I have written this piece in my newspaper column on the burning of the venerated holy site of the tomb of Joseph by Palestinian terrorists. I look forward to your thoughts and reactions.
Monday, November 9, 2015
When I write a blog during my professional travels, I am trying to give you the feeling that I am taking you with me. I serve Congregation Beth Yam and I have proudly taken you with me on my journeys to Israel, conventions and other unique rabbinic experiences. Your comments are appreciated and provide me with insights and feedback that I respect. Your input enhances my understanding about just how diverse and complex our congregation is especially when it comes to religion, culture and politics.
The URJ Biennial is concluded. It was a wonderful charge for the spirits of our leadership and for me as well. The URJ is the umbrella organization of our movement. It does several important functions that we do not often think about but, nevertheless, play an important role in our movement. Remember the URJ supports an extensive camping and youth group movement. The URJ pursues the value of Tikkun Olam- Repairing the World which addresses Reform Judaism’s social justice mission in America and Israel.The URJ works on supporting the functioning of congregations whether it be for administration, fundraising, membership and programming. The URJ supports partially the operation of the Hebrew Union College, and many other organizations. The Women of Reform Judaism and the National Brotherhood play critical roles as well in advancing the programming and scholarships for aspiring clergy for the future of Progressive Judaism. Admittedly I have not covered all the roles the URJ plays but it does serve as the central address of Progressive Judaism.
The last ten years the URJ has undergone enormous changes in its organizational structure and its mission. The volunteer and the professional leadership completely reorganized the organization. There are many who championed these changes and even more who watched on cautiously as the changes occurred.
Today’s overarching direction focuses on youth grouping, camping and social justice. In a recent meeting with Rabbi Jacobs many clergy expressed the need for the URJ to reinvest directly in the grass roots of our congregations throughout our great nation and develop future adult leadership and programming as they are doing for the young people. What else would we expect but to have creative differences and disagreements within a movement? What else would we expect but to see that many leaders care who deeply enough to engage in shaping the vision of Reform Judaism even when it comes to positions the Movement takes through the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C? That kind of debate and dialogue is necessary to a vibrant movement.
Our congregation also consists of diverse viewpoints on religion, culture and politics. I appreciate the recent feedback which I have received from my first blog and respect all opinions from my congregants whether or not those opinions coincide with my own way of analyzing Jewish life. The truth is that when we love and respect each other as members of Congregation Beth Yam we can respect all sorts of diverse viewpoints on religious practices, styles of communal worship, positions on Israel or domestic politics. It is all part of the drama and the creative force that we as a Temple community possess. Let us pray and remember that we channel those energies to holy purposes and never to divisive ones.
I see things about the URJ which give me pause for reflection. At the same time those ideas about policy or practices in the URJ which I question never rise to the level where I doubt that I am a Progressive Jew or the viability of the URJ .I just believe that at times being constructively critical about issues in the URJ or any other cause does not automatically mean being disloyal to an organization or to the cause or even to the leadership that I uphold and believe in. It can just as easily mean that I or anyone else is being supportive enough to make it a better organization and mission.
I hope to stimulate your awareness about the Union of Reform Judaism. I hope we can all think more about Progressive Judaism. I would like for us to be engaged in learning about the direction for the future of Reform Judaism here in America and in Israel. Issues matter and ideas fill our spirits. Do not hesitate to write me back with your input and feedback.
God bless you and Congregation Beth Yam.
The next Biennial is December 2017 in Boston. Sounds cold to me!!!
Rabbi Brad L.Bloom
URJ Blog Part Two: Saturday Night.
I left you right before Shabbat. If there is one thing that can put all the politics, debates and typical Jewish give and take it is the spirit of Shabbat at a URJ Biennial. First five thousand delegates gather together inside the huge conference center for the first stage of Shabbat which is a communal worship service. A cantor from Congregation Emanuel and Rabbi from Holy Blossom in Toronto led the services back by an amazing orchestra and choir. Worshipping with 5000 people is a unique experience because we generally have modest numbers during out weekly shabbat services. Don’t get me wrong our congregation does a pretty good job of showing up at services. Yet these kind of numbers certainly reinforce a sense of unity and solidarity in the Reform movement. It is the music that is most intriguing and uplifting whether we are listening to Cantors or singer song writers. The music lifts our souls and instrumental musicians really add so much to the spiritual experience. It was a great performance by the clergy.
