We want to share a few exciting updates about the URJ Biennial, happening December 11-15 in San Diego. Every day, it seems, another key piece falls into place! Registration will open in July. Keep an eye out for more information about how to register. Make sure to sign up for updates and start making your travel plans to be with us in beautiful, warm, San Diego in December! We are pleased that Jewish Life Television (JLTV) will be the official broadcast partner of the Biennial. JLTV will provide live coverage – broadcasting to 40 million homes on cable and streaming [...]Read more
by Marilyn Price Last week, Thursday through Shabbat, I had the privilege of attending my first URJ North American Board meeting in Brooklyn, N.Y. That set of meetings was bookended with three days hiking the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut and New York (“strolling” would be a better term, though no one calls it a “stroll in the woods”). It was an interesting and relevant partnering of the two experiences. Although I knew many of the URJ board members through a variety of activities over the years, it was a new kippah for me and required more concentration than I had [...]Read more
Israel’s Religious Services Ministry announced today that state-employed neighborhood rabbis may be phased out and funds would be given to communities for rabbis of their own choice, including non-Orthodox rabbis. The ministry plan also calls for the designation of the term “rabbi” to be used by the government to refer to non-Orthodox and female religious leaders. Learn more from JTA. Upon learning of this news, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs made the following statement: “We are reading this decision with great interest and are encouraged by the conclusion that the current system is broken. We believe that there should be [...]Read more
by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch Editor’s Note: This post is the second of two about Congregation Emet VeShalom. Read the complementary post. The double air-kiss; you’ve gotta love it! It is a European custom becoming more widespread in Israel, and it’s quite contagious. You’ve seen it: once on the right side, then once on the left. By the conclusion of my first worship service at Emet VeShalom, I had received many such kisses of warmth and friendship. I quickly learned that the relatively small size of Emet VeShalom says nothing about its welcoming spirit, or its obvious passion, or its members’ [...]Read more
by Toba Strauss
Sisterhood women have had an incredible impact on my life. I am largely a product of the religious school system, of NFTY and URJ camping, all of which are opportunities afforded to me through sisterhood support. I feel fortunate to be a student at HUC-JIR, an institution that ordains women like me, in part because of the support (and perhaps pressure!) of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods/Women of Reform Judaism, and this year I have the opportunity to work for WRJ for my rabbinical internship. I am thankful to Women of Reform Judaism, and I personally owe a great deal to sisterhood women, both past and present, who have helped me to achieve my goals.
A sense of gratitude and a corresponding sense of duty are enough to make me spend several hours of an otherwise busy day working on a Mother’s Day gift for my own mother. However, these are not the feelings that get me out of bed in the morning, nor keep me motivated throughout the course of the day. After a long day of studying – which often entails the rigors of the rat race in New York City – it is not debt, nor appreciation, nor responsibility that pushes me onto a crowded train bound for the WRJ office. While these feelings are enough to get me to make a donation, or “like” the page on Facebook, they would probably not be enough to get me to join a local sisterhood chapter, nor are they the factors that brought me to the WRJ this year. Read more…
by Rabbi Jonah Pesner
Will synagogues continue to exist in the future?
Will the next generation engage in Jewish life?
Is Reform Judaism still relevant?
These hard, honest questions underlie the conversations we members of the URJ leadership team have every day with leaders and staff of Reform congregations. Last week I was honored to be the ordination speaker at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, as a minyan of new rabbis received smicha. I addressed these questions head on, and challenged this next generation of rabbis to do the same.
It is true that the data is challenging. Fewer young people are joining synagogues than their parents did, and the “drop out” rate after b’nei mitzvah is sobering. But it won’t surprise you to know that I strongly believe that synagogues will not only continue, but many congregations will transform and thrive in the next era of Jewish history. I also feel confident that Reform Judaism, which continues to re-form, re-invent, and re-new, will not only be relevant, but also will successfully capture the imagination of our young people.
So given my optimism, why do I amplify these provocative questions? Simon Rawidowicz famously taught that every generation of Jews thinks it is the last. I often have pondered the notion that this phenomenon sparks the urgency among successive generations of Jewish communal leaders to challenge their institutions to re-imagine themselves to become relevant for the future. In other words, being honest about the gap between the ways our synagogues are organized and the needs of the next generation forces us to make change.
