Sunday, November 15, 2015

Biennial Sermon Nov 13, 2015

Last week I attended the URJ’s 73rd Biennial Convention in Orlando. It was a gathering of 5000 Reform Jews from among the 900 URJ Congregations in North America. It was my fourth Biennial, and probably the best one I have ever been to. This year they did things a little differently for Biennial by dividing the sessions into four tracks of learning: Tikkun Olam, for those focused on social action; Audacious Hospitality, for those focused on how congregations are emulating the catch phrase embraced by the union two years ago in San Diego; Strengthening Congregations, for those trying to invigorate their membership and entice new families; and Transforming Texts for people like me who love to learn with the union’s top Torah teachers.

There were also some fantastic plenary sessions with amazing presenters. There was a panel on Israel with author Ari Shavit, Israel’s youngest Member of Knesset Stav Shaffir, and Past President of the URJ Rabbi Eric Yoffie. There was a moving tribute to Rabbi David Saperstein, currently serving as the United States’ Ambassador for Religious Freedom, and a speech by Vice President Joe Biden that felt like he was chatting with us in his living room.

The goal of this trip was to give us some ideas and inspiration for our own congregation, and in this regard it was successful. I want to point out three things I learned from Biennial this year that I hope to set into motion here at CBT.

I want to start at the end of Biennial and work my way backwards. After four intense days of biennial, most people do not go to the Sunday morning sessions. Usually we fly out on Sunday and cannot attend, but this year there was a study session with Rabbi Lauren Berkun from the Hartman Center Institute. My guess is that very few people in this room are familiar with either Rabbi Berkun or the Hartman Center, so suffice it to say that both of these names elicit ooh’s and aah’s from my circle of friends, and she absolutely deserves great kudos for the lesson she prepared for us. Her session was called, “Who is a Jewish Leader?” and it looked at Abraham, Hannah, and Rabbi A.J. Heschel as exemplary Jewish leaders. She gave us a midrash from Genesis Rabbah about Abraham from Genesis 12:
Adonai said to Abram, “Go forth from your land…” R. Isaac said: This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace (birah) all in flames. He wondered, “Is it possible that this palace has no manhig (no one who looks after it)?” The owner of the palace looked out and said, “I am the owner (ba’al) of the palace.” Similarly, because Abraham our ancestor wondered, “Is it possible that this world is without a manhig (manager)? The Holy One of Blessing looked out at him and said, “I am the owner (ba’al) of the world.”
A birah, that is translated here as “palace,” was actually more like a tenement house. It was an apartment complex that was susceptible to catching fire. So a birah doleket, a tenement house all in flames, would actually be a relatively common thing. If there was a fire, the manager of the building, the manhig, would run around and wake up the residents. Abraham asking, “Where is the manager?” is logical. What is interesting is that God answers, “I am the owner,” not the manager. So Abraham in this Midrash, sees the world on fire and asks where the manager is. God comes down and claims ownership, which implies that there is no manager. So when God calls to Abraham, it is not a call out, it is a call for help. Abraham sees the world on fire and complains aloud that there is no leader, and God says, “Yes. You need to be the manager. You need to be the leader.”

God is calling for us all the time. The world is on fire, and it is up to us to step up, rouse the residents of the world, work to put out the blaze, and encourage others to act alongside us. That is the leadership we learn from Abraham, and because I know how important learning is to our community, I look forward to sharing more of what I learned from this three-hour text study with you.

The next thing I want to point out is my Saturday lunch session with Allison Klein, that I attended with our president, Sam Backer. Ms. Klein wrote a book that I cited during my report to the congregation last month called “Matterness,” and a lot of what she wrote helped inspire a part of our current visioning with the board of trustees. One of the first things she did during her presentation was to open up the floor to anyone who wanted to share a story about when they feel they didn’t matter, and then she asked people to share a story about when they mattered. After 20 minutes of taking other people’s stories, she pointed out the commonality. Every time people felt like they did not matter, they were not listened to, and every time they felt like the mattered, they were. Most of these stories are about one touch--one moment when the person’s whole experience with the organization was affected.

Instead of sharing one of these stories, I want to share a story I heard from here at CBT. Since I do not have permission to share names, suffice it to say that a person came in to the synagogue with their child years ago, and they were hanging out near the back because they were wearing jeans. They were greeted by a not-to-be-named Director of Education, who told them that we don’t care what people are wearing here, just as long as they are here. Now I know that there are differing opinions about dress code and bimah etiquette, but for a person who is coming to CBT for the first time to be welcomed with open arms no matter what they were wearing, that one moment made that family a faithful CBT family, and I am so thankful that we have people here who get it. We are a community who understands matterness at our core, and if I were not a Jewish professional I know that I would want my family to make CBT our Jewish home, because you make us feel like we matter.

Finally, on the first day of the convention I went to a session called, “Words Shape Worlds,” which was about listening to individual stories and using them to engage our community to move them to action. Take the story I just told about being welcomed in jeans. It would be easy for me to say, “We welcome all people, and we have no dress code.” That would be factual and effective, but it only speaks to our head. Hearing the story of someone who felt intimidated by their own outfit choice, and derived comfort from a caring member of CBT speaks to our heart. Everyone has a story, and everyone’s story can be used as a spark to ignite change in our community.

Case and point: for the past few months I have been hearing from people about what they are lacking from CBT. This is great, but I have been making a mistake when I hear their complaints. I have been defensive and explained that we already do these things. This is wrong, and I am going to try to change the message from “we already do this,” to “tell me what you are looking for.”

But I cannot do this alone.

