This post is part of a weekly feature on RACblog. Check in at the end of the week for a roundup of stories in which the RAC has been featured!
This week, Rabbi Saperstein was invited by Vice President Biden for a private meeting lasting 2 and a half hours with 20 other faith leaders to discuss next steps in the gun violence prevention debate. Reporting out from their conversation, Rabbi Saperstein recognized that the Administration is still very much committed to passing gun violence prevention legislation, but “The conversation presumed the vote would happen first on immigration…That seemed to be the back-and-forth on both sides – that immigration was a key priority right now. When that vote took place, it would be an opportunity to refocus on this.”
Additionally, in Center for American Progress’s recent article discussing the faith community’s involvement in the gun violence prevention debate, Rabbi Saperstein reflects on his involvement in an April rally on the National Mall, for which organizers erected a graveyard of crosses, Stars of David and other religious symbols to mark the 3,364 gun deaths in the United States that have occurred since the Newtown shooting. “Every one of those religious symbols represents one of God’s children,” explained Rabbi Saperstein. “See the one there? That’s a mother who won’t be there to comfort her child the next time they’re sick.”
Rachel Laser, the RAC’s deputy director, has also been a strong, public voice in the gun violence prevention debate. She has served as a rallying force, bringing the voices of small Jewish communities around the country to the Capitol. “Even when the community is small, it has a relationship with its representatives.” She noted, in particular, the role that the Reform Jewish community in Anchorage, Alaska had in advocating for enhanced background checks to Senator Mark Begich in advance of the vote on the Manchin-Toomey amendment.
Beyond the gun debate, the RAC has been actively involved in other pieces of moving legislation on Capitol Hill. Rabbi Saperstein spoke powerfully at a rally in support of immigration reform. In his remarks, Rabbi Saperstein proclaimed that the Torah commands Jews to “love the sojourner for you were once strangers. Could God be any more clear?…America can do better. America must do better. America will do better.”
Here are just a few of the recent stories from across the webosphere that speak directly to (and about) Reform Jews. What Jewish stories have you been reading recently? Leave a comment and let us know!
- “His Father’s Murder Drives a Rabbi’s Pursuit of Gun Control,” New York Times
This piece is actually a couple of weeks old, but it deserves ongoing attention. Rabbi Joel Mosbacher’s father was shot to death in a petty robbery in 1999. “I’ve carried this story with me, this anger, every day for the last 14 years,” says the rabbi, who serves Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, N.J., and now advocates for stricter gun laws.
- “Can a moderate chief rabbi transform the Israeli Rabbinate? Not likely,” JTA
Israel’s Chief Rabbinate controls marriage, divorce and conversion for all Israeli Jews, secular or religious, and changes to the way the rabbinate handles these matters cannot be made unilaterally. Rabbi David Stav, a Modern Orthodox rabbi in the running to be Israel’s next Ashkenazi chief rabbi, has cultivated an image as the liberals’ solution to a rabbinate dominated by the Haredi Orthodox, and he is waging a public campaign in advance of the chief rabbi elections that has won him a strong base of popular support.
- “Jewish ‘Women Of The Wall’ Plan Further Court Battles Over Prayer Rights At Western Wall,” Huffington Post
Women seeking equal prayer rights at the Western Wall are planning a further challenge to Jewish Orthodox tradition at the site after a court ruling bolstered their cause. The Women of the Wall hopes to have its members read from a Torah scroll at the Jerusalem site, a ritual reserved under Orthodox practice for men only, when it holds its monthly prayer session there on May 10, says activist Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall.
- “AJWS CEO Ruth Messinger sees God as a ‘force for justice,’” The Jewish Week
As part of The Jewish Week‘s “God Talk” series, Alfredo Borodowski,executive director of the Skirball Center for Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-el, interviews Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and a member of the URJ’s Faculty of Expert Practitioners. In 1988, Messinger left a 20-year career in politics, including Manhattan borough president, for AJWS, which supports human rights for marginalized people around the world.
