Shavuot, Sinai and Ruth: A Renewal of Reform Jewish Outreach



In several days time, we will celebrate Shavuot, which commemorates God’s revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. As part of our commemoration, we will join together as one community, stand again at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah all over again.

In her groundbreaking book, Standing Again at Sinai, published more than 30 years ago, Judith Plaskow calls upon Jewish women to reclaim scripture rather than discard it because of its patriarchal nature. Her inspiring words challenge each and every one of us to stand again at Sinai and reclaim Torah for ourselves—regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, or life experiences that may distance us from or create tension with our ancient, sacred texts.

I have always been profoundly moved that the rabbis associated the Book of Ruth with Shavuot. This moving story describes the bonds shared by women who overcome tribal-national differences to stay together and support one another. Famously and powerfully, Ruth tells Naomi, her mother-in-law:

Where you go I will go
Where you lodge I will lodge
Your people will be my people
Your God my God

And so it goes that Ruth becomes part of the Jewish people and, like the rest of us, stands at Sinai and receives Torah. What moves me most about the story, however, is that Ruth finds herself at Sinai primarily because of the bond she shares with Naomi.

In 1978, thousands of years after we first stood at Sinai, Rabbi Alexander Schindler began an outreach revolution. As president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) Rabbi Schindler called upon our Movement to reach out to the non-Jewish spouses who increasingly were within our families and congregations. He went so far as to throw open the gates of Jewish living to those he called “unchurched.” In the spirit of the Book of Ruth, Rabbi Schindler believed that many, many souls would find meaning, purpose, and connection in the Jewish community—and their entrée would be through the people with whom they shared love and bonds that were stronger than tribal-national differences.

It was truly a revolution. Think of the hundreds of thousands of girls and boys, women and men who, through Outreach, have found the joy of Jewish life, even though members of their families of origin are not Jewish. Think of the number of rabbis, cantors, and Jewish professionals and leaders who are Jews-by-choice or grew up in interfaith households. Just as King David himself was the future progeny of Ruth, so too have the souls we have drawn in over the last several decades contributed countless generations to the Jewish future.

Now, as we prepare once again to stand at Sinai, amongst a diverse, mixed multitude that has found a home among us, we will again read the Book of Ruth. Again, we will hear Rabbi Schindler’s call to reach out, giving us yet another chance to ask, “Who among us might find their way into Jewish life?”

Recently, URJ incoming president Rabbi Rick Jacobs called upon synagogues to “reach out to the uninspired,” challenging the whole of the Jewish community to think boldly and well beyond the walls of the synagogue to meet people where they are. Rabbi Jacobs’ charge renews Rabbi Schindler’s vision and echoes across the generations from Sinai and Ruth until today. Who are the waiting-to-be-inspired women and men to whom we will reach out and ask to join the Jewish people? Who are the people with whom we share bonds so strong that when asked, they will respond: Your people will be my people, your God my God?

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah

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Rabbi Jonah Pesner

About Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Rabbi Jonah Pesner is Senior Vice President of the URJ. Rabbi Pesner is also the founding Director of Just Congregations. He works with synagogues pursuing social justice across the country and teaches on all three campuses of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He has led efforts to engage thousands of members of congregations to join together in successful campaigns for health care access, affordable housing, public education and other social action initiatives.

6 Responses to “Shavuot, Sinai and Ruth: A Renewal of Reform Jewish Outreach”

  1. avatar

    This holiday is my favourite. Three years ago I discovered that I was a true matrilineal Jew that was hidden for 3 generations. I walked into shul, not knowing how I would be received or whether I would be believed.

    I heard the story of Ruth and Naomi and was gathered in to the fold with great love that day. I received the Torah just as they had at Sinai. I read the prayers that had always been the prayers of my heart. Although my mother was raised Christian people remarked she was unlike any Christian they had ever met. When I went to shul I found people just like her. I wept through the entire service.

    Thank you for letting your G*d be my G*d and thank you for keeping the Torah safe all these years so I too can stand at Sinai.

    • avatar

      I am the Outreach Chair at our small synagogue. This allows me to have the pleasure of preparing people for conversion through teaching,discussion and support. About a third of our families have one partner as Jew by choice, and I am so inspired by their passion and their searches. I had the recent honor of having one of my conversion candidates choose a Hebrew name she said was in my honor as well as the memory of Ruth the Moabite. My name is Ruth too!

  2. Rabbi Jonah Pesner

    Dear Julia,

    What a wonderful story. What an inspiring way to begin Shabbat.

    Our community is blessed by your presence!

    Shabbat shalom,

    Jonah

  3. avatar

    Unfortunately you ignored the fact that Ruth “converts” not out of faith but out of loyalty to Naomi. In today’s world if she came to a Rabbi asking to be converted for that reason she would be denied. The TRUE convert in the Bible is not Ruth but Rahav the harlot (in the book of Joshua) who comes to the conclusion that the God of Israel is the ‘real” God of heaven and earth.

    Respectfully
    Gideon

  4. avatar
    Netzach Benyochanan Reply May 21, 2012 at 10:51 am

    Hi,

    I’m just tired of reading and reading articles like this one, and listening sermons related to outreach, inclusion, civil rights defense, etc. etc. etc. within the Reform Movement. Everything sounds so nice, so beautiful, but in reality it just do NOT exist.

    I grew up Reform, I have a Reform heart, I do agree with almost 90% of what Reform Judaism “preach”, believe, promote, etc. But several years ago I drifted apart… Decided to become an unaffiliated.

    Guys, one thing is what URJ Press & CCAR Press publish, and other VERY different thing is what most Reform Congregations actually practice.

    Here where I live, for instance, there’s a temple calling itself “benevolent”, but in reality it is more cruel and dry than anything else. A snobby rabbi dealing with conversion, always paying more attention to his iPad than to the people in from of him, telling people upfront “we’re paying for your conversion, but you have to agree in advance to pay your membership dues right alter; this is how much you have to pay”.

    Another female rabbi looking at how and what you’re wearing or how you look like, and… of course she will do that right after Shabbat service (very “spiritual” and “inclusive”, heheheh).

    I’ve been coming and going through the years hoping to finally see a change, an improvement, just to find out that it gets worse and worse every year. Oh well…

    Most Reform temples are currently suffering economical crisis, but clergy and board members don’t realize they (THEMSELVES) are the problem. Who wants to become a member and pay dues to get or witness this kind of behavior? Temples are NOT social clubs anymore. Whoever wants to belong to a social club or alike, there’s a vast universe of options out here…

    We don’t need to pay high dues to belong to a dry and NO-benevolent club or congregation. We do NOT need or want to pay dues to benefit a clergy that doesn’t deserve to be called such. I will never pay to feed snobby “sacred cows”, who believe that being a rabbi or cantor is merely a business.

    These days Jews (and people in general) are looking for spiritual and meaningful oasis, but unfortunately that’s not present in most Reform synagogues. So please, try to solve that situation first before you guys can even think about a renewal of Reform Jewish Outreach.

    Blessings, from Atlanta! :-)

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