26 December 2008

The passing of a liberal lion...

There is no better way to describe Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf than as a lion of liberalism. I remember when I was in Rabbinic School at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Along with Rabbinic students from the other Jewish movements, I was invited to be a delegate at the Religious Action Center's Consulation on Conscience. In addition to the normal programming, we had a few session geared especially to us. One of those was a dinner and a conversation with Al Vorspan and Rabbi Wolf. We sat with mouths agape as these two bastions of the Reform prophetic voice swapped stories about the Civil Rights movement, protests against the VietNam War, anti-nuclear weapon rallies, and on and on. In a way, it was a bit of a mutual admiration society between two of the giants who had never missed a battle for justice.

I still remember not only the conversation, but some of the advice that Rabbi Wolf pushed on us. Never a shrinking violet, he chided us in advance. A Rabbi hadn't given a good enough sermon, he thundered, unless half the congregation was mad enough to come after him or her at the oneg.

In the 1970's, Rabbi Wolf served as the director of Yale Hillel - the days of Rev. Sloane Coffin and the New Haven Black Panter trials. He served from the pulpit of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago, across the street from the Obamas. I can only imagine what Friday nights were like in that sanctuary.

His loud voice will be missed. His roar will echo.

19 December 2008

Let's see: 8 nights per year, with compound interest...

Tom Smith brought this article on Chanukah and Adam Smith to my attention. Now, although I am a great fan of 18th century philosophers, economic analysis is not my first choice in weighing religious matters. However, the author, Ray Fisman, does make some interesting points about how much time parents spend investing in Judaism for their children. I use the economic terms on purpose. Perhaps, we should consider Judaism an investment and that we need to place more in that Divine 401K not only for our children, but for ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom

15 December 2008

Unemployed Mergers & Acquisitions Professional? Apply Here

I just received an interesting phone call from Johanna Ginsberg at the New Jersey Jewish News. It seems Rabbi Eric Yoffie (President of the Union for Reform Judaism) gave a sermon on Friday night at the URJ Board meeting in Tampa. The URJ press office sent out two press releases (1, 2) on Friday afternoon to the local papers - although nothing to me or to URJ members.

The first press release, I think, gives a reasonable summary of the whole sermon, placing concerns about the economy's effect on our Movement and its member congregations in context with realistic expectations of the new Obama administration.

The second, however, seems a bit more alarmist - pulling out of context a statement that I assume was meant by Rabbi Yoffie to reassure URJ lay leadership that member congregations were taking the current economic crisis seriously and looking with an open mind for solutions.
Not surprisingly, the NJ Jewish News picked up on the "Rabbi Yoffie calls on congregations to merge" aspect, rather than the meat of the sermon. That was the gist of Johanna's questions to me. I gave a rather vigorous defence of small synagogues as the place that people need MORE in difficult economic times, not less - and that it was not a case of: If we have a Wal-Mart why do we need a Mom&Pop store? We are certainly not opposed to joint programming and sharing resources - which we have explored in the past - but seek to do so on ideological, rather than economic grounds. The "services" provided at other congregations are certainly not the same as the services we have every Shabbat.

I am suprised that the URJ press office chose to spin things as they did in the "economy" press release. The tone seems a bit defeatist and would only serve to irritate member congregations. I don't blame the NJJN for the tack it decided to take, it seems to have been provided to them by our own press release.

I look forward to reading the article later this week.

25 November 2008

Come to Shabbat services - It just may save your life...

Study: Attending services cuts women’s death risk

JERUSALEM (JTA) -- Regular attendance at religious services reduces the risk of death for women by 20 percent, according to a new study.

Twenty percent less likely to die? Ever? I'm not sure that I understand this article but I felt that, as a Rabbi, it was my obligation to share this important medical study with the members of my congregation (even though it may mean a substantial decrease in funerals and yizkor contributions).

22 November 2008

How Many Rabbis Does It Take to Install a Cantor?

