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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776
Boston Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Eric Yoffie at the Boston Biennial

Union of American Hebrew Congregations
66th General Assembly
December 8, 2001 - Boston, MA

2001 Presidential Initiatives

Eric YoffiePerhaps there are Shabbat t'filot that can compare to Shabbat morning at Biennial, but I am not aware of them. This service-like no other- transforms the ordinary into the miraculous and ties us to the collective body of Israel. Who would deny that to pray with 5,000 Reform Jews is to feel part of the great chain of Jewish being?

And if ever we needed the warmth of our community, surely we need it now. What a trying two years it has been! In the last fifteen months alone, we have suffered blow after blow:

  • The loss of Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, the great visionary and dreamer of this Movement, our leader and inspiration for a quarter of a century;
  • Renewed terror in Israel, with dozens dead this past week alone, as once again the Palestinians abandon negotiations and rain violence and death upon Israel;
  • And then, of course, the terrible events of September 11.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon seem so long ago and yet remain so fresh in our minds. We are saddled with images we can't bear to remember but can't permit ourselves to forget. A man stands on a ledge, looks down from a height of ninety stories, pauses, jumps. We watch the long fall. Immediately we are struck by the utter inadequacy of our language to give expression to the horror we see.

What has happened in the last three months is the shattering of the fundamental trust that underpins our daily life. We try, of course, to restore our sense of continuity. Therapists advise us to go back to our daily routines. We reassure our children that everything will be all right.

But from our long history, we Jews know a simple truth: The world is a threatening place where serenity is rare and violence is rampant. And all Americans will now have to live with a greater measure of danger and uncertainty.

Still, in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy, I am struck most of all by what has not changed.

Because we saw, once again, the kindness and caring of the American people. We saw the remarkable heroism of everyday men and women who met the call to serve. We saw Americans rising up instinctively to give what had to be given-contributions, blood donations, embraces, prayers.

And we saw, too, the deep spiritual energy of this country.

When tragedy struck, where did American Jews go? To their synagogues. Our rabbis overcame their own grief and anger to minister to the grief and anger of others. Watching the role that our congregations played in these difficult times made all of our frustrations as synagogue leaders worthwhile.

We were reminded once again that the defining character of a synagogue is not its size or its budget, but whether it provides direction and meaning for those who feel helpless in the face of tragedy and death. We were reminded that our synagogues thrive because they provide us with an anchor of stability-they take the abstract ideals of Torah and turn them into tangible relationships of community and Jewish fellowship.

We witnessed as well the revival of a long-dormant American patriotism. Religious people, Jews included, are wary of a blind devotion to country that can so easily become idolatry. But the resurgence of public spirit that has emerged in recent months has been very different. It has flowed from a feeling of shared destiny and an ethic of service, and has been rooted in tolerance, with President Bush setting the example and leading the way.

We Jews have been caught up in this patriotism, and rightly so. In this week's portion, Joseph receives a coat of many colors; the coat is a sign of favor from his father, who is not ignorant of Joseph's failings but sees his potential for greatness. In like manner, the flag has been America's brilliant dreamcoat, a sign of favor and high ideals, providing comfort and inspiration for a hurting people. It is meaningful symbolism, and Jewish tradition, rich in ritual, understands the value of symbols. I, like many of you, have flown the flag with pride.

So what I see is a determined and resilient American people, and I know that we will cope with our new burdens. My fear is that precisely because we are a great nation, we will cope too well and move on too quickly, allowing those who brought this devastation upon us to escape. And this would be a disastrous error.

Let us make no mistake about the dangers we face. Islamic radicalism is the Nazism of our day. Like German Nazism, it rejects reason, worships death, and abhors freedom; it, too, has a blazing belief in violence and is consumed by hatred of Jews and Judaism.

Islamic radicals and their allies are waging a battle against liberty, democracy, and humanity. This is America's war, and Canada's war, and the war of democratic countries everywhere; it is also the war of the Jewish people. And it will not be won by appeasement, compromise, or social work. It will be won by hunting down and destroying those who seek to destroy us.

The fighting has gone well so far, but we should be under no illusions. The war against terror must continue beyond Afghanistan and beyond bin Laden, and it must be won. And winning will be costly. But the alternative is unthinkable. If the American government loses its nerve or the American people loses its patience, the message to the Arab and Islamic masses will be that the voices of fanaticism have triumphed. The forces of moderation will be everywhere disheartened, the Middle East will be destabilized, and our European allies will rush to make their own deals with the princes of terror. And further attacks on America will surely follow.

