Feb 25, 2009

Seth Cohen: "Jewish Leadership at the Water’s Edge: A Call for Action"

Jewish Leadership at the Water's Edge: A Call for Action

With all of the change swirling around us, it has been challenging to organize, synthesize and verbalize my thoughts on the state of the Jewish community in 2009. The organizations in which I am involved, like all of the organizations in which we are all involved, are struggling to reconcile the challenges with the needs and the resources with the requirements. And while normally I am one to encourage systematic and methodical planning, now I feel like we must boldly  lead by action. And in order to encourage action by others, we must do more than just evaluate and understand the nature of our adversity; we must fearlessly lead our communities through our challenges to reach the other side of greatness. Until now, I have not been able to articulate this strong desire to see my fellow community members, volunteers, and professionals, rise up and lead. I have listened to planners and prognosticators, seers and scholars, each one of them expressing their voices… their view of what we need to do. But now I have finally found my voice that I have been searching for and below is my encouragement, my cajoling – my plea – that we not let this moment pass without a great uprising of Jewish leadership… strong and visionary leadership that will lead us through these stormy waters. This is not a plan… it is a call to action for Jewish leaders at the water's edge.

From time to time in the history of the Jewish people, moments arise that challenge us to reinforce our Jewish faith and reassert our Jewish purpose. There are, at these moments, great leaders that help us understand and define the decisions we must make and the paths we are offered to follow. In some cases they are leaders that are shaped by the moments, and in other case they are moments shaped by the leaders. In each case, they help achieve clarity of vision in foggy milieus of difficulty. They are leaders that take bold steps while providing gentle reassurance. They are leaders that do not just stand with us at the water's edge, but who lead us into the sea and across the river. Such leaders are called forward in each generation of adversity and drink from the well of Jewish strength that runs deep through our generations and refreshes each succeeding generation of leaders that come to drink from it. These leaders appear in the chronicles of Jewish history at the moments of their calling and leave legacies of faith and fearlessness, courage and community.

My friends, this is our moment, and we must be those Jewish leaders for our time.

We cannot underestimate the challenges we are facing nor the opportunities available for us to embrace. We live in a time where the establishment of the State of Israel still stirs our hearts, but the existential challenges it faces still turns our stomachs and in a time where seemingly limitless financial prosperity has suddenly turned into seemingly limitless financial distress. We live in an era time where the quality of Jewish education gives us great encouragement, but the magnitude of Jewish assimilation gives us even greater pause for concern. We face an increasing amount of anti-Semitism, yet some of the greatest damage to our Jewish infrastructure is the result of thievery of one of our own. Even in the face of the hate of strangers, we still struggle to build bonds of brotherhood and understanding with one another.

Our challenges are great and they are many.

Yes, these are challenging moments – the moments that call out for great Jewish leaders. For leaders with vision and boldness, with an understanding of the bastions of our heritage and the towers of our future. Leaders who know that the brightness of the Jewish experience, the collective Jewish journey on which we are all traveling, cannot dim and cannot end. It is an experience bound by a covenant that we must uphold and cannot revoke. In these times, the call for these leaders is strong, it is overwhelming, and it is deafening.

We must answer that call. We must be those leaders.

But being those leaders will mean more than just answering a call – it means more than just showing up. That is not leadership – that is attendance. We must search not only our hearts, but also our history. We must not bemoan the tests that face us, but we must engage the texts that teach us. We cannot muddle or meet our way through our challenges; we must face them squarely and respond to them strongly. We cannot simple respond hineini – we must do more than that. We must not just say we are here; we must show how we will go from here to there.

But how can we do this? Our institutions are shaken and our strategy is unclear. We cannot plan on relying on only that which we know, but also that which we must create. We must reimagine not only our institutions, but also the way we, as individuals, encounter those institutions. We must face our challenges, not turn away from them in the hope they will be delayed or distracted. We cannot believe that help is on the way and that time will bring reinforcements – we must be that help and we must signal that time. Indeed, our strength lies not in safety by avoidance, but by the certitude of Jewish survival.

This is our time, we cannot hide and we cannot falter.

The Jewish leaders before us have faced slavemasters and emperors. They have faced those from outside who would harm us and those from within who have betrayed us. Those leaders have faced the type of evil and uncertainty that suffocates the sprit and weakens the knees. But in each generation those leaders have embraced the breath of survival and stiffened their backs in the face of earth-shattering blows. They have fought our enemies from the caves of the deserts and through the walls of ghettos. They sacrificed themselves in their unwavering faith in their God and their people and left legacies of pride and resoluteness. They did not falter, and nor can we. We must respond to this moment, we must breathe deep breathes of courage and together firmly face our challenges.

We must not just stand at the water's edge, we must cross.

Like Moses and like Joshua, we cannot simply stand on this side of the water. We must have faith that in crossing among the high waves we will be fulfilling the next phase of our own journey forward. We cannot turn back and we cannot hesitate. What stands on the opposite side is not death and despair, but beauty and redemption – nothing less then the next holy steps of a holy people. We cannot refrain from taking those steps; we must take them with fervor and firmness. As leaders, we must cross that which threatens to engulf us, but cannot extinguish us. We must go to the water's edge, and we must be the leaders that those waters demand of us.

This is our moment. We must be the leaders standing at the water's edge.
And for the sake of our and future Jewish generations –
We must cross together

Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, a member of the Board of Directors of Joshua Venture (relaunching in Spring, 2009), a Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation and is an occassional contibutor to eJewish Philanthropy.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Reminder - Tonight! "A Jewish View of Love" at Netivot Shalom with Rabbi Benjamin Segal

"A Jewish View of Love" with Rabbi Benjamin Segal
Wed, February 25, 7:30pm
Congregation Netivot Shalom
1316 University Ave, Berkeley

This event is free and open to the public.

The Song of Songs is one of the earliest, perhaps the greatest of the world's love poems, in which a picture of ideal love emerges - mutual, committed, equal, erotic and exclusive. The author, a master poet (and possibly a woman), uses interweaving scenes to reflect the story of a young couple struggling against societal standards and family pressures. Making no attempt to reduce shades of meaning to simple prose, Rabbi Segal's new commentary appreciates that complexity and nuance are poetry's greatest power. It proceeds through easily read units, layer by layer unfolding both the background and the tensions. Overviews follow - of love as reflected in the Song, on the history of interpretation and on the poet's techniques.

Join Rabbi Segal, author of the recently published "The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love" for a fascinating conversation upon publication of his new translation and commentary which, according to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, "claim that the Song of Song's voluptuous depiction of love and sex, albeit within bounds, fits nicely into how the rest of the Bible understands love and sex too.  This is a true triumph of scholarship and love." 

Copies of "The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love" will be available for purchase
and Rabbi Segal will be available for signings after the presentation.

Benjamin J. Segal is the past President of Melitz, the Centers for Jewish and Zionist Education, in Jerusalem, and most recently has created within that context the major Jewish learning festival of Sukkot in Jerusalem, "Gateways." A past President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, the academic and educational center of Masorti Judaism in Israel, he previously served for nineteen years as the Director of the Ramah Programs in Israel, He is former Chairman of the Masorti Movement in Israel and, for many years, served on the Expanded Executive of the World Zionist Organization. He is the chairman of the Executive of the Meimad Political Party in Israel, and serves on the boards of several non-profit enterprises.  

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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In Memory Of Ellen Miller, Who Is Still Alive


In Memory Of Ellen Miller, Who Is Still Alive

Ellen Miller: Her one novel touched on the enduring themes of Jewish writing.
Ellen Miller: Her one novel touched on the enduring themes of Jewish writing.

by Daniel Schifrin
Special To The Jewish Week

"[Death...] is not the end of desire. This is the end of memory. An awful prospect, especially for Jews. We don't mind not being wanted. We mind not being remembered."
— Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish

I first met Ellen Miller several years ago, at a panel on new Jewish literature I was moderating for The Jewish Week at the 92nd Street Y. I had devoured her first novel, "Like Being Killed," a rigorous and hysterical work. Little did I know that this book would be her only published novel;she died in December, at age 41, of a heart attack.

No one who met Ellen ever forgot her. She was always smarter, more energetic, more compulsive and more searching than anyone else in the room. Forget about her fiction; even her e-mails, intending to be casual and modestly informative, routinely expressed electric shocks of insight and creativity, moving as they did through the ether of a dark and disorienting humor.

Ellen was, I believe, a proud if suspicious member of the group of New Jewish Writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg and Dara Horn, who were first grouped together coherently in Paul Zakrzewski's still fresh anthology "Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge." Her suspiciousness first surfaced when we discussed the panel on Jewish writing, and she asked whether she had something to offer to this conversation — in print, or in person.