It was one of the great privileges of my Rabbinate to spend this past Shabbat at Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park, Michigan where our former student Cantor, Darcie Naomi Sharlein, invited me to install her in her new pulpit. After the service, in the receiving line, each of the over 200 congregants and community members present thanked me. I do not think that they were thanking me for my words, nor, necessarily for travelling to Detroit, but rather thanking me (and all the rest of our congregation) for sending them Darcie. (I tried to tell them that she came to us considerably talented and that we hadn't actually packed her up and mailed her to Detroit - that it was her choice to come to them.) However, I am happy to share not only the greetings of Darcie and her family with the congregation, but also the knowledge that our former student Cantor has landed safely in a place where she is loved and appreciated.

20 November 2008

Hungary for change...

There is an interesting article on the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA) site today about what is going on in Hungarian Jewry. Our sister congregation - Szim Salom - has never been recognized by the official Jewish body, which disperses the government funds to the individual organizations. A few years ago, they were pleased that they had been recognized as an official group. This resulted in two important changes: As opposed to US citizens, who donate money and then take a tax deduction, Hungarians can route 1% of their tax payments to specific non-profit organizations. Szim Salom raised a great deal of money through this program. In addition, they were able to petition to the Budapest city government for a permanent site for their congregation. (Although the first site didn't work out, they are trying to find another.)

The article explains how the official Jewish body is attempting to reach out and be more inclusive. However, several smaller institutions - including Szim Salom, a Conservative (called "Masorti" overseas) youth organization and Chabad - have boycotted the new council, saying it is powerless and its creation is only window-dressing. The current president of Szim Salom, Gabor Radvanszki (a very young president who has welcomed us on each of our visits) is quoted in the article.

We'll find out how things are going when we visit in April.

18 November 2008

Two Seconds of Commentary*

There is a very interesting attitude buried in the URJ's Ten Minutes of Torah for today. Tuesday deals with the Mishnah and the section studied focusses on what blessings to say for foods not specifically covered by more definitive blessings. In th end of the mishnah, Rabbi Yehudah says, "Anything which is a type of curse should not be blessed." He is referring to vinegar - as it is overaged wine; fruit gathered from the ground - as it is overripe; and locusts - as they are not only edible, but also dangerous to crops.

I am uncomfortable with Rabbi Yehudah's logic. On the one hand, I am critical of the belief that everything is a blessing; that even evil acts have an upside. However, I would not go as far as Rabbi Yehudah - vinegar has its own unique identity, taste, and purposes and its usage goes beyond that of leftover and spoilt wine.

Blessing is not just for ideals; there are blessings in that which is blemished.

*Thanks to Tom for the title of this post.

05 November 2008

Atem nitzavim hayom - You stand this day, all of you...

Regardless of political stripe, all Americans should be rejoicing this morning in the light of a prophecy fulfilled. The modern prophet, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., famously dreamed of the day when we would judge each other not by the color of our skins, but by the content of our character. As Jews, we constantly remind ourselves that we were slaves in the land of Egypt - not to perpetuate slavery, but rather to erase oppression. Yesterday, we as a nation took a strong and steady step toward that redemptive future. There are many more steps to travel but, in a sense, we all stand at Mount Sinai, in a moment of national covenant. Let us hope that, together, we can find a way out of the wilderness.

Then shall the just see and exult, the righteous be glad, and the pious sing for joy.

24 October 2008

Temple Topics Teaser

Here's a preview of my Rabbi's Column for the November Temple Topics.

If you want a summary in one sentence - Don't forget to vote!