Our task, therefore, is to strengthen the hand of the President and to urge him to finish what he has begun.

President Bush deserves our thanks and our support. He has presented American policy in moral terms, saying that any country that commits or shelters terror will be our enemy. He has warned there is no quick fix. He has tried to insure that innocents are not harmed by our military actions. And he has taken on our homegrown fundamentalists by embracing Arab and Muslim Americans, and by condemning Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson when they tried to blame the September 11 attacks on gays, lesbians, and liberals.

The President's policies are a work in progress, and no President-even in wartime-gets a blank check. He has been right to say that in an emergency, restrictions on freedom will be necessary?not to deny basic liberties but to prevent their abuse. But some of the emergency orders he has issued erode our rights without making us safer. So we say to the administration, "Let's not breach the Constitution in ways we will later regret. After all, civil liberties are our strength, not our weakness."

But on balance, I believe the President has acted responsibly and has caught the mood of the country. Therefore, our message to him is, "Your campaign to eradicate the machinery of terror is of vital importance to the well-being of America and the world. 'Chazak ve-ematz...Lo tira v'lo teichat- be strong and of good courage... Do not be afraid or discouraged (Deut.31:7,8).z' We are with you."

And what impact will America?s war have on Israel?

This war is Israel's war no less than it is ours. Fascist terror with a radical Islamic face wants to erase Israel from the map, even if this is not its immediate goal. If the champions of terror survive intact, the jihad that they promise will be a mortal threat to the Jewish state. Therefore, Israel needs to be a steadfast ally of the United States as it pursues this war.

What Israelis want, in turn, is to be reassured that America's fight against terror is determined and universal; that it will oppose terrorist murder not only when the victims are Americans in New York and Washington but also when they are Jews in Haifa and Jerusalem. Israelis want to know that when their civilians are murdered, they can defend themselves without being scolded about "restraint" or chastised for "overreaction."

It is hard to remember a more difficult time for Israel. Outrage follows outrage, atrocity follows atrocity. And last week, once again, we watched Palestinians dancing in the street, celebrating the murder of Jews. Surely there are Palestinians who are decent people and who yearn for peace, but they have been abandoned by the terror chiefs who speak in their name and who send out suicide bombers to target children for death.

Are the Palestinians suffering? Yes, of course. But before we can respond to their suffering, we must prevent suffering and bereavement in our own homes. And when bombs are going off all around us, fear will always be stronger than compassion.

Let there be no misunderstanding. We refuse to lose hope in peace. And we still believe that the key to peace will be two states, Jewish and Palestinian, sharing the Land of Israel, and a negotiated agreement that provides security for both sides. We also thank our government for its strong support of Israel and welcome an American role in the negotiations.

But this we know: while Israel will accept a Palestinian state, it will never accept a terrorist state. Mr. Arafat, it is time to decide. With which part of the family of nations do you want to identity? You can have terrorism or a state, but you cannot have both. And if you choose a state, the only way to get there is to stop the violence and begin to negotiate.

Since September 11, many of us have said, "Americans finally know what it's like to live in Israel." But we don't. As terrible as the attacks here have been, we don't live in a country with hostile neighbors who question our very legitimacy as a nation. We are not targeted daily by suicide bombers who murder innocent civilians in our restaurants and bus stations. We don't have gunmen shooting across the border at residential neighborhoods in our nation's capital.

This is Israel's reality, and because of this reality, Israel needs us now more than ever.

It needs us to combat the falsehoods that so frequently appear in our local papers.

It needs us to visit when we can. We have created a very safe kibbutz-based program for our teenagers next summer, and we ask that you help us to recruit for it now. We are also running a special summer trip that will allow parents to travel to Israel with their children. And we hope that our congregational members will visit in large numbers. Our rabbis are meeting in Israel in March, and many synagogues are offering trips at that time. If you are unable to go then, I invite you to join a national mission with the Board of the UAHC that will leave for Israel on June 9.

