Saturday, December 21, 2013

Federal employee performs a great ecumenical service at the National Military Cemetery in Beaufort, SC

This column is about a man who works with bereaved families from all religious backgrounds. He does a great job and his work deserves mention.
Thanks for taking the time read it. Your thoughts are appreciated.

Spirituality and Mourning for your Pets
I have written a column in the newspaper on religious rituals for pets. Do we mourn for them like we would do for humans? Are they spiritual beings like us? Take a look and tell me what you think?
Thanks for taking the time to read this article.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Final thoughts on the Biennial

Final thoughts : Blogging the URJ Convention
The biennial is important, in fact, it is the showcase for the Reform movement. This conclave is like a pilgrimage for Reform Jews getting connected to a larger community of Reform Jews in sharing new ideas and practical strategies for congregations. It also builds a amazing spirit of what Reform Jews believe in and cherish with regards to God, Torah and Israel. Communal and creative worship and particularly music is absolutely critical for sustaining Reform Judaism.
This Biennial is also about Rabbi Rick Jacobs and his leadership. This was the first Biennial that reflected his style and his agenda. 
One should understand clearly that the team planning all major events scripted it to present Rabbi Jacobs in a certain light that would reinvigorate the largely anemic URJ organization. Such new directions as more money for NFTY, the teen youth movement are examples of a new  day dawning for the URJ. New communities of Practice where congregations throughout the country collaborate on specific issues whether it is programming or practice is another example of this URJ. Financial cuts and selling off part of URJ building are part of cost cutting strategies.
I will list the aspects of the biennial I appreciated and those things I see as areas of growth.
Music is still strong. Josh Nelson and Dan Nichols are major players as well as Julie Silver. 
Communal worship is still huge.
Workshops are a hit and miss.
Networking and getting knowledge amongst colleagues and organizations  is critical. Very valuable piece of the Biennial experience.
Connecting with temple leadership outside of temple at the biennial is so important for growing our relationships.
Examine resources at bookstore and other venders  like books and music that we can use to enhance education at temple.
See old friends at Biennial that build connection and a sense of family.

Areas that need improvement.
I felt that the URJ still does not see how investing in grass roots organizing to develop new leadership for the future. URJ is basically a call center without any interest in connecting staff and regional lay leadership. The feeling I got was that URJ is more interested in proving their worth with the metric of how much service they can offer from who knows where they work from than demonstrating a real commitment to getting outside their box and see what reality in American Jewry is all about.
No commitment to college youth. They continue to talk the talk about youth initiative for teens. Where is the vision for our college kids? Same old response- Hillel. I'm sorry Hillel does not cut it for me any more. We need to do more for college age Reform Jews.
I think they need to have better options for folks who want to attend the biennial for a day or two. There is still a disconnect about having the high costs and high priced registration fees. It cuts out so many who just can't afford to stay the entire week.  Again I wonder about the disconnect here with the reality with the grass roots.
Rabbi Jacobs: a new era has arrived.
No doubt that Rabbi Needed to come off in a positive way. This was his first Biennial and the impression he left was a very effective image. He exuded an aura of informality and warmth. His pulpit presence was what any congregation would relish from their rabbi.
He made every effort to project spirituality and kavannah. 
His two hour info commercial speech where he outlined his priorities and ideology gave us something to think about. 
Rabbi Jacobs is earnestly trying remake himself. He moved from the left on Israel to the center. He is trying to show he can be the CEO who can command respect of the business community by advocating the sale of a floor of the URJ building in New York. He is trying to remake himself as the ideological oracle for Reform Judaism around the world. He says we are living in a post ethnic world of Judaism. He affirms that god did give the Torah to the Jewish people and that humans wrote the Torah. I'm curious to see what kind of narrative he will create to substitute for peoplehood and for Torah from Sinai?
It's good that Rabbi Jacobs told the story of his visit toRabbi Krinsky of Habad in acknowledging their success. He tells us that he told Rabbi Krinsky that he respects all the different ways Jews practice. In fact he goes on to say Reform Jews care about Shabbat, kashrut and,Israel. They just care differently than Chabad does. I sense he may want think through how he feels Reform Jews should or could embrace these ideas. I hope he can come up with something more definitive about meaning in relation to these ideas.
He has gotten off to a good start. People like him. He is tall and good looking.  
Audacious hospitality is an important point he raised about how all of us have to stretch to be more welcoming of new members if we have any chance of keeping membership strong and steady.
Rabbi Jacobs is probably just what The Reform movement needs at this juncture of our history. He has the program vision but he has to work at articulating a stronger and clearer ideology about what it means to be Jewish today and to be a progressive Jew. Programs and ideology go together if the spirituality he is looking to revitalize has a real chance of ushering in a period of renewal for American progressive Judaism

Monday, December 16, 2013

The last day of the convention: Bibi Netanyah speaks to our Biennial.