In truth, she was a little shy on the panel (boasting as it did the uber-Jewish writers Jonathan Rosen, Dara Horn and Pearl Abraham). But this reticence about Jewish life evaporated in print, especially in her story "In Memory of Chanveasna Chan, Who is Still Alive," which first appeared in "Lost Tribe." If ever there was a story to teach about how subterranean Jewish identity bubbles up among those of us who aren't sure just where it is within us, this is it.

Beth Tedesky, a working-class Canarsie girl thrust intoan Ivy League college at 16, is lonely and repressed. She is both horrified and mystified by her WASP housemate, whose wealth, anorexia and lack of self-scrutiny seem truly exotic, especially when compared with her own background, and that of another housemate, a Cambodian student named Chanveasna Chan.

At heart, the piece is about a mitzvah. Beth sits in a dark movie theater with Chanveasna, whose parents were killed in front of him by the Khmer Rouge, while he watches the film "The Killing Fields." At the end Beth, who has momentarily fled to the bathroom in recoil from Chan's pain, has a moment of absurd and almost repugnant transcendence as she recognizes the connections between her Jewish history and the Cambodian massacres.

Facing herself in the mirror, wondering if she should leave the theater or return to her friend, she says: "I looked as if I'd just walked barefoot all the way across Russia from Bialystock..." Wanting to add some color to her face before returning, she imagines Charles Revson designing a line of cosmetics for her miserable, exiled self: "A blood-red lipstick, for when I was feeling impetuous, called Pogrom, and a dramatic gray eyeshadow called Ashes. For a romantic, sexy night out, like my date with Chan, he would have formulated a perfume named Kristallnacht, packaged in an elaborate stained-glass bottle, advertised with the slogan, 'For Your Special Nights.'"

The point of Beth's astringent reflections, which come to her unbidden and unwanted, is not to make fun. As she herself explains it: "I had to busy my brain somehow so I wouldn't contemplate what I was about to do..." — the mitzvah of returning to Chan in order to watch the rest of the film, then accompany him home. Her act of sympathetic imagination ends this way: "The simple fact that he and I were landsleit — two people born in the same town in the Old Country — pierced me. ... In the presence of a weeping landsman, a balbatisheh mensch sits her skinny, peasant ass down, hands over the toilet paper, and leans inward, inward into his storm."

Thinking about the meaning and future of Jewish literature, this story, by a deeply conflicted Jew, evokes the enduring themes of Jewish writing: the astonishing relevance of history; the almost physical difficulty of discharging our moral responsibilities; and the overwhelming need to remember.

In my relationship with Ellen, often I played the role of the "good Jew" — the one who knew, the one who practiced, the one who prayed. But despite whatever Judaic knowledge I might have imparted to Ellen, I suspect she taught me much more than I taught her about the moral intensity, self-scrutiny and imaginative muscle it takes to be a contemporary Jew. n
Daniel Schifrin is writer-in-residence, and director of public programs, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Feb 24, 2009

the Jewish Week: "Conservative Jewry: Toward Renewal, Not Kaddish"

Conservative Jewry: Toward Renewal, Not Kaddish
Rabbi David Lerner
Special To The Jewish Week

This is a moment of great opportunity for Conservative Judaism.  Its three major arms are undergoing changes in leadership: Arnold Eisen is serving in his second year as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld has been chosen as the incoming executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly, and a new leader of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is being selected.

Those of us committed to Conservative Judaism should utilize this moment to make the changes necessary to ensure its flourishing, to build on the extraordinary successes of the movement of the past.  Although the movement is bleeding members and has lost much of the cachet it once had, this is not the time for Kaddish, but for renewal.

Conservative Judaism's successes

are legion. It helped stem the flow of immigrants and their children away from Judaism. Its emphasis on history and scholarship laid the foundation for Jewish studies in American universities. The Conservative Movement's unceasing support of Zionism influenced other groups to follow suit. Its unique blend of tradition and egalitarianism has become the mainstay of the new minyan movement, most of whose leaders grew up as Conservative Jews. Its approach to the status of women has influenced Modern Orthodoxy.  Its continuous advocacy of Hebrew and traditional ritual has had an impact on Reform Judaism as well.  

But for too many years, we have been too comfortable with the status quo rather than taking up the reins of change to bring our message to our members and beyond.

We should celebrate our unique egalitarian halachic Judaism more openly and passionately. Two parallel thrusts propel the movement today. On the one hand, we are more open to groups that were historically excluded, such as intermarried families, non-traditional families, and gays and lesbians. At the same time, we are deepening our experience of traditional Jewish practices, building sukkot and intensifying our Jewish learning by offering both entry-level and advanced adult education. These two trends share a commitment to participatory, engaged Judaism.

Most of all, we need to create Shabbat communities where those most committed to halachic Shabbat observance will find like-minded peers. Too often our lay members who observe Shabbat end up attending Orthodox synagogues, compromising their egalitarian values and intellectual honesty in order to be a part of a Shabbat-observant community.

Simultaneously, Conservative Judaism must create vibrant communities: shuls that are warm and inviting places where Jews come to daven, eat, learn, perform chesed (acts of kindness), and be entertained.  As teachers and guides our rabbis and cantors should empower others to teach Torah and lead davening. We should restructure b'nei mitzvah celebrations so that they are more meaningful both to the celebrants and to the rest of the davening community.

We should incorporate chesed as a pillar of our daily lives.  Specifically, our hechsher tzedek (justice supervision) initiative that incorporates ethical business practices into kashrut should grow along with greening our congregations, working on accessibility, and opening soup kitchens, as acts of kindness.  Interweaving social action and spiritual practices resonates with younger Jews.

We need first to welcome folks wherever they are. Free or low-cost introductory High Holy Day services and sedarim should become the norm. We also need to do a better job forming chavurot within our synagogues and foster Shabbat hospitality, where the seeds of meaningful relationships are planted.

Faculties at our seminaries should be scholars who are also religious role models who can serve as spiritual mentors for the next generation of leaders.

As it chooses its next leader, the United Synagogue in particular should take this opportunity to reshape itself. I propose that it replace the regional offices of its large national structure with a smaller operation that would coordinate more closely with other movement arms. It should re-envision itself as a think-tank and consulting group that creatively re-imagines the Jewish community of tomorrow as it provides counsel to its congregations. It should hire the best rabbis and educators and pay them competitive salaries so they will establish new communities, running classes and programs around North America, infusing the movement with energy and enthusiasm. 
When we see Jews beginning to move into a community, we should be there with resources, taking risks to spread our message.  A corps of adventurous spiritual leaders — perhaps newly minted and/or retiring rabbis, supported by the central movement — would help us grow.

We need a powerful publishing department that will unite the movement and Web sites updated with YouTube and podcasts, offering ritual instruction learning opportunities for joggers and commuters.
Perhaps most important for our future, efforts to follow up with USY (United Synagogue Youth) and Camp Ramah alumni as they enter adulthood must be made more effective.  Members of United Synagogue congregations must be reconnected to new congregations as they move around the country and even around the world.

If we are willing to embrace the changes necessary for our growth, all of these innovations are within our reach.

Most of all, we need passionate, energetic leaders — professional and lay — who model authentic yiddishkeit, who live and breathe God, Torah and Israel. They will build the Conservative Movement of tomorrow.

Rabbi David Lerner is the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass.

Feb 23, 2009

Jonathan Sarna on Jewish Philanthropy

Lessons From The Past

by Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna

The Jewish community grew wealthy, along with the nation as a whole, in the post-Reagan era. Arguably, more Jewish wealth was created in those good years than in all of American Jewish history put together. And since much of that wealth was created by investors and venture capitalists, it is no surprise that they brought a venture capital mindset into the American Jewish non-profit sector, promoting innovation and experimentation.

We also now know that the burgeoning number of Jews in hedge funds created a dangerous sense of overconfidence. We came to believe that smart Jews could make money whatever the markets did – up or down. Most of us could not understand how they made money, but thank God if we were lucky they would let us – for a price – share in the wealth. We could expect 10% returns almost guaranteed. That, in the end, paved the way for the way not only for the great market crash, but also for Bernie Madoff.

An Historian Looks at the Economic Downturn

This is not the first time that the American Jewish community has confronted an unexpected and severe downturn. Something similar happened eighty years ago, in 1929. Let me read you a few selections from the 1929 diary of Mordecai Kaplan:

"When I preached on the First Day of Succot concerning the need of using religion as a means of fortifying ourselves against the insecurity and precariousness of modern life, I little realized that I, as well as the people I spoke to, would soon have occasion to put their religion to the test. It was only two or three days after that [that] the big crash in Wall Street took place. Some of my friends and relatives lost heavily. Brous who was about to be married to my niece Harriet Baron, lost about $300,000 [about $3.6 million dollars in today's money]. Not having dealt on margin there is a possibility of my recovering some of the money that was invested for me. In the meantime, the value of my investments shrank from about $85,000 to $45,000 [drop from just over $1million dollars to $540,000 in today's terms.] I had hoped that in the course of a few years, by saving and investing in stocks that would rise in value, I would save up sufficiently to be able to give up all institutional connections and strike out boldly upon some program of spiritual reformation of Jewish life. Although that dream has now vanished I dare not complain. There are thousands of people who are in dire straits as a result of the crash and would consider themselves the happiest in the world if they were economically even half [as well] off as I am."  [M Scult (ed.), Communings of the Spirit, 392-93]

Kaplan's economic woes did not end there. Even though, he writes, "we invested in bank stock which we had been assured was the safest of all stocks," he like 1 in 5 New York Jews lost money when the Jewish-owned Bank of the United States closed its doors on December 11, 1930. Kaplan lost the equivalent of about $25,000 in today's money.