Our other major task is to support the institutions of Reform Judaism in Israel. In dangerous times, Israelis do as we do: They look to Jewish tradition for answers and for comfort. And many, seeking to blend tradition and modernity, look to us. The result is a long list of success stories. Jerusalem?s largest Reform synagogue, Kol Haneshama, drew one thousand worshipers on Yom Kippur, and the extraordinary Leo Baeck School in Haifa will open a high school in Jerusalem next year. Please, work with ARZA/WORLD UNION, North America to build Reform Judaism in the Jewish state.

The key is this: We need to send a message of solidarity to our brothers and sisters in Israel. They need to know that the crisis we face here has not blinded us to the dangers they face there. They need to know that we stand with them in defeating the fanatics who endanger their very existence. They need to hear that our embrace of Israel is heartfelt and eternal because we are lovers of Zion in the old-fashioned way.

"The Jewish heart is in the Holy Land," said Yehudah Halevy, meaning our hearts, as well.

Of course, while we work to combat terror and support Israel, we shall not neglect the tasks that our congregations face at home.

As I have said, our synagogues are thriving. At their best they are vibrant and dynamic, stimulating and renewing the Jewish spirit.

This Movement's creative vision is especially apparent in the realm of worship; the worship initiative approved by this Assembly has generated both excitement and change. But in education, too, the renewed energy of Reform Judaism has been given full expression. An insatiable desire for Jewish learning has emerged in our ranks, and our congregations have responded, reviving Torah study on every level.

And so it should be. At the beginning of our history as a people, when the Israelites were still slaves about to flee Egypt, Moses called them together. At that moment, he might have been expected to speak about freedom or preparing for battle. Instead, he emphasized a revolutionary idea: that the Jews must explain the rituals and history of their people to their children?that they must become a nation of educators. Moses understood that while the Jews would need an army to defend their land, they would need schools to preserve their values. And for the next 3,000 years, we built our communities around schools, and as stated in the most famous of all prayers, we took the words that God had commanded us in order to "teach them diligently" unto our children.

Advancing this objective was a major reason for the creation of the Reform Movement in North America. When leaders from twenty-eight congregations gathered in Cincinnati in 1873, they founded a congregational union that would have two primary tasks: establish a college to train rabbis and provide assistance to synagogue Sabbath schools. In the 128 years since that first gathering, both tasks have remained central to our work.

And Reform Sabbath schools, important then, have become even more important today. The one-day schools of 1873 have become two-day schools and in some cases three-day schools. Curricula have been created, textbooks produced, teachers trained.

We know, of course, that Jewish education is not a matter for the classroom alone. It is preeminently an adult endeavor, and the most effective education has always been children imitating what parents do. Also, education is intertwined with every activity of the synagogue; prayer, outreach, and social action all involve the joy and self-discipline of studying sacred texts.

Nonetheless, for much of the last century our religious schools have been the central activity of our synagogues. In any given week from September to May, the number of people who enter the synagogue because of the school far exceeds the number who enter for any other purpose. More people join our synagogues because of religious schools than they do for any other reason. More money is spent on our religious schools than on any other synagogue program. Clearly, then, for many people, our schools are the best opportunity to develop lasting relationships between members and synagogue.

Now for two very hard questions:

Why is it that something as critical to our future as the religious school is so widely perceived to be such a failure?

And why is it that so many of our synagogue leaders have removed themselves from involvement in the religious school? Our volunteer leaders are extraordinary in every way, but most readily admit that they have no idea what is going on in the school.

How could this happen? The answer is that we have fallen victim to the plague of low expectations.

We see that our schools have real problems: limited instruction time, a shortage of teachers, sporadic attendance. But unsure how to help, we shrug our shoulders and say that nothing can be done.

We also know that the school cannot succeed on its own-that it needs the active participation of parents. It also needs the commitment of the entire synagogue, which should be an interdependent learning community of which the school is but one part. But parents do not always give their support, and transforming our synagogues into learning communities is a slow and difficult process.

Let's admit it: Many of our parents look upon religious school as a punishment for being young. Too often in their eyes it is the castor oil of Jewish life, a burden passed from parent to child with the following admonition: "I hated it, you'll hate it, and after your Bar mitzvah, you can quit."

So instead of seeing the school as our most promising vehicle for religious engagement, frequently we see it -parents and temple leaders alike - as a necessary evil. Some argue that we should give up on the religious school. Others say that we already have.