- “To stay afloat, shuls merging across denominational divide,” JTA
In areas with waning Jewish populations, Reform and Conservative congregations are merging, combining customs and sharing sacred spaces to preserve local Jewish life. Some synagogues in financial straits have stopped one step short of a full merger, opting to share facilities revamped for the needs of communities with a range of practices and beliefs.
We knew before joining the Academy that Facebook could be a great way to reach our parent body, but we just weren’t getting the response we knew was possible! Our first step after joining the Academy was to switch our Facebook profile to a page so that we could garner more likes from our parents and the broader community. Then we started thinking about what content would create the most buzz…
By Cantor Hayley Kobilinsky
Tekiah! Teruah! Shevarim! Tekiah Gedolah!
If these words do not evoke within you a sense of excitement that is at the core of the High Holy Days, then surely the unmistakable blast of the shofar, the ram’s horn, will. I can still remember the anticipation of hearing the shofar blown at services as a child. I would count the pages remaining until that moment. I would close my eyes as though doing so would let the sound absorb more deeply into my heart. If my family was running late that morning, I dreaded the thought of missing it. No blast was more exciting than Tekiah Gedolah – the longest blast, preceded by the biggest breath, and followed by a collective sigh or nervous giggle by the “Jews in the pews.” Hearing the shofar blown, be it a clear, strong tone, or one which sputtered and wavered, was a visceral sensory experience that has never left me, along with the sight of the Torah scrolls dressed in white, the scent of the ushers’ white carnation boutonnieres, and the taste of apples dipped in sweet honey.
It is somewhat ironic that the shofar, long in use as a means of communicating and announcing, is itself introduced by a blessing, attesting that we are commanded to hear the voice of the shofar, followed by a Shehecheyanu for reaching this season and hearing the shofar for the first time. The traditional melody (in this example, arranged by Herbert Fromm), is akin to a majestic trumpet call. The shofar blast we are accustomed to hearing tends to include a characteristic accent at the conclusion of each long blast, as the ba’al tekiah, or head of the shofar calling, gives one last exhalation of breath and the pitch ascends. As you listen to this recording, you will hear a mirror-image of this movement; the ends of the blessings do not rise in pitch, but rather descend. I like to imagine that these blessings, despite their majesty, are not intended to diminish the grandeur of the shofar calls themselves, therefore the blessings reflect the appearance of the shofar as though they are its opposites. (LISTEN)
Please forgive the following tangent: There are those for whom the Shehecheyanu is only acceptable using one particular melody (LISTEN). If you don’t hear this melody at each occasion which merits a Shehecheyanu, such as Rosh Hashanah, don’t fear: Your preferred melody will come around again, most likely in 3 months or so, right after the Chanukkiah (menorah for Chanukkah) is lit for the first night of the year. That melody is intended for Chanukkah, but since Chanukkah is most often celebrated in the home, many generations of Jews have grown up hearing that joyful, catchy tune, and it has remained steadfast in their musical memories.
