San Diego Biennial December 12 2013-10 Tevet 5774 Rabbi Rick Jacobs
I grew up in Southern California, just a few hours
from here, and believe it or not, I spent a chunk of my early teens surfing
waves on the beaches of Orange County. A flat, calm Pacific Ocean spelled
disappointment, even boredom.
But most weeks, there were at least a
And every so often you would hear cries
around our high school: "Surf's up." Which meant: put everything on hold, grab
your board, and hustle to the beach.
Once or twice the swells were just
awesome, beyond belief, the kind that would scare even Judah Maccabee to death.
Why am I
telling you all of this? Am I suggesting that you skip tomorrow's sessions, buy
a wet suit, and hit the surf? Not really. I'm telling you this because surf
conditions can be helpful in describing the level of challenge facing our
Jewish community today.
In the 1950s,
the waves of Jewish life were steady and easily ridden. Our Reform Movement grew
with ease, as congregations harnessed the baby-boomer migration to suburbs
throughout North America. Since 1990 or so, those waves have grown larger, as
concern for Jewish continuity sent shock waves through every Jewish communal
institution, especially synagogues. More recently, the waves have grown larger
still, at times threatening to capsize us. For the first time in Jewish
history, people of many faiths are happy to befriend us, work with us, and,
yes, marry us. At the same time, radical individualism threatens our collective
identity, while technology decentralizes authority and transforms how we learn
require more skill and courage to ride - but if ridden artfully, they enable us
to go faster and further than ever before.
"surf's up." It's time to grab our boards (surf boards, temple boards, whatever
works!) and ride. Two years ago at our Washington, D.C. Biennial, I wasn't yet
the URJ president and I was only unofficially riding those big waves. And
still, I promised that miketz sh'nataim,
"at the end of two years" - we'd be busy re-imagining Jewish life. And that's
exactly what we have done -- and are doing. Tonight, I want to tell you where
we are, and where we're headed.
This week, we
finish our reading of the first book of the Torah, so I'd like to use the Book
of Genesis as a prism through which we can glimpse not only our past, but more
importantly, our future.
Bereisheit bara Elohim, in the
beginning, God didn't create synagogues or rabbis or denominations or even
Jewish people. No, God created a wondrous universe, teeming with beauty,
complexity, and possibility. Within this incomplete world, God created human
beings to be partners in shaping a world overflowing with shleimut (wholeness), rachamim
(compassion), simcha (joy), and tzedek (justice).
discovered that finding the right partners in this holy work was easier said
than done. Cain was selfish and violent. The people of Babel were reckless,
with delusions of grandeur. And Noah was content as long as his own family was
safe, but he didn't have the spiritual reach to include strangers in his circle
Sarah are called upon to set out on a radical new journey, to a new land and a
covenantal relationship with the Holy One - a journey that leads them to
deserve the promise God made to them, that, v'nitbarchu
v'cha mishpachot ha'adama,"through
you, all of the families of the earth will be blessed."
We know that
we cannot do our work without others, without partners. Throughout our history,
we Jews have created a variety of institutions to sustain our devotion to God's
intended path for us. And institutions have their own logic, their own dynamic.
Sometimes we forget that they are means, not ends. We are called to do
something bigger and grander than simply being caretakers of Jewish
institutions. What is that something? Our Jewish job is to build a more
vibrant, richer Jewish life for our people and communities, so that we can live
up to our partnership with the Holy One in creating a world of wholeness,
compassion, joy and justice.
As long as a
structure or institution of Jewish life serves the sacred mission of our
people, it deserves to be preserved. But now and then, and especially now, we
are well-advised to examine the fit between ends and means, in order to ensure
that we remain devoted to the audacious imperatives that got us started. I say
"audacious," from the word "audacity," which the dictionary equates with
boldness, fearlessness, and courage. The Jewish people is here today because
those who came before us were audacious, courageous, fearless, and bold.
Genesis teaches us the power of
practicing audacious hospitality.
Genesis, Abraham and Sarah set the standard. On a blisteringly hot day, Abraham
runs after three desert wanderers, insisting they come inside for nourishment. What
makes his act so memorable is that he doesn't wait for the wanderers to knock
on his door; instead, he goes out to meet them where they are and invites them
A couple of
months ago, I arrived early at one of our URJ congregations to speak on a
Friday night. After trying to figure out where the entrance was, I found the
lobby, where a woman wearing a nametag looked at me and barked: "What do you
want?" I answered: "I want to be in a congregation filled with warmth and
welcome." She eyed me with a look of, "Boy, do you have the wrong place!" Then
she looked over her shoulder at the easel in the entryway, which had a picture
of a guy who looked a lot like me. She pointed at the picture and asked, "Are
you him?" I nodded yes. With suddenly discovered warmth, she said, "Well, why
didn't you say so?" That's not audacious hospitality.
