"As Numerous as the Stars of Heaven"

As delivered before the URJ Biennial 2019
December 12, 2019Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Editor's note: The text that follows was presented before a live audience at the 2019 URJ Biennial on Thursday, Dec. 12.

Did you ever wonder what happened to the 10 Lost Tribes of ancient Israel? In 721 B.C.E., they disappeared. Poof. Gone.

Imagine if we could find them today? Our Jewish community could increase to as many as 85 million worldwide. We’d need all of Chicago for our Biennial!

But demographers tell us that our numbers are not likely to grow in the next 50 years; that, in fact, our numbers shrinking. And some Jewish leaders don’t care.

They think that though the Jewish future may be numerically smaller, it will be made up of a more intensely engaged few, and that’s OK.

Seriously? There are people out there that are looking for the authentic, meaningful experience that we offer. Why would we turn our backs on them?

As long as I have the great honor of leading our movement, we’re not going to walk away from millions of people in the name of focusing on Jewish elites. Not now, not ever.

Jewish history is littered with groups that failed to understand new realities. The Essenes? The Sadducees? The Karaites? All are now footnotes in our history. The Jewish communities that are still here are the ones that figured out how to adapt.

Today, my friends, that is us.

We need to do what Jews have been doing for thousands of years – look to Torah. The key to our future isn’t demography; it’s theology. Back in Genesis, our ancestors were told over and over that Jewish life was meant to expand and grow, not contract.

God makes this promise to Abraham and Sarah, "I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore…” (Genesis 22:17)

The Holy One wanted us to have more than a bit part in the unfolding saga of human life. We need to be everywhere, and there needs to be a lot of us, like the stars and sands.

But why Judaism? What does Judaism offer?

In a world starved for meaning and steeped in fear and pain, our tradition is overflowing with spiritual riches. Judaism can help us live lives anchored in wisdom and moral clarity. Judaism gives us rituals, texts and holy days so that we can live joyfully in the rhythm of sacred time. Judaism gives us hope.

I don’t need to tell you that there is brokenness and injustice all around us. To live in this moment, if we want to do the sacred work of being God’s partners, we need more hands and hearts on deck.

So how do we do it?

Yet again, our sacred text gives us the answer.

The 54th chapter of Isaiah tells us, “Enlarge the site of your tent.” (Isaiah 54:2)

There are millions of North Americans Jews looking for their spiritual home, yearning to be inspired, looking for a place to belong. That place is our tent. It’s our Movement. And that’s what we’re going to talk about tonight.

There are so many people out there who are Jewishly adjacent, meaning they began their sacred journeys outside Judaism. If we use Israel’s Law of Return, there are 10 to 12 million North Americans who would qualify to become citizens in the Jewish State – and they are part of this family of ours.

Yes, we need to continue to deeply engage those currently inside the tent, but the future of the Jewish people requires us to follow Isaiah’s vision and “extend the tent of Jewish life.” This is our big “to do.” Each of us is going to have to grab some of the canvas and pull it wider.

We need to open more doors – real and virtual – for hungry and curious souls to come in and explore Judaism. Will they all formally join our congregations or even join the Jewish community? Many will; some won’t. But if we extend our tent, every part of our Jewish community will benefit. We’ll be able to bolster our synagogues and start new ventures that will help revitalize all that we do and all that we are.

[A stagehand, wearing a headset, enters from behind the stage]

Stagehand: I’m so sorry, Rabbi. We need to hold; there’s an issue backstage.

Rabbi Jacobs: What do you think, Lindsey, is it going to work?

Stagehand: Not sure, Rabbi. I think the whole thing is kinda funky. I’m Jewish, but people like me aren’t sure you want us in your techno tent.

Rabbi Jacobs: We do! You just have to get to know us.

Stagehand: I think you’ve got it backwards.

Rabbi Jacobs: [starting to “get it”] We have to get to know you.

Stagehand: Yes! I identify as Jewish and non-binary. That means I don’t identify with male or female gender identities. It’s part of who I am, and I really love it. I want to connect, be spiritual, even study Torah – but when I show up, folks aren’t sure how to interact with me. And I see too few of my generation. Being Jewish matters to me and my peers. It just matters differently than it did to your generation.

Rabbi Jacobs: I get it. [Gestures to audience] And they’re going to get it, too.

Stagehand: I don’t know. I’ve been to these synagogues…

Rabbi Jacobs: Give us a little more time. Please.

Stagehand: You’ve got to do this better.

Rabbi Jacobs: We can, and we will.

Stagehand: [hand to headphones, nods] OK, I got the signal, and we’re good to go. Thanks.

Rabbi Jacobs: Thanks for your help. This next part’s for you.

Lindsey is right – we need to make space across our communities and within our leadership for new people and new ideas. That means building institutions with them, instead of asking them to do it the way we have always done it. It requires each of us to step back a little and let new folks lead so they can leave their imprint on our traditions and culture.