I recount this history not because I think that we are about to return to depths of Great Depression – nobody I know seriously believes that we are headed back to 25% unemployment  — but because I think that we need to look back to Great Depression for some lessons that may still be relevant to our day. 

Two negative lessons:

(1) The Great Depression saw a widespread abandonment of Jewish education – IN NYC between 1928 and 1935, the number of students enrolled in Jewish schools in NYC dropped by 22% [YA 10 p.50]. In just six months from Dec 1930-June 1931, enrollment in Chicago in Jewish education dropped 16%. We paid a big price for those declines. Those young Jews never made up what they lost. We need to be careful to avoid a repeat of that pattern.

(2) In the early years of Great Depression, American Jewry turned inward and paid little heed to what was going on abroad, particularly in Germany. As the American Jewish Year Book gently put it in 1931, "the Jews of the United States did not during the past years watch the situation of their  overseas co-religionists with the same concentration as in the preceding  twelve months." We were, as a result, less prepared as a community than we should have been for the terrible impact of world events.

On the positive side, Jews turned primarily to one another during the 1930s, relying on ties of faith and kinship to carry them through the hard times. Traditions of self-help and mutual aid overcame religious, ideological, and generational differences within the American Jewish community. American Jews assumed responsibility for helping their own. There is much that we can learn from this today. We have a huge opportunity to remind Jews of the benefit of the idea that all Jews are family, that we help one another in need. We desperately need to relearn some of our traditional communitarian values, some of them forgotten, in a few circles, during the years of plenty. America traditionally glorifies lone rangers and cowboys. We Jews, though, believe in community. The benefits of community – of mutual responsibility — become very clear when times are tough.

A second positive trend in the 1930s was the impact on Jews of New Deal programs and government centralization. More than anybody realized at the time, the Depression set the stage for the 5 day week and for growing government responsibility for social services. Together, these transformed postwar Jewish life in myriad ways. The New Deal also provided a model for growing centralization in Jewish life at the national and local levels.

Ronald Reagan, of course, reversed course at the national level when he became president in 1981. He argued that big government was the problem and not the solution. It was, he complained, inefficient, bureaucratic, slow, wasteful, and unable to innovate. Under him, we began a project of decentralization: cutting taxes and shifting power away from Washington. The American Jewish community, as if in step, likewise shifted course away from central control by the United Jewish Appeal and the Large City Budgeting Council (which were also deemed inefficient, bureaucratic, slow, wasteful, and unable to innovate), and we moved toward more local control. Most importantly for the Jewish Funder's Network, we also moved in the Reagan years toward our own version of privatization which resulted in the growth of private Jewish foundations.

To give you a sense of how rapid that change has been, let me remind you (as Felicia Herman reminded me) that prior to Ronald Reagan's presidency, which began in 1981, not one of the following Jewish foundations existed: Wexner, AviChai, CRB, Schusterman or Steinhardt. Back when I was studying the American Jewish community with Marshall Sklare, and reading Daniel Elazar, foundations were not on our radar screens.

The Jewish community grew wealthy, along with the nation as a whole, in the post-Reagan era. Arguably, more Jewish wealth was created in those good years than in all of American Jewish history put together. And since much of that wealth was created by investors and venture capitalists, it is no surprise that they brought a venture capital mindset into the American Jewish non-profit sector, promoting innovation and experimentation.

We also now know that the burgeoning number of Jews in hedge funds created a dangerous sense of overconfidence. We came to believe that smart Jews could make money whatever the markets did – up or down. Most of us could not understand how they made money, but thank God if we were lucky they would let us – for a price – share in the wealth. We could expect 10% returns almost guaranteed. That, in the end, paved the way for the way not only for the great market crash, but also for Bernie Madoff.

Let's look at where we are today and where we are likely to go from here

At the moment, following billions of dollars in losses to Jewish endowments and a significant decline in annual gift giving, different sectors of the American Jewish community are busy explaining to all who will listen why their particularly area of the Jewish economy has to be preserved at all costs. Human services (obviously a priority in tough times); Jewish education (as necessary as oxygen); Jewish camping (shapes Jewish memories and lifelong associations); innovative Jewish start-ups (they are the most efficient sector of the Jewish economy and in many ways the most creative); Birthright Israel (perhaps the most successful program we have established in decades & critical to preserving American Jews' ties to Israel). And so on and so forth – more or less every program is too good to give up. In a way, the community is like my university: everyone understands that we need to cut back in hard times. The faculty simply insists that: nothing be cut from crucial areas like the arts, the humanities, the sciences, the social sciences and the co-curriculars. Everything else is on the table!

The problem in the American Jewish community at large is that, aside from killing off CAJE and the American Jewish Congress, nobody has put forth serious ideas about how to cut the Jewish communal budget by one-third. That, however, might well be what we need to do. Foundations, even not taking into account the Madoff losses, are about 1/3 poorer than they were this time last year. If the downturn stretches into 2010, annual campaigns may be down by 1/3 as well.

Inevitably in downturns, the weak organizations are the first to fall. As Warren Buffett observed in his usual colorful way, "you don't know who is swimming naked until the tide goes out." My own guess is that, at the very least, many of the Hebrew colleges, many of the bureaus of Jewish education, several of the Jewish museums, and some other shakier Jewish organizations will not survive this downturn.

Orthodox Jewish organizations are apparently in the worst shape. Orthodox Jews have been disproportionately involved in banking and the stock market, and were also disproportionately hurt by Madoff ($2 billion, by one account, were lost by members of a single Orthodox synagogue.) They also are heavy users of our most expensive Jewish institutions (synagogues and schools). I have felt for a long time – and for numerous reasons – that Orthodoxy's rise had run its course. My sense is that the downturn will confirm this. I do not expect to see same kind of Orthodox growth moving forward as we have seen since 1960s, and my guess, sadly, is that some significant Orthodox institutions will not survive.

Seven trends to watch:

1. We have seen several Jewish organizations that either have or are close to being merged into non-Jewish organizations (Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center & Temple University; Baltimore Hebrew College & Townson State; rumors re Center for Jewish History & NYU; and Northeastern & Hebrew College. Some Jewish day schools are also talking of sharing secular classes and facilities with non-Jewish private or parochial schools. None of this could have happened in the 1930s, when anti-Semitism was so rampant. But today we are confident – maybe too confident – that we can make deals with non-Jewish organizations without fear of losing an essential part of ourselves.

2. Effort to re-engage small donors. Historically, American Jewish philanthropy was in the hands of a small number of wealthy elite Jews up to WWI. For years, Jacob Schiff held veto power in many aspects of philanthropy and communal policy. But then, the catastrophe or war, and the great desire of immigrants to aid relatives left behind led to mass philanthropy. For the next 60 years, or so, philanthropy was not only a way to raise money but also a form of Jewish identification. Then, over the past 20 years, business-minded consultants persuaded federation heads to focus on big givers, for the sake of efficiency. The cost per dollar raised was much less with wealthy donors, they observed, and with only so much time to educate donors, they thought it was a better investment in time and resources to educate wealthy ones. As a result, the donor base, according to UJC, dropped from 900,000 to under 500,000  over the past twenty years. Fortunately, new web technology has made it much easier to engage small donors cheaply and efficiently. The Obama campaign proved this. Some of the new minyanim, like Hadar, have demonstrated this as well. The loss of some of our wealthier older donors makes effort to re-engage small donors more urgent than ever.

3. Calls for higher standards of ethics and for greater transparency. Madoff losses and nationwide dissatisfaction with executive salaries and perks are bound to have an effect on the non-profit world. Donors will demand more openness, less reliance on "the wisdom of the rich," and a higher general commitment to ethical principles and to transparent investments and spending. My guess is that salaries at the top will fall at foundations, federations, day schools etc.. In the short run, this will have no effect; people are glad just to be employed. In the long run, it may deprive us of quality individuals who will prefer to work in the private sections.

4. Power will flow back to the center. The Jewish community tends to follow national trends. Now that we again have a president who believes that government is a force for good and a force for change, I expect more efforts to "rein in" the cowboys and to promote greater communal cooperation and centralized planning. Even Facebook, after all, has a leader who shapes policy. The growing power and significance of the Jewish Funders Network may be an indication of precisely this new trend.