To be sure,
many of our congregations do an outstanding job of welcoming, but many do not;
and even if yours does, are you sure that everyone in a position to represent
you is among those who do? So here's a simple thing you can do when you get
home. Take every member of your board, every staff and team member, everyone
who might come early one Friday night, and give them a run-through on the power
of being Abraham and Sarah.
welcomed at the door, even by greeters with nametags on their clothes, smiles
on their faces, and hospitality in their DNA still isn't enough. Audacious
hospitality isn't just a temporary act of kindness so that people don't feel
left out; it's an ongoing invitation to be part of a community where we can
become all that God wants us to be - and a way to transform ourselves in the
process. Audacious hospitality is a two-way street, where synagogue and
stranger need each other. Hospitality is not just our chance to teach newcomers
but, just as important, an opportunity for them to teach us.
And worse even
than the smugness of self-satisfaction, is the charge heard from some within
the organized Jewish community proclaiming that these outsiders just don't know
and don't care about Jewish life. Why bring them in if they will only dilute
our commitment? And who is to say whose commitment will turn out to be greater
in the end?
year, I spent a Shabbat at Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, where, for
the past 25 years, the synagogue has practiced what members call "radical
hospitality" - inspiring spiritually homeless souls to feel the loving embrace
of real community. Warmth, acceptance, and openness flow from every
communication and every human encounter.
In a Jewish
world where many more Jews are outside than inside, how can we not practice
audacious hospitality? When women finally became rabbis, cantors, and board
presidents, they didn't just fill the previously conceived roles; they
critiqued and reshaped Jewish life. We need to do the same now with the LGBTQ
community, with multi-racial Jews, with intermarried families, and with Gen X
and the millennials, all of whom have much to teach us.
Let's be frank.
Even when they get inside our doors, many of these folks are convinced of not
much more than the fact that we can smile. Are they equally certain that we
want them? That's the question. The answer is an emphatic yes. Only by being
inclusive can we be strong; only by being open can we be whole.
for the audacity I am discussing came when, decades ago, Rabbi Alexander
Schindler overturned all previous Jewish communal assumptions about interfaith
families by insisting that instead of closing our doors, we should warmly
embrace these families and draw them close in all aspects of Jewish life. How
congregations do this holy work varies, but today, it is an axiom of Reform
Judaism that we do this work of inclusion every day. And what a difference it
has made: bringing the creativity,
leadership, and service of hundreds of thousands of interfaith families to enrich
our congregational lives, while countless thousands of children are being
raised with meaningful Jewish experiences and commitments.
enough, however, I still hear Jewish leaders talk about intermarriage as if it
were a disease. It is not. It is a result of the open society that no one here
wants to close. The sociology is clear enough; anti-Semitism is down; Jews feel
welcome; we mix easily with others; Jewish North Americans (researchers say)
are more admired overall than any other religious group. So of course you get
high intermarriage rates - the norm, incidentally, in the third or fourth
generation of other ethnic groups as well.
America today, being "against" intermarriage is like being "against" gravity;
you can say it all you want, but it's a fact of life. And what would you
prefer? More anti-Semitism? That people did not feel as comfortable with us?
In any event,
we practice outreach because it is good for the Jewish people. Interfaith
couples can raise phenomenally committed Jewish families, especially when they
do it in the Jewish community that is offered uniquely by the Reform Movement.
brags that no person ever greeted Yohanan ben Zakkai first, not even a non-Jew
in the market place; it was always ben Zakkai who was first to extend his hand
- to Jew and non-Jew alike. Yohanan ben
Zakkai is known for completely reimagining Jewish life when the second Temple
was being destroyed. The architect of the biggest turnaround in Jewish history
knew what it was to be audacious. And so must we.
It is not just
sociology that demands that we be serious about welcoming interfaith families. It
is theology as well. We have a sacred obligation to open our doors, to add to
our ranks, and to make sure that progressive Judaism has a growing, not a
shrinking, voice in proclaiming what Torah must mean for our time and for our
world. It is a veritable gift of God to have the opportunity of a millennium:
more non-Jews who want "in" than Jews who want "out." That has never happened
before. We dare not squander this gift out of fear of what new voices may say
and where new opinions may lead.
Or Ami in Calabasas, CA, identifies itself by saying: "We are also Mosaic' in
that we connect back to Moses, a Hebrew child, raised by Egyptians, who married
a non-Jewish woman of color and became the leader of his people."
And then there
are Jews with disabilities, where we pay lip service to inclusion, but too
often fail to take real action. Up to 20% of our population is living with some
kind of disability at any given time. Some are visible because the person is
using a wheelchair or cane or has a service dog. Most are not - think of
psychiatric conditions and chronic illnesses that may only be intermittently
disabling, but can be especially cruel. Think of people who cannot manage a
relationship, hold a job, get ahead, finish school, or even stay out late and
have a decent meal on a regular basis. Inclusion is a lot more than changing
physical structures and facilities. A ramp is just a sloped sidewalk if stigma
and prejudice get in the way. You can subcontract out the construction of a
ramp, but being fully accessible and open to people with disabilities is work
that we can only do ourselves, person-by-person, moment-by-moment.