The three-part shofar service includes many poetic insertions which give the cantor opportunities to weave traditional High Holy Day musical themes with a hint of shofar-like sounds. One of my favorite moments is in the third section, shofarot. In the paragraph, “Attah nigleita ba’anan k’vodecha,” the shofar is mentioned several times in the context of how its blasts both captured the attention of and heralded the appearance of God. “Amid thunder and lightning did you reveal yourself to them; amid the blasting of the shofar did you appear to them. It is written in your Torah: On the third day, in the morning, there was thunder and lightning, a dense cloud over the mountain, and a loud shofar blast; all the people in the camp trembled.”1 In this selection from a traditional cantorial recitative by Cantor Adolph Katchko, the strength of the voice of the shofar (“kol haShofar”) is highlighted with arpeggios and proclamatory high notes. (LISTEN)
It bears mentioning that the shofar blasts themselves are unique and varied: tekiah: a solid blast, neither long nor short; shevarim: three solid blasts, one following another in quick succession; teruah: a minimum of nine short, punctuated, rapid blasts; and tekiah gedolah: literally, “big tekiah,” this blast is a long, solid one, held as long as the ba’al tekiah can manage. (There is also a compound blast sequence of “shevarim-teruah” in which the two patterns are performed back to back.) This ancient musical pattern (one can’t quite call it a melody, as the actual notes are not dictated) has been echoed in settings of other pieces of liturgy throughout the High Holy Days, and has been utilized and adapted by modern composers as well. For a heavy metal piece, “Al Taster,” the Israeli group Salem begins with four blasts of the shofar: tekiah, shevarim, teruah, tekiah gedolah. Jewish Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz began the show “Godspell” with three blasts of the shofar: tekiah, tekiah, teruah. Madonna begins her Middle-Eastern-influenced song “Isaac” with a ba’al tekiah blowing a shofar: tekiah, shevarim, teruah, tekiah, tekiah, shevarim, teruah, tekiah. While I highly doubt that Salem, Stephen Schwartz, or Madonna preceded their use of the shofar with a blessing, I’ll let it slide; I have a feeling that their songs were recorded in a studio and not a sanctuary.
- Translation adapted from High Holyday Prayer Book, translated by Philip Birnbaum, Hebrew Publishing Company, NY.
Shofar Service, Herbert Fromm, Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe): Volume 1: Rosh Hashannah, ed. Samuel Adler, Transcontinental Music Publications
Shehecheyanu, traditional melody, ed. Stephen Richards, Manginot: 201 Songs for Jewish Schools, Transcontinental Music Publications
Ata Nigleita, Adolph Katchko, A Thesaurus of Cantorial Liturgy: Volume Three: For the Days of Awe
Selections sung by H. Kobilinsky
Hayley Kobilinsky has been the Cantor of Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk for eight years, and has been an adjunct faculty member of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music for two years. She is the president of Kol Hazzanim – Westchester’s Community of Cantors.
I do not know of any colleague who has not, at one time or another, sat with a family as a loved one neared the end of life. It can be a heart-wrenching, spiritual, troublesome, anxious and fulfilling encounter — all at the same time. Sadly, too many families find themselves alone and adrift in a sea of medical terminology and health care controls. The physician, having tried “the arsenal of medical technology,” may ask what the family wishes to do next.
This month’s edition of Atlantic Monthly includes a thought-provoking piece on the need for “The Conversation.” Author Jonathan Rauch examines a situation where we see the division between what he calls “futile care” and “unwanted care.” Rauch suggests that “people getting medical interventions, that if they were more informed, they would not want,” is “the most urgent issue facing America today.” Rauch continues: “It happens all the time….Unwanted treatment is a particularly confounding problem because it is not a product of malevolence but a by-product of two strengths of American medical culture: the systems determination to save lives, and its technological virtuosity.”
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to discuss this topic with Nathan Kottkamp, the founder of National Healthcare Decisions Day, an annual day set aside to focus on the need for families to have serious discussions around end-of-life issues. The latest statistic I saw suggests that only 20% of Americans have an advance medical directive and healthcare power of attorney. Given that today’s medical technology advances allow too many people to exist in life-states of limbo, this is a troubling figure — especially because Jewish tradition, across denominational lines, has a rich textual foundation that addresses these topics, but all too often never is discussed within our congregations. Denying people the opportunity to engage in this conversation denies them the opportunity to know how their Judaism can be a guide and support in a most serious and vulnerable moment.
So here are a few simple suggestions:
- Schedule an annual educational program in your congregation about these Jewish values and how to incorporate them into end-of-life decisions.
- Provide advance medical directive and healthcare power of attorney forms.
- Walk members through how Judaism approaches this issue.
- Discuss your state’s or province’s laws in this area and, as we just did in my congregation, what laws are exist or are being considered with regard to death with dignity. (New Jersey has a death-with-dignity bill working its way through the state legislature now.)
- Most important of all, do not worry about the numbers! People who come out for such a program are people in need.
