Having the Back of Kids Outside Our Walls: The Charge from our President at URJ Biennial 2011

by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk

Near the end of Genesis, Jacob encounters his grandsons- whom he never thought he’d have the blessing to see. He asks the boys “who are you?” in a familiar peek-a-boo trick of aging grandpas on the young people in their families.  But all kidding aside, Jacob draws them close to offer a blessing to them. He reaches to the boys with his frail hands and crosses them in an uncomfortable pose, placing the right hand over the head of the younger one and the left over the elder child.

Campaign for Youth EngagementJoseph swiftly tries to correct him, saying to his aging father, Lo cen avi. Dad, that’s not right. You’ve got the wrong hand on the kids. Then Jacob responds in a stubborn independent tone. Yadati. I know my son. So Jacob proceeds to show that the way in which he is offering this blessing, though it sounds and looks different, has tremendous purpose and intention behind it. Jacob wants this to be a memory trigger. Jacob wants us to turn our attention away from the end of his life’s work and cast our eyes on a future that will look different when the birthrights now in his hands belong to his grandkids.

This text is at the core of my faith. All the more so, because I am a rabbi in the Reform movement at this pivotal time, I hear in it a summons to do something meaningful and memorable with my rabbinate. I sense in it the tradition’s counsel to reach out to those who are not in the mainstream of Jewish life close and convey to them, even when it looks odd to the eye, true purpose and blessing.

What I am talking about is making my rabbinate and leadership of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple a calling out to every possible student by name. I must call out to them with tenderness and love and without judgment, doing everything possible to help them say Hineni, here I am, in return.

This concept of Hineni was taught thoughtfully by US President Barack Obama at the recent Biennial, who challenged us to continue our work of Tikkun Olam and make our lives worthy of a response from those who are disenfranchised. But it was another presidential address at the Biennial… that really provoked me to think that about the path of blessing we can take to reach our young and disenfranchised Jews. I speak of the address shared by our new incoming URJ President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

Rabbi Jacobs and I, together with so many educators, youth workers, cantors, rabbis and leaders of NFTY, share a passion for drawing disenfranchised Jews close, and he indicated without delay, that a campaign to engage our movement’s youth would be his number one priority. His call to engage youth in relationships was in my heart just yesterday, when a friend who was part of my previous temple, visited with my family before visiting her daughter at a local college.

We talked over dinner about the ins-and-outs of her daughter Rebecca’s Jewish identity. We talked about the recent Biennial and whether or not Rebecca, who mistrusts much of what the mainstream Jewish faith tradition offers, would have felt if she were there. Then Rebecca’s mom remembered aloud the time period right after Rebecca’s Bat Mitzvah, when she began to say things to her parents like: “I’m not really Jewish,” and “I don’t believe in what you believe.” Rebecca’s mom looked at me and said, “That was Ok. Because she knew she could get out for awhile from the kind of Judaism offered in synagogues. She knew it was Ok because you had her back. She knew you had her back. You knew her. You were her rabbi and she could come back on her own terms.”

I have to say: hearing Rebecca’s story told back to me by her mom was moving because it is exactly what I strive to do and what Rabbi Jacobs is asking all our movement’s leaders to do. For engaging the kids of every generation- the ones who’ve been out of our synagogue’s walls, connecting with those who have no intention of responding Hineni just because we call to them- that is a precious task.

Rebecca is not about to be defined simply or described by a pithy phrase that will summarize the terms on which she’ll ever connect formally with synagogue life. That’s why Rabbi Jacobs is charging us to twist our arms into a pretzel if we have to, so that we reach her outside of the synagogue. And we should do so- not because we’re certain she’s about to jump back in to synagogue life- but because it’s what Jacob told Joseph an enduring blessing requires.

This is simply imperative- we must touch the lives, inside and outside our walls, of every Ephraim and Manasseh that emerge in our families. They might be your kids or mine. But in all likelihood we’ll have just a moment like Jacob did to convey our blessing. In my view, if Rabbi Jacobs charge has any hope of leading our Reform movement forward, then no obstacle currently in our way ought to be left standing. We simply have no choice. As a movement we must reach out to every Rebecca we can- reminding her that she can call it like she sees it from in or outside our walls, because we have her back, and she has our confidence to speak her truth and ours, forever.

Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk is Senior Rabbi at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple and Vice-Chair of the Joint Commission on Lifelong Jewish Learning. This post is excerpted from a sermon shared at Fairmount Temple (See full text of the sermon).

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