Washington, DC Biennial 2011
December 18, 2011–22 Kislev 5772
This Biennial is almost over but we’re just getting started. What a humbling responsibility you have placed on my shoulders; what a tremendous opportunity we have to shape the Jewish future with imagination, courage and commitment.
This week’s parasha says it right up front: Va’Yehi Miketz Shnatayim—At the end of two years. What’s going to happen at the end of two years? I’ll tell you what’s going to happen: we’re going to gather together in San Diego for the next Biennial, and at that time the new URJ will be well on its way to becoming the creative force for shaping a bright Jewish future.
I may be the tallest president in the history of our URJ but I’m following in the footsteps of giants. In my mind’s eye, I see Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath carrying a Torah scroll alongside Dr. Martin Luther King. He knew—but too many of us have forgotten—that our Torah should never be sequestered in our synagogues. Rather, we must carry our prophetic mantel beyond the walls of our praying places to shape a more just and compassionate world for all of God’s children.
And I sense the poetic presence of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who boldly challenged us to share our Torah with the many interfaith families who felt barred from taking hold of our sacred inheritance. Our congregations are stronger thanks to the many Jews–by–choice and non-Jews who have committed their families to lives of Torah. And Alex made sure that the doors were open for all who felt shut out; our LGBT brothers and sisters would no longer sit in our congregations pretending to be other than the individuals that God created them to be. Too many of the uninspired and disaffected are still kept from taking hold of our tree of life.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s animated vision of Reform Judaism with Torah at the Center has inspired my rabbinate and our Reform Movement. Eric taught us that it is not enough to carry our Torah. Even more important, we must engage with it deeply through serious, lifelong study. Going forward, we will ground our powerful spiritual expression of Judaism in thoughtful, creative Torah learning. Proudly, we will carry our Torah into the world; we will share it with all who thirst for its wisdom.
So what will be my Torah for the coming years? A rabbinic colleague told me, “Rick, I feel sorry for you. Eric did Torah and worship, Alex brought us outreach and inclusion, and Maurice showed us how social justice could transform our world. You can’t even change the name. They already did that. So, what will you do? A new logo? Revive Shemini Atzeret? Too bad there’s nothing left to do.”
So, I ask you all of you,
Is there nothing left for us to do?
Is this as good as it gets?
Your presence here this morning tells me your answer. We are poised at one of the most critical and dramatic crossroads in all of Jewish history. If we stay put and leave things as they are we will have failed the test of Jewish leadership. But we’re not going to stay put. We are the Reform Movement and we’re going to get MOVING. We’re going to MOVE forward with strength and creativity.
Over the summer, a nice member of my congregation stopped me and said, “Rabbi Jacobs, I wish you well in your new position at the UJA.” I thanked her but then gently corrected her that I would be working for the URJ, not the UJA. “Is there a difference?” she replied. I’m guessing there are many people in and outside of our Movement who ask that same question, because even though we are called the Reform Movement, we haven’t been acting like a movement. Let’s be clear: all of the very serious challenges facing Jewish life require movement solutions. We are beginning to transform our URJ for the journey ahead, but we can’t only focus on getting our own URJ “house in order.” We’ve already begun to work more collaboratively with the various arms of the Movement.
During these past months, I’ve had initial conversations with almost a thousand Reform Jewish stakeholders: national leaders, professional colleagues, congregational presidents and others. Over and over again, I heard about the serious economic challenges facing our congregations and our Movement. So many of you are devoted to the various institutions of Jewish life, but we’re all asking how are we going to fund our local, national and overseas institutions. I haven’t even had my first day on the job, but some questions are just too pressing to wait and this is one.
Just weeks ago, we brought the Union for Reform Judaism, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Central Conference of American Rabbis together to form a task force to figure out the best, most effective, most fair and transparent way for us to finance our Movement’s holy work. This new group will be called the Task Force on Funding our Future. Its purpose is to rethink our Movement’s funding structure, especially as it relates to the traditional MUM dues system. A small steering committee will bring together the best thinking from inside and outside of our Movement to inform how we support the maintenance and growth of our Movement in all of its breadth and depth, including nurturing our congregations, educating our clergy and professionals, and engaging future generations of young Jews.