5. New focus on sweat equity. In the absence of lots of start up money, young, creative, technologically savvy Jews will give time to causes that inspire them. We already see this in minyan world. I expect that we will see it elsewhere as well. Indeed, as unemployment rises the challenge is to try to harness the time of the unemployed for the benefit of the Jewish community. Many unemployed are eager to be useful. Can we figure out ways to use them productively?

6. There is a discernable focus inward in the contemporary US Jewish community, with less engagement with Israel (esp among non-Orthodox). Notice how few of the Jewish start-ups are Israel related; few Slingshot organizations are Israel related either. Even the war in Gaza did not lead to mass fundraising for Israel – a first. As Birthright takes fewer young people to Israel, we find ourselves back in the bad old days of the intifada when so many young Jews learned about Israel primarily from watching CNN.

7. At same time, downturns in the US generally promote aliyah. I expect an uptick in aliyah especially among the Orthodox and those who have already spent time in Israel, but did not think they could take risk of making aliyah. As prospects darken in US, some will look to Israel – Nefesh b'nefesh makes this easier (and it has just received unexpected new funding).

It behooves us to be humble as we try to imagine the future. As Yogi Berra famously observed, "prophecy is very difficult especially about the future."  Nobody in the wake of the great 1929 crash ever  imagined that just 20 years later 6 million Jews would lie dead in the Shoah; the State of Israel would come into existence; American Jewry would move from the cities to the suburbs, antisemitism would drastically decline; and Jewish education would become a growing communal priority. I do not have high confidence that we can predict the future today any more clearly.

But this much I am prepared to predict: the economic downturn will end, the stock market will turn around, Jews will begin to make money again, and Jewish funders will regain their confidence and search for new ways to make our community better and stronger.

Let's hope that this happens soon!

Dr. Jonathan Sarna is  the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and Director of its Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. Dr. Sarna presented the above at a Jewish Funders Network event this past week.

Feb 22, 2009

Announcing ShefaJournal 5769: "USCJ & the Future of Conservative Judaism"

Announcing ShefaJournal 5769:1
"USCJ & the Future of Conservative Judaism"

In many ways, the newest ShefaNetwork Journal is a response to the crossroads in the life of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. While the details of each contributor's thoughts might be directed towards a number of specific programs, the whole enterprise of the USCJ is the general theme. A set of potential "best‐practices" as well as a possible restructuring approach are included in this ShefaNetwork Journal, an edited version of selected posts to the online listserve of the ShefaNetwork between February 17 and February 22, 2009.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

To join Rabbi Creditor's email list, send a blank email to thetisch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

Feb 20, 2009

Purim Conference: Sunday March 1!

Merkavah Torah Institute, Congregation Beth Israel, Afikomen Judaica & Congregation Netivot Shalom presents a day of learning in preparation for Purim!

Masekhet Megillah:
The Gantse Megile and a Bisele Talmud
(The Whole Megillah and a Bit of Talmud)

Sessions with Merkavah Instructor Dalia Davis & students of the
Merkavah Talmud program.

Sunday, March 1, 9:30am – 1:00pm
Congregation Netivot Shalom
1316 University Avenue, Berkeley

Light Refreshments Served
$25/$15 for Students or Sliding Scale
Childcare: $5 for the Day (RSVP Needed for Childcare)
Scholarships Available

9:30-9:45am Registration
9:45-10:00am Opening Remarks
10:00-11:15am Dalia Davis: Talmud Megillah Revealed
11:15-11:30am Refreshments

11:30-12:00noon Workshop Session 1
Bella Barany: Leprosy or When to Wear Gloves
Alice Webber: Are We Drunk Enough Yet?
Sara Horowitz: TBA

12:05-12:35pm Workshop Session 11
Ruchama Burrell: Those Were the Days
Rena Fischer: Jerusalem, Shiloh and the Place of the Holy
Serach Bracha Richards: Who's Your Audience: 'Mistranslations' of the Torah?
12:40-1:00pm Closing

Sponsored by Merkavah Torah Institute, Congregation Netivot Shalom,
Congregation Beth Israel & Afikomen Judaica

This Program is open to Women and Men.

 Information: 510.292.0175 or merkavahberkeley@gmail.com

Nell Mahgel-Friedman
Program Director
Merkavah Torah Institute
1630 Berkeley Way
Berkeley CA 94703

"The mission of Merkavah Torah Institute is to build accessible,
inspiring and vigorous opportunities for Jewish women to engage in the
study of classical Jewish texts and philosophy.

We believe that women's in depth engagement with classical Jewish
texts will give them the tools to enhance their own Jewish connection,
lead richer more empowered Jewish lives, teach others, and step into
leadership roles in the community.

Merkavah is rooted in the belief that inspiring and educating Jewish
women will uplift and strengthen the entire Jewish community."

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

Feb 19, 2009

Keep Lieberman out of the government

Keep Lieberman out of the government  - 02:30 20/02/2009
By Haaretz Editorial

Israelis still don't know who won last week's elections, or who will put together the next government. The only clear result is that Avigdor Lieberman is trying to dictate the nature and composition of the new coalition.

This is evident from the conditions he demanded of Likud and Kadima for Yisrael Beiteinu's joining the government and from his appearance yesterday at the President's Residence, where he stipulated that he wanted a broad coalition headed by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel's democracy is breaking daily records of degradation. The large parties, failing to win broad public support, are wooing a politician who conducted a racist campaign against the state's Arab citizens and is suspected of grave criminal acts. They are allowing him to determine who will head the government and who its partners will be.

In exchange for Lieberman's political support, Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni are competing with each other to legitimize Yisrael Beiteinu and its hate campaign. Likud promised "to examine additional amendments to the citizenship law" to implement Lieberman's campaign slogan of "no citizenship without loyalty."

Likud modifies its position, saying that the amendments will correspond with "international judicial and constitutional norms," but in the same breath boasts that it has already initiated legislation to deprive people of their citizenship, in the spirit of Lieberman's stances.

Kadima made do with demanding "military, national or civic service" for every youngster and did not suggest changing the citizenship law. But Livni boasted of her close ties with Lieberman and their long acquaintanceship, presenting him as a legitimate politician and desirable partner in a future coalition led by her.

The attitudes of Livni and Netanyahu cannot simply be dismissed as acceptable political cynicism. It is futile for them to argue that because Lieberman sat as a minister in the governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert he is a legitimate partner now. Lieberman's racist election campaign and the serious criminal allegations against him exclude him from a place among legitimate partners to the nation's leadership.

The two claiming the prime minister's chair are trying to ignore this, displaying a lack of leadership and moral bankruptcy. To Netanyahu and Livni, Yisrael Beiteinu's 15 Knesset seats are much more important than Israel's moral image and carrying out the values of equality engraved in the Declaration of Independence.

It is not too late for them to come to their senses. It is possible to set up a stable coalition without Yisrael Beiteinu, conveying a clear message to Israelis and the international community that they have boundaries - that the hate party, its positions and leader must remain outside the government. That Liebermanism must be stopped now, before it gets any stronger.

It is incumbent upon the president to stop the disgrace and act to form a government without Lieberman. Shimon Peres said that in deciding whom to ask to form a coalition he will also take "Israel's policy" into consideration. This is the chance for Israel's elder statesman and Nobel Peace Prize winner to show political courage by conditioning the formation of the next government on preserving Israel's image as a democracy.

Feb 18, 2009

two weeknight learning series with Rabbi Creditor coming up at Netivot!

The Laws of Pesach
with Rabbi Creditor
Tuesday nights at 7:30pm
March 17, 24, 31; April 7

The traditions surrounding the holiday of Pesach are both fun and challenging at times.  During this four-part series, Rabbi Creditor will present traditional and modern Jewish texts which inform some of the ritual and emotional experiences of Pesasch.  This class is beginner-friendly, and all texts will be available in English translation.  A $30 materials fee is suggested, and registration is required with Rachel in the Netivot Shalom office. 

Gemara Berachot: An Ancient Book of Blessing
with Rabbi Creditor
Tuesday nights at 7:30pm
May 5, 12, 19, 26

Jewish worship transitioned from a sacrificial system into a system of verbal prayers over a long period of time.  The decisions and struggles of the early rabbis who revolutionized Jewish Prayer are collected in the Talmud, also known as the Gemara.  The Tractate Berachot is one of the earliest conversations about Jewish Prayer, hinting at some of the paths Judaism has since adopted.  During this four-part series, Rabbi Creditor will guide participants through the first section of Gemara Berachot, using the Artscroll edition.  While all texts will be available in English translation, frequent use of the Hebrew and Aramaic original will be part of the learning.  Participants should have a copy of the ArtScroll Gemara Brachot (Volume 1), which is available at Afikomen.  This class is free, but registration is required with Rachel in the Netivot Shalom office.

