Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Final thoughts on the rabbis' conference

The Rabbis conference: Day three and four
We have concluded the conference of the CCAR. I can now see quite clearly that progressive Judaism is truly at a crossroads. From a liturgical standpoint, we are embarking upon a new journey to create a High Holy Day Mahzor. I attended a meeting with the chairs of the project and listened to them discuss their idea of faithful translations of liturgical texts. We saw very clearly at this early stage of the process and after viewing sample texts that Reform Judaism is once again redefining itself in more than a liturgical way but that by producing such a prayer book we reshape our belief system. The team of committees in this process is looking forward to a prayerbook that will be contemporary and relevant to reform worshippers. The question is not just how faithful their translations will be but how faithful the committee members are to the ideas and history of Judaism that has bequeathed us this beautiful spiritual heritage.  Once again a few will alter the course of history for the many.
We also had an opportunity to discuss a position paper that a group of rabbis who on their own developed a document calling for significant organizational change in the entire organizational culture that comprises the Reform Movement. The last session of the day we listened and reacted to their initiative that has already led them in dialogue with the volunteer and rabbinic leaders of Reform movement. Sitting in the room there had to be over two hundred rabbis.  I sensed that there was a unanimous belief that our national organizations had to reaffirm a new vision if Reform Judaism is to remain viable in the American soil. There was also the recognition that we had gone astray on many levels and lost an edge of energy and focus that is supposed to inspire us to serve the congregations and individuals who belong beneath the tent of Progressive Judaism.
The issues are not only about allocation of financial resources and fundraising. Those issues are critical to securing a strong future. The underlying issues revolve around establishing a consensus about what we stand for and where we should direct our energy in the upcoming years. It is also about who really sets the vision and leads this movement. There is a growing feeling in the hearts of rabbis that while we cherish the partnership models we have spoken about between rabbis and volunteers the real discussions must address the reality that there is not a consensus about how rabbinic authority  and volunteer leadership  can respect each other’s expertise. That is the delicate subject beneath the surface that must be part of the conversations that will lead us to a brighter future.
This convention brought us all together to take workshops, expand our knowledge and reconnect with our community of rabbis. We studied, ate the cuisine of New Orleans, and prayed together. We even laughed and sang together. Of course conventions like these put us all on an equal footing that we cannot experience on a day to day basis. We charged our batteries and we grew in wisdom. Even though rabbis have to take care of our congregations first and foremost, we cannot ignore our responsibilities to the global Jewish community and the Reform Movement in particular
The rabbis say, Pray as if everything depends upon God. Act as if everything depends upon you.”(Talmud).

Monday, March 28, 2011

Day Two: The Rabbi Conference

The Central Conference of American Rabbis Convention: Day Two
We gathered together again in the morning for a massive shacharit (morning) service of five hundred rabbis. Guitars playing, drums sounding, Torah chanting and visual transformation of prayer scenes to set a mood displayed upon large screens on the bimah (stage). It was all about expanding our horizons in communal worship with new and unconventional means that could enhance the worship experience. Computer technology is used to stimulate our imagination and stretch our hearts and souls.
We watched the transition of new rabbinic leadership in the conference. Rabbi Johnathan Stein, the newly installed President Elect of our Conference, spoke about the visioning our role and impact upon the future of Reform Judaism. He also spoke about youth and why we need to do much more, especially for college kids, if we want to have a movement in the future. Third, Rabbi Stein reaffirmed support for Israel and that despite all the issues that Israel faces in these tenuous times that the Central Conference of American Rabbis will always stand behind Israel.
The next major program was a tour of the World War Two museum. In addition to the regular exhibition about D-Day in Europe, the museum had another major exhibition on Jews in World War Two including D-Day itself. Many video presentations of Jewish soldiers narrated their own experiences during those years. Some told stories of anti-semitic confrontations. Others claimed that they never had any anti-semitic event.
I was taken back by a video of a Rabbi military chaplain, Rabbi Eichorn,who led the first worship service in Dachau concentration camp. The people appeared numb and almost emotionless at his adjurations to encourage their participation. Holding the small Torah in his arms, dressed in his uniform and chanting the Shema, the Rabbi tried to give the people hope.
Artifacts on display were tephillin, prayerbooks, and even a Jewish divorce document (get) that the Conservative Jewish rabbinical authorities asked Jewish servicemen to sign before they went into battle. Why would anyone ask someone to do that? The rabbis knew full well that only a man can give a woman a divorce. If no man exists than the rabbinical court cannot grant her a divorce. This means that technically the woman would be trapped living her life in a limbo status.
It is an odd feeling being inside that museum. I grew up in a time when young people were totally opposed to the Viet Nam war. We rejected serving in the military. Everyone knew it was an unpopular war and one that divided the nation. Young Americans in these times became disillusioned with their parents way of looking at the world. World War Two was something in the recent past but before the time that the children of the veterans could remember. It has been in recent years that we have all begun to open our eyes and comprehend the significance of those years and the miraculous achievement of allied troops and the American people.
Once again this exhibition teaches how Jews did their part in the most critical moment in modern American history. Just think for a moment of the repercussions had the Germans defeated the allied troops. We Jews are always sensitive to perceptions that Jews did not hold their own in American history. This exhibition surely tells the story about how their Judaism impacted their view of the world. It may not matter to us today about what kind of service veterans perform for themselves. But we can see through this special exhibition that their words and deeds earned the respect of so many in America.
Admittedly, I have a special interest in this situation because my father, of blessed memory, participated and survived Day-Day One. He was part of the 4th division which landed upon Utah beach. He made it through Paris and ultimately to the Sigfried Line in the Battle of the Bulge where he sustained a shrapnel wound that took him out of the war and into two years of surgery before he would leave the army. I remember his dog tags which had the letter H inscribed which meant Hebrew.  He most certainly knew what a lot of Jewish GI’s knew which was that if they got captured by Nazis that Jewish soldiers would risk immediate death and execution. One soldier in the video told the story of how an American major encouraged the Jewish soldiers under his command to get the letter P (Protestant) or C (Catholic) superimposed over the letter H. Such choices we cannot fathom today.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Blogging the CCAR convention: Day One

