by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Brooklyn Board of Trustees Meeting, June 11, 2010
URJ Board meeting, Brooklyn, NY
Erev Shabbat Sermon, June 11, 2010
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President
A man travels to Israel. Upon his return, his friend asks: In a word, how is Israel?
His reply: In a word, good.
OK, his friend says, in two words, how is Israel?
His reply: Not good.
What is true of Israel is true for our world, right now. And it is certainly true for our Jewish world. We live in a time of strife and uncertainty on so many levels.
But we Jews also know how to find comfort and peace. We find it in the synagogue. We find it in Shabbat. We find it in prayer.
There is an old story about a rabbi who sees Groucho Marx in a hotel lobby. He approaches him, introduces himself, shakes his hand, and says: Thank you, Groucho, for bringing so much joy into the world!
Well, thank you, rabbi, Groucho replies, for taking so much joy out of it.
That is an old story because what was apparently the joyless Judaism of Grouchos youth is not our Judaism today. Ours is a Judaism of song, of community, of inspiration, of togetherness. Ours is a Judaism of this joyous Shabbat service, with the spiritual peace and the repose that it brings.
What I would like to do on this Erev Shabbat is to say a few words about Brooklyn. This Union board meeting is something of an historic occasion because we have searched our records and we could not find a single instance of the Union board ever having met in Brooklyn before. And for me, personally, being in Brooklyn has special meaning. Whenever I am here and I have spoken here occasionally over the years I am reminded that I came close to spending most of my life in Brooklyn.
In 1976, when I was in my first pulpit as the assistant at Temple Emanuel in Lynbrook, Long Island, I was invited to interview for the position of Associate Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim also know as The Garfield Temple here in Brooklyn. I was told that Rabbi Eugene Sack was thinking of retiring, and the congregation wanted an Associate Rabbi who could succeed Rabbi Sack. I gave a sermon at the Friday evening Shabbat service, and then returned to meet with the Temple leadership at a German-Jewish club in the area. A few days later the offer of a position was officially made. I was intrigued, and very tempted.
Beth Elohim is a historic synagogue, at that point nearly 120 years old. It has two beautiful and exceedingly impressive landmark buildingsits sanctuary and its Temple House. Most important for me was Rabbi Sack, an extraordinary rabbi and a man of dignity, gentleness, and quiet charismaa rabbi that I admired and respected, and from whom I knew that I would learn a great deal.
But after a few days of reflection, I turned the offer down. It had nothing to do with Beth Elohimwhich is a great congregation and, to say the least, did just fine without me. I turned it down because I did not want to be in Brooklyn. When the time came for a decision, I could not imagine myself living and working here.
Looking back at this after 34 years, it occurs to me that there were two primary reasons for my thinking.
First of all, I saw Brooklyn as a place of the past. Young Jews were leaving for the suburbs, and I assumed they would leave Brooklyn behind. Remember that I was then serving a congregation in Lynbrook Lynbrook is Brooklyn backwards, named by refugees from Brooklyn who were searching for more space for their families. Brooklyn, in short, was a place that you came from, and not a place that you went to.
And being a place of the past in my mind meant that I saw it in Jewish terms as an Orthodox place as Williamsburg and Borough Park writ large; as home to many small and poor Orthodox shtiblech; as a shtetl that, even if you werent religious, was a place of narrowness, ethnicity, and immigrant culture.
Three weeks ago I was in Chicago, talking with a rabbi of roughly my age whom I have known for 30 years. A third colleague came up to us and said: Did you know that your friend here is a Brooklyn boy? In fact, I didnt know that, and I dont think from his tone that he meant it as a compliment. He was really saying: Can you imagine that someone who grew up in the Brooklyn shtetl has become so urbane and sophisticated?
But the problem with this line of thinking is that it was wrong. It was wrong because I was mostly dealing in stereotypes. It was wrong because Brooklyn was always a large, dynamic, and vibrant place; it is a huge borough of more than 70 square miles, breathtakingly diverse, and with 2.5 million people, the most populous borough in New York. And I was wrong because I completed missed what was happening in Brooklyn. I didnt see the gentrification that was underway. I didnt see the civic and Jewish Renaissance that was beginning even then, in the mid-1970s. I didnt see the return of young people, in large numbers, to some parts of Brooklyn. I didnt see what would become a true revival here among non-Orthodox Jews. I didnt see that just as there had been shtiblech before there would be shtiblech againexcept that this time they would not be Orthodox and they would not be poor, but they would be made up of young Jews, many of them hungry for Jewish meaning, even if they didnt know what that meant.