As this crucial work moves forward, I, along with our lay leadership, pledge to actively build relationships with donors who share our vision for the Jewish future. We are committed to a transformative and visionary culture of excellence in the URJ. Our vision includes a broad array of cutting edge, success-driven ways to strengthen congregations, engage the next generation in Jewish life while extending our reach into the ranks of the uninspired and unaffiliated. We welcome foundations and Federations as our partners in a future that cannot do without a Reform Jewish presence. Ours is the Judaism of autonomy, inclusiveness, creativity, passion and relevance. We embrace the best of tradition and of modernity, science and spirituality, ourselves and our world. We are the Reform Movement for a new era, and it’s time we let the whole world know.
Ok, turn on your iPads; you’ll want to get this down. Here are the three most pressing tasks for our URJ to focus on as we invite our partners to join in this critical work with us:
- Catalyzing congregational change
- Engaging the next generation
- Extending the circles of our responsibility
These three areas don’t run parallel, but they do overlap.
Congregations first. As always.
1. Twenty years ago at the Baltimore Biennial, Rabbi Alexander Schindler reminded all of us why synagogues are unique: “The synagogue is where Jews are made, where the individual soul and the community are joined. It is the place where modernity and eternity cross-fertilize, where seeds of Jewish identity are sown. All other institutions in Jewish life are created by Jews. Only the synagogue creates Jews, child by child, family by family…”
In this new era of Jewish life, synagogues are far from obsolete, but they must specialize in bringing depth to our lives; they must speak to the soul; they must keep up with the best human thought. Such a synagogue will remain the central address for cultivating a deep and nourishing Jewish life. We need an extensive network of congregations that exude excellence for this next chapter. To accomplish this crucial work, the URJ will need to undergo a transformation by rethinking and refocusing everything we do.
Here are some questions we should all be considering:
Is my congregation the most compelling Jewish community I can imagine?
What’s inspiring about my congregation?
What’s not working well? What’s broken? What’s just plain shoddy, or ordinary, or so drab that no one cares whether it is broken or not? In a word, what’s “not really excellent?”
What would help me make my congregation the place I dream of?
I’ve spent the last thirty years as a congregational rabbi asking these questions daily and I’ve become convinced that the future of our people depends on transforming our synagogues. I know transformation is not simple or easy—but it is possible. And this transformative work changes everything, especially our sense of optimism for our collective future.
We have no intention of sitting at 633 Third Avenue in New York City telling congregations what they should be doing. We plan to work with you to build the capacity of each of our congregations. Many are struggling. Others are doing ok. Some are doing terrifically well. The great congregations are not only in big cities or on the coasts; they come in all sizes are scattered throughout North America. But even those that are great today won’t be tomorrow if they think they’ve figured everything out. Great congregations are always searching for new ways to do their holy work better. The URJ must become a catalyst and convener of best practices by sharing tools, methods and models so every one of our 900 congregations will flourish.
For decades, the dominant model of religious education for Jewish youth has been the service station approach. Parents drop their kids off at synagogue as if it were a gas station, the place to fill up the next generation with “Jewish gas.” After dropping their kids off, parents kept on driving, returning a few hours later to pick up their little ones now hopefully filled with enough Jewish gas to last until the next drop-off, and eventually, for a lifetime.
Our parents suffered through Hebrew school so they figured it was part of the tradition that they were supposed to pass on. Did you have inspirational textbooks like: Pathways Through Jewish History, Pathways Through Jewish Prayer, and Pathways Through Jewish Holidays? Truth be told, many of us are here today in spite of the Jewish schooling we received. Many of us still suffer spiritual scars and emptiness from the religious education that gave us too little. We may be here today in spite of that Jewish schooling, not because of it. That’s not what we mean by excellence!