At the URJ we continually are working to help you re-imagine Jewish life. In my address, I invited our newest rabbis to become our partners in this sacred work. I also challenged them to focus less on creative programs and slick brochures, and more on fostering enduring relationships among all those whom we invite into our dynamic communities.
During my four wonderful days in Cincinnati, my optimism was only confirmed. I studied with the great Rabbi David Ellenson who has brought HUC-JIR to unprecedented heights. It was bittersweet, as this will be David’s final ordination ceremony as president of the College-Institute.
Earlier in the week, I sat with the leadership teams of various Reform congregations. Like many of you, they are hungry for moments of spiritual connection as part of real community. Through communities of practice, leadership training, and creative experimentation, they, also like many of you, are rising to the challenge.
I also had the opportunity to visit the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archive, an incredible resource for our people. I urge you to visit and have a tour with the great Rabbi Gary Zola who is an inspiring voice of Jewish history.
Hearing Rabbi Zola reminded me that time and again, Jewish leaders have confronted the challenges of their day and risen up to overcome them. How much more so will Reform Judaism rise to the challenge, since by nature, Reform Jews are called to renew?
What do you think it will take to transform our communities? Comment on this post to join the conversation about re-imagining Jewish life.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner is a senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
It was just two short summers ago that URJ Camp Harlam had a teensy little garden. It was a sweet plot of land with some colorful perennials and herbs for Havdalah, plus a few rows of juicy tomato plants and other green veggies basking in the summer sun. But this summer we decided to put a stake in the ground – literally! – and declare with our sweat and muscles that we are fully committing to “greening” and “growing” at camp.
It has been our Jewish vision to commit ourselves to teaching about tikkun middot and tikkun olam. This means we are truly dedicated to character development education and a continuous focus on self-improvement (tikkun middot), while also remaining steadfast to improving our community and greater society (tikkun olam). Through efforts such as recycling, tripling the size of our garden, building a compost for our fruit and veggie scraps, creating an official “Camp Farmer/J-Life Specialty Counselor” position, and continuing to expand our Teva (nature) department – we feel we can build self-esteem, self-confidence, and menschy kids. In addition, we know we are creating sacred moments for our staff and campers to see “gardening” and “greening” as integral to Judaism and Jewish life. These activities and programs are a way to truly live our Jewish values. Read more…
A human ribbon of remembrance formed on the lawn just west of the Capitol. Donning green shirts, which represented the school color of Sandy Hook Elementary, those gathered marked the six-month anniversary of the shooting in Newtown, CT. Despite public outcry and a groundswell of support for proposed legislation, our nation has yet to realize our promise to decisively act to prevent gun violence in the wake of this year’s tragedies.
In the six months since Sandy Hook, more Americans have been killed by firearms than were killed in Iraq. You know the statistics. On average, each day 33 Americans are murdered with a gun, 8 of whom are under the age of 18. Indeed, every three days, our nation buries more children than were killed in the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook. Each and every one of these deaths deserves our recognition.
Yet, the vast majority of gun deaths receive little attention at all. Broadcast in the waning moments of the 11 o’clock news, these deaths are sadly a mere blimp on the radar screen, if they’re mentioned at all. Read more…
Here are just a few of the recent stories from across the webosphere that speak directly to (and about) Reform Jews. What Jewish stories have you been reading recently? Leave a comment and let us know!
- “Congregation Needs To Be Involved in Israel To Make a Difference,” The Jewish Daily Forward
Rabbi Andy Bachman, the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, writes that the best way to discuss Israel is to convince his congregation to actually visit the country and to insist that people “roll up their sleeves and dig in.”
- “Bar Mitzvahs on the Beach,” Tablet
Destination bar and bat mitzvah celebrations are increasing in popularity. While Israel is the original b’nai mitzvah destination, many teenagers today choose to read from the Torah in places like Costa Rica or Aspen. Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, Director of Youth Engagement for the URJ, says, “I think the advent of destination bar mitzvahs shows that people are looking for more meaningful experiences. We need to pay attention to this trend.” Read more…
By Rabbi Richard Sarason
The Torah and Haftarah readings for Rosh Hashanah all connect with, and illustrate, one or another of the themes of the holiday. I use the plural advisedly here, because there have been a variety of readings from early on-long before the onset of modernity and the Reform movement.
