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September 5, 2015 | 21st Elul 5775

Rabbi Rick Jacobs' Opening Plenary Speech

I am honored to be with all of you; thank you for inviting me. As a denominational leader serving as your "Scholar-in-Residence," I could feel a bit out of place, kind of like a Yankees fan at Fenway or Camden Yards because, for a very long time, the Federation world and the synagogue world were rivals. But no longer. No, today we face so many common challenges that we are wise to put our heads together to forge a path toward a bright Jewish future.

And we are all-Federation and synagogue leaders alike-asking the same questions: Why aren't our young people more like us? Why aren't they joining synagogues? Why don't they give to their Federations? Why don't they stand up for Israel? Why don't they go to Hillel? In short, why can't they be dedicated and committed Jews just like us?

These are not new questions. Since Abraham and Sarah, the drama and uncertainty remain: Will the next generation take its rightful place in the chain of tradition? Will our children care? Will they shoulder their share of Jewish responsibility? As this week's Torah portion opens, there is no next generation. Isaac and Rebecca are panicked that the divine promise will expire with them, but sure enough, they are blessed with progeny: 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, all of us, and yet they remain a giant question mark in the ongoing saga of our people.

We who are blessed to serve as the leaders of the organized Jewish world are like Rebecca and Isaac; we're wondering what to do with our young-how to help them understand the majesty of our tradition, the power of our values, and the strength of our community. We know that the majority of Jewish youth in their teens, 20s and 30s are not jumping on board the Jewish bandwagon. The recent Pew Study, "NONES on the Rise," found that a growing number of our young, like those of other faiths, are NONES, people with no religious affiliation. Many of us in this hall believe most of these NONES don't know and don't care about being Jewish, but it's not that simple. Some don't care much at all, but others do care, even deeply, about their Jewish identity and spirituality. What they have in common is this: they have not found - we have not shown them - compelling, vital Jewish institutions that are relevant to their lives.

In our parasha, Esau pleads with his brother to feed him "Kee Ayef Anochi"-because he's famished. Esau is a NONE. He parts with his family's sacred inheritance; it means nothing to him. He fills his belly with lentil stew, but perhaps he hungers for more than food? Whether he recognizes is it or not, Maybe he's hungry for meaning and purpose. Maybe he's trying to figure out what matters to him because the standard fare of Jewish life isn't very satisfying.

So too, a couple of verses later we read, "VaYehi Ra'av Ba'aretz-there was a famine in the land." This isn't the first time. Shortly after Abraham and Sarah arrive in Canaan, before they can even unpack and get settled in their new surroundings, we are told "Va'yehi Ra'av B'aretz-there was a famine in the land."

In most parts of our Jewish world, our people are not starving or even hungry, at least not for food. But Jews in their 20s and 30s are hungry for meaning and purpose in their lives. And too many of them assume that they will not find what they are seeking in the organized Jewish world.

So often their hunger is for righteousness, to be God's partners in shaping a better and more hopeful world. "You shall be holy, for the Eternal your God is holy," as God commands in Leviticus. And how, does God tell us, can we strive to be like God? How can we manifest that holiness? God's answer speaks as directly to us as it did to the Children of Israel in the wilderness: By feeding the hungry, and removing the stumbling block before the blind; speaking out against injustice and paying the laborer a fair and timely wage; by creating courts of justice and a marketplace that is fair and honest.

Against a secular culture that places each individual at the center of the universe, young Jews want to find a way to connect beyond themselves. Taking responsibility for others lifts us out of the indulgence and narrowness of self, introducing us to a world of meaning and purpose. Tikkun olam is the pathway for most young Jews to live a life of Jewish commitment.

Almost two weeks ago, Hurricane Sandy tore through much of the Northeast leaving death and destruction in its wake. Some lost loved ones, others lost homes or houses of worship, a lot of us lost power--my home is still without--but our communities have once again been blessed by remarkable Federations and synagogues who were prepared at a moment's notice to feed, clothe and shelter countless neighbors. The work of JFNA at so many critical moments can surely inspire the wider Jewish world to join this work of fixing the brokenness in our world.