It’s not about “them” coming to “us.” It’s about all of us blending together to become a new “we.”

If we do this, we will not only grow larger but the Jewish connection within each of us will grow deeper.

If you’re in this room, I’m pretty sure today’s Reform Judaism works for you. You may be concerned about some of the things I am saying, but let me alleviate your fears: I’m not talking about diluting Judaism, I’m talking about bringing Judaism to more people and becoming the Jewish community God meant us to be.

We must realize and embrace our true diversity instead of ignoring it – or worse, dismissing it. North American Jews, especially among younger generations, come from different backgrounds in terms of their faith, abilities and disabilities, economic class, relationship status, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and more. And I'm certain that the more we honor that diversity, the stronger we will become. When we broaden our tent, we broaden each and every one of us inside it.

Look at me. I am a white, Ashkenazi, cisgender, straight, rabbi, baby boomer, the child of two Jewish parents. My pronouns are he/him/his. Being Jewish is at the core of who I am. I’ve benefited from my various privileges and have found every Jewish door open to me along my life’s journey.

But the majority of Jews in North America are no longer like me, even if you include those whose pronouns are she/her/hers. Baby boomers, Jewish and otherwise, have been the largest generation of people in North America, until this year when millennials surpassed them.

Younger members of our community are more diverse than their parents, more multi-racial, more proudly and openly LGBTQ. In North America, among non-Orthodox Jews, 72 percent of the weddings in the past 20 years have been between a Jewish person and someone who was brought up in a different faith tradition. Our educators already know they can’t do the old family tree activity in the same way anymore, expecting everyone to draw lines from Europe to the Statue of Liberty.

And our early childhood educators, many of whom participated in today’s Early Childhood Family Engagement Summit, are already educating a more inclusive and diverse cohort of students and their families. Investing in those educators who every day bring Judaism to our newest generation is a moral imperative that will also widen and deepen our tent. I’m honored that so many funders and early childhood thought-leaders are here for the summit, and I want to especially acknowledge my colleague Doron Krakow, who leads the JCC Association of North America.

Some of the deepest change we need to make will take time, and we will not always get it right on the first try.

Many people believed that if we ordained women as rabbis and cantors, we would solve the issue of gender inequality in our Movement. We thought if more women served in already-existing roles, it would be enough. But we were wrong.

As women have taken their rightful place at the helm of Jewish life, their leadership has stretched us to rethink all of Judaism. Women rabbis, cantors, scholars, educators, and lay leaders have changed the way we think, pray, believe and lead.

But sadly, too many of these women still endure the pain of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, preventing our organizations ability to fully be able to absorb their gifts, ideas and vision.

When we perpetuate these inequalities, when we turn a blind eye, or we don’t respond with empathy and with specific plans to achieve real equality, we endanger the very foundation on which our communities are built. This has to stop. Now. We need equal pay for equal work, and we need to eradicate sexual harassment and gender discrimination in our community.

Our Movement is indebted to the CCAR’s Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate for opening our eyes to the persistence of sexism within our community’s culture. Combatting sexism requires us to hold ourselves accountable. We look forward to the programs, trainings, resources and policy recommendations that the task force will share at the conclusion of its three-year process.

There is more change needed ahead, and we can accomplish it. Transformation has always been the calling card of Reform Judaism. Widening the tent is just the latest version of transfor...

[A man in the second row gets up to leave.]

Rabbi Jacobs: Hey, where are you going?

Man: I’m sorry, I have questions about a lot of this...

Rabbi Jacobs: Ask me. Come up.

[The man ascends the stage; Rick walks toward him to meet him.]

Rabbi Jacobs: Talk to me.

Man: I think your heart’s in the right place, but – my partner and I are just “too different” from the rest of this crowd. She wouldn’t even come here tonight. I don’t blame her.

Rabbi Jacobs: Tell me why.

Man: I want to join a temple, but to be honest, there aren’t a lot of couples that look like us. Interfaith is no longer just Jewish and Christian, and Jewish doesn’t always look like me. And I’m getting worried because we’re about to have a baby.

Rabbi Jacobs: Mazal tov.

Man: Thanks, but I’m worried. We’ve tried out a few congregations, and people have been very friendly, very polite, but I’m just not sure we fit in – and I’m worried my baby won’t.

Rabbi Jacobs: That’s got to be hard. We don’t have this all figured out. But I believe – I know – that in the 21st century, no one “looks Jewish,” and there’s not one typical Jewish family. There are many authentic ways to live and love Jewishly. You’re going to find yours, and we’re going to help you. It would mean the world to me if you would stick around.

Man: OK. I appreciate what you’re saying.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: Thank you.

[Two-handed shake. The man descends stage and returns to his seat.]

