify as Reform but about half of them, some 700,000, are not affiliated with a congregation. Another 20 percent of the population describe themselves as “Just Jewish”. Both these groups would enhance our communal life immeasurably if we could draw even a modest number of them in.

It is not as though they are not seeking meaning and purpose. Think of the people you know, maybe who grew up in your home, who are not affiliated, often not even comfortable in our congregations, but who are as spiritual as prior generations. They find meaning and transcendence outside our walls and our job is to touch them where they are and embrace them. To paraphrase the title of one of our workshops here, we have to reach the “Jewish, Spiritual but not Religious Crowd.”

There is no one simple answer to the obvious next question, what will attract them? Two things are clear to me, though. First, the congregation that succeeds must adapt to the future, using the internet and all the tools available to us rather than merely pining for a return of the good old days. Second, whether your spiritual journey involves prayer, study, social justice or, in all likelihood, some combination of the three, you want a home where you will be embraced as you pursue it. There is a need for emotional connection.

Reform has, from its inception, been a thoughtful, intellectual and rational expression of Judaism. But, especially in its early history, Reform Judaism may have de-emphasized our emotional and spiritual roots.

No longer. No matter how difficult it may be for some of us to speak of spiritual search and journey or to wrestle openly with matters of belief or experience of the sacred, our best congregations are places where we can engage those issues, places where we shore up our inner life as Alex Schindler put it 30 years ago in his Biennial sermon, where we create relationships and emotional connections. Our best congregations are places of peace and comfort, homes we enter when there is joy to be shared, when we want to resonate to music that stirs our souls or hear words to inspire us or heal our wounds, when we want to unite to live our values and pass them on.

One Forward columnist, himself not exactly turned on by institutional Judaism, wrote this recently: “But I find, when my mind is quiet enough to let the rest of me be truthful with itself, that the movements and notes of religion cause me to be more loving, more compassionate and more insistent upon justice.” He goes on, in words that I trust do not apply to us, “I don’t believe the nonsense that our religion often spreads about God, Torah and Israel. But I’ve found that there is something deeper than belief.” It is in our synagogues that those movements and notes of religion are seen and heard most clearly and it is in our synagogues that something deeper than belief is forged.

Permit me one story in closing. Three years ago my younger brother, Danny, a beloved, respected, compassionate and funny, but iconoclastic and maybe slightly meshugah, pediatrician, died suddenly and quite unexpectedly. If they work at it for awhile, pediatricians, like rabbis, cantors, educators, and camp directors, touch thousands of lives – parents, children, their children. My brother did and hundreds attended his funeral and shiva. We invited people to share stories about Danny during the shiva minyanim. One woman, moved by the service, came to me afterward and said: “I want you to know that Dan made me a better mother.” Tearfully, she continued, “More important, Dan made me a better human being.”

Isn’t that what our congregations are ultimately about? They are communities where each of us can live our Jewish journeys and become better human beings, where we can help each other become better human beings and where, in connecting with each other, we connect with the sacred.

I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to serve this Movement and, I hope, to make a difference. My thanks to all who have made these four years so exciting, productive and rich with accomplishment. As a final point of personal privilege, a too brief public word of thanks to my wife, Amy. At our wedding over 42 years ago, as we left the chuppah, joined in matrimony at last, and walked back up the aisle , she turned to me lovingly and whispered, “sweetheart, you and I have just become one...and I am that one”

That is a joke, but the truth is that these past several years, I have been the one as she has supported me wholeheartedly in my service to the Union. Since I courted the most beautiful girl at Eisner 45 years ago, she has been my partner sharing whatever life has offered us including the wonderful journey of the past four years and she has been a creative contributor to so much that we have achieved.

As I conclude this remarkable chapter in my life, mindful of how much I have been strengthened and blessed by the opportunity to serve this Union, I think of the blessing we recite each time we conclude a book of the Torah. Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek. Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another. Let us go forth from here strong and strengthening one another in our commitment to a Judaism that is dynamic, resilient and ready to renew itself, a Judaism that engages our intellect and stirs our souls. May we be inspired to demonstrate the courage of our convictions, to speak truth to power, to pursue peace and seek justice, to care about our fellows even though we see their flaws and our own, and to hope and pray that the world will get better because in our own small way we are doing what we can to make it better.

Keyn y’hi ratson.

 

 

Comments left on this website are monitored. By posting a comment you are in agreement with Terms & Conditions.
 
Multimedia Icon Multimedia:  Photos  |  Videos  |  Podcasts  |  Webinars
Bookmark and Share About Us  |  Careers  |  Privacy Policy
Copyright Union for Reform Judaism 2011.  All Rights Reserved