[ShefaNetwork.org] USCJ & the future

Dear Chevreh,

What a magnificent conversation Zack pushed us into!  Whereas there is certainly so much work to do at the USCJ, this conversation points to some of our deepest dreams for what that work is meant to accomplish.  Shefa, back when it was founded, first slid into "kvetch-fest" territory.  Some of the earliest Shefaniks suggested what has been articulated once again in this thread:  that's not the best use of this forum, nor will it make the difference so urgently needed in the institutions of our Movement's continuum. 

So perhaps the question is this:  What is the reason USCJ must exist?  In other words, since a mission-statement explains "why I exist in the world", let's pretend there isn't already a mission and we have been charged by the USCJ leadership with crafting mission language worthy of the dreams and capable of meeting the needs of our Movement.  Let's craft that language together, on Shefa, and see what comes of it.  

There are many USCJ professionals on this list, many volunteer leaders of the Movement, USY'ers, professors, etc - let's articulate a mission for an institution clearly in need of grassroots energy, sharing it with many in the position to most diretly empower and implement that voice.

(For historical perspective, see the bottom of this email for the actual current vision and mission statements of the USCJ.)

In terms of David's wise suggestion to focus on mission, I pasted (directly below my signature) a wonderful article from the Alban Institute, called "Who Owns the Congregation" which ultimately suggests that our job as stakeholders in the conversation is to find the mission we belong to, the real owner for whose benefit we hold and deploy the organization's resources.

May the dreaming continue, Chevreh - who knows what may emerge?

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

To join Rabbi Creditor's email list, send a blank email to thetisch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

Who Owns a Congregation?

by Dan Hotchkiss (adapted)

Comparisons are useful but tricky. Christian Biblical writers compare the church to a human body, a herd of sheep, a bride, and a vineyard. Synagogues are often likened to a house, a tent, or an extended family. None of these analogies is meant to be exact or literal—a church may act in some ways like a herd of sheep, but a wise leader doesn't plan on it. Poets do exaggerate sometimes.

In the same spirit of poetic license, it may at times it may be useful to compare the clergy leader of a congregation to a corporate CEO, its members to customers or stockholders, or its staff to the employees of a charity. We can draw many useful analogies between congregations, other nonprofits, and businesses, but ultimately congregations need ideas and language of their own. It is easy to say that "the church should run more like a business," without recognizing that in some respects the church should and does run very differently.

I often ask members of a congregation's governing board to describe their job. Someone usually answers, "We're here to represent the members of the congregation." The analogy at work here is political: the board is like a city council or the U.S. Senate, whose members are elected by the people to make law in their behalf. Most American congregations elect the governing board by congregational vote. In New England, churches of the congregational tradition sometimes actually mirror, in their structure, the town meeting form of government.

Another answer I frequently hear is, "We are ministers alongside of the pastor." This is a powerful idea, codified in Reformed theology as the idea of the ruling elder, ordained to lead alongside teaching elders, or pastors. In current Presbyterian practice, elders are elected, but the rite of ordination makes them more than representatives; as ministers they "exercise their responsibilities according to the guidance of their own nurtured consciences and not merely as spokespersons of particular interest groups." 1 While not so explicit in most non-Reformed traditions, the idea that a lay board member's work is ministry is worth considering in any congregation.

Almost always, when I ask about the board's job, someone says, "The board is a fiduciary." And what might that be? A fiduciary (in Latin, fiduciarius, "trust," from fides, "faith") is anyone with a duty to act in faithfulness to the interest of another, even at cost or peril to himself or herself. A parent, for example, has a fiduciary duty to care for his or her children no matter how much sacrifice that might require. The board of a business holds the corporate assets as fiduciary for the stockholders. Since the stockholders' main interest, ordinarily, is in making money, corporate boards generally try to maximize stockholder value. If they pursue other goals—pumping up executive compensation, making sweetheart deals with other companies owned by board members, or sometimes even trying to be responsible corporate citizens—they can expect to be accused of failing as fiduciaries.

By this analogy, a congregation's board exists to represent the owner. But who is the owner? Often board members answer this question too quickly: "The owner is the congregation!" And the owner's interest? Satisfactory worship, education, social action, and so on. The fiduciary duty of a congregation's board, then, is to know what the congregation wants and to provide it.

This way of thinking sometimes produces good results, but in my opinion it is based on a false analogy. A congregation does exist to serve its owner—but the members are not owners in the same way stockholders own business corporations. Who, then, is the owner? God? Perhaps, but a more useful answer, I believe, is "The owner of a congregation is its mission." A congregation exists to serve its mission. The duty of a congregation's leaders is to discern the piece of God's will that constitutes this congregation's mission, to articulate the mission well, and to ensure that what the congregation does will realize the mission. The "bottom line" is not the balance in the bank (important though that is) but the degree to which the mission is fulfilled.

And what is the mission? The great management consultant Peter Drucker wrote that the core mission of all social-sector organizations is "changed lives." The specific mission of a congregation is its answer to the question, "Whose lives do we intend to change and in what way?" A congregation that limits its vision to pleasing its members falls short of its true purpose. Growth, expanding budgets, building programs, and such trappings of success matter only if they reflect positive transformation in the lives of people touched by the congregation's work.

The job of congregational leaders—boards, clergy, lay leaders, and staff—is not to "give the members what they want." For one thing, if the only mission is to current members, the congregation will soon die. And so the mission must be not only to change the lives of members but of others yet to join. A real problem with democracy in congregations is that future members do not vote. If they did, at every meeting they would make up a majority.

Another reason congregations cannot simply "give the members what they want" is that part of the mission is to teach people to want things that they don't want. Members of vital congregations testify to many ways the congregation has drawn them out of themselves into voluntary service, sacrificial changes of career, and hard work for social justice. Sometimes I ask such people, "What would you have done if someone warned you how joining this congregation would transform your life?" Generally they admit, "I would have run the other way!" Pleasing people—members, future members, leaders, or anybody else—is not the mission. The mission is to change lives.

Who, then, is the owner of a congregation? Who plays the role of stockholders in a business? Not the members. Not the board. Not the clergy or the bishop or the staff. These all are fiduciaries whose duty is to serve the owner. Symbolically, we might say God is the owner. But God's whole will is too big to guide one congregation. Instead, the board's job is to discern our mission, the small piece of God's intention that belongs to us. Or to put it differently, our job is to find the mission we belong to, the real owner for whose benefit we hold and deploy the congregation's resources..
1 Edward Le Roy Long, Patterns of Polity: Varieties of Church Governance (Pilgrim Press, 2001).

USCJ Vision & Mission Statements

Our Vision

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism promotes the role of the synagogue in Jewish life in order to motivate Conservative Jews to perform mitzvot encompassing ethical behavior, spirituality, Judaic learning, and ritual observance.

Our Mission

The mission of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is to strengthen and serve our congregations and their members.

We create, develop and disseminate educational, religious and tikun olam programming to meet the needs of our congregations and their members.

We seek to create communities of conservative congregations in each of our regions and throughout North America.

We work in concert with other institutions and organizations of the Conservative Movement to promote, nurture and foster a vibrant Movement.

We are both an advocate and a spokesperson for the congregations of the Conservative Movement.

We are dedicated to strengthening the connections between North American Conservative Jews, the Jewish People and the State of Israel.

Both can be found here: http://www.uscj.org/Mission_Statement6402.html

Rabbi Gordon Tucker on Michael Fishbane and Neil Gillman

Facing a Difficult Faith

By Rabbi Gordon Tucker


Doing Jewish Theology: God, Torah & Israel in Modern Judaism
By Rabbi Neil Gillman
Jewish Lights Publishing, 304 pages, $24.99

Sacred Attunement
By Michael Fishbane
The University of Chicago Press, 246 pages, $30.00

On a recent Rosh Hashanah, one of our preschoolers stopped me in the hallway of the synagogue and asked me, point blank, "Is God real or pretend?" Adults often ask the same question, though rarely as directly or even aloud. And when they do ask, it is very much an adult question, born of the heartache of difficult faith.

Two books, both published in 2008, deal in different ways and in different styles with many of the aspects of this modern predicament.

"Doing Jewish Theology" is a collection of essays by Neil Gillman, former dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary's Rabbinical School. He is also a longtime professor of Jewish philosophy at the JTS. Gillman is a prolific and influential teacher who has come, over the years, to delight more and more in being a gadfly — a challenger of many comfortable shibboleths in Jewish thought, and especially within Conservative Judaism. The essays here range back to 1985, and their topics cover a broad spectrum: personal, historical, institutional, and the big questions of creation and the end of days.

From engaging material on Gillman's personal theological journey, fascinating insights into JTS and Conservative Judaism, musings on Abraham Joshua Heschel, reflections on the paradoxical functioning of liturgy and ritual and on the "embrace of tension" in Jewish theology, Gillman's presentation is, as always, lucid and thoroughly accessible to the nonprofessional reader. 

