Ours is a Different Kind of Movement

November 6, 2015Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Editor's Note: The following was presented at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial 2015 convention on November 5, 2015.

Imagine you’re walking down the street and some nice person stops you and asks, “Are you Jewish?”

Even before you answer, they invite you inside, saying, “Come survive with us!”

Are they kidding? It would be like a guy standing outside a restaurant with a flyer inviting people to come inside and eat dinner. Why? So we can keep our restaurant open. It’s not exactly what you’d call a winning strategy.

Too often, though, that is exactly our strategy. To someone on the periphery of Jewish life – and that includes the majority of people who identify as Jewish – it’s not clear what we’re all so busy doing. Too often, Jewish life looks like a collection of institutions hawking their wares and soliciting donations.

But we wouldn’t be involved in Jewish life, let alone be here at this Biennial, if we didn’t have a clearer, stronger reason. We’re not just keeping the lights on. We’re committed to doing something of ultimate significance.

You’ve already heard tonight about our successes over the past two years and the transformative youth work we’re doing across North America. And on Shabbat morning, I’ll share some thoughts about how we can better reach out to those who are not yet part of our community, with what we call audacious hospitality.

But in order for that work to be successful, we need to be able to give people a good reason to care – a reason to join us. We need a clear, compelling answer to the questions: who are we, and what do we do, and why does it matter.

As we gather here in Orlando, we represent the largest movement in Jewish life, larger than the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements combined. But that doesn’t begin to describe what we could be, what we can shape together. I want us to grow, not for the sake of being large, but so that our holy work will have greater impact. And I want us to grow not by watering down what we stand for, but by offering an unmistakable and undeniable vision of faith with purpose, faith that shapes each of us, our communities and ultimately the world.

That’s what I want to talk about tonight: renewing, refining, and, yes, reforming that vision so that we can share it far and wide.

We believe that we were put on this earth not to take up space or punch the time clock of our years, but rather to move our people and our world closer to the redeemed world envisioned by our prophets – a world of justice, compassion, and wholeness.

And it’s time for us to come together and shout it from the rooftops!

Tikkun Olam as a Gateway to Jewish Life

Today, being “religious” has too often come to mean being intolerant and self-righteous, willfully ignorant of science, and deeply allergic to change. That’s why many theologically liberal Jews and Christians have initiated a modern-day exodus from religious life. And, hey: If that’s what it means to be religious, you can count me out, as well.

Those who hunger for social change and community may have retreated from religious life, but I don’t believe for a second that they’ve lost their appetite.

In the 2013 Pew Survey of Jewish Americans, people were asked, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” At the top of the list was remembering the Holocaust. A few percentage points down were leading an ethical life and working for justice and equality. Way down at the bottom of the list were observing Jewish traditions like kashrut, prayer, and Shabbat.

So here’s a radical idea: What if we start where our people are, and not where we think they ought to be? Millennials tell us that, more than money or prestige, what they are searching for in life is meaning – a way to make an impact bigger than themselves. And the majority of our people say their Jewish identity is built on tikkun olam – healing the world, welcoming the stranger, acts of social justice. So why don’t we make that the biggest gateway into our holy work?

After all, tikkun olam is not some new idea created by the Reform Movement. From antiquity, advocacy, social service, and acts of loving-kindness have been primary Jewish acts on par with study and ritual.

Some who claim a monopoly on Jewish authenticity overlook the imperatives of social justice. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox chief rabbis are zealous about making sure no chametz is found in restaurants or stores on Pesach, and they are scrupulous about the Shabbat restrictions in Israeli hotels, but you will rarely hear them speak out about their government’s inadequate housing policies, or the staggering gap between rich and poor, or the despair of Arab citizens of Israel who feel that their lives can never improve by playing within the system, leaving extremists the opportunity to play upon their frustration.

The prophet Amos railed against divorcing ritual observance from public and private ethics.

I hate, I despise your feasts…
I will not accept your sacrifices…
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like a mighty stream
. (Amos 5:21-24)

Our movement believes it is impossible to detach tikkun olam from serious Judaism. That sets us apart. And it offers us a powerful opportunity to reach out to people who don’t see what they’re hungry for on any other menu.

