Thursday, October 24, 2013

This Column is Not About the Red Sox

It’s true. There is more going on in the world than the World Series. I love the way the Red Sox unite our city, even among non-fans. With 900 channels on tv, and with ipods, Pandora and Googleplay replacing standard radio listening, it’s nice to have a shared experience that brings us out of our neatly autonomous lives. But there are times when we’re not watching games, or otherwise talking, reading or tweeting about sports. This column is one of them (for this week, at least).

So you might not be aware that this has been a big week for the Reconstructionist movement.

Last week, I received two brand-new copies of volume two of A Guide to Jewish Practice. If you haven’t yet seen volume one, “Everyday Living,” it’s the first in a set of three, comprising a Reconstructionist guide to everything from Tikkun Olam/Social Justice practices to organizational ethics to keeping kosher to everyday spirituality. This first volume received the prestigious Myra Kraft Memorial Award for Contemporary Jewish Life from the Jewish Book Council in 2011. Feel free to borrow a copy next time you are at HBT or order your own copy.

In the second volume, “Shabbat and Holidays,” you will find two chapters that I authored. Whoever can guess which two holidays I chose gets a chocolate kiss. (email me: In addition, I contributed commentary on the other holidays in the book. The commentary is what makes this such a rich and cutting-edge resource on Jewish holiday observance. Each commentator adds an individual spark – a creative understanding, an unusual practice, an insightful teaching – to the main text. We have one copy for the congregation’s library. I would recommend you get a volume for your home to renew and inspire your family celebrations. The Shabbat chapter alone is worth the entire volume.

In an historic development this past week, the Reconstructionist movement announced the appointment of Rabbi Deborah Waxman as president-elect of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the movement. I have known and admired Rabbi Waxman for many years as a scholar, a leader and a rabbi who is deeply attuned to the real life of Jews today, grounded in an appreciation for the gifts of the Jewish past.

As I listened to Rabbi Waxman share her goals for the movement in a teleconference on Wednesday, I heard a vision that responds to a new generation of Jews and a 21st-century approach to Judaism, one that will “give us and the next generation ways and reasons to be Jewish, to connect and grow through engagement with our rich tradition and with our community.”

Her top two goals for the movement are about creating meaningful Judaism and bringing our religious perspective to issues of the day:

v         The Reconstructionist movement should be a place where people “encounter wisdom or action, a ritual or person or experience that illuminates the moment in which they are living, that lights at least the next few steps of the path forward and hopefully leads to sustaining community.” She aspires to make sure that “Judaism is at least one place that people turn to, hopefully the first, but at least one place.”

v         Rabbi Waxman also seeks to promote the Reconstructionist commitment to living a life of social justice into the public square, to ensure that progressive religion will be “a strong counter-force to fundamentalism.” With a vision well beyond the needs of Reconstructionist communities, her intent is to demonstrate emphatically that “it is possible to be sustained by a religious perspective that respects and does not delegitimize the other.”

While it may be obvious that Deborah will be the first woman to lead a rabbinical seminary or a Jewish movement, we should also be proud that she is the very openly gay/lesbian leader as well. To read more…

Finally, to launch the newly-structured Reconstructionist movement, this coming Sunday will be the first business meeting of the newly-constituted plenum of the Reconstructionist movement. Craig will be on the call as our congregational representative and I will participate, along with other congregational rabbis, as an ex-officio member. We look forward to sharing an update with you next week. We have much to celebrate in our small, yet influential, movement.

Having said all that,
Go Sox!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Another View about Pew

In the past two weeks, our community has been brought together by the most intensely emotional experiences. Three congregants have passed away in the short time since Simchat Torah, each an important influence in their own way: Roz Mainelli, Eileen Darman and Larry Diamond. Each has left aching hearts within our congregation and beyond. Roz and Eileen, both vital women who lived 86 years, nevertheless surprised those who knew and loved them by their sudden passing. Larry’s death came as a total shock. At age 71 he appeared strong and healthy as recently as Yom Kippur, when he led a discussion, and on September 22, when he moderated the forum prior to the Boston mayoral primary. His sudden hospitalization and rapid decline were incomprehensible to us all. All of these losses compounded the passing of several parents of members in the past two months. We extend our condolences to their families and to all who mourn them.

This past weekend we also celebrated a major life milestone: Debi and Ashley Adams’ thirtieth wedding anniversary. Ashley and Debi chose to mark their anniversary celebration with a renewal of vows ceremony on Sunday, preceded by a special Shabbat service. Family and friends, including many HBT members, were inspired by their marital commitment to spend every Friday night together. Their love for each other, coupled with tremendous respect for the different ways they live and act in the world, gave us all reason to believe in the power of marriage to transcend life’s many bumpy roads. Our sanctuary  and social hall were filled with expressions of pure joy.

Holding sorrow and joy together may be an art, but I believe that even more importantly, it is a practice. Each requires attention to the moment. Having a community to share all of these emotional experiences is a tremendous gift.  I believe that creating space for these emotions to unfold, providing a loving community to embrace one another in sorrow and joy, and practicing rituals that draw our attention to the moment are among the key reasons that we exist as a synagogue.