I would note as well the disparaging attitudes of some philanthropic leaders to the educational work of our synagogues. Jewish philanthropists are now funding a multiplicity of educational initiatives, from Israel programs to Jewish camping and day schools. We applaud these efforts and support them all. But for the philanthropists of our Jewish world, I have a proposal: How about a Jewish Marshall Plan for the religious school-the largest Jewish educational program in North America, reaching a quarter of a million Jewish children? What good are all these innovative projects now being funded if our Hebrew schools can't find teachers? Instead of taking potshots at Hebrew schools, how about working with the synagogue movements to energize and revive them?

Of course, a number of far seeing donors and Federation leaders have recognized this need and are helping us to strengthen our schools. Since we are here in Boston, I will mention Barry Shrage and his leadership at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. To them and to others like them, I say thank you on your behalf.

But my most important message is this: We need to do this work ourselves. In the Reform Movement alone, we have 120,000 children in religious school. They need our attention now; we do not have the luxury of waiting for others.

Let the biblical Joseph be our model. In this morning's portion, Joseph interprets the dream of the chief cupbearer, but attaches to his interpretation a practical request: The cupbearer is to mention his name to Pharaoh. Similarly, in next week's reading, Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dreams about the fat and lean cows and the healthy and thin stalks of grain, but then adds practical advice on how to prevent the famine that the dreams appear to predict. In this way Joseph makes clear that the dreams are at most suggestive of what might be; they do not tell us what will be. And they are not to be simply accepted. On the contrary, these chilling predictions are meant to stimulate human action in order to change what the future is expected to bring.

And so it must be for us. Like Joseph, we hear predictions of disaster, and like him, we refuse to accept them as inevitable.

Yes, money is important, but vision and commitment are more important. And like Joseph, we will be supremely practical. Faced with the prospect of hunger in Egypt, he mobilized immediately. Faced with a hunger for Torah and schools adrift, we shall do the same. Like him, we will put forward practical programs of progress and change. We must mobilize ourselves for religious education as we have in the past for the State of Israel and the fight against discrimination.

And we find hope in the fact that so much of this work has already begun.

One of the great ironies of Jewish life is that the Hebrew school, the butt of a thousand jokes, is often not a failure at all. Our educators and rabbis, working under difficult conditions, have frequently succeeded in creating schools that provide supportive community and spiritual connectedness; schools that teach our children both to do Jewishly and to know Jewish things; schools where learning by children is woven into the fabric of synagogue life; in short, schools that have ceased to be holding tanks and have become innovative classrooms breathing with spiritual fervor.

But if every one of our schools is to be a success, there are things that our Movement must do.

First and foremost, we must draw our volunteer leaders into the work of religious education. Our educators are wonderful and learned, but they cannot do this work alone. In virtually every congregation with an outstanding school the most talented lay leaders have devoted themselves to education. Change is most dramatic in those synagogues where temple Boards make the tough educational decisions and where Education Committees do policy and evaluation rather than classroom snacks and fundraising.

The second challenge is finding the best teachers for our children. Our teachers are the motor force of our continuity, the shepherds of young Jewish souls. At their best they are learning and caring Jews and exemplars of Jewish living. But too often we don't know where to find them. Too often, desperate to fill empty slots, we look outside our community and choose those who cannot possibly be role models for our children.

And so what is the answer? We must look to our own synagogue members and the parents of our students. We must create a culture in which spending time in the classroom becomes an obligation of synagogue leadership. Teaching means telling your story; it can be a therapist talking with kids about intermarriage or businesspeople organizing a tzedakah collective. Sometimes it will be just a single session. And we will offer benefits for teachers, such as reduced temple dues. They will need training, to be sure, but the best teachers are those with passion and a deep sense of Jewish purpose who love children and make them feel cared for and respected. Who better than parents and synagogue leaders to do this?

There are 15,000 teachers in Reform religious schools. Since I cannot mention them all, I will mention just one. Dolores Wilkenfeld of Temple Emanu El in Houston?who does not know that I am going to do this-has held virtually every position of leadership in her congregation and Jewish community. She has also been an officer of the UAHC and president of the Women of Reform Judaism. And through it all, for thirty years she has been an engaging and inspirational teacher at her temple, always working her schedule around her kids. Dolores, on behalf of all our teachers, please stand and accept our thanks.

The work of Dolores and our other teachers is a mitzvah that can make the difference between the life and death of Judaism. It needs to be our work as well. Only by supporting teachers, respecting teachers, and being teachers will we succeed in transmitting Jewish wisdom to our children.