A vision of Judaism that starts with tikkun olam can be tremendously compelling. But let’s be clear: A vision of Judaism that stops there is dangerously limited.

Just as we cannot build and sustain our Jewish communities solely on ritual and study, neither can we build and sustain our Jewish identity solely on being good citizens of the world.

Our challenge is not to choose between these commitments, but to strengthen the bond between them. So I propose a vision in which tikkun olam is the initial gateway into a life of Jewish commitment.

After all, how many Jews had their passion for social justice first stirred by what they learned around the Pesach table, sitting in the temporary dwelling of refugees called a sukkah, or lighting the Hanukkah menorah? How many ground their commitment to action in the words they read in a Torah narrative or heard from their rabbi on the pulpit?

Serious Jewish study should lead to the soup kitchen. Sincere prayer should prepare us to do battle with injustice. But too often, traditional Judaism has ignored tikkun olam. Too often yeshiva study and rigorous observance of ritual mitzvot do not lead to the prophet’s call to “establish justice in the gate. (Amos 5:15)

On the other hand, for too many non-Orthodox Jews, tikkun olam is not grounded in deep study, spiritual practice, or communal engagement. Social justice not grounded in text, and ritual is ephemeral and unsustainable. Like a bouquet of fresh flowers, it is destined to dry up and wither; it cannot be as easily passed down to the next generation.

If we invite people to begin with righteous acts, they will learn what we know: that study bolsters the strength and clarity of our actions.

If we invite people to help us feed the hungry and house the homeless, they will learn what we know: that prayer, Shabbat, and festival observance help replenish the reserves of idealism that can be depleted through that holy work.

Together, we can build congregations of depth and diversity, communities that illustrate how much more good we can do together than we could ever do alone, houses of worship that demonstrate how much our movement has to offer the world.

It’s no wonder that some of our most successful congregations are those that have the most robust social justice programs. In addition, Just Congregations, our congregational community organizing arm forged by Rabbi Jonah Pesner, as well as the complementary Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, have galvanized so many of our communities and our people.

These “just congregations” have helped us re-imagine Jewish life and given us a glimpse of the possible: communities of authentic relationship, in which members find meaning and purpose studying enduring Jewish text, celebrating inspiring Jewish rituals, and acting together for a more just world. They aspire to invest the time to know one another, to discover shared Jewish values, and to craft a common vision for the community they treasure. And they reach beyond barriers of race, class, and faith to explore common values, stories, and concerns from other diverse communities, knowing that our common humanity strengthens us all, empowering us to make real change.

But we need more. Together with our congregations, we have only begun to drink from the waters of righteousness, flowing like a mighty stream. We need to help our congregations engage their members more deeply in an integrated way, around study, ritual, and action. We need to reach way beyond the walls of organized Jewish life, and bring more souls into this integrated approach of tikkun olam. We need to extend programs like our L’Taken and our Machon Kaplan seminars and our Mitzvah Corps to many more people. And I challenge even more of our most influential philanthropists to invest in the powerful pull of social justice as a way to bring young adults and families into our community.

We are blessed to have so many avenues to showcase our commitment to tikkun olam; we need many more.

Circles of Obligation: Tikkun Olam in Action

But in order for this vision to be compelling – in order for our work to meet the challenges of our times – we must begin by repairing our own understanding of what repairing the world really means.

In the waning days of summer, we were all shaken by the image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a Turkish beach as his Syrian refugee family desperately tried to reach a safe harbor.

Who was this Muslim Syrian boy to us? Our movement knew: He was part of our circle of responsibility.

And we acted. On the High Holidays, thousands of our members raised their voices like the shofar, summoning the White House and Congress, calling on them – successfully, by the way! – to welcome at least 100,000 refugees. Several of our Canadian congregations set an example for all of us by committing themselves to adopt refugee families.

Our understanding of tikkun olam must stretch us to a moral stance that includes everyone, not simply those who are like us. It extends our circle of responsibility. And we should celebrate that.

