By Dr. Harvey Schipper, President.
Since becoming President of Temple last fall I have come to realize that many of my tacit assumptions about being a Jew require some focused thought, if not explicit articulation. The moment is poignant because it coincides with Temple renewal, generational changes in leadership, and in our manner of governance. We are re-imagining education as lifelong learning for the 21st century. We have launched a physical renewal that will both provide for our needs, and express our world view, mission and vision. I share my story in the hope you will bring your thinking about these issues to our congregational table as we move forward.
I suppose I’m like many members of our community: I take my faith and the way I conduct my life, as a Jew, somewhat for granted. A large proportion of my friends and colleagues are Jewish, though not to the extent of a generation or two past. I find spiritual comfort in holidays or in time of need, choosing ritual more in cafeteria style, some of this and a little of that, than by the more closely defined order of my grandparents’ generation. Jewish learning, particularly of a secular variety, remains important to me. When I was a youth leader in the 70’s, the synagogue was ‘the source’. Now, this city is blessed by an abundance of rich Jewish learning. What of Israel: a memory and distant dream to my ancestors; a vibrant David among Goliaths to my parents; a more formed complex realization to me, now. Updating, if not a re-think, is in order.
What is the nature of my Judaism? I grew up with the notion of an unspeakable YHWH. I don’t think I ever really thought the Torah was a received document. Rather, I saw it as a series of writings composed, argued and revised over ancient centuries, its truths so time tested as to be mythic. Its values formed my values, part by learning, part by cultural assimilation. And then I began to wonder, and wander. My ultimate spiritual experience came to be in a canoe, sensing the wonder of it all. God was in my daily experience as a physician. No amount of science could explain what I saw every day. Arthur Green, in Radical Judaism, explores a more diffuse God, present in everything, and inspiring the simple joy of realization that we live in such a magical place. It made me wonder whether we have become a tad too cerebral to feel our faith, and our humility.
Where does Temple fit in this, and how? What is its role? As a place of personal worship? As a source of learning and debate? How does it meet the broader world?
Rabbi Rick Jacobs loves to tell the story of his childhood religious education. He earned the moniker “Shecket ben Shecket” for his disruptive behavior throughout what he thought was an uninspiring learning experience. My experience was similar. I learned the prayers and rituals, the shoulds and should nots, until Bar Mitzvah after which most of the class quit. My experience of Reform, up the street, was one bordering jealousy. The teaching and engagement was broader. It was about the daily expression of Jewish values, and even for teens an exposure to the intellectual and social ferment that marked the 50’s and 60’s. There seemed a natural hierarchy of learning, and the synagogue was the focus. That still happens at Temple, but our voice seems muted. Perhaps we ought to be less the place than the catalyst of lifelong learning. Is there a desire to connect our membership to the knowledge and the issues, bridging distance time and place with technology? I struggle with who we educate, what we educate and how we educate. I ponder what we teach and what we learn.
During my twenties, at Beth Tzedec, I was the lay host for countless non-Jewish visitors. They came to services to observe and ask questions, some profound, others simple, yet others breathtaking in their naïve assumptions about Jews. That experience taught me the power of a synagogue as a source of Jewish thought and expression for a much broader world. It speaks to social action, engagement, and scholarship. The Reform Movement’s social action agenda has used our space and our voice to advance the great issues of our times. Today, the towering moral institutions of our world aren’t bound by walls. They hear and are heard in real time, anywhere. Is that to be our role? What is to be the balance between addressing our communal spiritual needs, and being the social and moral voice of our heritage?
Israel became real to me in 1970 when I spent a summer at the Technion, and also came under the tutelage of the archaeologist Itzhak Rahmani, then Curator of the Rockefeller Museum. He had made aliyah in the 1930’s, having studied, among other things, Chinese philosophy with Martin Buber. We scrambled around digs, debating the intersection of bible and current politics. It was the War of Attrition, of which I saw moments first hand. I came face to face with the reality of living the dream. To read, all these years later, the very human record of Israeli political life in Schlaim’s The Iron Wall, and Lion of Jordan grounds my commitment. It continues a personal evolution from Michener’s The Source, Touchman’s Bible and Sword and Connor Cruise O’Brien’s The Siege. It provides deep context for my understanding of current Israel. It invites the question, how best Temple can deepen our commitment.
We are moving forward. Our building is being restored and transformed. The search process for our Senior Rabbi is under way. Our educational mission is being re-articulated. All of this begs your engagement and involvement. Pausing, exploring and deeply considering our faith, our place and our place in the world energizes and renews us all. Coming together to share the rich diversity of our lives and views is a source of our great strength. Join in the effort. Temple is our place.