Our conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Sunday Morning the final program was a Satellite speech with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
There were several agendas going on behind the scenes. First, forget about the reports about his decision not to visit with us which was reported in the Press. That issue is not critical. The first purpose was to demonstrate two goals. First, Rabbi Jacobs has the authority and power to get Bibi to speak to us. Second, despite those early claims that Rabbi Jacobs was a totally left leaning Israel advocate who protested with the Palestinians, this was his chance to show he is a moderate now.  Politics- always politics.
Jacobs stood up on stage and introduced the Prime Minister heaping praise on him for his work to open up the Western Wall for access to all in communal prayer. He complimented him for being 2nd longest serving Prime Minister since Ben Gurion. Then Netanyahu started to give it back to Jacobs for all his good work for Israel. All of this was for the crowd to bolster Jacobs and calm down the right wing in the movement who think of Jacobs, with some justification, as a sympathizer to Palestinians as victims of the Israeli army's occupation of the West Bank Arab communities and as an opponent of  all Jewish settlements.
I wonder if Netanyahu also realized that he needs as much support from American Jewry as possible as stands against the world with regard to Iran and the current negotiations that the American administration is involved in. Maybe his media advisors are counseling  him that now he can’t take anyone for granted. By the way this was the first time that a sitting Israeli Prime Minister addressed our Biennial. Last time it was President Obama who showed up. The difference between the reaction to him then and the courteous and respectful reaction ( not especially enthusiastic) of our assembly to Netanyahu was noticeable. This is definitely not an AIPAC group.My sense is that many Reform Jews are against the settlements on the West Bank and want Rabbi Jacobs to stay true to his previous actions and words but now he, like all politicians, moves to the center to maintain peace. I think, on the other hand, that Netanyahu’s position has more standing in our movement than the current leadership elite both clerical and lay leadership share in common about Netanyahu on Iran and the settlements. This is definitely a touchy issue. But the point was that both men benefited from the opportunity to address the biennial, but, for different reasons.
What were his three points?
  1. He wants a negotiated settlement that takes away Iran’s capability to develop weapons and their ability to manufacture any weapons. There is a difference between the two issues.
  2. He discussed the issue of the Palestinians and negotiations. He says he is willing to make historic and difficult compromises but he needs to see that the current leadership of the PA truthfully will recognize Israel as a Jewish state as much as Israel must recognize the new state of the PA.  He says the issue is not the settlements as much as it is the deep seated inability of the PA to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that they cannot return to Jaffa. That is a non-starter.
  3. The final point is finding peace between Jews. He skipped over all the big issues that consume Israelis. Instead he focused on what he thought we wanted to hear which is that the area surrounding the Kotel must be open to everyone because it belongs to all the Jewish people. He also complimented Rabbi Jacobs for his help in working for compromise with his government to achieve a solution.
  4. Finally Netanyahu complimented the Reform movement and NFTY for all its work in Israel.
The fact is that he is a fantastic speaker and salesman. He did a great job in bolstering Jacobs, speaking to us of his viewpoints on Iran and addressed the public worship space and equal access for women at the Kotel.
His humor and swagger is a part and parcel of who he is. He was clear, positive and determined to see this current negotiation through. He warned us all of the implications for war in the Middle East from other nations who would surely obtain nuclear weapons if Iran develops a bomb.

Great talk and I will let you the reader come to your own conclusions about the issue of the Netanyahu and Obama administration positions on the Iran negotiations and talks with the PA.

Day Three and Four at the URJ Biennial. Erev Shabbat and Shabbat.