And the work that you do-the solidarity that you show, young to old, neighborhood to neighborhood-is a model for young people looking for meaning in their Jewish lives. Last spring, the Public Religion Research Institute Survey found that 7 in 10 Jews say that tikkun olam, healing the world and welcoming the stranger, are cornerstones of their Jewish lives, a finding that parallels polling data stretching back three decades or more. By margins of at least 2-1, commitment to social justice remains a more common organizing principle of Jewish identity than support for Israel or Jewish worship. Support is even higher among the targets of our Jewish continuity efforts, the young and the unaffiliated.

Two thousand years ago, the rabbis taught in Pirke Avot that the world stands on three things: Torah (study), avodah (worship) and g'milut hasadim (acts of loving kindness). Embracing a focus on tikkun olam need not, indeed must not, come at the expense of study and worship. For if it did, then as one of our leading teachers on social justice, Leibel Fein, has pointed out, it would require us to answer unanswerable questions.

Which is more Jewish - wearing a kippah or clothing the naked?

Which is more urgent - to feed matzah to our children on Pesach or feed the starving children dying in South Sudan?

Which is the more religious act? To welcome the Sabbath Queen with love, or to welcome the refugee fleeing persecution ? To pray with fervor, with kavanah, or to express our indignation in the face of injustice?

Not only can we choose "both," we are commanded to do so.

The second Lubavitcher Rebbe was once so intent on his Torah learning that he failed to hear the cry of his baby son. His father, Shneur Zalman of Ladi, heard his grandson wailing and went down and took the baby in his arms until he fell back asleep. Then he went to his son, still intent on his books, and said, "My son, I do not know what you are studying, but it is not the study of Torah if it makes you deaf to the cry of a child."

Tikkun olam is universal-not limited to our families or to Jewish people. The 19th century teacher Rabbi Yizhak Meir Alter taught that a stork is called "Chasidah" or kindly one, but is not kosher. Why? Because it will only give food to a creature of its own kind. The lesson here is that limiting goodness and kindness only to ourselves is not the Jewish way.

To be sure, tikkun olam is not only about others. We are profoundly obligated to care for our own people wherever they may be-whether elderly Jews in Coney Island, Russian Jews in Minsk, or Israelis in S'derot facing constant rocket attacks. And make no mistake, tikkun olam is a spiritual practice no less than Torah study and prayer. In fact, Torah study, prayer, and tikkun olam are all bound together.

Later this afternoon, as we do every day, we will pray the words of Aleinu reminding us of our sacred obligations to Am Yisrael, to our Jewish brothers and sisters. But toward the end of the Aleinu we will say "L'taken Olam B'Malchut Shaddai-to repair the world under divine sovereignty." Rav Saadia Gaon's 10th century siddur contains a variant spelling of the word "tikkun;" it is spelled with a caf and not a kuf. This single letter switch changes the meaning from "repair" to "hold together." Maybe this is nothing more than a scribal error, but I love the additional layer his version offers. Besides repairing the world, engaging in tikkun olam is also a powerful force that binds us together.

Each of the religious streams of our community is forging new approaches in how to serve and strengthen our synagogues in reaching all of klal Yisrael. We are - all of us - called to re-imagine Jewish life and I pray that this General Assembly will challenge and inspire us in that task. We will succeed only if we can forge this new Jewish future together. And let's not give up on Jacob or Esau. Or on Amanda, Noga, Svetlana, Eduardo, Jayden, Melissa, and so many other young Jews. They may not express their Judaism as we do, but that does not mean they are lost to us. Programs or gimmicks won't engage them, substance will. That's what they hunger for. Shaping a just and compassionate world has been the backbone of our Jewish tradition for the past three thousand years. Tikkun olam is the largest doorway through which we, our children and grandchildren and generations yet to be, can build Jewish lives of depth and commitment. We've got a badly fractured olam to tikkun. God is counting on us. What are we waiting for?

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