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Shabbat shalom, friends. It is such a joy and an honor to be with you this Shabbat. I want to share a story that was recently published in the NATA (National Association for Temple Administration) Journal for temple administrators. (The original piece was published in Proof, a publication of PJ Library.)
As the Vice President of Audacious Hospitality, I deeply believe that every person should have a community where they feel fully supported and unconditionally accepted. One they can count on to be there for them over the course of their lives. We are, in fact, an ever-growing and evolving people with many Jewish traditions and cultures that span the globe. While statisticians claim that intermarriage is the cause of dwindling Jewish participation, the stories of my parents and thousands of interfaith couples, Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews and Jews with disabilities tell a more multi-dimensional story: Many of us have not waned in our Jewish commitments, but instead have had our efforts to participate and join Jewish community thwarted by intentional and unintentional barriers.
While communal change can seem glacial at times, it is embedded in our Jewish tradition that we try. The title of this week’s Torah portion is Vayeishev, stemming from the verb to sit or to dwell. Coming from the line “Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings.” So many families today seek a welcoming Jewish home in which to dwell, to feel at home in their parents’ and ancestors’ tradition. Or, if they’re a Jew by choice or the loved one of another faith background, in the tradition they’re inheriting and making their own.
I consider it part of my life's work to ensure that we make it so. This mission is a personal one; inspired by the community that took in and supported my family through triumph and tragedy.
When I was nine, my family moved to a city in northern California with a very small Jewish community. My parents, a young interracial and initially interfaith couple, decided that they wanted to join a congregation and be more proactive about raising their two young children as Jews. But they were turned away by not only one, but two congregations.
Fortunately, my parents decided they still needed the support that a congregation could provide—and that Judaism was theirs to claim. So, they tried again and on their third attempt were welcomed into a wonderfully accepting Reform Jewish community, Sunrise Jewish Congregation. More potential barriers quickly appeared. As young recent college graduates, they could not afford to pay the full amount of membership dues. The congregation confidentially offered dues relief and requested payment of one dollar. My parents agreed, handed over the one-dollar bill, and the rest is history.
Sunrise Jewish Congregation became my second home and the cornerstone of a wonderful childhood. We attended Shabbat services and religious school regularly. My father took Introduction to Judaism and studied with the rabbi. My mother joined the Board of Directors and later served as the Director of Education.
I was very engaged in youth group. In my senior year of high school, I served as youth group president, and social action vice president for NFTY Central West. But that wasn’t all that happened in my senior year. In the fall, a careless 22-year-old in a fast Honda changed my understanding of the power of community—and changed my mother’s life . He came speeding off the New Jersey Turnpike, going 80 miles an hour in a 20 mile per hour zone. When he turned a sharp bend on the off ramp, he saw my mother’s car at the traffic light, and slammed on the brakes, but nonetheless crashed, full-speed, into my mother’s car.
The airbag didn’t deploy. Her seat broke. And so did her cervical spine.
When I learned of the horrible accident, my world began spinning and I couldn’t breathe. Was she going to die? How could we survive without my mother? And, my father was seemingly on his death bed at that same time. An aggressive chemotherapy treatment was unsuccessful in fighting the battle against his terminal diagnosis. He was bedridden. He no longer had the personality of the father who raised me. As far as I could tell, that righteous, sweet, loving, vibrant man was already gone. It was a devastating situation and my brother, Andrew, and I certainly were not equipped to manage it alone. My mother was the mighty, unflinching glue that held our fragile family together. Without her, we were lost.
Even today, tears fill my eyes when I recall how members of our congregation, our community, were there that first night, bringing meals and groceries. By the next morning, a cadre of our dear congregational family friends and temple lay leaders established a food delivery schedule and a carpool schedule to get me to the magnet high school I attended. This story would have been drastically different were it not for the organized and loving intervention that our congregation provided.
Today I’m incredibly grateful to still have both of my parents, who have invisible, but very real disabilities. I treasure each of our interactions because Andrew and I came deathly close to losing them both. I refuse to visualize what that story line would be like. Though, when I do, I am provided with comfort knowing that our Jewish community would have been there for us. That, to me, is remarkable. It is remarkable and also already a reality in Reform congregations throughout North America.
Thirty years ago, our congregation embodied audacious hospitality before the concept was conceived. They embraced diverse families from nearly all Jewish denominations, racial and ethnic backgrounds, accommodated for disabilities, and even had an openly gay cantorial soloist, Glenn Cooper (z”l), in whose honor we made a panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. We had a thriving religious school despite limited funds, and an enriching intergenerational community in which elders and youth were well-acquainted. For me, the “audacious” element of audacious hospitality is the insistence that we do have the capacity to be courageous enough to take risks to be more inclusive and intentional about our diversity, while also not forsaking nor watering down the richness and depth that Judaism offers.
Like so many people, my childhood was not without its heartache and challenges, but my Jewish community invested in my family and—this is important here—we wholeheartedly reciprocated. As a result of my family’s refusal to accept rejection from some religious authorities and their commitment to engaging with the synagogue and fostering an enriching Jewish home, I have inherited a tradition and extended family. For all these reason and many more—5,500 to be exact—I am committing my life to helping more people have access to, and be embraced by, such a loving community. This is specifically because I know Jews have a critical and distinctive role to play in fostering a world of wholeness, justice, and compassion.
Now, at first glance, this is simply a story about great people within a warm Reform congregation acting with compassion, practicing inclusion, and prioritizing relationship and belonging. Yet, I know, just as many leaders in our Reform Movement do, that while most people are good, experiences like the ones I have shared do not happen on their own. Those moments are made possible and enhanced by effective, well-informed leadership. This is not to say that audacious hospitality can’t organically occur, because obviously it can and it does. If one looks deeper, many of my positive childhood encounters with the Jewish community were undergirded by not only our Reform Movement’s core values and trailblazing outreach work, but also by executive leaders on the local level who established practices and policies that cultivated these moments of connection and inclusion. It is the work of our Audacious Hospitality team to support these initiatives. For this reason, we developed the Audacious Hospitality Toolkit and two robust supplement resource modules covering Jewish LGBTQ issues and Jewish racial and ethnic diversity. They are available for download from Audacious Hospitality’s webpage on URJ.org.
So now I turn to you, as leaders of the Reform Movement. Each of you plays a key leadership role in cultivating a culture of inclusion. There is a lot that happens over the course of a relationship with our movement, but without your help and your professional and lay teams and fellow congregants, people may not even get through the front door. So, know that my colleagues and I are deeply invested in your continued and increased success. It’s because of effective, courageous leaders like you that families like mine and thousands of others have a place within our remarkable community. I’m looking forward to continuing to collaborate with you so this can be true for even more members of our broader Jewish community who have to connect to what I believe is a deeply meaningful, rich, and empowering network of Reform institutions.
Thank you. Shabbat shalom!