In addition to providing practical information, creating a pathway through which individuals can understand how Judaism can be supportive underscores just how much the richness of our tradition can add moments of meaning to our people’s lives.
I just returned from two weeks in Israel focusing on the intersection of Israel and youth engagement… and eating lots of delicious hummus! A dynamic connection to Israel is a critical strategy in all our youth engagement work.
One of the key Israel intersections occurs at the URJ camps. URJ camps host more than 200 Israelis (Shlichim) over the summer creating a unique engagement opportunity for our North American campers to interact with, learn from, and learn about Israel. I was able to spend several days with the URJ Camp Directors and Educators during the training of the Shlichim. The training incorporated innovative experiential and expeditionary techniques that enhance and deepen Israel educational experiences at camp, and another training track provided educators with new approaches and methodologies. A special thank you goes to the Legacy Heritage Foundation for partnering with the URJ for the last five years to ensure Israel is front and center at our camps. (Read more on that from Greene Family Camp director Loui Dobin.)
At HUC-JIR, I hosted a conversation for North American rabbinical, cantorial, and education students who are finishing-up their first year of study in Jerusalem. In addition to an update on the Campaign for Youth Engagement, the students were particularly interested in discussing the importance that professional synagogue leadership plays in youth engagement work and hearing about models of synagogues that place youth at the center. The students offered many suggestions from their own recent experiences as engaged youth including reminding me of the importance of clergy and adult role models for shaping their Jewish journeys.
I was especially pleased to have spent some time with Rabbi Michael Marmur, Vice President of Academic Affairs, HUC-JIR, and Rabbi Rachel Shabat Beit-Halachmi, incoming National Director of Admissions and Recruitment, HUC-JIR, discussing ways in which we can strengthen the partnership between our organizations to benefit youth and the adults who work with youth.
At the end of last week, I gave remarks at HUC-JIR’s graduation ceremony in New York. My message to these graduates was this:
“If we want more engaged youth, one of the most important strategies we have is making sure we have more engaged adults. Our youth are diverse and scattered throughout our communities doing so many different things – we need to surround them with thoughtful, passionate, articulate, committed adults. That is you. You have the power to plant the seeds, to nurture our shared future. We believe that every adult in the movement, professional and volunteer has the potential to change the lives of our youth. We look forward to partnering with you.”
Is your congregation interested in offering classes on “Judaism 101″? The Union for Reform Judaism is offering grants to help congregations offer Taste of Judaism™, a free, three-session class for beginners – Jewish or not – that explores the topics of Jewish spirituality, ethics and community values.
Taste of Judaism™ is a high-visibility, low-threshold program of liberal Jewish content designed to pique the interest of all who are searching for an access point to Jewish life. The class is designed for those who would like to explore or re-explore the foundations of Jewish tradition and are looking for an entry into Judaism. The class has been remarkably successful with unaffiliated Jews, those who are not Jewish but who are interested in learning about Judaism, interfaith couples and their families and those considering conversion.
Congregations may apply for grant funding if they have not received a URJ Taste of Judaism grant within the past three years. The URJ will fund 75% or more of anticipated advertising costs plus a modest honorarium for the instructor. Congregations with 150 or fewer members may be considered for full grant funding. Grant applications are due by May 31 and notification of awards will be made by June 30.
With or without URJ financial support, all URJ congregations offering A Taste of Judaism™ receive training, camera-ready advertisements, a class listing on the URJ’s new website for people interested in Judaism, access to Taste of Judaism™ administrative documents, and more.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, senior vice president of the URJ, calls Taste of Judaism™ “one of the URJ’s best tools for expanding our reach beyond the walls of our congregations.”
For more information and to apply for a grant, visit urj.org/cong/outreach/taste.
This excerpt is taken from a new post in the Jewish Energy Guide created by the Coalition for the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). Rabbi David Seidenberg uses his website, Neohasid.org, to teach eco-Torah, including the environmental implications of Rainbow Day. He discusses the covenant God made with Noah, and how we should reflect more often on the rainbow covenant and our role in sustaining the environment.