The next step was to walk down the hallway to the Shabbat dinner. Everyone from Hilton Head sat together comprising about 12 individuals in our delegation. We ate and enjoyed each others’s company. Then the big moment occurs. We all proceed over to the big hall when the famous song session begins. Let me say this; The song session consist of every renown singer songwriter in the Reform movement along with the orchestra backing them up They take us all to a new level of enthusiasm and joy. It’s not worship just singing and singing. People get up and form a dance line winding around the convention hall. I even saw sone of our delegates from Hilton Head bouncing up and down in an Israeli dancing mode!
Once that is over there are smaller group sessions for late night entertainment and singing. It goes on and one. Simply awesome!
Services began and with music and aliyot from all sorts of constituencies along with a sermon from Rabbi Jacobs on the need for the Reform movement to have audacious hospitality. Once again the scene of 5000 Jews in a convention hall in public worship is an awe inspiring picture. Then what did we do after services? Of course we go to eat lunch. In smaller rooms we ate lunch but with lunch there would be a speaker giving a talk after the lunch. IN my session I listened to an amazing presentation by well known Israeli columnist and author Ari Shavit. He came out with a book about Israel that many of us have read and which I reviewed for the congregation. For him it was an eye opening experience to see the Reform movement at its best. Like so many secular Israelis they have precious little knowledge or experience with the Reform movement. They know only secular culture or Orthodox Judaism. He said that from now on he would be an ambassador on behalf of the Reform Movement in Israel. My sense is that he was touched deeply by his time with us.
He is a moderate in terms of Israeli politics. He opposes the settlements on the West Bank and calls for a two state solution. More than that he recognizes the need tor Israeli society to reform itself on a whole list of issues from income equality to fighting to preserve Israel’s democracy. He believes that Israel must do a better job of integrating the haredi Jews and Arab Israelis into the mainstream of Israeli society. Don’t worry he is a big defender of the state lest you get the wrong impression. He has been touring the country especially visiting college campuses trying to encourage Jewish students to fight against Boycott Divest And Sanction movements against Israel. He knows like we do that this movement BDS is anti-Semitic at its core.Finally he is hopeful that peace is still obtainable. He knows that Israel must reestablish its standing in the world and it must work hard to make sure that Iran does not get the bomb. He was definitely an inspiring speaker and captured the hearts of the audience.
The next session I attended was a clergy only session with Rabbi Rick Jacobs. In that session colleagues shared their views of the direction of the movement. I think the most prevailing concern expressed to him from us was that the URJ needs to do more to be involved and supportive to the grass roots in terms of bringing together leadership both volunteer and rabbinic to strengthen the regions Jewish programming.
What’s next? Well our delegation went off to dinner. We ate together and engaged in a spirited discussion about the URJ and current events. That was for me a highlight of my experience with the leadership. We all go off to the various workshops but this was the time for us to process what we were feeling.
Now comes the big moment. We got back to the Marriott just in time to go through the security check from the Secret Service to listen to a talk from Vice President Joe Biden. All I can say is this. He got up and gave a speech that focused on several points. It was a kind of farewell and thank you speech to the Jewish community. His first point was to thank the Reform Movement for its partnership with him for almost forty years in the Senate working on the most important issues near and dear to him. Such issues as Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights legislation,Soviet Jewry and many other examples he gave were part of his acknowledging the shared values of a progressive viewpoint and vision of American life. The second point he emphasized was his unbreakable support and the current administration’s support for Israel. Yes, he acknowledged the times of disagreement between Israeli and American leaders. On the other hand in the third point he forcefully stressed the bonds between Israel and the US were like “steel.” He said ‘that no one prime minister or president and can alter that relationship.” As you would expect he reiterated that President Obama was the most supportive president in terms of providing Israel with a qualitative edge militarily in the Middle East. He covered the Iran Nuclear Arms Agreement by sharing his belief that this was the only way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb and that ‘Iran will never be permitted to get one.’