I think of my Westchester Reform Temple (WRT) student Jacob Wiener who
wasn't sure he could become a bar mitzvah. Jacob has autism spectrum disorder
and bipolar syndrome. Not only did he lead an inspiring Shabbat service for his
bar mitzvah, but in the aftermath he couldn't think of leaving the community
that so totally embraced him. Last year, as a 9th grader, he participated in the Religious Action Center's L'Taken weekend in Washington, D.C.,
where he taught his fellow students and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's staff about
the importance of supporting the United Nations Convention on the Rights of
Persons with Disabilities. This treaty, by the way, will be up for a
ratification vote in the Senate as early as next week. I urge you all to
contact your senators to ask them to vote for passage of this vital treaty that
will change the course of disability inclusion across the globe.
We need look
only as far as some of our own congregations to see powerful models. At Rodeph
Sholom in New York City, a URJ incubator grant helped create inclusive new
worship opportunities with room for exuberant and active prayer, without
congregants saying "Shhhh!" or "sit down." The congregation's sensitivity and
inclusion have brought in families who had given up hope that there was a
Jewish community for them.
Thanks to a
new partnership with the Ruderman
Family Foundation, the URJ will be helping all of our congregations remove
barriers to participation, so that all individuals can take their rightful
place in the center of congregational life.
And I'll tell
you something else: when we do, when we open our doors - and more, our hearts
and minds - and say, "Come in, we need you," we will have new talent and energy
beyond our wildest dreams. Al tistakel
b'kankan, warned our sages - don't look at the bottle, ela b'mah sheyesh bo, but at what is inside it. Inside those people
whom we exclude is another great gift, another opportunity of a lifetime just
waiting for us. As we learn from Abraham, "we cannot wait for the seekers to
show up at our door, we must go out to meet them where they are and invite them
hospitality is a transformational spiritual practice that changes all of us for
Genesis teaches us that it never was
simple to engage the next generation of Jews.
that the first two Jews would grow into a people more numerous than the stars
in the heavens, more plentiful than the sands on the seashore. But Abraham and
Sarah said, "Not a chance. We can't even have one child, let alone a multitude."
Even before the advent of demographic surveys announcing our imminent doom,
Abraham and Sarah had reason to worry about continuity.
remember that Isaac and Rebecca become that next generation, fearful in turn
that the divine promise will expire with them. Then along came Jacob and Esau. One
loved Hebrew school. The other preferred lacrosse. One was dying to get his
hands on the birthright; the other couldn't care less. We know these boys; they
belong to us.
language, Esau was the first "None," a person who doesn't identify as part of
the religious community. What astonishes me is that Isaac and Rebecca let him
go. They give up on him because his way in the world is not their way. They
decide he is not religious. Our teenage Esaus too may love sports, or comedy,
or any number of things that seems more attractive than confirmation class; and
when they leave home and finish college, joining synagogues may not be the most
obvious destination for them. But remember how Esau appeared to Jacob when the
two brothers finally met again. "To look into your face," says Jacob, "is to
see the face of God."
Al tistakel bakankan... "Do not look just at the
outer signs of what our Esaus seem to prefer doing." Look deeply into their
eyes and see that they, too, radiate the light of God. They may be "Nones" when
it comes to organized religion; but they also may be spiritual to the core. Jewish
values and community may yet become centerpieces in their lives.
This is not to
say that we can ignore the facts. Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam has
tracked the group called "Nones" since the late 1950s. In 1958, three percent of
Americans described themselves as having no religious identification. By 2008,
that number had risen to 17 percent. But for Americans in their 20s and 30s
today, the number is between 30 and 40 percent. The
recent Pew study on American Jewry underscores this trend.
I am appalled
at how quickly people write-off the "Nones" as hopelessly lost - not even worth
the effort of outreach.
mistake! The same research that documents the "Nones" reveals that many of them
believe in God, have some spiritual practice, and attend worship services
occasionally, even as they are allergic to institutional religion. It is the
institutions as we know them that the "Nones" find distancing.
Young "Nones" reject
fundamentalist religious trends that breed intolerance, and reject science or
mainline expressions that seem stylized, boring, or out of touch. But if that's
what being religious means, count me out as well. I'm guessing that most of you
would join me. Let's concentrate on our progressive definition of religion,
which by all accounts, is not self-evident to the next generation. Let's stop
confusing the old and tired institutional patterns of Judaism with the
underlying core commitments that really count. At stake is the prophetic voice
of Isaiah, the compassionate guarantees of Hosea, the wisdom of Maimonides, the
loyalty of Esther - the age-old Jewish voice that insists on justice, cries for
the poor, upholds human dignity, demands hope in the face of despair, and finds
human purpose even when all seems lost.
Are the "Nones"
religious? If they care about these eternal verities, then they are. And I am;
and you are. Let's not let others define our way of being religious.
generation wants to know if we share these values, and we are not always clear
on that point. They will want to do so in their own way. So let's make a pact
among each other, here, today. We will not expect the next generation to be
just like us, because only the eternals are not negotiable; everything else is.