I didnt see, in short, that Brooklyn was not the past, it was the future. And that reaching the young urban Jews who populated its neighborhoods would be one of the great challenges for our congregations, for our Movement, and for the Jewish communityan enormously difficult challenge, it should be said, without easy answers, and one that our synagogues have been heroically undertaking, with at least some measure of success. In 1976, I missed all of this, although in my defense, I was only 29 years old at the time.
It is surely our task at the Union to observe what our congregations are doing here, to learn from them, and also to figure out what our role might be. For all these reasons, the North American leadership of Reform Judaism is very happy to be here, in Brooklyn, for the first time, joined by rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, and members of our Brooklyn synagogues.
There was a second, completely different reason why I decided not to come to Brooklyn back then. I associated Reform Judaism in Brooklyn with Classical Reform Judaism, in the German mode. When I came to preach a sermon at Beth Elohim, there were no yarmulkes that I could see and the service was almost completely in English. And when I met with the Temple leadership a few days later, they spoke proudly of their Classical Reform heritage. All of this made me uneasy. I was a New England boy, and I had grown up in a Reform congregation where the worship services were primarily in Hebrew, virtually all of the men wore yarmulkes (as we then called them), and where we observed two days of Rosh Hashanah and the major festivals. My attitude toward Classical Reform was dismissive. How, I wondered, could I be a rabbi in a congregation whose practices and beliefs were so distant from my own?
But looking back, I see that once again, I was wrong. I was not wrong in noting the strength of Classical Reform traditions here, or in my sense that history was moving us in different directions. But I was wrong in failing to accord Classical Reform Judaism a far greater measure of respect; and, more important, I was wrong in failing to see how much of my own Jewish worldview was a product of Classical Reform principles.
We Reform Jews love to divide ourselves into camps, the most prominent being traditional versus classical. But I have come to understand that the line between the two is not as sharp as some would have us believe.
Classical Reform Judaism puts universal ethics and intellectual rigor at the center of modern Judaism, and these values remain an integral part of who we are as a Reform Movement. Resting on a foundation of rationalism, it is unapologetically cerebral. It also attaches special importance to thoughtful, well-prepared preaching, and expects rabbis to deliver the message of Israel with clarity and oratorical skill.
Classical Reform also graces our congregations with an enduring aesthetic sensibility. As Rabbi David Posner has pointed out, the defining characteristic of Reform Judaism in the 19th century was not the absence of head coverings but wonderful music: powerful and awe-inspiring pieces for choir and organ scored by some of Europes greatest composers or their students, many of whom were Jews. While we now think of that music as classical, for Jews of that era it was very contemporary and a radical break from what was then accepted synagogue practice. There are not many of our synagogues that still make use of organs and choirs in the Classical Reform style, but a small number remain. From time to time I hear the majesty of the great Classical Reform hymns, which I remember very fondly from my childhood, and I am filled with praise for those who care so deeply about the dignity of our worship.
Today, of course, we live in an era in which both rabbinic preaching and liturgical music are much less formal than they once were. We rabbis rarely give structured sermons anymore; we tell stories, because that is what our members want. And far more emphasis is given today to Jewish peoplehood and the State of Israel, and to matters of ritual practice and Jewish living. These, I am quick to say, are all trends that I have enthusiastically endorsed. Nonetheless, Classical Reform Jews bring a great deal to the Reform mix. Our commitment to reason and to ethics is the fruit of their efforts. Their devotion to beauty and decorum in Reform prayer still guides us, even if it is resisted by some and expressed differently by others. And the Pittsburgh Platformthe defining statement of Classical Reform principlesis as relevant today as when it was issued in 1885. It is important to remember that the centrality of social justice in modern Reform Judaism flows directly from the concluding section of that Platform.
Why do I mention this now? Because being here in Brooklyn, where Classical Reform Judaism was a powerful influence, I feel an obligation to acknowledge my own errors.
But that is not the only reason.
This year, 2010, marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of Reform Judaism in Germany. This is an anniversary that has not received the attention it should. We live in turbulent times, after all, and we are understandably inclined to focus on the issues and challenges of the moment. But as liberal Jews, it seems to me that there is no way to comprehend the richness of our own liberal tradition without a sure sense of how it came into being, and without an awareness of how the values that inspired it continue to inspire us today. And so, this is a good time, I believe, to offer words of appreciation for the vibrant and revolutionary Judaism that our Reform founders worked so diligently to create. Let us join together in celebrating this important milestone, and let us pay tribute together to Classical Reform Judaisms enduring influence.
I thank all of you for travelling to be with us, from near or far, and I wish each of you a Shabbat Shalom.