We also need to provide our schools with the very best materials-materials that concentrate on text and celebration and that de-emphasize the Holocaust and the history of Jewish suffering.

We need to promote the involvement of families in our schools. All that we do will wither on the vine unless our parents are encouraged to participate, to learn, and to model Jewish living at home.

And we need standards for religious school-flexible standards, to be sure, but standards nonetheless. Even the youngest children should know that Reform Judaism makes demands on us; it does not mean doing whatever you please.

I therefore propose to this Movement that we do as our Reform founders urged us to do in 1873: that we invest in our schools and make the transmission of Torah to our children our highest priority.

To begin this work, the UAHC has joined in partnership with the National Association of Temple Educators and the education faculty of the Hebrew Union College to create a new core curriculum for Reform religious schools. Called the Chai Curriculum, it will provide texts, lesson plans, and teaching materials for grades 2-7, including a full course in Hebrew language. Materials for grades 2 and 3 will be ready for the next school year, and sample lessons are available now. It is a flexible curriculum that allows every congregation to decide at which point to enter and what to use.

This curriculum is addressed as much to parents, lay leaders, and teachers as to children. All are involved in our schools in weaving lives of Torah; all must be seen as learners. Therefore, our curriculum summons them all to exertion and to sacrifice, and I ask this Assembly to affirm this call.

What specifically do we ask?

For parents: Many of our synagogues offer family and parent education; its purpose is to empower parents to reclaim their traditional role as Jewish mentors to their children. The curriculum will provide detailed lesson plans for three family education sessions and three parent education sessions for each grade. I ask this Assembly to adopt this model as a Movement-wide goal, urging all parents to be in school with their children at least six times per year.

For lay leaders: temple Boards and Education Committees must consider how congregations can encourage members to teach. What incentives will be offered? They must decide how education is to be financed. Should we pay for religious school by charging fees to parents or by making it a congregational responsibility? They must be prepared for a serious oversight role in education, visiting other schools for ideas and getting regular feedback from parents. The UAHC will provide handbooks for both temple Boards and Education Committees in order to help them expand their role. I ask you to urge our leaders to use these materials and to involve themselves much more intensively in the realm of education.

For teachers: Since we are asking our own members to teach, teacher education is critical. The UAHC will increase from one to three the number of online courses available for teacher training. We will hold teacher-training events next year in every region and at three of our camps, and we will provide a monitored online bulletin board for teacher discussion of the curriculum. And we will offer free of charge to every congregation a superb video for training new teachers. This is just a start, but my hope is that you will ask our synagogues to embrace these opportunities and to affirm that every teacher should be a learner. Our MUM leadership, by the way, has accepted the principle that all expenses related to teacher training should be exempt from congregational dues.

Upon leaving this service, every Biennial delegate will receive a disk containing the materials I have mentioned. We hope that the work of improving our schools will begin immediately upon your return home.

And I am filled with optimism that we will succeed.

Because Jewish education has not failed in North America; it has simply never been tried.

Because the religious school is the heart of the synagogue, and we cannot be strong unless the school is strong.

Because we really can make a difference. When the synagogue nurtures its school and embraces its children, the children will learn and the school will thrive.

A quality religious school alone cannot guarantee that our children will be Jewish. Every child in our Movement should also attend a Jewish nursery school and a Jewish camp, and participate in a Reform youth group and Israel program. But religious school serves, by far, the largest number of children for the longest period of time. It is the key that opens the door to the grand adventure of Jewish learning and Jewish life. And we will not rest until our schools are a place where our children hear God's voice and see Torah as a tree of life.

A word about day schools. We are especially proud of PARDeS, and of the eighteen Reform Jewish day schools established by the congregations of our Movement; we must double that number in the decade ahead. Reform Judaism now appreciates the tremendous value of the intensive Jewish learning that our day schools provide. My wife and I sent both of our children to day school, and its impact on them was enormous.

At the same time, I am a hardheaded realist in this regard. Day schools will never reach more than a small percentage of non-Orthodox children in North America. More than 80 percent of these children now receive their Jewish education in the congregational schools of the non-Orthodox movements.

This figure is not difficult to explain. Jews remain deeply devoted to the public school system; for many North American Jews, public education is the most hallowed of civic virtues. Another factor is that many who might consider day school cannot afford the tuition, which can run as high as $15,000 per year.