It can't be so
long ago that you've forgotten when you were the outsiders and your parents
rolled their eyes at you. My high school rock band told our rabbi we wanted to "wake
up" Friday night services. When he reluctantly said OK, out came the black lights,
amplifiers, and drums; we wrote new tunes for everything. Many in the
congregation hated it; they thought Judaism was on its way down the drain. Guess
what? Look at our Movement today: Those experiments morphed into expressions of
Judaism that awakened and changed the status quo.
Israel's most beloved voices, Arik Einstein, was silenced two weeks ago. He
woke up the Jewish world by giving us such songs as Ani
V'atah N'shaneh et Ha-olam - "I and You Will Change the World." But write the word atah with an ayin, not an aleph - you
still get ani v'atah, but with a
different meaning: "I and now" can
change the world. When is the right time for renewal? Now! We must all be the
"I" who take advantage of it. The work of renewal is always, or should be, the
job of the next generation that dares to stand up and say "I." Our job is to
encourage them to take that responsibility.
Each of today's
teens, like biblical teens, is unique. Genesis is filled with adolescents
trying to find themselves through the painful struggle of spiritual, emotional,
physical, and moral growth. So also today: Our youth need communities that are
safe, accepting, vibrant, joyful, and grounded in Jewish spiritual values. And
our offerings must stretch across the widest spectrum to draw in Rachel and
Leah, as well as Joseph and all his brothers.
Let me be
specific: Currently there are around half a million young Jews between the ages
of 13 and18 in North America. Most of them are not actively involved in Jewish
life. When we were together in Washington, D.C., two years ago, we squarely
faced the staggering statistic that 80 percent of our Movement's young people are
out the door by 12th grade. I pledged to you then that our number one priority
would be to turn that wide scale disaffection into deep engagement.
So what are we
have an exciting announcement. The innovative and influential Jim Joseph
Foundation funded a rigorous process of mapping the field of Jewish youth
engagement, testing our new thinking with leaders from across our Movement and
beyond. Our new Jewish future is under way. You will have an opportunity to
hear more about the next chapter of our Campaign
for Youth Engagement at the Forum session tomorrow and, especially, during
our Sunday plenary. But here are the headlines:
We are integrating, expanding, and deepening all our youth programs,
including our 14 phenomenal overnight
camps, NFTY, and our Israel
programs into 12-month-a-year, offerings with on-ramps for every teen,
including those whose families are not members of a URJ congregation.
We are expanding NFTY to include 6th, 7th and
8th graders so we can partner with congregations, providing
students with a vital bridge to post-b'nai mitzvah involvement.
Why should our
youth have to choose between science and religion, academics and Jewish values?
Our gateways into Jewish life include service learning, leadership, deep
learning, social justice, arts, sports, technology, and more, all of which take
place over the course of hours, days, weekends, summers, or even longer, here
in North America and in Israel. Why? Let me say this as firmly as I can: We're
not going to let go of any of our kids.
camps and congregations more deeply to each other can be transformative, as
Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, CA, has demonstrated by redrawing the map of
religious education for families and students, and making Camp Newman one of the primary sites for
ongoing family learning and living. Across North America, a growing number of
our synagogues are forging similar connections with our camps.
truly engaging our youth is a perfect example of something that even our best
congregations cannot do by themselves. The B'nai Mitzvah Revolution,
jointly led by the URJ and HUC-JIR, is, therefore, convening our congregations
to uncover, identify, and create model bar/bat mitzvah experiences that
successfully crescendo into continued involvement and growth. Even when b'nai mitzvah
ceremonies are moving and inspiring, if they don't connect our young people to
their next step, we can't call them successful. Pediatric Judaism will not
engage our youth or their parents. Judaism with depth and relevance will.
Har Hashem in
Boulder, CO, felt that b'nai mitzvah students spent too much time learning to
decode and chant prayers, so they added a new curriculum that emphasizes God-wrestling
and text studies that undergird hands-on projects of tikkun olam. The Mitzvoteinu
program at Knesset Israel in Elkins Park, PA, requires students to take on
social action commitments and then create a presentation - film, writing,
speech, or any medium they choose - to illustrate why they believe the activity
is part of becoming a Jewish adult. Almost 100 congregations are working
together to reboot everything they do with b'nai mitzvah students and families so
that bar and bat mitzvah mark the beginning of lifelong Jewish journeys.
piece of rebooting this system will be to attract, train, and retain a new
generation of well-educated, innovative youth professionals. We must reboot,
not just retool, transform, not just tinker. Toward that end, we need massive
doses of investment, and I am excited to announce that our vision and programs
are attracting them. We owe much to the Jim
Joseph Foundation, the Marcus
Foundation, the Crown Family
Philanthropies, and a growing number of generous individuals who are
investing in our vision of a vibrant Jewish future constructed on a scale never
But we also
owe so much to many of you in this room today. Your congregations are our most
committed partners, driving the work of the URJ and HUC-JIR in shaping a
stronger future, investing funds and creativity into Reform Jewish life,
because you share this vision of a bold, audacious tomorrow. And many of you
individually offer your financial support to our work through the Fund for Reform Judaism. We are deeply grateful;
I am deeply grateful. We simply can't do it without you.