Day Three and Four
I am combining Friday and Saturday.
Like all of us we go to meetings and attend sessions on Friday. Let’s face it convention workshops are a hit and miss experience. Somehow I do not think that is what you need to know. I say this because the focus of all the momentum of the Biennial is Shabbat. So let’s begin at the end of the day.
It is now 5:15; the convention hall is packed with 5000 people. The Shabbat experience begins with a 45 minute warm up session of music and singing. Cantors, rabbis, folk singers, and an Israeli Jazz group are all performing, sharing, and inspiring the holy assembly.  They are thirsting for the great moment of transcendence. I mean 5000 people singing and swaying together are expecting something awesome to happen. They want to feel holiness and rapture in a Jewish sense. You can feel the anticipation pulsating through the crowd. The music is just getting us in the mood and spiritual temperature is rising.
This session leads into the worship service. It flows so well not only with singing (very little responsive reading) by the clergy but even better when there is a fifty or more Biennial choir on the stage. The tone is not powerful or loud or rock and roll type of liturgical music. It is more delicate and contemporary in the compositions. Most of the melodies were new.
There were two speakers during the services. The first was a woman who narrated her story of being shot by a neo-Nazi in a JCC pre-school where she was working with small children as a teenager herself in southern California in 1999. The congregation was touched by her story of bravery and her message of fighting for better legislation against gun violence. Of course her place in that service later fit into the theme of the first anniversary of the slayings of the children and adults in Newtown, Connecticut.
The second speaker was Rabbi Jonah Peshner who is one of the leadership team of Rabbi Jacobs. He spoke about Nelson Mandela and the biblical patriarch Jacob.
The service is concluded and the crowd moves into the dining halls for Shabbat dinner. Beth Yam had two full tables of our representatives. I don’t want to brag on my congregation but I have to say how proud I was to be with them. Old colleagues and friends came over to me and were so impressed to see how many people we were from Hilton Head. Then our president Mike Weingarten brought out all the Beth Yam tee shirts and we put them on and posed for a special group picture. Who could ask for a delegation with more spirit and joy than our congregation?
We light the candles; recite the Kiddush, and the motzi. The meal is either chicken or fish. The food was not bad considering what one expects from convention meals. I must say I was particularly happy to have my entire family together with our group.
Then the moment arrives we have all been waiting for at the Biennial. What is it? The dinner is over and everyone quickly files back into the hall where we had services. We commence the traditional Shirah or song session. This consists of all the best of the best of Reform Judaism’s folksingers and rock performers light up the room. They brought the music and the spirit and caught on like wild fire. The singing commenced and the people started dancing and singing. Lines of dancing grandmothers, kids, parents and whomever else marched, danced through the aisles with such smiles on their faces. Never have I seen so many happy Jews in one place. The music just lifted us all up to another spiritual rung. People are hugging each other, others are crying in Shabbat joy and exultation. All ages become one in dance and song. Beth Yam members are among the dancers. You wouldn't believe the energy of our people. We were among the most energetic and spiritual. OOPs there I go again bragging on my congregants!
The evening is over and the crowds file out with a wonderful feeling of spiritual energy even if they are tired. Private receptions follow and in some smaller halls there is more music for those who still want to go the extra mile. Surely our delegation will sleep well tonight.
Saturday morning.
The Shabbat morning service was conducted by Rabbi Jacobs and Cantor-Rabbi Angela Buchdahl who was cantor at Central Synagogue in New York and was just elected as Rabbi. She is both a cantor and Rabbi and a former assistant rabbi to Rabbi Jacobs. She is from Takoma, Washington but her mom is South Korean Buddhist even though she raised her Jewish with her Jewish husband. We are certainly a tapestry of racial and cultural diversity in Reform Judaism. Rabbi Jacobs made a big deal out of her looking Korean and still pointing out that she was Jewish and how people had to learn how to get used to that kind of diversity.
Rabbi Jacobs told the congregation that the old era of ethnicity in American Judaism which we all grew up in is over.  In fact the mantra today is that we are all living in a post ethnic time of Jewish life and that identity formation for Judaism will have to depend on much less than the old standards like, “this is what you’re supposed to do,” or “My parents practiced Judaism and so we too observe.” That kind of momentum is almost gone, according to Jacobs. Instead he is saying that we have to get much more proactive and reach out to bring these folks in to the fold.
Truthfully, I love the Shabbat morning services at Biennial not because it is a service in a conventional sense. It feels more like a program of music and inspiring narration by Rabbi Jacobs. The show piece and drama of it is rehearsed and programmed. Is it the way one has services in most places? Probably not. But we can learn a few of their tricks to make our services a bit more engaging.
At the Torah services they set up thirteen stations scattered throughout the hall with people standing and reading Torah as well as huge screens showing the yad and hands going through the Torah text. I think we could do that in our congregation especially at High Holy Days. People like those techniques which help them feel more connected to the pulse of the service. This is not a davening experience. It is a performance of musical pieces with carefully orchestrated drama. They even had group of actors narrating the story of Jacob blessing his children as though they were actually living at the time. The congregation loved it.
The groups who received special aliyot were in kids in honor of the 75th anniversary of the National Federation of Temple Youth, Past presidents of the Women of Reform Judaism who are celebrating their 10th anniversary, board of the URJ (now it is called the oversight committee of 250) and current presidents of congregations, and, finally, the leadership, faculty and alumni of the Hebrew Union College.
The sermon was delivered by Rabbi Dr David Ellenson who is the retiring President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He is a respected scholar and beloved President who now returns to the classroom. He cried and he blessed the new incoming president Rabbi Dr. Aaron Panken. The passing on of the mantle of leadership was effective and touching.

By the way the services began at 10 and ended at 12:45pm. Then everyone left and went into lunch and learn sessions. It just doesn't stop. I attended a session conducted by HUC professor Lawrence Hoffman on “The Once and Future Synagogue: Deep Down Lessons for a Jewish Future.”
Yes there was bit of time to get ready for dinner which was on our own. Our group ate together at the Marriott restaurant Marinas. It was great and we toasted Sisterhood at Beth Yam. The award the Sisterhood received was for great membership growth. How about our Sisterhood! Also you should see the quilt they contributed to the larger quilt that Sisterhood created nationally. Our Sisterhood is awesome. They are creative and dedicated. They make things happen for our Temple and for the community at large. I believe that every woman should be a member of Sisterhood and I hope all the women in our congregation will join and stay as members of this Temple’s Sisterhood.
Finally, the last part of the evening was an evening program honoring the 75th anniversary of NFTY and the Women of Reform Judaism. A special music piece was performed in honor of the occasion and the enthusiasm of the music and the singing and the memories of what Sisterhood means today and in our history was so powerful for all of us that night.
All of this was followed by a post program performance by musical artists Josh Nelson and Neshama Carlebach.