Two weeks ago, I shared some thoughts about the recently published study by the Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”  A week ago, a post by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Gail Diamond, reminded me that there is more to Jewish life than this report portrays:

When I graduated rabbinical school 20 years ago, I was happy to get a job at a 100-family synagogue that had been built right on route 95 in Attleboro, MA. We were in a growing suburban area and soon we had over 120 children in the religious school. “Demographics are everything in this business,” I thought as I watched colleagues in nearby Taunton, MA and Woonsocket, RI, struggling with synagogues in what seemed to be the “wrong” locations. “These are the problems we want to have,” I told congregants as we worked to fit all these kids into a tiny building, built 25 years prior with only two classrooms. I was wrong. In the decades since I have learned that my work and the work of my colleagues transcends demographics and statistics. What matters, as my colleague Rabbi Barbara Penzner told me back then, are moments of connection and religious meaning, and the ways in which we connect these moments together to make a whole.  (See more)

Of course, I was flattered to read Gail’s tribute. But more importantly, her message gave me hizuk, strength, as it reminded me, during a time of overwhelming stress, of what we are all about. We may not be able to predict the future of the Jewish people in America. We may not know exactly how to respond to the demographic trends. But what we all know, every one of us, is that we are here for those moments of connection and religious meaning. They may feel few and far between (and may the sorrows of our lives continue to be few and far between). However, because we have lived through them over the years, as our children grow up and we grow older, as we hold one another up through times of trial and spread our joy through times of celebration, as we talk Torah together and stand up for justice together, as we bring food to the homes of mourners and make donations to Family Table – the cumulative impact of all this binds us together into a meaningful whole.

As we often read in our siddur (prayerbook) just before the Shema:

We are loved by an unending love.

Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled,
ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices;
ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles;

We are loved by an unending love                            (Rabbi Rami Shapiro)

Whatever is in store for us, for our synagogue community, for us as individuals, or for the entire Jewish people, it is that love, we pray, that will embrace and sustain us. It certainly did these past two weeks.



What can the Dead Sea Scrolls Teach us about the Pew Research Study?

The big news in Jewish circles this week is the latest demographic study of the American Jewish community. The first comprehensive survey in ten years, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” was not commissioned by Jewish groups as in the past, but by the Pew Research Center.

This survey will be the source of much conversation in coming months and, while I’ve only read the chief findings, I suggest we all to read it so that our community can learn from the findings as well. The most dramatic trend is surprisingly, not about intermarriage, but about the “nones”—Jews with no religion. Overall, Jewish identity remains high, and the majority of individuals surveyed are proud to be Jewish. But the number of those who identify with Jewish religion decreases from older to younger. Among Jews born between 1928 and 1945, only 14% identify principally with their Jewish ancestry and culture, but not Jewish religion. Among Jews born after 1980, 32% identify as “Jews of no religion.”

As a Reconstructionist, I respect that Jews identify in many different ways, and that we express our Judaism through social justice, family holiday celebrations, Jewish culture and support of Jewish causes. However, I also subscribe to Mordecai Kaplan’s description of Judaism as the “evolving religious civilization” of the Jewish people. I recognize that American Jews may be reluctant to define themselves as “religious.” But Judaism without a religious basis strips that civilization of what I consider to be the core. I need to understand better what being a “Jew of no religion” actually means.

What is striking about this trend, which is no different from similar surveys of the overall American population regarding religious identity, is how it impacts the next generation. Among those who consider themselves religious, 71% are raising their children as Jews. Among those who do not identify with Jewish religion, 67% are not raising their children as Jews. In this scenario, intermarried families are more likely to raise their children with some religion, while only 37% of intermarried parents choose to raise them with no Judaism.

There will undoubtedly be many who foresee the end of Judaism in this survey. This is certainly a classic Jewish response. Remember the telegram which read: “Start worrying. Letter follows.” I am inclined to agree with Donniel Hartman, who published a column in The Time of Israel that urges us resist pointing fingers or seeking to promote one particular form of Jewish life over another, and to work together to respond to the reality of these trends.

I look at these numbers with a long view. My vantage point is the Museum of Science in Boston, where the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit is continuing until October 20.

Having visited the exhibit (and viewed the IMAX film “Jerusalem” that same day—definitely worth the trip), I believe we have the tools, and the experience, to think calmly and creatively about the Jewish future.

When you visit the exhibit, you will discover some interesting artifacts of life in ancient Israel that demonstrate how Judaism survived an era of turmoil and transition.  The religious ritual items on display include horned altars used for burning incense and small figurines that appear to be representation of goddesses. Ancient Israelites held onto ancient pagan roots even as they developed monotheistic rituals.

The scrolls themselves are a testament to the rise of scribal arts which created a common culture that survived the Roman destruction and exile. However, during the time they were written, Jews were divided into a variety of sects. No one knew which ones would ultimately prevail. While most of the Dead Sea Scrolls contain identical writing to what we find in our Hebrew Scriptures today, some include alternative texts. Those familiar with the Ashrei(Psalm 145) will discover that the scrolls actually add a verse that is not preserved in our Bible or prayerbook. They alter an ancient Psalm!

In our day, we are witnessing a period of turmoil and transition, a time of divisions and multiple interpretations of what it means to be a Jew. What Judaism becomes in the next generation may not be recognizable to us, just as the artifacts from ancient Israel bear little resemblance to our Jewish practices today. I’d like to imagine what a writer of the Dead Sea Scrolls might think of our Jewish practice today. Would it qualify as “religion” in their experience?

The Pew Research study points to what Jews today find important. I’m not sure what it means to be without religion. I know from working with people over the years that as many people age, the religious practice can become more accessible and more appealing. And from history, I know that we Jews are a creative people, an enduring people, not because we gave up on Judaism and not because we refused to change, but because we have continually reinvented the religious civilization of the Jewish people. On paper, the task may seem daunting. But let’s not be fooled into thinking we are different from those who faced similar challenges in our past. On parchment, we are a people who survives by continually learning and growing.