06 October 2008

Dr. Avraham Biran

On Shabbat Ki Tavo (9/19/08), I gave a sermon as an azkarah (memorial) for Dr. Avraham Biran who had died that Wednesday. There was a paid obituary in the New York Times, to which I entered in the guestbook this note:

Tonight, at my congregation in New Jersey, I will remember Prof. Biran - most notably for the moment that he brought archeology alive for us. My HUC class was in Israel in the summer of 1993. All of our parents back in the States had read the NYTimes article about the David stele, when this energetic old man came in to speak with us, in preparation for a tiyyul (field trip) later that week. He brought with him a milk crate covered with a cloth. When he asked two members of the class to lift up the rock inside, we could scarcely believe that this was the evidence of the Davidic dynasty on the world's front pages. A fragile remnant of history in our clumsy hands! Later, when he gave us a personal tour of Tel Dan, where the stele had been found, he quite easily outpaced even the most fit - leaping from rock to rock, making the site come alive.

Today, the Times published a full obituary.

05 October 2008

Her Prayers of Forgiveness and Hope

Not to focus too much on the New York Times, but there was an interesting article in the New Jersey section this Sunday (10/5/08) about Yom Kippur written by Sally Friedman.

Although the article was titled Her Prayers of Forgiveness and Hope, I felt it came more from fear than hope. From some clues in the article, I would guess that the author comes from a Reform background. I would hope, myself, that we are teaching more about repentance as a self-reflection than a moment to bargain with God. So much is out of our hands, how we treat others is something that we can control and make better in the year to come.

26 June 2008

The Future of Reform Judaism?

A few weeks ago, the Reform Rabbi's listserve was abuzz about a new article in Commentary magazine by Dr. Jack Wertheimer. Dr. Wertheimer teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and is an expert on modern American Judaism and its communal organization.

The article gave an interesting analysis of Reform Judaism. The first two-thirds of the article were a mostly flattering account of how Reform Judaism is actually living up to its name - that we do "consider Reform a verb" and are constantly re-evaluating and (hopefully) progressing as a Progressive denomination. This part I liked.

The last part of the article was more of a criticism and a challenge. His point was that our Outreach efforts have made us the denomination to join. In contrast to other liberal (in a political sense) American denominations (Jewish or no), we have been able to maintain our membership AND a coherent liberal voice. However, the future remains to be seen.

He makes some points that we Reform Jews must take seriously:
  • Reform Judaism has not really increased in size, but rather maintained absolute numbers while Conservative Judaism has slipped and Orthodoxy (the smallest of the big three) has increased.
  • Much of Reform Judaism's new membership is intermarried families and the long-term Jewish identification of children of such families is still an open inquiry.
  • In the current era, "membership" or "affiliation" is a measure of paying dues, not participation in synagogue activities, Jewish worship, or home observance. Wertheimer also brings out the point that where the "leadership" (either professional or member) of the Reform is, may not be where the bulk of the membership may be.
My responses:
  • To the first point, the numbers game is not so important to me. I am more concerned with whether those who are raised as Reform Jews stay Reform Jews (meaning that we teach them something that is meaningful to them over a lifetime) than if our absolute numbers are staying the same.
  • One aspect of the intermarriage issue has long troubled me. When I was growing up, in a Reform congregation down the road, most of those who joined (who hadn't just chosen the closest congregation) had joined a Reform congregation because they identified with Reform Judaism - either from their upbringing or a choice to affiliate Reform rather than their birth/adolescent affiliation. Today, many intermarried families with a partner from other Jewish backgrounds (notably Orothodox or Conservative) join a Reform temple because it is the only place that they feel their (non-Jewish) spouse will feel at all welcome. This brings up two challenges:
    1. This will only last so long as the other movements ignore outreach to the intermarried - and that era has ended for the Conservative movement and for Chabad, which are both actively finding new ways to reach out.
    2. The Jewish partner does not feel comfortable with the practice of the Reform congregation and, unless they come to adjust their expectations, find themselves worshipping and teaching their children a Judaism that is not their own preferred practice.
  • Here is a challenge that all of us in the Reform movement need to take very seriously. The ideal of Reform Judaism is "informed choice". The hope is that we take the time to learn about Jewish tradition and only THEN decide whether to do, not do, or modify a particular practice or ritual. There are many people who are NOT members of a Reform congregation but call themselves "Reform", when what they really mean is that they do not do what they think they are supposed to do, but still consider themselves religiously Jewish. Reform Judaism is NOT JudaismLite - and that is something that we need to make sure that every member of every Reform congregation understands and believes.
My final criticism of the Wertheimer article should come as no surprise to members of this congregation who are at all aware of the work that our part-time Director of Education does in her off-hours. The Reform movement takes the idea of Jewish education very seriously. It is a mistake to disregard the tremendous intent, work and results of the new Chai curriculum. As at no other period and in no other movement, the Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning has created a template so that all congregations - from the smallest to the largest - can bring the children and parents of their congregations to a common base level of understanding of Reform Judaism. Wertheimer does not take any of this self-reflection (or even the ECE program of HUC) and conscious development into account.