So, what does
real change look like?
To seize an
historic opportunity for synergy, we are deepening our partnership with HUC-JIR.
So much of our shared future is in forging new leadership. Toward this end, we
will be moving many of our New York-based URJ youth professionals downtown to
the first floor of HUC's Greenwich Village campus.
visionaries of our new youth strategy are going to interface every day with
HUC's students, faculty, and administrators on all three North American campuses.
As the college assertively recruits our future rabbis, cantors, educators, and
youth and communal professionals, the URJ youth initiatives will create a much
wider pool of future leaders. No more silos, no more moving on parallel tracks
toward the same goals. The biggest challenges of Jewish life cannot be tackled
separately, but must be faced together.
The recent Pew
study of Jewish Americans offers us a snapshot of reality, a close-up look at
many trends - but it does not contain conclusions or remedies. Trends are a
wake-up call, not our destiny. In the 1930s, the Reform Movement was shrinking,
but in 1937, we repositioned ourselves to be more open to traditional Jewish
practices and to no longer oppose Jewish nationalism. In 1951, we moved our
headquarters to the center of the North American Jewish population in New York.
These shifts changed everything! We adjusted our concept of who we are and what
was needed to strengthen Jewish life. That repositioning allowed us to grow
dramatically, making us, over the past half-century, the fastest-growing
theologically liberal denomination of any religion in North America. And this growth
is reflected in the Pew report, which finds that we are not just the largest
stream of American Jewry, but larger than all the other streams combined. We
must be as open to reinventing ourselves today as in the past.
To realign our
priorities, just yesterday we closed on the sale of one of our two floors at
633 Third Avenue in NYC, to reinvest our own assets from bricks and mortar to
people. So, we're taking a million dollars of our own funds from the sale, to
supplement the major foundation grants we have received, to kick-start our
dramatic redrawing of the map of youth engagement for the 21st century.
Genesis teaches that all human
encounters can reveal wisdom and holiness.
first book of the Torah, God speaks to our ancestors through the people they
meet, in the holy moments that unfold at every turn. Abraham is blessed by
Melchitzedek, Rebecca is the answer to Eliezer's prayer at the well, and an
unidentified man called Ish guides Joseph to his brothers.
We, too, must
be open to hearing truths from those we meet, remembering that we hold no monopoly
That's why I
met recently with Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a cherished member of the Lubavitcher
Rebbe's inner circle, who now has the responsibility of overseeing Chabad's
we sat down in his office at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, Rabbi Krinsky
leaned forward and asked, "Rabbi Jacobs, can we be frank?" I said yes, not sure
where he was going. "Why are you so busy trying to get more people into your
Reform Movement? After all, you don't care about kashrut, you don't care about
Shabbat, and you don't care about mitzvot, so what are you so busy doing?"
I responded, "Rabbi
Krinsky, we care about kashrut, we care about Shabbat, we care about mitzvot;
we just care differently. My job," I told him, "is exactly the same as yours: to
try and bring more and more people close to the sacred core of Jewish life."
work for the URJ, your congregations, and our Movement going forward is to
bring more and more people close to the sacred core of Jewish life.
will require all of us, and I mean all
of us, to get clear, aligned, strategic, and busy collaborating so that we can
seize this moment in Jewish history - it is a moment that will never come again.
The Pew survey
tells us something crucial about Orthodox Judaism. In spite of the many
Orthodox outreach efforts, including Chabad, to bring less observant Jews into
greater observance, the data reveal no real success. Modern and ultra-Orthodox
Jews finally now appear to be growing in number because, for the first time in
a century, they are retaining their members and growing their ranks with large
cohorts of children born and educated within. But otherwise, the trend is
decidedly away from Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism - toward Reform.
those who would say the trend is from more observance to less, from deep and
serious about Judaism to entertaining a passing fancy for it, as if Reform is a
watered-down "something else." Butlook around you. Have 5,000 people come to
this convention because we believe in doing less, caring less, achieving less,
or being less? We came because we want to do more.
Our Judaism is
for everyone. Our Judaism is inclusive, egalitarian, intellectually rigorous,
joyful, passionate, spiritual, pluralistic, constantly evolving and relevant. Soul
elevating spiritual practice, life-altering Torah study, courageous practice of
tikkun olam, loving care for our
community, especially the most vulnerable--that's what we are. Just look at
this Biennial if you want to see Judaism that is all of the above and more. I
believe with the very fiber of my being that young Jews are hungry, but not for
a Judaism frozen in a distant time, no matter how loving and warm the purveyors
- including Chabad, in particular - might be.