Our congregations are, of course, powerful vehicles for repairing the world, magnifying exponentially our individual ability to effect change in our time. And our movement, in turn, magnifies exponentially the work of individual congregations.

When a community is galvanized around acting together to do good – regularly feeding the hungry, housing the homeless – deep bonds are created among its people, and the congregation’s deep purpose radiates to those outside its walls, beckoning them to take part. People are drawn to a house of worship where spiritual practice is hands-on and hearts open, embodying our most ancient values.

But our congregations don’t have to stop at addressing the symptoms of injustice. Together, we can use our hands and hearts to attack the causes of injustice – and not just around the world, but right here at home, as well.

Thirty-six times the Bible reminds us v’ahavtem et ha’ger: to love the resident alien and treat the stranger as ourselves. But these words do not apply only to Rohingya Muslims from Burma or families fleeing the war in Syria. They apply to the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of our own society. They apply to the 5,000 children living in foster care because their parents were detained or deported.

We should be proud that the Jewish community – including Reform CA, our powerful congregational-based network – has been unified in its call to reform our immigration system and end this human tragedy. And in this political season, we should declare what we know to be true about our own country: that we do not “make America great again” by building walls. What has made America great is her capacity for compassion and her willingness to welcome immigrants.

Our faith refuses to leave public policy to politicians. But just as we must refuse to retreat from the debate, we should insist on joining it on our own terms, speaking not with political platitudes, but from our Jewish treasury of spiritual imperatives.

As Isaiah said:

Seek justice,
Undo oppression;
Defend the fatherless,
Plead for the widow.
(Isaiah 1:17)

When President Obama addressed our Biennial in 2011, asserting that he might not have become president were it not for the historic efforts of our movement, it was a powerful affirmation of what we can accomplish together.

But our Religious Action Center in Washington is only as effective as we, as our movement, are willing to make it. It’s up to us to stand strong with sisters and brothers of all faiths, to act powerfully for real repair in our world, and in our own community.


Of course, “our own community” is a phrase with multiple meanings.

So while we should applaud our movement’s work on behalf of the marginalized around us – both globally and in our own neighborhoods – we must also devote our energies to working on behalf of the marginalized among us.

Almost 2,000 years ago, in the Mishnah – our earlier code of post-Biblical law – tikkun ha-olam is mostly used as a category of responding to the needs of fellow Jews.

And while we Reform Jews are rightfully proud of our sustained efforts to champion the cause of God’s universal justice, some have been less responsive to the urgent needs of our own people. Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel would not have understood such universalism at the expense of particularism.

We are profoundly obligated to care for our own people wherever they are: elderly Jews in Coney Island, Ukrainian Jews in Kiev, Jews throughout Europe facing rising anti-Semitism, secular, and Orthodox Israelis in Sderot facing constant rocket attacks.

If tikkun olam begins at home, then it begins not only with our literal homes in communities across North America, but with our spiritual home in Israel. And that means it is incumbent upon us to help repair our beloved and embattled Jewish state.

I returned, just days ago, from the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem. Ours was the largest Diaspora delegation, and even with the many vicious attacks on Israelis, no one from our ARZENU delegation cancelled. Our unconditional love for the Jewish state was once again a badge of pride for us.

It was painful, but not surprising, to hear much of the world defend the Palestinians who brutally stabbed Jewish 13-year-olds and grandmothers, excusing the barbaric murders because of the harsh realities of the occupation. Too many world leaders and so-called social justice activists refused to condemn Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, who in a speech before the UN a month ago incited his people, saying, “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, clean and pure blood spilled for Allah.”

At such a moment, Israel’s safety and security must remain a primary concern for our movement. Indeed, Israel’s right and responsibility to defend its citizens – and our obligation to support them in this effort, even as we urge the U.S. and Canada to help secure Israel’s qualitative military edge over her enemies – is at the heart of a tikkun olam that embraces always both the universal and the particular.

Therefore, we must not remain silent when price tag attacks kill innocent Palestinians. But neither can we stand idly by when our own Jewish family members are victims of terrorist stabbings and shootings. And make no mistake, whether they are ultra-Orthodox, settlers, or politically opposite from us, they too are part of our family and part of our circle of obligation. We are not only Reform Jews; we are Jews.