After he finished the audience arose into a tumultuous applause to VP Biden. The musicians returned and we all embraced each other singing Oseh Shalom. At this point it was about 11pm and we all walked into the exhibition center and purchased our gifts and materials. Shopping is a mitzvah too!
I have one more blog to do for you but Sunday morning will be the last day of programming. It was a great biennial. Worship, Torah study, debate on the controversial issues of the day and talking about the movement and our respective congregations. That is a great recharge to the batteries of our leadership and that serves our congregation. Watch out for the final blog.
I have been here in Orlando with our delegation starting our third day. I am so proud to say that again we have a strong turnout from our congregation totaling 12 individuals. There are about 4500 Jews here at the Marriott Convention World in Disney World.
One of the features I see as unique this year is the amount of technology. This is the ultimate tech savvy convention with apps created to chart every activity you can imagine minute by minute. Texts messages going out announcing every change of schedule. This is the ultimate wired in URJ Biennial Convention.
In terms of speakers, there have been a host of speakers from all over the spectrum of religion, culture and Politics. Yes, of course the reform movement is squarely in the corner of the political left. That is a longtime practice in Reform Judaism. We may have read the recent resolution passed at the convention putting its blessing on Transgender Jews and all transgender Americans. It is fair to say that the normal spectrum of political issues that the left embraces is given center stage at our conventions. That is simply our movement’s orientation.
On Wednesday night we listened to a speech by Rabbi Rick Jacobs the spiritual leader of the URJ. He spoke for 45 minutes about his vision. He tried to show what he believes to be Reform’s support for Israel but criticized the government’s support of the occupation of the west bank territories. He reiterated the need to condemn Israelis who commit hate crimes against Arabs while noting the responsibility to oppose random Arab acts of violence. My sense is that he was outlining a vision of moderation for Progressive Jews in a set of Israel security issues. IN addition he absolutely attacked the Israeli Rabbinate for its silence on all social justice issues afflicting Israeli society.
As a personal note what I saw missing in the speech was no mention of the need to build an ecumenicism for diverse political views within the tent of Reform movement. From what I see today partisan politics have really been a divisive factor in many kinds of relationships that have adversely impacted not just our politics but also have hurt our relationships. Can Reform Judaism be a big enough tent to embrace a plurality of political viewpoints? Can politically conservative Jews find a place under the tent of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world? Rabbi Jacobs never addressed that question.
One final point I could see by the speakers in the program the focus on youth and particularly the URJ Camp movement. Jacobs and the URJ leadership is putting their emphasis on building a strong youth movement in the camps and especially in NFTY National Federation of Temple Youth. One of the most moving speakers was Paul Fishman the current US Attorney for the district of New Jersey. He spoke about Tikkun Olam and how the work he does is reflective of his life commitment to this principle. He was a Reform Jewish youth who participated in mitzvah corps volunteer activities in poverty stricken areas in America’s cities during the 1970s.
On Tuesday night we listened to a panel discussion on the Interfaith married issue. A New York Times journalist Joy Fisher led the question of famed actor Michael Douglas and two other participants who had unique stories of being either raised in an interfaith family or finding a welcoming home in a reform temple for their interfaith family. I must say that while all the speakers in this panel were interesting the presence of Michael Douglas was quite impressive. He told us how his son led the family to Judaism and down the road to a Bar Mitzvah. It not only impacted the kids but also Douglas himself. He really came to grips with the realization that he felt like he was a Jew (at age 70)!
So where is reform Judaism? Its central philosophy is Tikkun Olam in the politically liberal context of social justice. It is youth oriented with its focus on youth grouping and camping. It is a movement about experimentation with worship and trying to assert a presence for itself in Israel. It is a movement about welcoming interfaith families. These are the major areas of foci for
I am looking forward to the rest of the convention and especially the wonderful experience of Shabbat worship, song and study.
From Orlando I wish you all the best and a Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Brad Bloom