So, read the article for yourself and post below what you think...

19 June 2008

Meeting with Sallai Meridor

Yesterday I was in Washington, DC for a meeting of the board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, we had an interesting guest. Sallai Meridor, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, had heard that we were meeting nearby and asked if he could speak to us. Needless to say, the CCAR President, Rabbi Peter Knobel, was happy to oblige.

After thanking us for the important work that we as Reform Rabbis do and noting the increased importance of the State of Israel in the Reform Movement, Ambassador Meridor's message was simple: Israel's major external threat at this moment in time is Iran, Iran, Iran.

He made the following points:

  • If Iran succeeds in getting a nuclear bomb, they might use it.
  • If Iran succeeds in getting a nuclear bomb, everyone else in the region will want one.
  • If others in the region start to get them, the time lag until a nuclear bomb is in the hands of a terrorist is minimal.
He then said that:
  1. Iran needs to know that the United States is monolithic on preventing Iran's nuclear proliferation.
  2. The rest of the world needs to get on the bandwagon.
  3. Stronger sanctions are needed now. (He mentioned specifically that Iran has little in the way of refineries and actually imports much of its gasoline products. This is a vulnerable point.)
  4. Iran needs to know that "all options are on the table".
Finally, he spoke about Hezbollah and Hamas, but in the context of how they gave Iran two military arms encircling Israel - the first with a large missile battery capable of reaching three-quarters of Israel, and the second with a growing missile battery capable of covering much of the rest.

Of the truce scheduled to begin today with Hamas in Gaza, he said that the choice was escalation and re-occupation or giving Egypt's diplomacy a chance. Of the negotiations with Syria, he said that the current generation - before it puts its grandchildren in the line of fire - needs to try negotiation, if only to separate the Syrian/Iranian axis. Of potential direct negotiations with Lebanon, he said the time had come.


At the end of his talk, Ambassador Meridor also offered options for things that I as a Rabbi can give to my congregants to take action - in addition to the usual informing our governmental representatives and holding them to account:

He told a story of how he looked into his small pension funds and asked his financial advisor if he had any funds in companies that did business in Iran. At first, his advisor said that there were, but there was little he could do with the larger fund. Ambassador Meridor, as a private investor, asked that his funds be taken out of those relevant companies. In response, the fund did some investigation and removed a larger than $1M investment in a Swedish company doing business in Iran and replaced that investment in another company in a similar business, but not in Iran.

Ambassador Meridor challenged us to take a look at our investments, speak to our brokers or investment advisors, and do what we can - not necessarily to start a grassroots campaign - but to begin to say, we don't want to put our money into a country that exports terror; that denies the Holocaust, or that threatens (and has the power) to wipe Israel off the map.


I am going to take a look at my family's investments (small though they may be) and do a moral cheshbon (check-up). It is time to make sure I am not investing in companies that profit the Iranian government. In exchange, I believe it is time to move my money toward investments that promote better use of our finite environmental resources.

If I learn anything of use to you, I will let you know.