Reviews of anthologies should draw out the leitmotifs implied by the selections, so it's important to note that in this anthology, we see the words "metaphors," "midrash" and "myth" repeated again and again throughout Gillman's lectures and papers. These have been vital words in his teaching for decades now, and they are about reminding us that, as he puts it, "we never capture 'reality' as it is. Rather, we construct reality." Not that Gillman is a solipsist — he believes in a world outside his own thoughts — but, not unlike Kant, he wants us to be sure not to miss the crucial distinction between things as they are and things as we experience them. All our depictions of reality — that is, our metaphors, midrashim and myths (large frameworks of meaning) — are at least a step removed from reality itself.

For Jewish theology, this can make those people who are comfortable with the status quo squirm. It means that Torah never speaks with just God's words; it means that holiness is framed through human convention, and it means that prayer and ritual are complex acts of imagination. Gillman, a Jew whose life includes a practice of prayer and of ritual, grapples with the question he reports being asked repeatedly: "How can you pray to a metaphor?"

These are not necessarily new formulations. Gillman follows Kaplan, whose "reconstruction" of Judaism put community at the center of its constellation. And in saying that there is no "pristine formulation of Torah that embodies the very words of God," he echoes the way in which Heschel harmonized historical scholarship on Scripture with traditional views of Scripture's sanctity. In fact, Gillman is a traditionalist in a most fundamental way, inasmuch as he follows the principle that Maimonides understood to be of the very essence of all Jewish teaching: that we are to learn to avoid every form of idolatry. In this case, to mistake human depictions for reality — even to mistake the words of Torah ("heard," recorded and transmitted by human beings) for the very thoughts of God — is to commit that cardinal sin.

Michael Fishbane's "Sacred Attunement," while not explicitly autobiographical, is in many ways a very personal work. Fishbane, who is Nathan Cummings Professor of Jewish studies at the University of Chicago's Divinity School and has produced wide-ranging scholarship on the Bible, exegesis and religious thought, tells us in his acknowledgments that the book's early life was as a "spiritual testament" to his family. His readers must now be deeply grateful that they were invited into these reflections as they grew, but the original, more private, quality of those reflections remains and adds power to the overall work. This is not to say that the general reader will have an easy time of it; there is a certain amount of philosophical jargon that can present a stumbling block to nonprofessionals. But sticking with Fishbane in this profoundly honest quest for authentic theological expression will be well worth it.

At the very outset, Fishbane engages us by candidly admitting that rather than aiding in the human soul's perennial search for meaning, his own academic profession often focuses on procedural issues in scholarship, or on the recovery of original contexts. Thus, he identifies some of the sources of the alienation faced by seekers of faith in the contemporary world in what the analytic tools of his craft can unwittingly produce: "endlessly deferred" meaning; the felt absence of a "coherent or compelling world view"; how the constant unraveling of scriptural narratives makes "the models of selfhood they represent become threadbare" and "adversely affect our personhood." Indeed, although we are built to seek the transcendent, those perceptions are inevitably found to be both "nowhere and everywhere." One has the sense that this tension between the commitments of mind and soul produces an urgency in all this for Fishbane, and this is surely one of the aspects of this book that draw in the reader. Though Fishbane is, by profession, a scholar, he insists that theology is not just about thinking, but rather about living, as well, and it must be a "discipline of ethical and spiritual self-cultivation."

His weapon against this looming alienation is "natality." By this, he means the power of human consciousness to effect a reawakening and rebirth, and thus to overcome the habituation and routinization that deadens the religious spirit. In this, he is continuing a theme he wrote about in his 1994 book "The Kiss of God: Spiritual and Mystical Death in Judaism" (University of Washington Press), where he wrote of the interplay between religious duty — which promotes continuity, but can become routine — and religious longing for God to confirm the spiritual quest, which is necessarily to be found in radically awakened, and very personal, religious experience. Fishbane is keenly aware, as is Gillman, of the inescapability of the divine-human partnership in revelation, and of how God's primal thunder, heard at Sinai, will necessarily be converted into words, so as to make communal existence possible. He knows, too, that we must recognize this to avoid the sin of idolatry. But he is not satisfied with that observation, because he knows that while translation into human language and forms is unavoidable, that very process can degenerate into mere inherited behavior patterns devoid of the immediacy of faith. And he even worries about the ways in which his own primary field of exegesis — so central to Jewish life — can end up missing the forest for the trees: neglecting divine reality, while getting caught up in what too easily become pleasurable but soulless word games.

A great reverence for tradition permeates "Sacred Attunement." Among the many mem ble phrases are descriptions of Halacha as "the gestures of the generations," and of the obligation of Talmud Torah as "submission of the self to the gift of the generations." Yet while the generations may present us with a foundation, to accept that gift as an adequate life of faith is to commit what Heschel called "spiritual plagiarism." And so, Fishbane leads us through the ways in which the traditional modes of Torah study (known as Pardes, and often written with p, r, d and s capitalized as an acronym for the four approaches to biblical exegesis in rabbinic Judaism) cannot only illuminate words that are not ours, but also increase our mindfulness and our "attunement" to the divine reality manifest in the world. And he demonstrates, in writing about Halacha, how such rituals as prayer and the Sabbath attach us to tradition for only the higher purpose of attaching us to God. In a compelling formulation, he writes of the withdrawal from the workaday world demanded by the Sabbath as a "divestment of will for God's sake" and, even more starkly, as "dying within life for love of God." 

There is surely a deep mystical element in all this, and Fishbane does not make any effort to hide it. He invokes repeatedly the mystical notion of the torah kelulah, the all-encompassing, not-yet-unpacked Torah, first brought to our attention from a medieval source by Gershom Scholem (in "The Meaning of the Torah in Jewish Mysticism"). It is this primordial Torah that is, according to Fishbane, the only Torah that can properly be thought to be "of heaven" (min hashamayim), and from which our sacred scriptural traditions — both written and oral — are derived. He therefore insists that theology "has the primary duty of serving God alone — not some particular religious formulation or tradition." This insistence on separating authentic religious thought from the practices hallowed by particular traditions is no more antinomian than was Mendelssohn's version of this idea in the 18th century (though I suppose Fishbane may fall prey to the same kinds of popular distortions that promoted misunderstandings of Mendelssohn).  But unlike Mendelssohn, for whom reason was the signature element of true religion, Fishbane is urging upon us the higher truth — that of religious experience — as the only answer to the despair of finding transcendence, a despair with which our world continually threatens us.

To read "Sacred Attunement" as a discourse is, I think, to risk getting bogged down and miss the book's power. I did that at first. Then I focused on my own perplexities and my own still unfulfilled quests, and began to read it again. Suddenly, with the very same words, I was deeply engaged in what is a nuanced, personal and very adult guide to the experience of faith. And as for my preschooler's question? "Sacred Attunement" provides an answer that is often lyrical, one of which I believe Neil Gillman would also approve: Yes, God is real. But we truly learn this not in the same way that we do science, nor by merely accepting authority, but rather by awakening our souls. Or, to echo the words of Paul Tillich: We find God not as we meet a stranger, but rather by attuning ourselves to overcome estrangement.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

To join Rabbi Creditor's email list, send a blank email to thetisch-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

Feb 17, 2009

MERCAZ USA Purim Appeal

MERCAZ USA -- The Zionist Organization of the Conservative Movement


February 2009

Purim is Coming!

Shvat 5769

MERCAZ USA Joins With The American Zionist Movement In Its Purim Connection 2009

Bring a Smile to a Child's Face – Construct a Bridge to an IDF Soldier – Develop a Connection to Masorti Communities

Mercaz USA wishes you a Happy Purim 2009

A cease fire is in place and an uneasy quiet has enveloped Israel. Children in the south have returned to their schools, but the psychological impact of the rockets and terror remains. Soldiers have withdrawn from Gaza, but the order to return to the battlefield could be given at any time.

You can make your presence felt in Israel, where our people need you most. Give light, gladness, joy and honor to the Children and Soldiers from the Masorti Congregations in Israel's southern region, including:

  • the Neve Hanna Children's Village in Kiryat Gat,
  • Netzach Israel in Ashkelon,
  • Etz Haim in Ashdod, and
  • Eshel Avraham in Be'er Sheva.

Make your contribution to the AZM Purim Connection! Light up a child's face with a smile. Bring some light into their troubled world. Connect with the brave members of the IDF with a traditional Purim Mishloach Manot basket.

Please donate now: $18 for a schoolchild; $36 for an injured child; $54 for a soldier's basket; or $180 for an injured soldier. All donations are tax deductible.

Take a minute and click here to donate to the AZM Purim Connection 2009. You can also send a check to AZM: 633 Third Avenue, 21st floor, New York, NY 10017. Please note on the check that the funds are for the special MERCAZ-sponsored Purim campaign.

To help us bring Purim joy to the maximum number of children and soldiers, please respond before February 27, 2009.

For more information about the Masorti communities in Israel's southern region, go to www.masorti.org and www.nevehanna.org.