The Jewish state needs our movement to be staunch defenders of Israel. And we will never stop defending her right to exist, no matter the hostile arena, from the Presbyterian General Assembly to the UN and beyond. As the largest North American movement in Jewish life, we can and should play a key role in the efforts here against BDS – the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement – a global effort to delegitimize the very existence of the one unique Jewish state.

Some well-funded campus anti-BDS efforts, like the “Maccabees,” recruit mostly hawkish speakers on behalf of Israel. But many Jewish students on campus believe, as do we, that their love for Israel not only justifies rebutting BDS, but requires them to challenge troubling Israeli policies that fail to live up to the Jewish tradition’s highest ideals, and which alienate many who otherwise would more assertively support Israel.

Many Jews, especially younger ones, feel that Israel has become too intolerant, not only of Arab citizens of Israel, but also of non-Orthodox Jews, Ethiopian Jews, LGBT Jews, asylum seekers, and others. Even as they may grieve for Israeli victims of terror, many cannot relate to the continued growth of settlements in the West Bank, or the weakening of democratic institutions like Israel’s Supreme Court as a result of the constant attacks from some ultra-Orthodox and far right circles.

Our Reform Movement has long opposed Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank. The occupation threatens the very Zionism that we hold dear – the living expression of a Jewish democratic state. It causes pain and hardship to the Palestinians and alienates Israel from friends and allies around the world. Only two states for two peoples, both states viable and secure, living side-by-side in peace, will bring this tragic conflict to its long-awaited end.

But favoring a two-state solution is not the same as bringing it about. Alas, no single party to the debate has a monopoly on narrowness. Too often, the Israeli and American Jewish establishment holds Palestinian leaders alone responsible for failed peace initiatives. But progressives are equally at fault for labeling Israel as the sole culprit in scuttling peace initiatives.

Sadly, we are moving further from the goal of two states for two people, giving an opening to those – both on the right and on the left – who are pushing for a single-state alternative, an alternative that is completely unworkable and unsustainable.

The United States and Canada need to mobilize their allies across the globe to pressure Palestinian leaders to condemn and to prevent further, the current spate of stabbings and shootings. Although Israel cannot control what the Palestinians do, it can act more assertively to take its own steps to make the conditions as favorable as possible for a resumption of successful negotiations.

The current Israeli government is unlikely to permit advances in religious freedom such as civil marriage, equal funding of non-Orthodox institutions, and reducing the power of the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate. The Temple Mount tinderbox has ignited geopolitical challenges that have temporarily slowed the creation of our egalitarian, pluralistic section of the Kotel. Ministers in the current government denounce Reform Judaism, actively seek to violate the status quo on the Temple Mount, divert resources from the social welfare budgets to expand settlements, publicly minimize the importance of the rule of law – and then wonder why many Jews and non-Jews feel alienated.

We teach our children to repair the world by healing brokenness wherever they find it. But Jews who see brokenness in the treatment of Israel’s minorities, or in the way ultra-Orthodox views of Judaism are being enshrined in secular law, are being told that, when it comes to Israel, you should check your commitment to tikkun olam at the door. We will not.

Asking Jews around the world only to wave the flag of Israel and to support even the most misguided policies of its leaders drives a wedge between the Jewish soul and the Jewish state. It is beyond counterproductive.

In the aftermath of the Iran deal, there are new and deep scars and divisions. But at the end of the day, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama understood our movement’s measured position on the Iran deal. Our statement helped reframe the wider discussion in the Jewish community, and by recognizing that Israel needs all of us, not a partisan slice of us, to stand up for Israel, we helped hold a diverse Jewish community together.

In Israel, the loudest Jewish religious voices promote ethnocentrism. And here in North America, too often the loudest pro-Israel voices promote a myopic view of Israel, refusing to acknowledge the times when Israel falls short of her declaration of independence. I understand the fear that any criticism of Israel may provide fuel for her enemies. But I believe we can and do make a much stronger case for Israel when we allow ourselves to see Israel as she is rather than as some idealized version of herself.