We have what
people are looking for, but we've been reticent to get out and say so, partly
because we have yet to articulate an audacious vision of what the world can
become. God bless Chabad and other outreach organizations for getting out there
and sharing their beautiful expressions of Judaism with those who are
interested. But theirs must not be the only voices defining Judaism. It's time
to speak our minds. Let's be clear about who we are and what we have to say.
that our understanding of Judaism is right: that God did not literally hand
down sacred laws in the Bible and the Mishnah at Sinai, but rather that from our
encounter with the Divine, Jews have written our sacred texts, striving to
understand in their own time what God called them to do. That process has continued through the
centuries, and it continues today. We are not the way out, but the way in, the
way to being fully Jewish and modern, Jewish and inclusive, Jewish and
universal, Jewish and compassionate, Jewish and deeply committed also to
science, the arts, and the human community in its constant evolutionary spiral
toward sustaining the planet and bettering life for everyone who lives upon it.
In fact, we
have already begun to get the word out. Even five years ago, had you Googled words
related to Judaism, you would never have found us. We weren't anywhere near the
top of the search results. So one year ago, the URJ created an outward-facing
website called ReformJudaism.org, and
we are now regularly at the top of the first page of Jewish Google searches. Last
month, 116,000 people visited our site. This year, more than half a million
individuals who came looking for Jewish substance found it with us. At
ReformJudaism.org, seekers are asked if they want to connect to one of their
local Reform congregations.
The time is
long overdue for us to stop using Orthodox Jewish practice as the baseline
against which we define our own Jewish practice. We can affirm the authenticity
of other Jewish practices without conceding Jewish authenticity to them alone. Our
Judaism is appealing to everyone, those from more traditional backgrounds, no
Jewish backgrounds, Jews by religion, Jews by culture, and Jews by affinity. We
will amply nourish all who are hungry for meaning.
Genesis teaches, in our contemporary
terminology, that social justice is not a politically partisan concept, but a
critical part of what God requires of all of us.
At the very
beginning of Jewish history, Abraham can't abide injustice. When the rights of
others are being trampled, Abraham cannot be silent, even if it means calling
the Holy One to task: hoshpeit kol
ha'aretz lo ya'aseh mishpat, "Will not the judge of all the earth deal
justly?" This statement is arguably the
most defining religious imperative of our ancient covenant.
powerful leadership of our remarkable Religious Action Center, our Movement also
has been at the forefront of the struggle for the freedom to marry, as well as to
pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban employment
discrimination against those in the LGBT community - and which passed in the
Senate last month. And in the wake of the horrific carnage in Newtown, CT, our
Movement gathered religious communities together from across the entire
religious spectrum to say God is weeping, not only at the death of innocent
children and their teachers, but also because of our collective unwillingness
to contain the epidemic of gun violence in America. All of these actions make
our historic core values real in the world.
Our sacred job
is to make sure that every society in which we live cares for the poor, the
vulnerable, and the forgotten. We can join political debates about how to care
for the least among us, but we are forbidden to let politicians alone determine
Heschel's definition of Jewishness must always be ours: A Jew is a person whose
integrity decays when unmoved by the knowledge of a wrong done to other people.
that represent the consensus views of those in our synagogues (according to the
polls) and the leadership of our Movement (as represented by our official
policies passed at our North American conventions and board meetings), have
taken a progressive approach to the issues confronting America. But, liberals
have no monopoly on authentic Jewish values nor on concern for social justice. And,
we must always be respectful of those in our Movement who hold differing
political or social justice views. Their voices need to be heard as we shape
our positions and - as with every page of the Talmud, which recorded minority
as well as majority opinions because eliu
v'eilu, these and these were the words of the living God - we, too, must be
open to learning from each other.
It is no
wonder that every poll of American Jews shows that commitment to social justice
is one of, if not the most, common expression of Jewish identity among North
American Jews - and can be a uniquely effective gateway to reach the
unaffiliated and bring them back into Jewish life. No stream of Judaism
understands better than we do that a Judaism that does not speak to the great
moral issues in the lives of our young people or the great moral issues of the
world they will inherit from us will fail to capture the imagination,
engagement, and loyalty of the next generation.
Genesis describes a Jewish landscape
that is devoid of Jewish institutions while ours is cluttered with Jewish
institutions vying for relevance.
Now let me say
this loudly and from the depths of my being: I believe in the centrality of the
synagogue. For 2,500 years, Jews have gathered in these remarkably enduring
institutions. Even as synagogues have changed constantly, they are built on the
core pillars of Jewish commitment. In the first century, synagogues served as
courtrooms, schools, and hostels, as well as places for political meetings,
social gatherings, and communal meals and worship, as well as for dispensing justice
and freeing slaves. Synagogues didn't always have classrooms or school wings or
Judaica shops or youth lounges, but they have always been places for the Jewish
community to do its most important work as a bet midrash (house of study), bet
tefilah (house of prayer) and bet
knesset (house of assembly).