Almost 20 years ago some congregations, my own included, helped pioneer models that closed the old gas station. In one of them, kids are not just dropped off; instead, parents park their cars and accompany their children to a spirited prayer service, where each week a different family takes responsibility for reading and interpreting the Torah portion. After checking in with one another during the oneg, kids go off to classrooms to learn while parents too stay to dig into the spiritual treasure trove of Judaism in adult study. The young students no longer think Judaism is just for kids. Post WWII pediatric Judaism is morphing into our new-and-improved community of lifelong Jewish learning.
Then there is the question of membership. While 80% of American Jews affiliate with a synagogue at some point during their lives, their engagement tends to be temporary and tenuous. No more than 50% of American Jews are members of synagogues at any one time. Jews once joined synagogues out of civic duty – it was just the proper thing to do; by the 1970s they joined at least for their children – to get a bar or bat mitzvah. But increasingly, they left with the last hora of the bar/bat mitzvah party. Of all the movements, Reform Jews lead the way in leaving when childhood education is over. So yes, we are growing faster than other denominations, but not with lifelong membership any more than lifelong learning. And a newer trend indicates fewer Jews than ever join at all, even for their children! The fastest growing group in the Jewish community is the lifelong unaffiliated and the lifelong uninspired. That’s not what we mean by excellence.
As a Movement, we have not fully figured out how to engage new members in a lifelong way, because inducing spiritual commitment is no simple matter. We do know some things, however: before handing out membership forms or asking for dues, what if we first forged relationships of caring? We could learn this important lesson from Chabad. Let’s create relationships before collecting dues. It’s a pretty simple concept but how many of us have adopted it?
Berachot Text Study
We’re not the first generation in Jewish history that needed to reimagine our Jewish world. Let’s look together at a remarkably relevant text from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 28a. The Sanhedrin has just selected a new Nasi or President. This passage piqued my interest….
I hope we are clearer about the barriers that keep people outside our congregations. Some are obvious, others less so, but we have to use our ingenuity to remove as many as possible.
Here’s another barrier to Jewish life: the walls of our congregations. Too many synagogues wait for new people to knock on their doors begging to be let in. Few congregations take responsibility for Jewish life outside their walls. A few years back, a 5th grader told her Jewish father and non-Jewish mother that she wanted a bat mitzvah. Neither parent wanted to join a congregation so they told her to find a program without mandatory membership. But no synagogue in the area—Reform included—would even talk to her, let alone accept her, except for one, a remarkable Orthodox congregation that offers religious education to non-members as part of its commitment to Jewish continuity. So the girl attended the program and devoured her Jewish studies. What will she say about Reform after being ignored by us? That’s not what we mean by excellence. Can’t we too offer serious Jewish engagement for people like this girl? How many of our URJ congregations worry about Jewish life outside of our walls?
2. Throughout this Biennial, you’ve heard a lot about our commitment to engaging the next generation, the largest cohort of Jews who are outside our walls, after all. We’ve faced the hard truth about the staggering percentage of our b’nai mitzvah who are eyeing the door by the time they reach Ain K’elohaynu. This exodus demands nothing short of a Movement-wide transformation of how we interact with our youth. In plain talk, we’re focusing on relationships over programs. From early childhood to b’nai mitzvah to high school and then to college, we need a giant web of sacred strategies to give our kids roots and wings to stay grounded while soaring through this confusing world. Toward that end, we are working—for the very first time—on coordinating all of the essential pieces of youth engagement: summer camps, NFTY, NFTY in Israel, RAC teen seminars, congregational learning both formal and informal and more. This Movement-wide approach is going to link young people to each other, to their communities, to our people, to our Torah and to the Holy One who imbues their ever-changing lives with depth and purpose.
Please raise your hand if you are in your 20s or 30s. For the first time ever we lowered the financial barrier that used to keep many of you from attending the Biennial, and now we have over 500 of you with us. Two years from now, I want to see over a thousand!