Just one month ago, Naama and Eitam Henkin, a young couple in their 30s, were brutally murdered by Palestinian terrorists while their four children ages 9, 7, 4, and 4 months watched from the back seat. The children are now among the latest orphans in that blood-soaked region. Two weeks ago in Jerusalem, I sat with Rabbanit Chana Henkin, the mother of Rabbi Eitam and grandmother of the four orphans. I expressed the condolences of our movement. This brilliant, Orthodox founder of Nishmat, an institute for higher Jewish learning for women, shared with me that this black hole of grief that her family is living through is an excruciating part of fulfilling the mission of the Jewish people. Her strength and faith are beyond inspirational. We would all do well to learn her Torah.

And you surely remember that over the summer, there was an arson attack in the West Bank village of Duma. A Palestinian family was asleep in the pre-dawn hours when Jewish terrorists firebombed their home and spray-painted on the side of their house the Hebrew words “vengeance and long live the Messiah.” The father, mother, and 18-month old son died from their severe burns, while their 4-year-old son, Ahmed, survived, tragically now an orphan. Two weeks ago, I visited Ahmed in Tel Hashomer Hospital outside of Tel Aviv, where he is slowly recovering from his nearly fatal burns. With me was Rabbi Noa Sattath, the director of our Israeli movement’s social justice arm, the Israel Religious Action Center. We sat at his bedside with his grandfather, Hussain, who years before had helped build that very hospital. I expressed our collective shame that such a heinous act was committed in the name of Judaism. I assured him that our movement will pray for Ahmed’s recovery.

There is no moral equivalence here, just two visits with Job. Do our hearts break for both families or just for one? Do we feel more pain for one of them? This moral dilemma is an imprecise measure of one’s universal values or commitment to our Jewish people. It is a classic contrast of universalism and particularism.

The Zionism and Judaism we love and live require us to feel the pain of both families. Too much of our wider communal debate assumes that the chambers of our hearts have room for only one.

Our movement – with its alternative to the rigid and insular Judaism that permeates Israeli public life and its unbounded passion for tikkun olam as a living expression of Jewish life – must remind the Israeli state about the power and wisdom of a pluralistic approach to Jewish life. As Israel is essential to our Jewish lives, so too can our North American Reform Jewish community be an enormous source of spiritual, moral, and strategic help to the Jewish state, now and for generations to come.

Our Moment to be Bold

Tikkun olam compels us to live out our values around the globe: in Israel, in North America, and in our own backyards. But it also compels us to repair ourselves. It is about the world within as much as it is about the world around us. And that’s a piece of our message whose power we shouldn’t overlook.

The Jewish tradition has powerful teachings about cultivating moral virtues such as generosity, gratitude, integrity, humility, patience, and responsibility. The goal isn’t simply to follow a bunch of rules for the sake of following rules, but to make a little more progress every day toward becoming our best selves.

It’s not something anyone is born doing well. We have to work at it.

And it’s ritual practice that helps us refine ourselves – repair ourselves. Our congregations help us do that work. That’s why, on the High Holidays, so many come seeking the spiritual tools – liturgy and sacred community – to repair the brokenness in their own lives.

Tikkun olam can be an important gateway not only for those who wish to find Jewish partners and Jewish affirmation in repairing the world, but also for those who wish to find the tools to heal and repair brokenness within.

In our phenomenally innovative network of congregations, we have so much more to offer than “Come survive with us.”

Come build with us: Connect your efforts with other Jews who wake up wanting to add to the bank of goodness in the world, and shape a more just, compassionate, and whole community for yourself and your children.

Come practice and learn with us: Cultivate within yourself more gratitude, more wisdom, more kindness, more wholeness, more mindful living.

Come pray and meditate with us: Feel calmer, more focused, more resilient, more grounded.

And perhaps most of all, come seek with us, for we are a faith of Jewish searchers, working together every day to refine and reform what it means to care for our world, what it means to take part in this incredible human journey – indeed, what it means to be religious, to be alive.

At times, that search can be challenging, and complicated, and confusing. When we debate the best path to take, we can find ourselves in conflict.