The board doesn’t know this, but I am about to ask them to invite you all to their homes so that we can listen to you. I am going to challenge them on Sunday at our next board meeting, but I am telling you all now so that together we can hold them accountable. Each board member will be asked to invite 10 people to their home to listen to their stories, and bring them back to the board as a whole so that we can try to make improvements that will provide what they are seeking whenever possible. My hope is to teach them some of what I learned to the board, so that they can lead sessions for you.

We all have stories to share, and we all have needs that can be filled. The solutions to the needs of some occasionally do not serve the needs of others, but in the words of Allison Klein, “Somebody might get left out does not means we should just leave everybody out instead.” We acknowledge that our different stories provide different opportunities, and that is exactly what makes a thriving community. An open tent, so to speak, with multiple opportunities for entry, many ways to be heard, and many chances to connect with like-minded Reform Jews who are passionate about Jewish learning, Tikkun Olam, and Matterness.

I would be remiss if I did not mention what a valuable experience biennial is. The next URJ Biennial will be December 6-10, 2017, in Boston, MA. In addition to the sessions I described tonight, there are opportunities to pray together, hear incredible new Jewish music (Cantor Natalie Young performed on the Jewish Rock Radio Stage, for example), and even do some pretty cool shopping. Of course, there is a lot of schmoozing, and one of my favorite things to do at a biennial is to take my own congregation out for an incredible dinner.

I hope you will join me in Boston in 2017, and I know you will be a part of making what we learned in Orlando come to fruition here in Fountain Valley.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

In Response to a Challenge to "Bring It On"

I spent a wonderful week learning with colleagues and lay leaders in Orlando last week at the Union for Reform Judaism's Biennial Convention. 5000 Reform leaders spent five days in a convention center seeking deeper understandings on issues like Audacious Hospitality, Strengthening Congregations, Tikkun Olam ("Social Action"), and Text Study. There were also some wonderful panels with religious leaders and Israel advocates, including a speech by Birthright Israel founder Charles Bronfman.

I was recently pointed to an article in the Times of Israel by Rabbi Avi Richler, a Chabad rabbi who points to a line in Bronfman's address where he suggests the Reform movement "take back Birthright from Chabad." The article suggested that we "Bring it on," meaning that if we bring more Reform Jews to Israel, more Jews in general will be going to Israel, and that will be marked as a success to both Chabad and the Reform movement. On that point, I completely agree with Rabbi Richler. He actually did not say much in the article about Chabad and Birthright except that he led trips more than eight years ago, and that rabbis and rebbetzin invite their constituents to Birthright. 

He did suggest that the Reform movement should "challenge our members to put on tefillin, observe Shabbat, keep a kosher diet, or the countless other ways they can promote growth in Jewish practice and observance." On this point we disagree.

Clearly Rabbi Richler does not understand what Reform Judaism is. Or perhaps he is confusing Reform with Secular Judaism. The Reform movement stands on three guiding principals: God, Torah, and Israel. We engage with these principals from a variety of different experiences and backgrounds, and come to our own conclusions about them, and we accept the choices that come from this engagement because we hold sacred the idea of personal autonomy backed by educated choice. The emphasis in the Reform movement is on educated here. We Reform rabbis encourage challenging our constituents about tefillin, kashrut, and Shabbat. We accept it when our congregants accept or reject our teachings, and this is where we differ from Chabad.

Chabad teaches one way of living Jewishly. Even the Talmud rejects the notion that there is only one way to observe. On the very first page of the Talmud (B. Brachot 2a) the Mishnah asks a question (What is the proper time for reciting the evening Shema?) and presents three answers. The conclusion (that we should recite Shema by midnight but we have uno dawn if we must) creates a general rule for the rabbis (that whenever it says "until midnight" the implication is that it is okay to lawfully do the mitzvah in question until dawn arises). This first mishnah teaches us two very important things about Talmudic thought. 

First, the opposing views are not ignored. They are taught along with the conclusion so that we understand the logic of all of our honored teachers. This is a lesson that Chabad misses, which is evident just by the language Rabbi Richler uses in his article. He only understands one way of doing things, as evidenced by his examples of a young man wrapping refilling and a young woman lighting Shabbat candles. In Chabad, these activities are gender restricted. The Reform movement is egalitarian, and invites all people to participate in all mitzvot they would practice to bring meaning into their lives. He claims that Charades philosophy is "loving, caring, and guiding every single Jew..." but does not explain what happens when he guidance is challenged or opposed. I guarantee Rabbi Richler would not extend to my female colleagues the respect that I extend him by referring to him as Rabbi Richler. This is not loving and caring, this is stubborn and ostracizing.

Second, by showing the preferred way as well as the option should the preferred way not be possible, the Talmus answers the essential question about living a Jewish life: What do we do when life gets in the way? The Reform movement answers this question exactly as the Talmud does: We adapt. We find ways to be mindful of what we eat when we do not trust the heksher (kosher symbol) of what can be corrupt organizations. We find ways to keep Shabbat according to how we interpret the use of modern technology such as electricity. We welcome Jews of every sort: women and men, LGBT and straight, Jews-by-Choice and Jews-by Birth, agnostic and faithful, observant and not.

Reform Judaism is authentic Judaism. It is a Judaism that struggles with tradition by embracing and learning from the past, looking toward the future, and bringing Jews together toward creating a stronger faith.

As declared in the Central Conference of American Rabbis' Statement of Principals in 1999:
The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship.
 When Bronfman asks us to "take back Birthright," he is reminding us that strong, informed, Reform Zionism is at the forefront of Israel today. It is up to the Reform movement to follow the examples of those who bring scores of young adults to Israel, to keep them engaged with Jewish life, and to teach them what authentic Judaism really is.