The crippling burden of this tuition has meant that communal funding goes primarily to day schools when it should be going to both day schools and congregational schools. Yet non-Orthodox day school enrollment has still not increased dramatically because the money allocated is still not enough; we simply do not have the resources to make day school available to all who might want it.

This realization has led to another serious error by some community leaders. Since the only other place for help to come from is the government, they have endorsed the campaign for government-financed vouchers for private education. And in so doing, they have compromised the most fundamental values of the broader Jewish community.

Support for vouchers is rarely justified in such parochial terms. Supporters claim that their goal is to help the poor and improve public education by creating competition. But this is disingenuous. You don't assist public schools by taking their funding and putting it elsewhere. You don't help the inner cities by creating a program that will mostly benefit the middle-class and the wealthy. The people who engineer voucher proposals are almost always those with no interest in maintaining the public schools and whose real aim to is secure funding for their own schools. Protestant groups want money for their private academies, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy wants subsidies for its parochial school system. We can now add to the list Jewish organizations that have supported vouchers, or remained silent, hoping to secure funding for yeshivas and Jewish day schools.

I am embarrassed and ashamed when I hear such arguments coming from Jews. The public schools were the ladder that we used to climb from poverty to affluence in American life, and how dare we deny it to others. And I tremble for our nation when I hear the constant drumbeat of attack on our public school system. The public schools take the poor and the handicapped, the abused and the foster children, the Christian and the Muslim, the Roman Catholic and the Jew. They do more of God's work in a day than most institutions do in a lifetime. If our public schools are broken, then let's fix them, but let's not destroy them in the name of a highfalutin principle that is often nothing more than naked self-interest dressed up as caring.

And this too: supporters of vouchers would have us believe that Jews have nothing to fear from a more flexible definition of the First Amendment. Oh, really? What makes America the freest and most stable society in which we Jews have ever lived is a Constitution that is our shelter and sanctuary. It is no accident that the period of dramatic flourishing of American Jewry was marked by great strides in church-state separation. This fundamental American principle made Joe Lieberman possible, and ten Jewish senators and twenty-seven Jewish representatives. And don't tell me that these gains are not being placed at risk. When mainstream groups began supporting the use of taxpayer money to fund religious schools through student vouchers, it was no great leap to propose that federal money also be spent to increase the social services that religious groups provide. The voucher proposal gave us the faith-based initiatives proposal, and we can only imagine what will be next.

This is not a theoretical issue. Next year the Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of school vouchers, and there is an even chance that it will approve them in some form. If that happens, voucher proposals will be presented to state legislatures throughout the country. I propose to this Biennial Assembly that we make known here and now our opposition to school vouchers and proclaim our intention to fight them. I propose that we declare once again our support for public education as the last bastion of true democracy. I urge that we proclaim what all of us know but some of us have forgotten: that the First Amendment is the cornerstone of our security and freedom, and we will never take its liberties for granted.

Let no one misunderstand me. I am an enthusiastic supporter of day schools. They are vital to Jewish religious life, will produce many of our leaders, and are entitled to a fair share of community resources. But we must not ask the government to do for our community what our community is unwilling to do for itself.

There is one other issue to be considered this Shabbat. At that gathering in 1873, when the UAHC came into being, the subjects discussed were Sabbath schools and the need for rabbis. It is interesting that 128 years later, both topics remain very much on our agenda.

There was a shortage of rabbis in 1873, and there is a shortage of rabbis today. And not only rabbis. K?lei kodesh, holy vessels, is the traditional term for those who professionally serve the Jewish community, and it includes rabbis, cantors, educators, and administrators. Today we have a scarcity of k'lei kodesh in every category, and this state of affairs is a crisis of the first order.

A Movement-wide taskforce is responding to this crisis. It has established a database of 200 professionals willing to provide short-term assistance to congregations in need. It has also created the Synagogue Associate program, jointly sponsored by the College-Institute, the CCAR, and the Union. This new program will require two years of part-time study by lay leaders who will then work with ordained rabbis or invested cantors in larger congregations, or under their supervision in smaller ones. Classes will begin this summer. In addition, Rabbi David Ellenson, the dynamic new President of the Hebrew Union College, has assured us that the College-Institute is vigorously expanding its recruiting efforts. And the rest of us have as well. After all, our best recruiters are our congregations, and their rabbis and cantors; our synagogues are the fertile ground in which interest in the Jewish professions takes root. We are all working harder at this, and the results are beginning to show.