The reason for this has partially to do with different reading practices in the land of Israel and in the Babylonian diaspora. The early rabbinic practice in the land of Israel, attested in the third chapter of Mishnah Megillah, was to read brief portions each time the Torah was read and to finish up the entire Torah over a period of three and a half to four years. Each of the people who were called up to the Torah (aliyot) actually read from the scroll, a minimum of three verses. The blessings before and after the Torah reading were recited only once, at the beginning and end of the entire reading, respectively. Seven people read on Shabbat, three on weekdays, four on festivals, five on Rosh Hashanah, and six on Yom Kippur. This meant that the readings on holidays were also relatively brief. The Babylonian practice was to finish reading the Torah in one year. This meant that the individual sections were longer, and the holiday readings as well.
M. Megillah 3:5 lists the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah as Lev. 23:23ff. This is the section of the festival calendar in Leviticus that deals with the holiday on the first day of the seventh month, which is to be “commemorated with loud blasts” (zichron t’ru’ah). Only three verses deal with this occasion; the chapter then goes on to discuss Yom Kippur and Sukkot. No Haftarah reading from the prophetic books is listed in the Mishnah. Nor is there a reading listed for the second day.1
In a parallel passage in the Tosefta, a legal text from the land of Israel that is just slightly later than the Mishnah (likely mid-3rd c. C.E. to the Mishnah’s date of early 3rd-century C.E.), the same Torah reading appears, but we are also informed that “there are those who say [that the reading is] “God took providential note of Sarah” [Vadonai pakad et Sarah; Gen. 21:1ff.]. This, in fact, becomes the traditional Torah reading for (the first day of) Rosh Hashanah. The reading relates to the Zichronot theme of the holiday, which is all about God’s taking note of Israel’s needs on Rosh Hashanah. Rabbinic aggadic traditions maintain that God took providential note of five barren women on Rosh Hashanah – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, and Hannah – and they all conceived on that day (Genesis Rabbah 73:1; Midrash Tanhuma, Vayera, 1). That is also why the Haftarah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the book of Samuel, about Hannah’s prayer and Samuel’s miraculous birth. (This Haftarah is listed for the first time in the Babylonian Talmud, b.Megillah 31a, but is also represented in Pesikta Rabbati 43, a Byzantine-era midrashic collection from the land of Israel.)
No reading for the second day appears in any text from the land of Israel, as we have noted. The custom of observing two days of Rosh Hashanah took root instead in Babylonia. b. Megillah 31b gives the reading for the second day as Gen. 22:1ff., theAkedah (the Binding of Isaac). In rabbinic interpretation, this story links up with both theZichronot and Shofarot themes of the holiday. God’s providential care is signaled in the story’s outcome, where Isaac is saved, and also in the rabbinic notion of zechut akedat Yitschak, the merit of Isaac’s near-sacrifice, which his descendents invoke during the penitential season. According to a rabbinic aggadah, Abraham bargained with God at the end of the trial, insisting that, because he had done his part by not withholding Isaac, God must now protect Isaac’s descendents by remembering on their behalf this act of sacrifice every Rosh Hashanah, the annual Day of Judgment. God agrees to this demand and tells Abraham that, in order to remind God of this agreement, Isaac’s descendents should blow a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah in remembrance of the ram that was sacrificed instead of Isaac (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayera, 23). The Haftarah for the second day, also listed in b. Megillah 31b, is Jeremiah 31:20, “Is not Ephraim a beloved son to me? Whenever I speak of him, I remember him fondly.” This, too, invokes the Zichronot theme of God’s remembrance and attentiveness to Israel. The passage is also full of hope and encouragement for God’s return to Zion. Today, the Haftarah begins at Jeremiah 31:1 and ends with verse 20.
The post-talmudic custom, first recorded in Seder Rav Amram (2nd half of the 9th c. C.E.), was to take out two scrolls on all holidays and to read from the second scroll the Torah’s account, in Numbers 28-29, of the mandated sacrifices for that particular day. So the reading for Rosh Hashanah from the second scroll (both days) is Numbers 29:1-6. The Torah blessings before and after this reading are assigned to the Maftir, the person who reads the Haftarah.