Excerpt: Rainbow Day, which falls on the 42nd day of the counting of the omer, and the day after Yom Yerushalayim — Jerusalem Day — is a time to celebrate the diversity of life on Earth, and to remember our role in God’s covenant. It is a time to remember that the first covenant was not with human beings but with all living things, and it’s a chance to reflect on the deep spiritual and religious meaning of diversity, creation and our role as part of Creation and partners with God. This is a special time in human civilization when we need to reflect on the rainbow covenant and our place in sustaining a world where sowing and reaping, cold and hot, summer and winter will not stop.
Click here to read to the full post.
by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
I love the excited buzz in the synagogue before Shabbat morning services when one of our kids is going to be called to the Torah as b’nai mitzvah.
I love the eager, nervous energy I feel emanating from the family. The parents, caught between the mundane organizational details they were worrying about yesterday and the growing awareness that today is something different, a different kind of time. The younger sibling, if there is one, rolling their eyes but also realizing that this is going to be them someday.
I love standing outside in the field behind our sanctuary, listening to the wild tapestry of birdsong, while the photographer adjusts: you put your arm around her, there, okay, turn a little bit this way, look at me, smile! The family always makes such a beautiful tableau, and I know they’ll look at these photographs for the rest of their lives.
I love running through the Torah portion with the bat mitzvah girl one last time before services begin. Her voice is a little bit higher, her pace faster, today than ever before. By now I’ve practiced chanting this Torah portion with her so many times that I know it by heart, too.
I love the feeling of standing before the assembled community — members of our congregation; our small core of Shabbat morning regulars; visiting family and friends — and welcoming them into this place and this moment, this celebration of Shabbat and this celebration of a young person taking their place in our community.
I love inviting anyone who’s never seen the inside of a Torah scroll up to the bimah, and unrolling it. Asking them to say, aloud, what makes it different from the books they usually read. It’s in Hebrew; it’s on parchment; it’s a scroll; it’s handwritten. Then I point out things they might not have noticed: there’s no punctuation. There are no vowels. There are no musical notations.
I love seeing one of our kids shine. Hearing them read from Torah, and offer blessings, and teach something of what they’ve learned to the entire congregation.
I love hearing the blessing the parent(s) offer. Without fail, hearing the earnest words of love and pride they offer to their child is one of the most moving moments of my day, and reminds me of my own place in the chain of generations, between my parents and my son.
And I love chatting with people after the service, finding out what moved them and what spoke to them. It can be hard for me to gauge, when a lot of people have assembled who maybe aren’t necessarily singing along, whether the service is reaching them. But every time, I hear from someone who didn’t expect to be moved, or who didn’t expect the service to be accessible, and was pleasantly surprised.
Mostly I love knowing that we’ve co-created a beautiful memory for the new young adult and for their family, and that our community is now one adult Jew richer.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment.
Originally posted at Velveteen Rabbi
It’s May. Can you believe it? Every year it seems to sneak up on me. But here it is.
Most synagogues and Jewish professionals are at the point in the year that I typically call the “race to the finish line.” We are busy completing our program years, winding down religious schools and looking toward Shavuot as a point where we might briefly catch our breath; all while planning for next year by finalizing calendars and budgets. We can probably agree that the much anticipated summer months will allow us a chance to regroup, reflect and start it all over again.
I think this is a good time for a check-in.
Do you remember that February was Jewish Disability Awareness Month, or is it just a flash in your rear-view mirror at this point? Did you check JDAM off your program list as you moved on to the next activity, event or holiday? Now is the perfect time, despite the crazy, hectic days of budgets and calendars, to be thinking about JDAM.
Take a moment or two for reflection. Did you experience something meaningful? Did you learn something new? What inspired you? Please share it here. Let’s learn from each other, share our experiences and use this as an opportunity for meaningful reflection. Meaningful reflection can lead to positive action!
Some thoughts for you to consider:
- As you plan next year’s calendar, dedicate specific days for disability awareness/acceptance opportunities.