That said, in
the new Jewish landscape, we must be more than a network of congregations. We
are the Union for Reform Judaism, linking together a host of the most essential
and engaging institutions in Jewish life. Together we can enrich the larger
Jewish ecosystem so that we are nurturing and connecting with individuals
before they are likely to feel attached and responsible for congregations.
that, with our partners at Taglit
Birthright Israel, we are kindling a Jewish spark in so many of these young,
unconnected Jews. But we must take that spark and fan it into a flame.
we know that young Jewish adults are not likely to join congregations until
they are settled - a process that stretches over more years than ever before. Compared
to previous generations, young adults wait longer to partner and to have
children - if they partner and have children at all. Even with children, they
do not automatically join synagogues.
What are we
doing about it?
The URJ has begun to partner with congregations and
focus on connecting families with young children to early childhood programs in
congregations, which is about a third of our URJ synagogues. For the rest of
our congregations, we have begun to build new bridges to families with young
Our partnership with PJ Library and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation keeps growing and
increases our ability to find those unconnected young families living in our
neighborhoods. The time is long past for us to expect these families to find
A 2010 study
by Brandeis University's Mark Rosen outlined the high significance of the first
years of a child's life in cementing family patterns and friendships. New
parents are at a life stage when they are particularly open to connecting with
other Jewish families and the Jewish tradition. This stage provides one of our
greatest opportunities to connect Jewish young adults to each other and then to
our congregations. This is the time when they are most asking if Judaism will
live in their homes, be an anchor in the rhythm of their family's life.
This is the
time when many of us made our closest friends with the parents of our
children's nursery school buddies. This opportunity motivated Temple Beth El in
Charlotte, N.C, to create a program this fall called The Porch, to reach beyond
their walls to attract young adults and young families to come together as a
Jewish community. After hearing repeatedly from young adults on either side of
the parenthood divide that friendships were often "lost" when one had children,
they created The Porch, with programs in three distinct spheres: events geared
toward kids; events geared toward adults; and hybrids with everyone together. Friendships
are formed, families and individuals connect, and lives beat to the rhythm of
Jewish time. And yes, there is a new doorway in for dozens of future members
who are forming bonds that will pay spiritual dividends for all. As the ancient
rabbis taught, "What is learned in early childhood is absorbed in the blood." (Avot
de Rabbi Natan 24)
a crucial part of the 21st-century Jewish landscape, but they are
not islands unto themselves; they are connected to day schools, early childhood
centers, day and overnight camps, federations, Hillels, Birthright and the
wider webs of engagement and connection. The URJ has a vital role to play in connecting
the crucial institutions of Jewish life to strengthen the wider ecosystem from
which our congregations will be nourished.
Genesis teaches us that no matter where
we live, we are bound to the land of Israel.
our matriarchs and patriarchs lived part of their lives in the land of Israel
and also sojourned outside the land. Were it not for Joseph's inspired public
policy leadership in his elevated position in the superpower of the day, the
Jewish people and our homeland might not have survived. There has been interdependence
between the Diaspora and Israel from the start. In this current moment, the
paradigm of Jewish life is moving toward a more globally interdependent world
Jewish community that shares responsibility with the State of Israel for the
preservation and regeneration of the Jewish people wherever they may live. In
Toronto, the new paradigm unfolds with Israeli shinshinim, pre-army teens spending the year working to connect the
Leo Baeck Day School, Camp George, and our Reform
congregations into a network of Israel engagement.
In recognition of that shared
obligation, Betty and Arthur Roswell are enabling us to meet the needs of
emerging, young, global Jewish leaders who hunger for meaningful experience and
learning. Our K'lal Yisrael and Lech Lecha Fellowships will expand our world
Jewry and Israel engagement work in unprecedented ways. These intensive programs
will nurture and educate young people and, each year, build a cadre of leaders who
possess a strong commitment to Reform Judaism, to Jewish peoplehood, and to
We are honored
that on Sunday morning, we will hear about and discuss with Prime Minister
Netanyahu the serious security threats facing the Jewish State and the
critically important peace process. The security concerns that Israel faces are
of the utmost concern to all of us. Let us never forget. Israel still remains
surrounded by forces that, if they believed they could militarily destroy her,
they would not hesitate to do so. Only Israel's strength, enhanced by American
support, prevents this outcome. At the same time, we remain deeply committed to
the proposition that a real peace process that brings about a viable
Palestinian state and secure borders for Israel is indispensible for Israel's
security and well-being, even as it is for Palestinian political aspirations
and for U.S and Canadian foreign policy interests throughout this volatile, but
vital region. We continue to hold that while Israel cannot control what the
Palestinians do, it must ensure that through its own policies and actions, it
must not act to undercut the prospects for peace. Settlement expansion
threatens such goals.