European Reform prayer books, from the early nineteenth century onwards, generally presuppose a two-day observance of Rosh Hashanah and maintain the traditional Torah readings (although some, like the 1819 Hamburg prayer book, eliminated the Haftarah readings). The custom of observing only one day of Rosh Hashanah begins in the United States with the earliest Reform prayerbook, that edited by Rabbi Leo Merzbacher for Temple Emanuel in New York in 1855. The Torah reading there is Gen 22, the Akedah. This becomes the standard reading for all North American Reform prayer books that presuppose a one-day observance. (Gates of Repentance gives two service options for the evening and morning of Rosh Hashanah, thus allowing for a second-day observance. The Torah reading in the second service is Gen. 1:1-2:3, the Creation story, which relates to the Rosh Hashanah theme of Malchiyot, since on New Year’s Day God is acclaimed as Creator and Ruler of the world, which celebrates its “birthday” and is renewed on this day.
As for the Haftarah for a one-day observance of Rosh Hashanah, David Einhorn’s 1858 prayerbook is the first to list this as 1Sam 1ff. – even though this Haftarah reading actually links to Gen. 21, the miraculous birth of Isaac, which is not read. This custom is taken over by the Union Prayer Book (which begins the reading with Hannah’s prayer in Ch. 2) and maintained through Gates of Repentance. UPB and GOR also give various alternative Haftarot: Nehemiah 8, the renewal of the covenant and reading of the Torah by Ezra and Nehemiah to those returning to Zion (all editions of UPB and GOR); Isaiah 55, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near” (which the Rabbis understood as referring to the penitential season of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the ten days between them; UPB 1922 and GOR); GOR also gives the traditional reading for the second day, Jer. 31:1-20, as an alternative. The Torah service materials for Rosh Hashanah in the new CCAR Mahzor have not yet been piloted, but the traditional readings with a variety of alternatives are being promised.
- This, together with similar passages in other rabbinic texts from the land of Israel, provides firm evidence that a second day of Rosh Hashanah was not observed there early on. It appears that the practice was first introduced by European immigrants in the Middle Ages.
Dr. Sarason is Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought and the Associate Editor of the Hebrew Union College Annual. He was ordained at HUC-JIR .
Welcome to my first day in D.C. When Rabbi Namath called to tell me I’d be interning at the RAC all those weeks ago, amid all my uncertainties and unanswered questions about my internship in Washington, D.C., I knew there was one thing I could expect with certainty: adventure. I knew I would have the opportunity to learn about and advocate for a wide variety of people and issues while working at the RAC. And on my very first day, I proved myself right. I visited an anti-genocide art installation on the National Mall and a panel on queer reproductive justice all in the same afternoon.
by Rabbi Misha Zinkow
It was evident to me when I sat down with the Greens that Isaac was not a happy camper. I’ve known him since he was about 4; he’s a great kid, an upbeat and cheerful child, and the son of communally-active and highly engaged parents. So an unhappy face on this one was inconsistent with the subject of our meeting, about which I presumed he would be excited: his bar mitzvah next year.
Since I know that Isaac is comfortable around me (comfortable enough not to feel like he needed to present himself disingenuously), I asked him, “What’s with the face and body language?” And Isaac was predictably honest: the looming prospect of sitting in his bedroom, headphones clamped over his head to perfect the recitation of prayers with which he was already familiar from his day school experience, and to memorize a Torah and Haftarah portion, were simply not activities he was feeling inspired to do. No surprise in that revelation. Read more…
By Al Tanenbaum
This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, is uncommonly rich with themes of life, death, leadership, and faith. Most often it is thought of for its nearly impenetrable and detailed commandment for using the ashes of an unblemished cow for cleansing those who have come in contact with the dead. Alternatively, scholars and students debate the harsh punishment that God handed down to Moses for his failure to speak to a rock, instead striking it twice. Chukat also furthers the narrative of the passing of a generation as we read of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, and the fate of Moses.
However, I see Chukat as delivering a nearly perfect commentary on the primary importance of water in our lives. Though it’s 87 short verses, water is mentioned no fewer than 32 times. The portion begins with God’s command to mix water with the ashes of a red cow for purification. Next, Miriam dies, and the well which provided the Israelites and their herds with water disappears. The Israelites complain that there is no water to drink and bemoan their deliverance from Egypt. After pleading with God on behalf of the people, Moses strikes the rock and God brings forth water. Next, Moses asks the Edomites to pass through their land, with a promise not to drink their water. Then Israel travels by way of the Sea of Reeds (where God had split the waters for them) and on their desert journey complain yet again about lacking water. They arrive in modern-day Jordan and sing an exultant song about their appreciation to God for water. Finally, the Torah portion ends with Israel encamped on the eastern bank of the Jordan River. Read more…
The very first Pride Parade took place on June 28th, 1970 in commemoration of the first anniversary of the Stonewall raid in New York City. The parade, almost a year in the making, was an opportunity for gay men and women to step out of the proverbial closet and respond as a community to the horrific attacks at the Stonewall Inn by proclaiming loudly and proudly that the gay community cannot be brought down. The courageousness and sheer strength of will in organizing this first Pride Parade cannot be overstated, as our country’s gay rights record in 1970 was not deserving of too much pride; sodomy laws were on the books and routinely enforced, discrimination was rampant, and gay visibility in the social and cultural landscapes was virtually non-existent, except as seen as a threat or a mockery.