- Even better, look at your entire calendar with an eye toward ensuring that all your programs will be inclusive.
- Form an inclusion committee or task force now, so that it can guide your conversations in the program year to come.
- As you plan your budget, set aside funds for professional development, teacher training and/or guest speakers.
- Even better, make the commitment to hire a dedicated professional to specifically focus on issues of inclusion.
It’s May. And if you are like me, February seems like a year ago. I hope you don’t let Jewish Disability Awareness Month become just another “program” that you “did” this year.
Inclusion is too important.
Originally published at Jewish Special Needs Education: Removing the Stumbling Block
The Jewish Day School Social Media Academy is an intensive program designed to help Jewish Day Schools advance their strategic use of social media in areas such as communication, marketing, community building, alumni relations and development.
I figured between having a Facebook account and teenage daughters, I would be ahead of the game in this process. Yet even with my familiarity with social media tools, participating in the Jewish Day School Social Media Academy really put me into the shoes of our students.
by Ron Wolfson
It’s that time of year, when Jewish institutions pull out their 2013-14 calendars and fill them with events. Many of the programs are very good, with clever names and slick marketing: Jews and Brews for young Federation leadership; L’mazeltov for expectant parents; Torah and Tacos for synagogue members who favor a certain southwestern cuisine with their Bible study.
And yet, after all this well-meaning effort, membership in synagogues and JCCs is declining, federation campaigns are flat and a generation of young Jewish adults is in no hurry to affiliate. The 20th century model of programmatic engagement is not working.
Recently I received an urgent phone call from what once was one of the largest synagogues in America, some 1,500 households. In 2000, the congregation had a balanced budget and no mortgage on a sprawling building. Ominously, young couples were moving out of the neighborhood and older folks were dropping out. The leaders knew they had to do something.
Here’s what they did: They borrowed $1 million. Nearly half was spent on a slick rabbi who lasted less than two years. The rest was spent on programs: lectures by top speakers, concerts by renowned celebrities and an array of events targeted to specific segments of the community. Lots of people came to the programs and ostensibly enjoyed them. Then they went home.
Nothing was done to address the widely held perception that the congregation was cold and unwelcoming. Nothing was done to create connections between those who showed up and the clergy and staff. By the time the leaders called me, the congregation was $1 million in debt and had shrunk to 350 households.
What’s going on? Synagogues, rabbis and Jewish educators once were the main access points to serious Jewish learning. JCCs were a comfortable place to put your little ones in preschool, join a health club and participate in cultural activities. Federations were the central address for supporting the various arms of the community.
The Internet has changed all that. Hundreds of websites feature rich Jewish content for free. Why pay to join a congregation when I can watch live streaming video of worship services, arrange for a bar or bat mitzvah tutor online and have the ceremony in my backyard with a rent-a-rabbi? Why join a JCC when I can go to a fitness center and easily find a cheaper preschool? Why give to a centralized federation when I can direct my giving to causes that resonate with me?
This begs the ultimate question: What is the value of affiliating with a Jewish institution?
In my new book, “Relational Judaism” (Jewish Lights Publishing), I suggest it is this: a face-to-face community of relationships that offers meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing.
To create such a community, we need to turn our engagement model upside down. Rather than spending all our time planning events and hoping people show up, let’s begin with the people: Welcome them, hear their stories, identify their talents and passions, care about them and for them — and then craft programs that engage them with the Jewish experience.
Thankfully, there are organizations and individuals on the cutting edge of this relational tipping point. Chabad has grown from a small group of disciples to an army of 4,500 rabbis and their families who reject the dues model of affiliation: pay up front, then you are served. Rather, they build a relationship with individuals first and only then ask for financial support.
Congregation-based community organizing begins with one-on-one conversations designed to tease out common interests that can be the basis for communal action. Hillel is sending well-trained college students into the dorms and Greek houses to develop relationships with peers who would never walk into a Hillel House. A number of next generation initiatives like Synagogue 3000’s Next Dor and Moishe House are designed to reach young Jewish professionals by building relationships. Social media are increasingly useful as a way to build virtual communities and encourage face-to-face meetings.
