It’s Biennial Shabbat morning in San Diego and 5,000 people are streaming into a convention hall become synagogue. Waves of choral music wash over us, sweeping us into the melodies. We are a sea of Jews, some in dresses, suits and ties, others in jeans. The talitot could have come from a textile museum; neatly folded as narrow shawls, and enveloping blankets of every shade and texture. Beneath the melodies lurks the constant buzz of whispered introduction and re-connection. We are from every corner of the Reform movement, every continent, and every permutation of our religious expression.
Rick Jacobs assumes the bimah with the grace of the dancer he was before becoming a rabbi, and now President of the Union for Reform Judaism. He introduces the cantor, a slight, elegant, vivacious Asian woman who has just been appointed Senior Rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York. Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl responds by introducing and thanking her Korean Buddhist mother for raising her as a Jew, for Rabbi Buchdahl is the daughter of an American Jewish soldier who met and married her mother while on a tour of duty in Korea. And she goes on to thank all of those of other faiths who have also raised Jews in their marriages.
Apart from her extraordinary voice and talent, Rabbi Buchdahl is the expression of the future looking inclusiveness of the Reform Movement. Who is a Jew? To whom do we open our hearts and minds and Reform family, to extend the full and unfettered welcome and obligation of being a Jew? Beyond that, who do we welcome into our congregation?
Those of us of more traditional backgrounds tread very cautiously. We are not an evangelic faith, we say. As in the story of Ruth, we welcome with open heart and treat as our betters those who chose Judaism. But except for those of matrilineal descent, the choice must be an active and rigorous one. And yet… And yet… What truly defines a Jew? How much is heritage and how much conviction and prospect?
These questions go back to the beginnings of Judaism. The historical perspective is that our great resilience comes from a fully lived fine balance of constant innovation and absorption, layered upon a bedrock of principles. The magical moment of introduction on Biennial Shabbat reminds us that inclusiveness remains a key to our survival, and more…our vibrance and moral mission.
Engagement: Over 100 synagogue presidents gathered on Wednesday afternoon for a refresher on congregational leadership. Most of us had been together at the Scheidt Seminar in Atlanta this spring. This was our chance to bring our more recent experience to bear on lessons learned. Rabbi Ron Wolfson, author of Relational Judaism opened with a familiar prayer, interspersed with commentary:
Hinei ma tov u’ma na’im. Hey!
Look how good and really pleasing it is…
Shevet Achim For people to sit/dwell/be…
Gam Yachad… Together…really!
When we say this, do we mean it, and more important, do we experience it?
And this quote from a prominent temple founder “…I proudly paid my dues for over 40 years, but then I realized that the synagogue no longer stood for anything unique, the way it had (emphasis mine)…”
And then we talked about Saddleback Church, nearby. Twenty-five thousand strong, 2,500 in Sunday school every Sunday. Not Jewish. Deeply engaged. Every congregant has a direct link to the leadership and a role to play. It is not only coming together to feel good. It is coming together to do good.
The message for Holy Blossom is that our legacy was not the excellence of our programs per se, but in the relationships they fostered among us and with others. Holy Blossom is an icon in the Reform Movement because of what we did that influenced others, in education, in social action, in thought, and in fostering leaders. It is a given that we meet the spiritual and life cycle needs of our congregants, but that is not what will set us apart and make us special.
Engagement means connection with purpose. It is relationships that endure because they are forged on the anvil of meaningful experience.
Rabbi Larry Hoffman, one of Reform’s great thinkers and teachers, sat with me for several hours, and asked a lot of questions about how we are addressing the issues we face. I told him of the depth of talent in our congregation, to which he said no other congregation he knew of could match that. “Call on it. Use it. Engage it.” He went on to say, “Don’t assume it, and don’t be shy.”
Israel: Inclusion and engagement come together in our relationship with Israel. Much of the focus in San Diego was on our relationship with Israel. There were sessions about explaining Israel to others, increasing congregational visits, adding more about Israel to curriculum and more. Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Biennial on its last day, from Israel. Our relationship with the State is different from that of AIPAC. Yet, the dialogue between the State and the Reform Movement is very much engaged, particularly around social, educational and religious equality. We talk and listen, often beg to differ, and make progress. Netanyahu credits Reform with finding the roots of compromise around women at the Kotel.
The reality is our Israel narrative is not the only narrative. No amount of ‘rational’ argument will ever prove Israel was right and the others were wrong. Read Montefiore’s history, Jerusalem, A Biography, and relive a bloody repeated struggle for a small piece of land held sacred by three faiths going back millennia. Read Ari Shavit’s compelling new history of Israel, My Promised Land, and understand with a poetic intensity how two disenfranchised peoples sought co-existence but have been frustrated by the existential necessity of a home of unique identity in the same small place. Then we understand the Prime Minister’s comment, that major compromises will be required by both sides. He means the answers are not all there.
There is intense debate in Israel at every level of this existential discussion. We at Holy Blossom can make it so in the Diaspora. Just as the Reform Movement helped shape a path to resolution for Women of the Kotel, so the intellectual and creative power of the Diaspora can help bring about reconciliation between Palestinians and Israel, Haredi and more secular Jews. We can’t do that from polar positions. Holy Blossom has to be the place where we can comfortably and confidently confront the major issues of our time. It is the power of our diversity that can give us standing. It distresses me to receive calls and messages to the effect that one point of view or another is not welcome at Temple, or as in one particularly painful note, that we should limit people holding a certain view from leadership positions, perhaps even membership.
So what did your lay President learn at Biennial? It is all about inclusion and engagement writ large. It is for we lay leaders to demand excellence of ourselves, and our professional leadership, in the execution of our day-to-day affairs. Yet, it is more than that. Congregational life has to have meaning for every member. It is the continuing inspiration to challenge the conduct of our daily lives based on Jewish principles, rooted on Torah. It is the commitment to continuous learning and intellectual ferment in the name of tikun olam.