Our tent is growing and changing, and diversity will make us stronger. More alive.

As we saw just two days ago, we are undergoing an explosion of hate in our country. As our Jewish community is shaken by the stunning rise in antisemitism, we are finding new ways to keep our people safe.

There is a natural inclination to want to hunker down in our buildings, but if we learned anything from Pittsburgh and Poway, it’s that to be safe, we need strong bonds – not just with civil society, political leaders, and law enforcement but with other faith communities. When neighboring houses of worship are violently attacked, we must show up with love, just as our neighbors did for us.

If we’re going to be truly diverse, we need to consider all facets of diversity, and that means politics, too. Respecting a range of political opinion is as important as accepting diverse views on God and Jewish practice.

Some of our congregations are so polarized that big issues are not discussed for fear of further splintering our already divided communities. I’m certain we can do better. Our congregations must be oases from the venom that is poisoning our public spaces. There are so few places where people who don’t vote or think alike, earn, pray, or believe alike, gather on a regular basis. And our Jewish tradition has a deep practice when it comes to diversity of opinion.

Our congregations would be well-served to learn and practice the Talmudic way of having sacred arguments. The Babylonian Talmud is, after all, just a huge collection of arguments between sages who often vehemently disagreed but rarely disrespected their intellectual adversaries.

Our sages didn’t avoid tough issues or give up if they couldn’t reach consensus. The debate was always civil, as in the case of the great debates between Hillel and Shammai: eilu v’eilu divre Elohim hayim, “these and these are words of the living God.” And the Talmud in Mishnah Eduyot 1:5 teaches a minority opinion must be preserved, to learn from in the future. Too often, that is not what happens in our communities or our society.

So make no mistake: Today, on the one hand, we must say out loud that not all positions are legitimate. On the other, while there are not good people on all sides of every issue, there are more legitimate sides than we regularly acknowledge.

Intense, serious debates should only be exceeded by the depth of our respect for one another. Yes, authentic Jewish leaders must still raise their prophetic voices on the great moral issues of the day, but before we do, we need to consider the many sides of any issue. That’s what our Civic Engagement Campaign is all about.

It’s worth remembering that the founder of our Reform Movement, Isaac Mayer Wise, deliberately chose the word “Union” for the names of our Movement and our seminary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations and Hebrew Union College. Founded right after the Civil War, there was anything but unity in the United States and in our congregations, stretching across the north/south divide. Unity does not require unanimity – but it does require respect, something sorely missing in our wider culture. Our congregations and communities can show others how this is done.

Can we stretch our tent’s canvas to include those who don’t agree with the consensus policy positions of our Movement? How can we not?

Six years ago at the San Diego Biennial, we launched Audacious Hospitality. This initiative goes beyond just being welcoming; it commands us to smash the obstacles, like racism, ableism, and classism, that keep too many Jews from joining our community. Audacious Hospitality is about expanding who is an essential part of “us.”

In the past, we considered this work separate from our social justice work. But it’s not.

Racism, the systematic discrimination of people based on skin color, permeates the everyday lives of people of color on interpersonal, political, institutional, and cultural levels. Dismantling those structures is a monumental task, but our religious tradition demands that we do the work of creating a just and diverse society.

Racism isn’t only “out there somewhere”; it lives as well in our Jewish communities, and it lives in each of us. We can’t work to dismantle structures of racism in our society until we acknowledge that. I’m personally grateful for the many teachers who continue to help me see the implicit bias – and even the racism – that, without intention, can permeate my words and actions, so that I can become more aware of how my choices affect others.

Our commitment to embracing our Jewish diversity and combatting hate is one of the most urgent moral imperatives of our time. That’s why, during this Biennial we are asking each of you to commit to our sacred diversity, equity, and inclusion work. It will change our Movement, and it will change each of us for the better.

In his book How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi explains why it is not enough to call ourselves “not racist.” He writes that to say, “I’m not a racist” is “a claim that signifies neutrality.” It implies that the speaker is saying, IIt’s not my problem.”

We must go further. We must be anti-racist. That means taking an active part to eliminate racism in our society. As Dr. King told us in the wake of the Birmingham church bombing:

We must be concerned not merely about who murdered [those four girls,] but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produce[d] the murderer.

It’s our job as Reform Jews to continue his fight.

Tomorrow, for the first time in Biennial history, we will consider a resolution on Reparations for slavery and ongoing systemic oppression. We must face the structures of racism and knock them down.

But still, a large segment of our Jewish community is too often not included and not heard.

Between 10 and 20 percent of North American Jews are Jews of Color. We saw those numbers a few decades back in Brandeis University’s demographic study and again recently, thanks to the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative led by Ilana Kaufman, who I’m proud to announce has joined the URJ leadership as an advisor.

Right now, there should be between 500 and a thousand Jews of Color here at our Biennial, but if we look around, we’ll see that we don’t yet reflect our full spiritual, intellectual, and social justice strength – and we must.