We find some consolation in the fact that the shortage reflects our Movement?s remarkable success. Since our 1991 Biennial, 112 congregations have joined our Union. Still, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge some deeper issues-and while today I speak of rabbis, the situation is much the same for all our professionals.

I am convinced that the great majority of our rabbis find satisfaction in their work; yet more rabbis than ever before are retiring early, and accounts of tension between rabbis and congregations reach us with increasing frequency. Rabbinic-congregational conflict is hardly new, but some disturbing patterns have begun to emerge, and if we hope to recruit young people to the rabbinate, these developments cannot be ignored.

Rabbis and synagogues are caught between two conflicting trends in Reform Jewish life.

On the one hand, our rabbis have reinvented their profession. A generation ago our congregations wanted orators, performers, and communal functionaries in the pulpit. But rabbis today know that congregants are not there to watch, applaud, and bask in reflected glory. They are there to study and create genuine community. And this means that the rabbi's task is to convey the life-giving words of Torah and to be a fearless advocate of Torah values. The rabbis who really make a difference are those who love and learn Torah, who engage tradition, and who teach, teach, teach.

But not only that. Communities are built on caring and spirituality. And this means that our rabbis worry a great deal about accessibility and mentshlikeit. To be a rabbi, they say, is to be there when needed, and to know how to listen-really listen. It is to be there as people, and not only as professional pastors. It is to offer prayers marked by fervor and consolation marked by tears, and to know that only if you open your hearts to others will they open their hearts to you.

Our rabbis today are fully aware that they cannot be Jewish for others. They are still strong religious leaders, but it is strength of a different sort-strength that comes through the spiritual empowerment of other Jews and through offering a personal model of prayer and piety.

Is this what our congregations are looking for? I believe it is. Congregations searching for a rabbi tell me again and again that they are looking for deep learning, true caring, and a capacity to build spiritual community.

So what is the problem?

The problem is the burgeoning growth of our congregations. A generation ago the Reform temple was built around Shabbat worship, religious school, and sisterhood, with varying degrees of social action, youth group, and brotherhood. But the average synagogue today is a complex, multi-generational facility, offering a range of activities unthinkable even 10 years ago. And this is as true for a congregation of 200 families as it is for one of 1200 families.

But this beehive of activity must be managed. And we usually do it with a structure modeled on the corporation-with a Board of Trustees, committees, and a hierarchy of staff members. And at the top of this hierarchy sits the Rabbi, who serves, in Harold Schulweis?s phrase, as the ecclesiastical CEO.

It's nobody's fault, but there are two sets of legitimate needs here: Do we want our rabbis to be managers and administrators, directing the growing temple bureaucracy, or do we want them to be religious leaders, with the music of spirituality rushing forth from their soul? In talking with temple presidents, I find that some emphasize one, some emphasize the other, some want both, and many simply aren't sure. But if we cannot clarify our fundamental expectations about how the synagogue should operate, the result will be frustration on the part of lay leaders and burnout by our clergy.

The solution, I suggest, is to change the conceptual lens that we use to look at the synagogue. The corporate system is inappropriate for the synagogue and detrimental to its aspirations; what we require, instead, is a covenantal framework, because covenant is the over-arching metaphor of the Jewish tradition.

A corporation is rooted in legal concepts, and rests on a foundation of self-interest. A covenant is rooted in morality and loyalty, and rests on a foundation of reciprocity. A corporate relationship is short-term and provisional; a covenantal relationship is long-term and supportive. A covenant takes us beyond the narrow gambit of self-interest and allows us to become joint architects of something we build and share with others.

In a covenantal synagogue community, rabbis and volunteer leaders will relate to each other in a different way. Their leadership will be collaborative, with rabbis and volunteers working in full partnership. There will be shared expectations, built on a bedrock of mutual trust. And this above all: the holiness of God's presence will resonate in every exchange.

In a covenantal synagogue community, an absolute division of labor will be neither possible nor desirable. Rabbis will be teachers and spiritual leaders, but their concerns will extend to the implementation of what they teach; and lay leaders will oversee the fiscal health of the congregation, but will also be deeply involved in shaping its religious character.

