Day One: Blog at the CCAR convention in Philadelphia
Dear Linda & Rabbi Brad,
Shalom to all of my congregants! Wherever I go to a conference you are there with me so I have a few highlights of programs I attended that I hope will be of interest to you. Enjoy and please feel free to express your opinion.
I have arrived in Philadelphia at the CCAR conference. First I want to thank the Congregation and the Board of Directors for supporting my professional growth with my rabbinic colleagues. As always there are lots of workshops and programs. So it is my practice to help you feel that you are right there with me as I continue to learn and listen.
On Monday afternoon I attended a panel discussion of Professor Sylvia Fishman of Brandeis University and MSNBC analyst Johnathan Alter who grew up in a Reform Congregation in Chicago. Dr. Fishman talked about the Jewish community and the data academics use to assess the planning for policy of local Jewish communities now and in the future. She emphasized the impact of marriage patterns for the future and discussed the profound differences between families who choose not to send their kids to religious school after B'nai Mitzvah versus those who do.
That really makes a difference in contributing to a greater likelihood of Jewish affiliation in the future. Secondly, Dr. Fishman discussed the interfaith marriage issue with a more urgent view on why Jewish communities need to do what they can to encourage Jewish youth to marry Jews and to be more proactive in recruiting converts to Judaism. All of what she was speaking about plays into the formation of Jewish identity in America. She sees the American Jewish community as robust but not without serious challenges to our future coming from unaffiliated and uninvolved youth in our communities.
Johnathan Alter took a completely different approach. He had just returned from two weeks in Israel. He was less sociological and more pragmatic on a political level. He drove across the point to the rabbis that we need to be more outspoken on our views about Israel and to resist being afraid of the consequences of creating angry congregants. He likened it to rabbis who spoke out against the Vietnam War and to the Civil Rights Movement. He talked about the impact of what he perceived as souring relations between the American administration and the nations of the world versus Israel. Yes, he discussed the upcoming elections in Israel which are today. He tried to draw a connection that the impact of these political issues is having a direct effect on the sense of Identity that Jews have about themselves.
The upshot is that we continue to study demographic patterns of Jewish birth rates, voting patterns, temple affiliations and the results seemed to be mixed blessings in America, fear in Europe, danger in Israel, anti-Israel feelings spreading around the world and, on the other hand, opportunities to express our religious beliefs like never before. So being Jewish requires us to be proactive on many different levels.
The next program I want to focus on is the outbreak of anti-Semitism in Europe today. This was sponsored by the World Union of Progressive Judaism.
There were several speakers including a liberal Reform Rabbi serving a congregations in France. He is a native of France and received his ordination at the liberal rabbinical seminary in Germany that trains rabbis to serve Progressive Jewish congregation throughout Europe. Another speaker represented the United States Religious Freedom Institute which is sponsored by the US State Department. Our own Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center, recently retired, was confirmed by the Senate to become the Ambassador of Religious Freedom. More to come on that institution.
This issue of anti-Semitism is truly a complex problem in Europe from many different areas ranging from the politics of Europe, to the emergence of Islamic anti-Semitism, to economic issues with the Muslim communities all have contributed to the problems Jews face.
The first problem discussed is the right wing movements gaining momentum throughout Europe. The right wing French National Front, which has long been hostile to Jews, has taken on the Muslim population but they have not let go of their feelings against the Jews either. This seems to be the case for what we would call right wing Christians in Europe, whether it is in France or other countries in Western Europe. The Jews are caught in the middle again.
Another issue that is hot right now in Europe is the attempt in many countries in Western Europe to outlaw ritual circumcision and laws of kosher slaughtering. Much of that comes from the left wing in Europe. On those issues we find Jews and Muslims joining together. Yet it is a real battle for Jewish communities to fight the onslaught of opposition.
The French Rabbi in Paris said that the internet is the most serious problem. His insight was that these Muslims live physically in France or any other nation in Europe but emotionally and spiritually they live far away in the lands of jihad. They live in the dream of ISIS and other groups. That is the greatest threat. They told us that the French government had decreed to shut down jihadi websites. Too little too late.
Hungary is the newest hot spot of anti-Semitic activity. The government puts up monuments to those who lost their lives in WWII but never mention Jews. The new leadership refuses to acknowledge Hungary's collaboration with the Nazis. Right wing political groups hostile to Jews and Romas (Gypsies) are flourishing. There is real concern in Hungary.
In Russia you find that while the government has not overtly endorsed anti-Semitism, the tone of the Russian government's controlled media is increasingly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.
From the Reform perspective Rabbi Friedlander spoke about the problem of what the World Union of Progressive Judaism should do in Europe for its congregations. The Israeli government takes care of getting Jews out of the country. The Joint Distribution Committee provides social services to struggling Jewish communities in Europe. Friedlander says WUPJ is about taking care of spiritual needs and focusing on youth in the congregations. They have seen a definite decline in Jewish youth participating in summer camps and other activities. That may in part be due to the hostile climate against Jews. So the World Union is now struggling to find a role that is helpful to progressive congregations. They understand that American Jews seem to be uninterested and "blind," to the problems of European anti-Semitism. American Jews focus on their own nation and Israel but not Europe. So who keeps up the pressure on European governments to oppose anti-Semitic political groups and hate speech? That is a major concern of Jewish communities in Europe.
Thanks for taking the time to read this blog from Philadelphia. More to come.