But there is something ennobling in the search. There is power in our actions. There is depth in our movement. And I want to close today with a moment of movement, a moment of possibility.

Watch the full speech >

Because we are, after all, the Reform Movement, I thought some movement might help us see that we are a different kind of movement. Before we had sacred texts or holy rituals, we humans expressed our deepest spiritual yearnings in dance.

In the course of history, there are so many varied expressions of dance. Very briefly, I want to highlight the relationship between classical ballet and modern dance. Why? As a way of gaining a deeper understanding of the process of “Reforming Judaism.”

Take two remarkable dancers, Kendra Portier and Christina Jane Robson, who are a part of David Dorfman Dance. I met David in the early ’90s at Jacob’s Pillow, a Jewish artists’ retreat, and we’ve remained connected over the years.

There is a beauty and an elegance in ballet, a highly evolved and refined way of moving. But at the beginning of the 20th century, the first modern pioneers rebelled against the rigidity and formality of classical dance in the hopes of finding new ways of moving, new ways to express the yearning of the human spirit.

But modern is a different kind of movement. If you did that in ballet class, you’d be reprimanded or asked to leave.

The early modern dancers were all about rebelling from the limits of classical ballet, though most of them had been trained in ballet. Doesn’t it sound like the pioneers of Reform Judaism? They had to rebel against traditional Judaism. The early reformers and modern dancers both needed to break away from more traditional forms.

You could say that in ballet there are too many rules, and in modern dance there aren’t enough. Reform Jews, does that sound familiar?

In ballet, men partner their ballerinas.

Like traditional Judaism, ballet kept women and men in stratified gender roles for centuries.

In modern dance, men can partner with men, women lift women – there are no more strict gender roles

Today, however, ballet and modern dance are not two antagonistic worlds. Modern dance choreographers are regularly commissioned to create dances for the world’s best ballet companies. Many modern dancers take ballet to give them certain kinds of technical strength.

Yes, it can be challenging to meld these schools together. Yes, there can be conflict. But the world is better, richer, and more beautiful because modern dance has helped to redefine what contemporary ballet looks like and what dance can be.

Ballet can be extraordinarily beautiful – to dance or to watch – but for too long, that was the only “serious” way to dance. No more. Now subjects previously unknown are explored through contemporary dance. Ballet dancers used to ridicule the way modern dancers move, but not any longer. Now they have a healthy respect for each other – without the rivalries and competitions of old.

Today, we Reform Jews are no longer allergic to everything in traditional Judaism. We can and should reinterpret what prayer, kashrut, and Shabbat are, how Jewish study and practice can be the underpinning to a life of tikkun olam. They can give us the balance and strength to labor daily to do justice in our time.

For us, being religious is not about being dogmatic, intolerant, or unchanging. It’s about living a life of depth and commitment. It shapes who we are and leads us to build just communities, which in turn shape a more just, compassionate, and whole world.

We are partners with the Holy One in shaping our world as it ought to be. Each day, we pray the words of Aleinu, which reminds us of our sacred obligations to Am Yisrael, to our Jewish brothers and sisters. But toward the end of Aleinu, we say “l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai—to repair the world under divine sovereignty.” Rav Saadia Gaon’s 10th-century siddur contains a variant spelling of the word tikkun; it is spelled with a kaf and not a kuf. This switch of a single letter changes the meaning from “repair” to “hold together.” Maybe this is nothing more than a scribal error, but I love the additional meaning Rav Gaon’s version offers. Besides repairing the world, engaging in tikkun olam also holds us together.

That’s the invitation we should be extending. And this is our moment to shout that message from the rooftops.

This is our moment to move with confidence and purpose and joy.

This is our moment to grow our congregations, to bring new depth and diversity to our community, and to make our movement an even more powerful advocate for social justice – in Israel, in North America, and anywhere else our world is in need of repair.

This is a moment for boldness. A moment for courage. A moment for action.

So let us seize it! Let us stand up and shout! Let us fling open our doors and our hearts! And let us infuse our movement and its proud tradition with new energy, and new hope, and new meaning, and new life.

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