Now 43 years hence, the LGBT community has grown in strength, in numbers and in visibility, and we have so much about which to be proud, as the arc of our country’s history bends more and more toward equality and justice for all. This is why every year I march with pride and with hope: pride in how far we’ve come, and hope that our trajectory will continue this trend.
Do you want to know the worst-kept synagogue secret? It is not about politics at the pulpit or the fact that most Jews do not regularly attend Shabbat services. No, the worst-kept synagogue secret is that almost 90% of the young people who become bar or bat mitzvah in our synagogues are absent from our programs by the time they graduate high school.
Elsewhere, I have written about Congregation Or Ami’s recent attempts to rethink the whole enterprise of youth engagement. We have kvelled about early indications that our efforts are raising our community’s youth engagement by 20% (and we await results from this year’s re-registration to be able to gauge the real effects).
We have counted successive achievement. The Future Coaches, A.T.M., and Madrichim tracks meld with the Triple T and 4th-6th grade retreats interwoven with LoMPTY, NFTY regional events, and Jewish summer camping to create seamless synergy. Yet that dastardly data point – 90% drop off – still haunts us. Read more…
by Kenny Levy
NFTY Mitzvah Day has become a time where thousands of teens around the country join together under one cause: helping the world around us. On this day, NFTYites picked up trash, donated useful items and walked for a cause that has effected themselves or a loved one. On this day, my family, along with a few others, counted 1,817 books and donated them to the Ronald McDonald House.
From a young age, my parents always taught me that the greatest satisfaction is performing an act of kindness that puts a smile on someone’s face. This act can range from donating money, volunteering, or simply helping someone find a book they will enjoy.
During the summer of 2006, my brother, Clay, and I created a literacy foundation to encourage kids to read books and write reviews on them. This allows a child to have a place to go where they can find a book that other kids, close to their age, enjoyed and recommend. The foundation is called Kidsonbooks.org. Read more…
I recently saw the video “I am Brianna Couture” (with thanks to the Ruderman Family Foundation blog Zeh Lezeh for bringing it to my attention). It’s a video meant to open our eyes to the notion of invisible disabilities.
After watching, I got to thinking: This is a great, eye-opening opportunity to re-frame our perceptions of disability.
I want to ask you to engage in an exercise. Say (or think) the word “disability” and write the first five words that come to your mind (or draw what you think of, or say five words into a recording device – whatever works best for you). Were your words physical traits, intellectual descriptions, or social/emotional concepts? Do your words express limitations? Are their connotations positive or negative?
Now watch the video: Read more…
by Jenn L.
Three years ago, I was your typical high school freshman. I kept my head down, didn’t voice too many controversial opinions, and mostly just tried to fit in. One subject I was not silent about, however, was equal rights for the LGBTQ community.
At first, some of my friends were slightly concerned with my passionate drive for equality, and they warned me that I “might be coming off to others as not-straight.” After my fiery riposte, they backed down, but their reaction still discouraged me. Why would peoples’ speculation about my sexual orientation matter to me? Furthermore, why would those people feel the need to judge me in the first place?
Well, trying to explain how “God made everyone equal” to a group of atheists was neither fruitful nor beneficial, so I was excited and hopeful when I attended my first NFTY event in the fall. I was my usual bumbling, shy self in the beginning, but I quickly opened up once I realized how unreserved everyone else was. There were people flying into each other’s arms for bear hugs, what I learned to be known as “cuddle puddles,” and people reclining casually in one another’s laps. I glanced around, half-expecting to see the usual looks of judgment that came with people being themselves. There were none. I was so inspired by the acceptance I found at from these NFTY-ites I almost cried. Read more…