In this time of increased joy, we also pray for the speedy, healthy return of our captive soldier Gilad Shalit. May the time that he is returned safely to his family and friends come speedily in our days!

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Your comments about the organization's activities and publications, including this E-letter, are very important. Click here to share with MERCAZ your thoughts. Click here to visit our website.


The Morality of the Gaza War

The Morality of the Gaza War - David Forman (Jerusalem Post)


  • Now, after the war in Gaza, every Arab country and every terrorist organization knows that Israel, no matter which political party heads the government, will no longer play by conventional rules, feeling itself restricted by international pressure or restrained by internal moral discussions.
  • From now on, should we be forced into war with our sworn enemies, we will use all the power at our disposal to defeat them. If they come after our civilian population, their civilian population will be endangered tenfold. We must liberate ourselves from making moral comparisons to demonstrate to the world how ethical we are. Even if we were to prove not only the justice of our cause, but the utter brutality of Hamas, it would matter little.
  • Should we not unleash our strength to combat a terrorist ministate that turns our life into a living hell through a constant and indiscriminate barrage of bombs being fired into the country with the sole purpose of killing as many innocent people as possible? Like any nation, Israel not only has the right, but the responsibility to use its entire military might to protect its citizens.
  • Since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, more than 6,000 rockets were fired into the South. The world would tell us that our recent response was disproportionate; America, NATO, England, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the allied armies of World War II were never subjected to a similar torrent of hypocritical criticism.
  • Should we have waited until a Grad missile struck a kindergarten, killing dozens of children, so our reaction would then be judged proportionate?
  • We should make no apologies for the war except to express our sorrow for Palestinians who are so willingly sacrificed because of the bellicosity of those of their brethren who cry out for our ultimate destruction. In the end, the war in Gaza was a practical necessity; and, as such, our incessant discourse about the ethical implications means very little.

    The writer is the founder of Rabbis for Human Rights.

Applications now being Accepted for Groundbreaking Conflict Transformation Program (Please forward on)

Groundbreaking Conflict Transformation Program Launches for Fourth Straight Year

What happens when you put 24 university students in the former Yugoslavia for a summer to learn about resolving ethnic conflict? And what happens when 12 of these students are Palestinians and 12 are Jews? Welcome to the groundbreaking Vision Program!

This ten-month fellowship, affiliated with the University of San Francisco's Center for Global Education, begins with a month-long trip to the Balkans, meeting activists and scholars alike in Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovnia. Students study the Balkan wars of the 1990s in an effort to re-examine the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the academic year immediately following the summer students engage in two four-day conferences, aimed to empower them to engage with students on their campus, and organize campus and community presentations, helping them articulate their own activist voices.

The Vision Program's goals are to (a) empower participants to heighten their self-awareness, paying particular attention to their political selves; (b) develop their critical thinking; and (c) examine how such thinking manifests itself in Jewish-Palestinian relations both in the US and the Middle East.

This program is one of two flagship programs of Abraham's Vision, a conflict transformation organization running educational programs for American-based groups of Jews, Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians. Abraham's Vision is affiliated with the University of San Francisco and Vision Program students receive academic course credit through USF's Center for Global Education. For more information contact Huda Abu Arqoub or Eitan Trabin at 415.839.6889.

Aaron J. Hahn Tapper, Ph.D.
Co-Executive Director, Founder
Abraham's Vision
295 89th Street, Ste. 308
Daly City, CA 94015
(w) 415.839.6889
(c) 646.266.6908

3571 Highland Avenue
Redwood City, CA 94062

Assistant Professor, Swig Chair of Judaic Studies
Director, Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice
Dept. of Theology & Religious Studies
University of San Francisco
2130 Fulton Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
Office: KAL 134, 415.422.2378

Feb 16, 2009

Narrative Leadership in Changing Times


Narrative Leadership in Changing Times

by Lawrence A. Golemon

I recently traveled to a charming clapboard church in the middle of an East Coast city to visit with an interim minister nearing the end of a two-year term. "These are good people," this gifted pastor and preacher told me, "but they are a bit stuck in their way of doing things." When I inquired how, she said, "They have enshrined the past of a long pastorate and live their faith as a form of nostalgia." Contrast that to my visit with a relatively new pastor serving in an urban setting in the Midwest. "This church was long known as the 'community church' but lost that connection as the neighborhood became multicultural and economically challenged," this pastor, a skilled community organizer, recalled. "But you appear to have recaptured that image," I said. "What changed?" His reply revealed an important insight. "We rediscovered being a 'community church' again when we learned to listen to our neighbors' gifts and passions to serve, and joined them."

It dawned on me that these were two different scripts for "being church": nostalgia versus neighborhood. In them I recognized the distinction American social critic Christopher Lasch drew between nostalgia, which idealizes the past as "irretrievably lost" and "frozen in perfection," and true memory, which "draws hope and comfort from the past to enrich the present and face what comes…"

How do congregations make the shift from nostalgia to a new story like neighborhood? What kind of leadership is needed--by pastors and lay leaders--to move beyond the stuck places of "we've always done it this way" to a new way of listening for "where are we being led?" Gifted pastors, rabbis, and lay leaders who lead well in times of transition are able to guide their congregations in shaping a new kind of story based in part on reframing the strengths and obstacles of their past. Great public leaders have been marked by such "narrative leadership," from Lincoln to FDR to Reagan and, as many hope, to Obama.

Interim pastors have a lot to teach the rest of us who lead congregations in times of change. At Alban, we have come to see that each of the "interim tasks" has strong narrative dimensions. Coming to terms with history involves "unfreezing" the past by inviting everyone in the church to share their memories and lift up the gifts for ministry they have discovered there. Practices like the congregational timeline, anniversary dramas, and members' testimony help loosen and reclaim different versions of the past for the future. Pastoral care and small groups can help people link their own stories with the stories of scripture and tradition in ways that identify redemptive motifs they can live by.

The interim task of cultivating new leaders is enhanced as members begin to tell their own faith stories and gifts for ministry in worship and elsewhere. Preachers and lay leaders can model such storytelling in the pulpit, in committee meetings, and in classrooms by identifying how God led them through stuck places in the past.

The task of reconnecting with denomination and tradition requires stories of the faith--from scripture and denominational heritage--that speak of the community's resilience in adaptation and God's faithfulness to help them meet what comes. What The Practicing Congregation author Diana Butler Bass calls "retraditioning" helps congregations tap the teachings and narratives of the Christian or Jewish faith to forge a new and vibrant "local theology" that they can live by.

The final interim task of discovering new identity involves the narrative work of engaging the community's stories with stories of faith (as in the Midwest church above) by listening intently to our neighbors and community partners to discern where God is leading people beyond the church's walls. This practice helps the community discern God's call to a new story for the congregation so that it can forge a new narrative of identity and mission for the coming years.


Copyright © 2009, the Alban Institute.

Feb 13, 2009

"Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in a Broken World" - Mon., March 23rd, 7:30 pm

Mon., March 23rd, 7:30 pm
Congregation Netivot Shalom

Join a conversation with Rabbi Ellie Spitz, author of "Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in a Broken World. (Jewish Lights, 2009)" This new book, which will be available for purchase and signing at the event, explores the nature of personal suffering and brokenness and the potential for personal crisis as a source of strength and renewal instead of despair and death. Examining the personal journeys of biblical and historical figures such as Moses, Maimonides, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Buber - as well as the author's own personal experience with despair - it looks at brokenness as an inescapable element of the human condition. It traces the path of suffering from despair to depression to desperation to the turning point - healing - when first-hand knowledge of suffering can be transformed into blessing.

Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz is the author of Does the Soul Survive? A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives & Living with Purpose (Jewish Lights). A spiritual leader and scholar specializing in topics of spirituality and Judaism, he teaches, writes, and speaks to a wide range of audiences. He has served as the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Tustin, California, for more than a decade and is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly Committee of Law and Standards.

Feb 12, 2009

haaretz: "Conservative rabbis call for official dissolution of Israel's Chief Rabbinate"

Conservative rabbis call for official dissolution of Israel's Chief Rabbinate
By Shlomo Shamir (New York) and Raphael Ahren

A body of Conservative rabbis passed a resolution yesterday calling upon the government of Israel to "privatize the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and dissolve it as a governmental organization." The motion was approved at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, known in Israel as the Masorti movement, which this week convened in Jerusalem. More than 300 rabbis participated in the four-day convention, most of them from the United States.

In the first initiative of its kind by a respected American rabbinic institution representing the second-largest stream in American Jewry, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is described as "a structure that is outmoded and unnecessary" and one that "misrepresents the nature of Judaism to the world at large, even to Jews."

The resolution further asserts that "for many, Israel's chief rabbinate fails to represent the majority of Israel's Jewish population." It also argues that politicization of the process of choosing the chief rabbis "has created a general antipathy to Judaism and its practices." The assembly toned down the original statement, which declared that the chief rabbinate had become "synonymous with corruption, favoritism, and cronyism."