The best fundraisers know that relationships are at the heart of raising money; most charitable giving is to people the donor trusts, not simply to support a particular cause.
From these case studies and more than 150 interviews with those doing relational work, my book throws a spotlight on a number of best principles and practices that any Jewish institutional professional or lay leader can use to do this transformational work, ranging from personal encounters to new relational membership models.
This paradigm shift will not be easy; this is labor-intensive work. It will not require more buildings but a reallocation of the precious time of staff and laity. We will need engagement rabbis, relationship directors, community concierges and sophisticated tracking systems to ensure appropriate follow-up and transitions as individuals traverse the life cycle of community engagement. We will not need new institutions, but to transform the institutions we already have from programmatic to relational communities. People may come for programs, but they will stay for relationships.
So as we fill out those calendars for next year, let’s embrace a new goal: to engage every member of our institutions and every interested unaffiliated person in a deeper relationship with Judaism, with the Jewish experience and with each other. Let’s begin by putting people before programs. Let’s learn who they are before we try to figure out what they want. Let’s inspire them to see Judaism as a worldview that can inform the many different levels of relationship in their lives.
Let’s work toward a rededication of our mishpachah, our people, to a relational Judaism.
Ron Wolfson, a member of the URJ Faculty of Expert Practitioners, is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and the co-founder of Synagogue 3000/Next Dor. His new book is “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights Publishing). Learn more about Ron and the URJ Faculty.
by Cantor Sarah Sager
As I was gathering my thoughts about the Centennial celebration of the Women of Reform Judaism, the news that former Prime Minister of England, Margaret Thatcher, had passed away flashed across the news screen. Among the initial reports of her death, she was quoted as saying: “If you want something said, go to a man. If you want something done, go to a woman.” While I do not subscribe to the gender dichotomy, the second part of her statement caught my attention. It has been my experience in synagogue life that, in fact, when congregations need something, they tend to turn, instinctively to the (former) Sisterhoods or women’s groups. Historically, there were many reasons for this, but it is remarkable to me how much these groups were and continue to able to accomplish and yet, how somewhat maligned and beleaguered they have become. Even while the women of our Sisterhoods poured tea, baked, served, and were responsible for so many “wifely” duties in our congregations, they were simultaneously at the forefront of women’s issues. The very existence of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods grew out of women’s advocacy for and involvement with the Women’s Suffrage movement.
The founders of NFTS learned through those advocacy efforts that women, organized together, can accomplish more than any single individual or group alone. Throughout the 100 years of their history, the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, which became the more appropriately named, Women of Reform Judaism in 1993, advocated for women’s rights and issues, for children and our youth, for social justice. They were involved in relief, support, aid and advocacy during World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the creation of the State of Israel, the release of Soviet Jews, and the great social and humanitarian issues of every decade since their founding, including human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, GLBT rights, environmental concerns as well as interfaith, aging & educational initiatives. The NFTS founded the National Federation of Temple Youth, and has provided scholarships, housing, educational and personal support for rabbinic, cantorial, and education students at our Reform Seminary, the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Under the leadership of their Executive Director, Jane Evans, NFTS was one of the early advocates on behalf of women rabbis, which opened the door for women cantors as well as for the expanded role of women as leaders in all areas of the synagogue and in all walks of life.