But we must not delude ourselves. Lofty rhetoric is easy; the reality of dealing with day-to-day problems is not. Covenantal communities will come into being only if we are prepared to grapple with sensitive issues and basic priorities.

For example: More and more, volunteer leaders look to their rabbis for religious intensity. They want rabbis who talk about God with candor and passion because they themselves have been touched by God. They want to hear words of Torah from someone who cares desperately about its message. And we rabbis need to understand these concerns.

Rabbis in turn talk about the need to find time for serious Torah study. For Jews, religious intensity flows from ongoing confrontation with sacred texts. If we want rabbis who are learned, and can convey their message with the electricity of belief, we will need to encourage the study that deepens their Jewish knowledge and refreshes their souls.

My own feeling is that every rabbi should be away from the temple two days a week-one day devoted to family, one day devoted to Torah and God. And no mixing of the two. And our volunteer leaders should not merely enable such a schedule, they should insist on it. Some say this is unrealistic, and perhaps it is. But this I know: if they are to succeed, our rabbis, cantors, educators and administrators need time for family, reflection, and religious renewal; and we need to make this possible without disrupting synagogue life.

Another example: Rabbis note that enduring partnerships develop over time, and this is difficult to do when the rabbi receives a short-term contract that is almost immediately up for review. This means, perhaps, that longer contracts should be considered. But lay leaders stress that whatever the terms of a contract, it must be mutually binding, and rabbis should not break contracts to accept what they see as a more desirable position.

Another example: Lay leaders note that rabbis are often unable to carry out the administrative tasks that they are inevitably called on to do, especially in smaller congregations. Rabbis respond that they are not trained to be business managers or plant managers. In this situation, a congregation might offer additional professional education; or, it might ask for more volunteer help, or reduce its expectations. But it's not fair to expect our rabbis to be experts in all things.

Final example: While some meetings are essential, rabbis are desperate to do away with unnecessary and dysfunctional committee meetings. Lay leaders are also desperate to do away with unnecessary and dysfunctional committee meetings. Yet for some reason beyond my understanding we have been utterly unable to eliminate these meetings.

Can we resolve these issues? We can if we consider them in an atmosphere of sacred partnership and covenantal commitment. We can if we think less about specific programs and more about the kind of community we are trying to create. We can if we think of the synagogue as a holy congregation, a kehillah kedoshah-not a private club or an efficient bureaucracy, but a holy community of men and women banded together in the service of the Almighty.

In order to assist congregations in this work, the Joint Taskforce on Professional Shortage has joined with Synagogue 2000 to produce a resource entitled Creating Sacred Partnerships (PDF 521KB). This document is meant to encourage congregational discussions on how to move from a corporate to a covenantal model. We do not presume to offer a set formula, but to initiate a process, and we hope that each of our congregations will make careful use of this new resource.

The stakes are high. A covenantal understanding of the synagogue will renew our congregations, giving them strength amidst tribulation and faith amidst chaos. Equally important, it will inspire more men and women to enter the rabbinate, the cantorate, and the fields of Jewish education and administration. And we desperately need them. Yes, our goal is true partnership between volunteers and professionals. But we know, too, that the rabbi and cantor, the educator and administrator provide the synagogue with its inner pulse and power; it is they who light our Jewish lives with the flame of faith.


We live in extraordinary times, times of apprehension and uncertainty. And the problems are real enough, God knows.

But despite the religious turbulence of these days, I do not fear for the synagogue. Because we have leaders who dare to think differently, who see the synagogue as a center of Torah and genuine encounter, and who find in our congregations a transcendent vision of the meaning of life.

And despite the vicious attack against our country, I do not fear for America. Because America is a great country that responds in times of crisis with a spirit of patriotism and sacrifice.

And despite the violence in the Middle East, I do not fear for the State of Israel. Because Israel is a modern miracle that has revived a land, rebuilt Jerusalem, and rescued Jews throughout the world. Israelis will always have the strength and conviction to defend themselves against war and to pursue a true peace.

And despite the challenges that await, I do not fear for the Jewish people. Because we are and have always been sweet survivors of history, bearers of an ancient covenant, and co-partners with God in healing a hurting world.

And so as we look ahead, we know that it will be a good year if we make it so, and with the optimism that has always been the hallmark of our people, we will face the future with hope.

Amen. Shabbat Shalom.


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