The dominance of issues dealing with the religious quality of life in Israel lies in the fact that the Rabbinic Assembly holds its annual convention in Jerusalem only once in five years, explained Rabbi Benjamin Segal, who served on the Masorti movement's special committee that dealt with the planning of the convention. The Israel-based Rabbis have had topics such as the Rabbinate and conversion - which directly affect them - on their minds for a long time, and so they tried to take advantage of the visit of their international colleagues to pass these resolutions.

Senior Conservative rabbis are attributing special significance to the convention. They are calling the ten resolutions, which were passed at yesterday's closing session, "an important turning point" in the movement's attitude toward its status in Israel and as a significant buttressing of its aspirations to play a major role in religious matters in Israel.

Others are more skeptical. "It has happened very rarely that anything we agree upon has had any impact outside our movement," said Rabbi Moshe Levine, of San Francisco's Ner Tamid community, yesterday. "Even most of the people within our movement hardly ever hear or care about the resolutions we pass."

In the past, the movement promoted religious pluralism in Israel and concentrated on the demand to recognize its rabbis who are active in Israel. However, most of the resolutions passed yesterday demand explicitly that Israel recognize and accept the Conservative rabbis' positions and views concerning fundamental religious issues and call for revocation of the exclusive authority of the Orthodox establishment in Israel in these matters.

Condemning the current climate

For instance, one resolution calls upon the Israeli government to recognize "conversions performed in Israel by Masorti rabbis as confirmation of Jewishness for citizenship (according to the Interior Ministry) and proof of Jewishness on a par with Orthodox rabbinic conversions for the registry of life cycle events and status." The resolution condemns "the rabbinical establishment [that] has exerted its power to prevent and discourage conversion from being completed including refusal to recognize conversions performed outside of Israel."

Another resolution on marriage in Israel asserts that "the current climate established by the Orthodox religious authorities in Israel leads unfortunately to a large number of Israeli couples to seek alternatives to the mitzvah [commandment] of huppah [coming under the marriage canopy] and kiddushin [nuptial blessings]." The resolution calls upon the government of Israel "to grant license to rabbis of all branches of Judaism to officiate at weddings" as well as to allow non-religious alternative arrangements.

After a passionate discussion, the convention also passed a resolution on "Shabbat in the Public Sphere in Israel." The proposal seeks "common ground and not coercion in matters relating to Shabbat observance," and the Rabbinical Assembly expresses its "support for the various efforts to establish an agreed pattern of public observance of Shabbat in the Jewish sector of Israel, which would curtail commercial activities on Shabbat, while allowing cultural activities."

A separate resolution addresses "the Current Economic Crisis" and its implications for the Jewish community and resolves that "our rabbis offer spiritual comfort to those suffering the effects of this economic downturn, offer material assistance, set up employment networking opportunities in our institutions and communities, and partner with local agencies providing these services."

Before the event, Rabbi Barry Schlesinger, who is the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel chairman, commented, "Hosting the convention in Jerusalem at this time has afforded an opportunity and a challenge to the movement's rabbis in Israel." He added: "This is an opportune time to show our work and activities in Israel to our rabbinic colleagues from the United States and other countries." Rabbi Schlesinger, who grew up in New Jersey and immigrated to Israel in 1972, is the spiritual leader of Jerusalem's Moreshet Avraham Congregation He has a son who was wounded during Operation Cast Lead.

That military operation also had an impact on attendance at the conference. Planned months ago, organizers say the financial crisis dampened initial registration.

However, in the wake of the Gaza operation and the wave of international criticism of Israel, the timing of the convention was perceived as an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with Israel and the number of rabbis who have registered for the convention has grown in recent weeks.

"Suddenly," said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, of New York, who was involved in organizing the convention, "the synagogues decided that presence at the convention that is being held in Jerusalem at a time when Israel is defending itself from waves of hostility is important and funds were raised to pay for the costs of the rabbis' trips. It is also important to us to be in Israel at the time when the elections are being held so that we can follow the results closely."

She concedes her movement does not have the final say but stressed the importance of voicing its position. "Ultimately, the realities on the ground will be determined by the will of the Israeli people," she said yesterday. "It's a very bold statement. Just because [the Rabbinate] is a big establishment, we can't give in to a sense that we can't change it. By writing the statement, we're giving people the opportunity to agree with it, to stand up and say: Yes, I agree with that."

At the conference, Rabbi Schonfeld was appointed executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which the Conservative movement says makes her the first full-time female rabbi to head a rabbinic organization in a salaried professional capacity. She is replacing Rabbi Joel Meyers, who led the Rabbinical Assembly for 20 years.

Despite the display of solidarity, the resolutions are expected to elicit harsh criticism from Orthodox leaders in the U. S. and Israel. Relations between the Orthodox rabbis and the rabbis of the Conservative and Reform movements in the U.S. are reportedly strained, with few channels of communication between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox. In the past, resolutions of the sort discussed at the Rabbinical Assembly in Jerusalem, and especially those concerning conversion and modern types of marriage, have led Orthodox rabbis to charge that the Reform and Conservative movements distort the true meaning of traditional rabbinic law and the values of Judaism.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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Jerusalem Post: Who Is A Zionist?

Rabbi Reuven Hammer


Who is a Zionist? That is a question that I thought about a great deal this week when I participated in the annual convention of the international Rabbinical Assembly in Jerusalem together with hundreds of my fellow rabbis from around the world. The organization itself, as well as the worldwide Conservative/Masorti Movement of which it is a part, certainly considers and always has considered itself Zionist, as do the overwhelming majority of its members even though they do not live in Israel. Of course the answer depends upon one's definition of Zionism. Those who subscribe to the classic political Zionist definition held by Ben Gurion among others, namely that a Zionist is one who lives in Israel or at least actively intends to do so, would say that they are not Zionists.


It seems to me that that definition has long been abandoned by most Jews and that Zionism today means believing and actively supporting Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish People no matter where individual Jews may live. It means asserting that Jews not only have a right to a state, but have the need of such a place in the land of Israel where they can be the majority culture and determine their own future destiny. Those who support and work toward that goal are Zionists.


If this definition is correct, Conservative Judaism was Zionist before the modern Zionist movement even came into existence since the intellectual founder of the movement, Zachariah Frankel, who lived in Breslau in the nineteenth century, wrote a book advocating a Jewish state in the Land of Israel long before Herzl's time. More importantly, in the early twentieth century Solomon Schechter, the President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, was himself a delegate to early Zionist congresses and visited Palestine where his brother lived.


Schechter's advocacy of Zionism was bold and courageous. At that time the majority of Orthodox authorities violently opposed it. Reform Judaism was also vehemently against it. Most of the members of the board of the Seminary were prominent New York German Jews who, although they supported the Seminary as a place that would train American rabbis who could help in the acculturation of the immigrants from Eastern Europe, were themselves Reform. That did not deter Schechter from active Zionism. He wrote:

The rebirth of Israel's national consciousness, and the revival of Israel'sreligion, or, to use a shorter term, the revival of Judaism are inseparable…The selection of Israel, the indestructibility of God's covenant with Israel, the immortality of Israel as a nation, and the final restoration of Israel to Palestine, where the nation will live a holy life on holy ground, with all the wide-reaching consequences of the conversion of humanity and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth – all these are the common ideals and common ideas that permeate the whole of Jewish literature…History may, and to my belief, will repeat itself, and Israel will be the chosen instrument of God for the new and final mission; but then Israel must first effect its own redemption and live again its own life, and be Israel again, to accomplish its universal mission. …"Out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem."


Obviously Schechter's Zionism was religious, connecting the return to Zion with the revival of religious Judaism. There are other versions of Zionism as well that are secular, but all of them have in common the concept that a Jewish commonwealth in the Land of Israel is a vital part of the existence of the Jewish People, its history and culture. Anyone who believes that, supports it, and works toward it is, in my mind, a Zionist no matter where he or she may live. One who resides in Israel but sees it merely as another place to live is not part of the Zionist enterprise.


We hear a great deal these days about post-Zionism. Believing in making peace with our neighbors, establishing a Palestinian State or making territorial compromises or even criticizing specific actions of Israel does not necessarily make one a post-Zionist. But denying the Jewish character of Israel does.


That Zionism is under attack by anti-Semites throughout the world is so obvious as to need no documentation here. Unfortunately some of those attacking Zionism are Jews. It is therefore all the more important that Zionism be strengthened within the Jewish community in the Diaspora and also within the Jewish community in Israel. To my mind the best way to do this is to see Zionism not as jingoistic nationalism, but as an integral part of Judaism as Schechter defined it – the attempt to realize the great truths and ideals of Judaism within the confines of the Jewish community in the only country where Jews are a majority and therefore in control of their own society and their own destiny. To put it simply, we deny that Zionism is racism. We affirm that Zionism is Judaism.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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