We are lucky to have Jews of Color as leaders in our Movement and remain grateful for the trailblazing efforts of April Baskin, who brilliantly launched so much of this work.

Our JewV’Nation fellows who are Jews of Color are among those leaders. They are insightful and impactful, committed and determined. Our fellows are some of the people from within our community who have inspired and challenged me the most.

I’d like you to listen to some of their voices now, taken from our Wholly Jewish podcast. Let’s hear in their own words what it means to be a Reform Jew of Color.

Kelly Whitehead is a first-year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem. Over the last few years, she has worked at URJ Camp Harlam and as a youth engagement specialist at Temple Sinai in Washington D.C. In her episode of the podcast, she tells us:

Since I started going to Jewish summer camp at 14, it is how I define myself. It is how I find my values. It's how I found my friends and it's how I do my work as a Jewish educator.

But we haven’t always seen Kelly for who she is:

I hate it when people assume that I am a member of like a custodial staff or help staff or also when they think I’m another person of color. I hate feeling like I don't have a right to be there.

Alexandra Corwin grew up at Temple Jeremiah, right here outside of Chicago. She’s a leader in educational equity and board member of Chicago YIVO because of her passion for Yiddish. In her episode, she says:

I remember as a kid in my early part of my teenager years, I wasn't very confident in leading Jewish ritual and Jewish services. I was part of a Jewish youth group when I was 16 years old, and there they're around 50 of us one Saturday night. I was asked to lead Havdalah.

I remember being in the middle of the room and having all of my peers surround me while I'm saying the blessings for the candle and just feeling this incredible sense of joy. And those two feelings really came to life.

Since then, I'm in Jewish community. And being a leader in Jewish community has always been something that I know I can find deep and great meaning in.

Bryant Heinzelman is a U.S. Army veteran of the war in Iraq. Over the past few years, Bryant has served as youth director at Har HaShem in Boulder, CO, and he recently helped lead a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training at our Greene Family Camp. In his episode, he tells us:

The first thing that comes to mind when we’re speaking about Jewish matters is having someone ask me, ‘Are you really Jewish?’ It's a moment that can come, I could have just sung beautifully a blessing, or I could have spoken from my heart about how this piece of Torah moved me.

This moment… I can feel it when it's coming, and it almost removes me from the situation. It kind of takes me. Because when someone asks me that question, it's not always - they're not always asking because they're curious. No. I'm Jewish because they know that I'm Jewish, it's almost as if they need me to confirm for them because their disbelief won't let them believe the sight of this black man who is a member of this community.

So the question I never want to hear again is, ‘Are you really Jewish?’

These words from our fellow Jews must awaken us to do better. There is no reason ever to demand the Jewish credentials of anyone who seeks our community’s embrace. I cannot imagine our Movement without all the voices, hearts and minds of our Jews of Color.

Our ancient sages created the following blessing for diversity that I want us to say together now. When we are in the presence of many Jews, like we are tonight, we say:

Baruch chacham ha’razeem she’ein da’atam domah zeh l’zeh v’ein partzufayhen domeem zeh l’zeh.

Blessed are You, the Sage of all secret things for their minds are not similar to each other and their faces are all unique.” (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot 58a)

I want us to say this blessing every time we gather: every Shabbat, each Sunday morning as we begin religious school, and wherever we stand up for justice. And I desperately want us to say it at a Biennial that better reflects the diversity of our Movement in two years in Washington, D.C.

Embracing our diversity will change who we are, and that change will make us better. It will make our communities and congregations beacons of possibility in our divisive and increasingly hate-filled world.

This isn’t easy work. We will have to develop new spiritual muscles to recognize the truly diverse Jewish people God created us to be. But once we do, we can use our strength to take on the issues in our world that are ripping us apart.

How’s our tent looking? It’s been growing, right? And if we’re strategic, focused, empathetic, and spiritually driven, we can keep it growing in the coming months and years.

So, is it possible that we could find and extend our tent over the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel? I say yes.

Schedule a training about equity, inclusion, and antiracism in your community. Learn about unconscious and implicit bias, and how to be a better ally. Lean on our Audacious Hospitality Toolkit and dig deeper into social justice activism through the RAC to address racism in our broader society. When marginalized members of your community find the courage to speak up, treat this as a gift – and listen deeply to what they have to say. Commit to antiracism and other active forms of fighting oppression. Take the time to reflect and make an honest accounting of your own actions.

I know I will. It is time that we make every person who comes under our tent feel like they already belong.

Remember: The Holy One wants us to be many more than we currently are. As many “as the stars in the heavens and the sand on the seashore.”

Let’s step outside our enormous, ever-widening tent tonight long enough to see the stars lighting the sky and the bright future ahead.

Thank you.

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