This is a cohort that we rarely see in our congregations. Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow found that over half of Americans between 21-45 years of age are “religiously uninvolved.” The percentage is higher for Jews, and there are over 1.5 million of them in the United States and Canada. Compared to previous generations, young Jews in their 20s and 30s wait longer to marry and to have children, if they marry and have children at all. Even with children, they do not automatically join synagogues. They are averse to “joining” anything, and generally they are suspicious of denominational labels.
A growing network of our urban congregations including Temple Israel in Boston, Emanu-El in San Francisco and Dallas are actively engaging 20s and 30s inside and outside the walls of congregations. One strategy is a national project of Synagogue3000 called Next Dor––dor is Hebrew for “generation.” In Atlanta, St. Louis, Washington, DC, Miami and a growing number of cities, this approach has attracted our own URJ congregations because it meets these young Jews where they are––in coffee shops and bars, in gyms and private apartments—outside synagogue walls, that is. And it emphasizes relationships, not just programs—exactly the model I espouse. And this is just one bold experiment to engage the next generation. We need many more, and engaging 20s and 30s does not mean we aren’t also committed to nourishing the baby boomers in our midst.
3. The bright Jewish future requires us to extend the circle of our responsibility. We know all too well that one need not join a congregation to participate in Jewish life. In our individualistic society, many Jews have discovered that it is cheaper to hire a private bar/bat mitzvah tutor rather than commit to congregational membership. For weddings and funerals too, you can usually find a rabbi-for-hire. And why not, if Judaism is only about the individual? But ever since Abraham and Sarah, being Jewish has meant being part of something larger than ourselves. Judaism is about “we,” not just “me.” Sacred community is not a Jewish Stop&Shop that offers what looks appetizing. It is an extension beyond ourselves to those we may not know by name, people who are not “just like us,” those who think, earn, practice and vote differently than we do.
And this web of mutual extension that begins in the congregation is, in theory, limitless, one of those things that our morning service calls “elu d’varim she’ein lahem shiyur” – the things that have no boundaries, no limits, because the good they do goes on and on and on, making individuals into congregations, congregations into movements, movements into one single and united Jewish people, and the Jewish people into a force for good and for God—throughout the world. The congregation is simply where the “me to we” begins.
Earlier this fall, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that people today “are less likely to feel embedded on a moral landscape that transcends self.” He quotes a troubling study that our young people “have not been given the resources—by schools, institutions and families—to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations. The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste.” (New York Times, 12 September 2011)
Individual taste?!? Surely you join me in shuddering at the thought that tz’dakah and tzedekare matters of taste. If schools cannot teach this elementary human decency, then synagogues must. What other institution consistently grounds us in a moral landscape? We join a sacred community not for what we will receive but for what we can give. Two thousand years ago the Roman leader Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, if God loves poor people so much, why doesn’t God support them directly? Rabbi Akiva answered that God wishes to allow human beings to be partners in the spiritual creation of the world. (Baba Batra 10a) That Jewish worldview has distinguished us for millennia and it can inspire today’s Reform Jews as we live lives of service to others. We partner with God by creating a better world through truths, not tastes.
The modern sage Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught, “If boiling water is poured on the head of a Moroccan Jew, the prim and proper Jew in Paris and London must scream. And by feeling the pain, he is loyal to the people.” We Reform Jews are Reform, but we are Reform JEWS, members of Clal Yisrael and Am Yisrael.
A year and a half ago, the rabbi of our neighboring Orthodox synagogue announced in the middle of Shabbat morning services that he had to leave. He told his congregation that he was walking over to our Temple because his friend’s daughter was becoming a bat mitzvah. When he walked into our daughter Sarah’s bat mitzvah it was the first time he had ever been in a mixed seating service where women were leading prayer and reading Torah. But he came nonetheless. He stretched himself because that’s what one does if you’re part of something larger. How many of us stretch ourselves to reach across the many boundaries that keep us from connecting with Clal Yisrael?