My own experience with the NFTS began in 1979, just after I was newly invested as a Cantor, when I was invited by the leadership of District 3 to speak at an area meeting of Long Island Sisterhoods. The title of my presentation, Sisterhood and Redemption: Not for Women Only, emerged out of our conversations concerning what they were asking me to address. I was immediately struck by the in-depth, focused, and exceedingly thoughtful approach that they had to this event. Although the Women’s Movement had been in existence at that point for more than ten years, there were still many unanswered questions, unchallenged assumptions about women and their lives, as well as a wide range of reality in terms of what some women could and were doing and those who were feeling left behind. As women – and young women – were increasingly seeking to pursue careers and work outside of the home, the volunteer world was beginning to feel neglected and diminished and without a sense of direction or purpose. The women of District 3 wanted to address these issues in a meaningful way – hence, their invitation to me, a young professional woman, and their investment in exploring with me the parameters of what I might consider and what I might present as specific suggestions for their sisterhoods to pursue. The final outcome of our deliberations and my exploration of this phenomenon was to suggest that Sisterhood become the empowering agent in women’s lives. I was profoundly impressed that these women not only understood the challenges that they were facing, but they wanted to confront them realistically, pro-actively, and concretely. I was powerfully influenced by the encounter as my own thinking was deepened and enriched by their openly probing, analyzing, and searching questions – and their belief in me that I might help them in their journey.
It was that initial encounter with NFTS/The Women of Reform Judaism, that predisposed me to our most important collaboration that began in October 1991. This time they asked me to address the topic of “The Torah for Reform Jewish Women.” Not long before this invitation arrived, I had been studying Vayeira, in which we find the difficult and troubling episode of the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac. In thinking about the portion, for the very first time I wondered how Sarah might have felt about this unthinkable threat to her son and Abraham’s seeming willingness to carry it out. With those thoughts very much in my mind, knowing that this would be an opportunity to explore further the silent women of our tradition, and with confidence that the women of District 3 would be serious participants in the Scholar-in-Residence weekend they were proposing, I accepted with excitement and anticipation. During the Scholar-in-Residence weekend that followed a year later, in October of 1992, I first proposed the creation of a Women’s Commentary to the Torah. As the “doers” they have always been, the women took my suggestion to the national organization and I was able to propose the challenge of a Women’s Commentary at the Biennial Convention of the Women of Reform Judaism in November 1993. Their response was such that fourteen years later, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary was published. In the preface to that volume, I shared the following: “I have been awed by the power of this organization and the ability of the women who lead it. I am profoundly grateful to every member of WRJ for undertaking this project with courage and resolve, with an understanding of its potential to transform our tradition, with willingness to embrace a dream and make it a reality. Working together, women have funded, designed, researched, written, edited, and critiqued this unprecedented volume. We have done all of this in historic fashion: a woman’s voice inspired a community of women to undertake this project in which women scholars, rabbis, cantors, teachers and poets bring their voices, their unique perspective to the ancient text of our overwhelmingly patriarchal tradition. This extraordinary volume, the result of the efforts of so many is a veritable symphony of women’s voices – beautiful, powerful, inspirational, transformative.”
The vision of this work was realized at such a high level of excellence that just shortly after its publication, the Commentary was chosen as a winner of the 2008 National Jewish Book Awards. It was judged the best written, most comprehensive, and engaging book in its category. The Editor, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, and the Assistant Editor, Rabbi Andrea Weiss, received the top prize for the 2008 Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award.
For 100 years, the Women of Reform Judaism has been a very special organization. With their time, their talent, their resources, their passion and their profound devotion, they have been loving partners with God in making the words of Sinai live – in new and positive ways for women, for children and students, for men, for our congregations, the wider Jewish community, and far beyond. We pray that they will go from strength to strength for another hundred years of making this world a loving place of sacred endeavor and accomplishment.
- If you want something done, go to a woman.
- If you want to undertake a major project, go to a group of women.
- And if you want that project to be excellent, ground-breaking, and visionary, go to the Women of Reform Judaism!
Originally posted on ACC’s blog.
Cantor Sarah Sager, the first invested Cantor at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple of Beachwood, OH, has served the community since 1980 and serves on the Executive Board of the American Conference of Cantors.
Her presentation at WRJ’s 1993 Assembly,“Sarah’s Hidden Voice: Recovering and Discovering Women’s Spirituality,” charged WRJ women with “uncovering and recovering women’s voices from our tradition and enable women to interact freely with our sacred texts in the future” and led to WRJ’s The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (2007).