URJ & NFTY Presidents’ Joint D’var

Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs and NFTY President Evan Traylor delivered a joint D’var Torah during Saturday morning T’fillah at last weekend’s NFTY Convention and Youth Engagement Conference, which run concurrently. An abridged text and full video of their address follows; you can also find the full text of Rabbi Jacobs Friday night d’var Torah, “On Top of the World,” here.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: I’m sitting at my desk in my congregation one day when my secretary says, “Rabbi Jacobs, there’s a call for you from a prospective member who has a question.”

I pick up the phone and the woman says, “Rabbi Jacobs? I’m looking for a gifted program for my daughter.”

“That’s great. How old is your daughter?”

“She’s 3 years old, but she’s brilliant.”

“Really? She’s already brilliant at 3 years old?”

“Yes, and I’m looking for a synagogue with a gifted program.”

I said, “You called exactly the right synagogue because our synagogue only allows gifted children into our early childhood center.”

She said, “Perfect. That’s exactly what I want.”

I said, “Why don’t you come in and we can talk more?”

So she comes in, and we’re walking around. She said, “Where are the Latin classes? Where do the students learn calculus? Where is the cello laboratory?”

I said, “What do you mean?”

She said, “You said this was a gifted program.”

I said, “It is – and every single one of our kids is gifted, but they’re gifted in different ways. Some are gifted in things of the mind. Some are gifted with art; they’re dancers, they’re singers, they’re composers, they’re painters. Some are gifted in sports; they can jump and run and pass. Some are gifted in kindness, in creativity, and in compassion. But every single student who walks in these doors is gifted – gifted by God.”

Evan: Talking about gifts, this week’s torah portion is T’rumah, which actually means “gifts” in Hebrew. In this week’s Torah portion, God gives very detailed instructions to the Jewish people about how to build a tabernacle, a holy sanctuary in which the Jewish people can worship God. He gives some very specific details and asks all of the people in the community to contribute gifts to the community, so they can build this holy tabernacle and find a particular place to worship God.

Rick: This beautiful parasha, Parasha T’rumah, is all about those gifts – and everyone brings those gifts. Some of those gifts are very obvious, like gold and silver, and some of those gifts are the gifts of creativity and artistry to make something beautiful .  The Chassidic commentator and teacher Rabbi Nachman of Braslov says that what is amazing about this gift-giving is that it all came from the heart. It was all nedivat hatov b’libo: Everyone found the goodness, the uniqueness, and they brought it. What they created, it says at the end of the parasha, V’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham, make for me a sanctuary that I can dwell not in it, but in them. When we bring our gifts, and we bring the gold that is inside of us, that thing that makes us uniquely who we are, we literally create a vessel for the Holy One to live amongst us.

Evan: Thinking about your story earlier, Rabbi, reminds me of an experience I had a few summers ago. I’m a proud alumnus of the URJ Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, TX, and the summer going into my sophomore year, I was in a unit called Kibbutz. While the program is a little different now, Kibbutz is a time when the unit comes together as a community. We cooked our own food, we cleaned our own dishes, we gardened, we painted and cleaned, we stayed in cabins without air conditioning. Thirty-eight individuals came together as a community.

Almost every day during Kibbutz, we went to the ropes course. We did this to build community, build teamwork, and work together. On one of the last days of our session together that summer, one of the last things we did was to be challenged. We stood before a 12-foot wall, and on the back side of the wall was a ledge where people could stand after they climbed the wall. Our challenge was to get all 38 people over this wall. Our counselors told us this challenge, and that was it. They said, “Figure it out. How are you going to unite as a community to get all 38 people over this wall?” So we pushed people up, we put people on our shoulders; we did what we had to do.

At the very beginning of the activity, we had about five or six people who stood off to the side and said, “I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to climb a wall” – and what transpired in the next 20 to 30 minutes is symbolic of what the Kibbutz community created that summer. The fact that we had people that, like myself, were tall or bigger, we had small people, and we had people who were terrified. We had people who were ready to just run up to the wall and try it by themselves – but together in about 20 to 30 minutes, we got everyone over that wall. Everyone contributed to the community to accomplish our task. And everyone contributed their gifts for the community.

Rick: That’s a great story about teamwork, about working together with respect and everybody contributing. I’ve got something hard, actually, to pull from that story, and that is, in that story, and in the Torah, all the workers work together with respect and all that sense of shared purpose.

Friends, we’re in a hotel that is very problematic when it comes to working together. And we—not you, we, the URJ leadership—made a mistake. We’re usually very careful about what hotel we have any convention in, whether it’s the Biennial, a youth conference, a regional gathering or a gathering in D.C.

We look at how each hotel treats its workers. And we’re very careful. If a hotel does not treat their workers with dignity and respect, we will not go to that hotel. Over years, we’ve checked and we’ve triple-checked, but this time, we messed up. And, to be very honest, we shouldn’t be in this hotel.