This past summer, I had the privilege of welcoming a few busloads of our NFTY teens to Jerusalem. Blindfolded, they stepped off their buses holding hands, moving slowly toward the edge of the Haas Promenade that overlooks the Temple Mount in the center of Jerusalem. They were about to have their first glimpse of the City of Gold. You cannot imagine the look of amazement and wonder on their faces as they opened their eyes to the setting sun over Jerusalem. I watched these Reform teens fall in love with Israel, remembering my own love affair with Israel that was sparked during my junior year of college, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Ever since, I have spent much of my rabbinate working to strengthen Israel’s security and well-being – as I know so many of you have. I want all of our URJ congregations to see Israel the way those teenagers did, with the sparkle of its promise searing our souls.
It is up to all of us to foster a deep love for and engagement with Israel among Reform Jews of North America, young and old. We need Israel and Israel needs us. Israel is not a vaccine against assimilation, but rather an inspiring source of Jewish creativity and identity. Israel is not only a bundle of issues and challenges; she is our dynamic, complex and inspiring Jewish homeland. We make common cause with our burgeoning Israeli Reform Movement that has much to teach us about effective outreach. By necessity, Israeli Reform leaders have learned to be more assertive and entrepreneurial in engaging those previously disaffected from Jewish life than we in North America.
When Israel gets into our hearts, then I know that we stand with Israel never ceasing to fight for a Jewish homeland that is secure, religiously free, guided by justice and dwelling in peace.
So what will our collective Jewish future look like? It is way too early to say exactly, but with your help I’d like us to begin by catalyzing congregational change, engaging the next generation and extending the circles of our responsibility.
In a couple of hours, most of you will be well on your way home, where new possibilities for our Movement will continue to fill your minds. On your way home and in the coming weeks, I want you to send me thousands of emails about the great experiments you are ready to try in your congregations. The new URJ wants to learn about all of your great ideas, especially the ones that signal a deep paradigm shift in the way we conduct our holy work. You pick the area: catalyzing congregational change, engaging the next generation or extending the circles of our responsibility beyond the wall of our synagogues.
In the coming months, I’m going to hit the road along with other senior leaders of the URJ. In person or virtually, we plan to come to your community to see how your experiments are developing. We also want to learn about unique challenges and opportunities in different corners of our North American Movement. Yesterday I heard an impassioned plea from a Rabbi from Altoona, Pennsylvania. Her congregation is struggling, they don’t have many youth to engage and they need our help, and we will be there for them. Some of your experiments we will be able to support with new incubator grants and others we’ll support with creative thinking and refinement.
And while we’re in town or nearby, we’ll share with you ideas for reinventing the day-to-day work of the URJ and solicit your input, so that we can make great things happen throughout our Movement.
This Biennial is almost over, but we’re just getting started. Va’Yehi Miketz Shnatayim—At the end of two years. What’s going to happen at the end of two years? I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. We’re going to gather together in San Diego for the next Biennial and at that time the new URJ will be well on its way to becoming the creative force for shaping a bright Jewish future.
Rabbi Meir of Premishlan taught that by someone’s dream it is possible to know a person. Jacob dreamt of a ladder reaching to the heavens. Pharaoh dreamt only of cows. Not all dreams are equal! And not all of them are converted into reality. That’s where Joseph comes in. We are Jacob, envisioning ladders to heaven; but we are Joseph also, making dreams into reality, combating a world of want and challenge through concrete plans that seize opportunities, weathering tough times, and lighting the way forward with Torah as our guide.
I accept the faith you show in me today with humility and gratitude; I need you with me, however. Together we will seize this moment and shape a better tomorrow for our congregations, our Movement, our people and our world. Help me open our doors, our minds and our imaginations. Grasp the Torah with me as we carry it out of seclusion. We are the Reform Movement, so let’s get MOVING!
The Modern Israeli Poet David Rokeach gives us a glimpse of what awaits us:
כי להם העתיד
העומדים מול ההר ואינם נרתעים
יעלו אל פסגתו
Glory to those who hope!
For the future is theirs;
Those who stand unflinching against the mountain
Shall gain its summit….
We are the ones who hope.
We will stand unflinching against the mountain.
And together, in the coming years, we will gain the summit!