A convention of Rabbis: Day One in New Orleans
I suppose you could say that being at a rabbi convention is like a doctors or lawyers or any profession’s gathering together for a yearly convention. Maybe there are quite a few similar aspects between all the professions at these kinds of professions. Even spiritual leaders are competitive and like to talk real life stuff that only colleagues can share. Even the spouses can relate to other spouses, male or female, that cope with a career that is supposed to be a calling.
I found myself initially seeing familiar friends. I cannot describe the exhilaration of seeing and embracing them. It almost feels like an adrenalin flow because we have such history behind us. For some we shared the same classrooms in Israel when we began our studies at the Hebrew Union College. Still others, we worked together in communities and developed new friendships over the years. Those bonds are enduring. It is important for all of us to remember that almost all reform rabbis in America went to the same rabbinical school. We attended the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. We all went to the Jerusalem campus and then we attended the Los Angeles, New York or Cincinnati locations.  We are bound together to these places and relationships we made in those days, given that we attended HUC-JIR for five years. Just think about how many students one can get to know over the years!
In the afternoon program we listened to Dr. Scott Cowen, President of Tulane University. He told the dramatic story of his experience during Katrina and why he has chosen to make this hurricane ravaged city his permanent home. He urged us to come back and not give up hope on New Orleans. He shared several stories of strides in education and culture that have been made over the last five years. Overall he imbued us all with hope against despair and made us feel good that our national organization had chosen New Orleans for its annual convention.
Then after a large communal dinner, we adjourned to evening services. This time we had a rabbi (no pressure!) leading the services along with the Panorama Jazz Band. They provided the music for the service. It was the first time I had heard a jazz band accompanying a rabbi leading a worship service. The ideas just started to flow inside me for what I can take back to my own congregation.  Watch out Bet Yam!
But there was something special about worshipping with four hundred rabbis. Just getting lost inside the group and not leading a service myself was special. It was just me the rabbis and God. At first I felt it a bit contrived in the sense that we might not be able to transcend our roles and worship like anyone else.. But after a while I embraced the atmosphere seeing the rabbis I have known for so long and the ones I do not know join together in worship. I sensed a real spiritual continuum from generations of rabbis who prayed together and bonded in a special sacred camaraderie.
I also observed that I am not one of the young ones anymore.  (It took me this long to admit it?)Those wearing the sport coats and jackets are the old ones. The young colleagues are much more informal and casual in their dress. One could identify the diversity of the reform rabbinate in this snap shot. Fifty percent of the rabbis are women and a much larger attendance of gay and lesbian rabbis as well.  That big tent idea has worked and it has changed the face of the reform movement including the reform rabbinate.
We are certainly different today. Yet there is enough room for us all to fit inside this tent. This I do believe.

Island Packet Article: Japanese spirituality sustains this unique people.
Take a look at this piece that appeared in my monthly newspaper column. what do you think?