I could make up a whole set of excuses, and it could be creative, and I could bring out all kinds of things—but the plain truth is we made a mistake. We thought about what we needed to do because of our mistake, and one possibility was to cancel the NFTY Convention. That was not a good option. The other option was to find a hotel or camp or any place that we could go besides this hotel. But because of the size, because of the lateness of the discovery, there was simply no place in this area that we could go.

What if we went to a different city? Many of you had already bought your tickets, and they were non-refundable—so we decided that we were going to have the NFTY Convention, but we were going to take significant moments to learn from our mistakes. That’s what holiness is. We’re all going to make mistakes, and sometimes they’re big, public ones like this one; sometimes they’re little quiet ones. But rather than just say we’re sorry, our actions put you—all of you—in a very uncomfortable place.

We’re a movement that stands for social justice. We’re a movement that knows the right thing, and in this case, we have to learn and heal. So besides just saying we’re sorry, we need actions that express our regret. We have publicly stated, to the world—to the unions, to the hotel workers here at the LAX Hilton, to your families, to the entire movement, and yes, to the wider world—that, yes, we made this mistake. We also know that saying we’re sorry doesn’t always put things back together. So we also, on your behalf, gave a gift card to every single worker in this hotel. We wanted to say on your behalf, “We understand that there is a labor dispute here. We know that it is hard to be a hotel worker, to have to clean up those rooms and wash all those dishes. We want you to know how much we appreciate your hard work, how much we respect what you do for not only us but for your families, and for this community. And the most important part of t’shuvah—and this is t’shuvah, repairing a wrong—is to make it clear that we don’t do this again. That we not only check three times but 50 times.

Now, as we make convention arrangements for the future, we triple-check that list (and there’s a list of the hotels that are not doing the right thing). We’ve already, in these last few weeks, booked new conventions and conferences, so we express to the world we learned a lesson. We learned that not only feeling bad but doing something constructive is how we change the world. So we want all of you to know that we’re all in this t’shuvah together, and we’re all standing up for what’s right and healing what was wrong. [Beats chest as during the Vidui] Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha, for the wrongdoing that we committed, we are sorry, and we are healing.

Speaking of healing and repairing, how many of you have ever been to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington D.C.? [Cheers] How many of you know what the word l’taken means? The word l’taken means “to repair,” to heal the brokenness. So, there is a young man named Jacob. I’ve known Jacob since he was born. Jacob did not, for years, that he had a gift. Because Jacob has special needs, and he was told that he wasn’t like everybody else, he was made to feel that his gift was not real. He asked whether he would ever have a bar mitzvah, and we said, “Of course you’ll have a bar mitzvah” – and he had a bar mitzvah. He came to be a part, with his special needs, of our teen community.

Three weeks ago, in Washington D.C., Jacob joined the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar to learn how to raise his voice for justice and for what’s right. He looked around and said, “My gift is that I love to be part of this youth community. Even though it’s been painful that I haven’t always been let in and included, I feel a part of who we are.” When, on the Monday of that L’Taken weekend, Jacob’s group went to meet with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s staff, Jacob spoke up about Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, which we are in the midst of right now, about what it means to have special needs, what it means to have special gifts that are not appreciated. He said it was for our country, as well as our Jewish community, to make sure that we are inclusive of all the gifts that people bring. I can tell you that not a single person who stood in that space and heard Jacob speak will ever forget the passion of having a gift that is finally understood, that is finally valued.

There are people who came to this NFTY Convention who weren’t sure that their gift would be understood and accepted. And there are many who didn’t come at all, because even as great as we are, we haven’t convinced the entire teen community that every single one of those gifts not only belongs, but that those gifts are needed. For Jacob, for us, for those here and for those not here, let us appreciate all of the gifts, all of the unique gifts that make us who we are, the ways in which God made each of us, that if we bring those gifts we can build a community of purpose and meaning, we can build a world of purpose and meaning.

Can we discover, in the course of this weekend, what each of our gifts is, and then to share it and to have those gifts received and supported? Even if my gift is very different than yours, and yours different than mine, that’s what makes this holy. That’s what makes this strong, so we can feel the incredible creativity and depth of this religious community. There is not a person here whose gift is not valued and essential for the Jewish future.

Evan: The theme of NFTY Convention 2013 is “Make Your Move” – learning how influential you are, and learning how to put it to work, how to put it to use, to make a difference.

We’ve all heard the famous quote from Rabbi Hillel, “If not now, when?” We’ve all heard that quote many times in our lives, but I want to challenge you over NFTY Convention 2013 to take that to heart. Understand what it means to be influential. Understand what it means to put that influence to work and make a difference in the world and to help others. That is my challenge for you. We’ll be going through numerous workshops, and you’ll have tons of opportunities, but NFTY Convention 2013 is your opportunity. There is no better time than the present to make your move.

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From the URJ


  1. When it Comes to Full Inclusion, It’s Time to Make (Y)our Move | RJ Blog - February 24, 2013

    […] NFTY President, and the focus of their d’var Torah was the gifts that each of us has to offer. (Read the entire d’var Torah here.) Here is a portion of what he said about special needs […]

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