I have no
doubt that the Prime Minister will address the pressing issue of Iran. We
support the efforts of the international community to find a non-military
solution to the very real threat of a nuclear Iran. The next few months will be
critical. But let us be clear: all options, including the military option, and
the certainty of additional sanctions, should the negotiations fail, must
remain on the table lest critical sources of pressure on the Iranians to enter
and hold to a diplomatic solution be dissipated.
from the Vice President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Israel,
we are blessed to know of insights of key leaders charged to respond to this
We also will hear
from and speak to the Prime Minister about his commitments to make the Western
Wall finally a place where every member of the Jewish people can pray according
to her or his custom and conscience. I have worked closely with Natan Sharansky
and the Israeli cabinet secretary to move this historic opportunity forward. Being
a strong, courageous Movement means that we are busy shaping our Jewish world
with our audacious commitments.
And tonight I
can share that with our Conservative Movement and Women of the Wall partners, we are close to
agreements with the Israeli government that will physically reshape that
holiest of Jewish sites, and for the first time give us roles in overseeing the
pluralistic Judaism that will be proudly and publicly practiced there.
Our own Anat
Hoffman is most responsible for keeping the Jewish world focused on addressing
the lack of an egalitarian option at the Kotel, even though the majority of the
world's Jews are non-Orthodox. She is a courageous and tireless Reform Jewish
leader who has awakened world Jewry to the need to make Israel home for every
member of the Jewish people, starting with that venerable retaining wall of the
The Kotel is
symbolically important, but our appetite for pluralism and religious freedom
extends way beyond those ancient stones. The time is long overdue for equality
to reign throughout the State of Israel. Because of our deep love for and
commitment to the ideals of the Jewish State, we insist on equality, not just
at the Western Wall, but also in rabbinical courts, under the bridal canopy, at
funerals, in conversions, and in the founding and funding of our congregations.
It cannot be
that the great ingathering of the exiles will result in the only democratic
state in the world that formally discriminates against the majority of the
Judaism is, of course, a legitimate choice for those who chose it, but it must
no longer be the default position of the Jewish State. That does neither Judaism
nor the State a service, quite the contrary.
Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism is flourishing. Israelis are
discovering that they have a choice, an inspiring choice, when it comes to
living Jewish lives of authenticity and relevance. Tomorrow morning, our
Movement's new Israel Commission will meet for the first time, bringing
together every part of our Reform family that works to strengthen our bonds to
the Jewish State and helps to nurture pluralistic, vibrant Judaism - radiating
light for all.
We are at a
tipping point. With the activism and support of this powerful North American Movement,
we will yet see transformative change in the practice of Judaism in the Jewish
We don't speak
as supplicants, but rather as partners in this redemptive, revitalizing project
of the Jewish people. The bonds that link Israel and the Diaspora are mutually
strengthening, and must grow even deeper. We will not stop and we will not be
Genesis reminds us over and over again
that we're not home yet.
We live in an
unredeemed world that we are commanded to repair through small and large deeds
of healing. Our sacred job is to bring more and more people close to the very
core of Jewish life. In the coming years, I believe we can, and we must, grow
and deepen our Movement. If we just grow larger but not deeper, we will be big
but shallow, a mile wide and an inch deep. If we grow deeper but not larger, we
will matter greatly but only to a smaller and smaller circle, a silo rather
that a movement.
Are we done? Have
we finished reimagining the Jewish future and rebooting the URJ? Of course not;
the work is ever ongoing. But we dare not lose sight of all the strengths and
blessings of this remarkable Movement of ours.
At the end of
each section of Torah we say: chazak, chazak,
v'nitchazek - be strong, be strong and be strengthened. We are living at a
time when the Jewish people is moving from one chapter to the next in the great
saga of our people. We look back on what we have achieved since the founding of
Reform Judaism and we recognize the enormity of our accomplishments and the
multitude of strengths we have brought to Jewish life.
With all the
enormous challenges we face, this is, paradoxically, a Golden Age of the Jewish
people. The Jewish State has been reborn and is a powerful democracy living out
the destiny of the Jewish people. And here in North America, more synagogues,
more Jewish start-ups, more Jewish camps, more courses of Jewish study, more
Jewish PhDs, more Jewish books, more Jewish music, dance, art, and literature are
being created, and more people, adults and the young, are visiting Israel than
at almost any other period in Jewish history. We have more Jews living in
democratic nations that have given us more freedoms, more rights, more
opportunities than we have ever known outside the land of Israel.
So indeed, I
say to you at this beginning of a new chapter of Jewish life: chazak chazak v'nitchazek. Be strong, be
strong, and let us all strengthen each other. Look to the future with
confidence, for ours is an awesome agenda.
tremendous waves cresting all around us, my friends, and I, for one, refuse to
sit on the shore in fear and trembling. This is our moment. It's time to for us
to ride the biggest waves with newfound skill and balance.
Let's get busy
igniting souls with the fire of our lived Torah and connect them to one another
in vibrant communities as we shape a world of compassion, wholeness, joy, and
justice. And then, truly, you and I together, we can change the world and
through the work of our hands, bring closer the day when we will live out God's
promise: - "through you all of the
families of the earth will be blessed."
May that be
the blessing of our gathering, the blessing of the work of our communities, and
the blessing of our lives.