Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Vital Center: Thoughts on the USCJ Centennial Shabbaton

Baltmore, Maryland, Motzei Shabbat, Parashat Lekh Lekha:

In a post on my personal blog, I wrote with a touch of sadness that I would not be in Israel for Shabbat Lekh Lekha.  Because the Torah portion begins with the command to Abram to leave his homeland and go to what will ultimately be known as the land of Israel, this is a Shabbat that celebrates Aliyah and new Olim.  As an Israeli citizen for almost two months, I looked forward to being with my family in Talpiyot, Jerusalem to celebrate our arrival in Israel.
While I certainly miss my family and Israel, as I look back on this weekend, I am happy I spent Shabbat in Baltimore, with six hundred others, starting a different odyssey: a journey to the new future of Conservative Judaism.   From energy to options, from kavvanah* to customer service, the weekend exceeded all expectations.  The way the Shabbaton was structured I felt as though I could easily have been in Israel:

 ·      On both Friday Night and Saturday morning, I could shul-hop, with no less than five different options at every service.  There was something for every taste and flavor of Conservative Judaism.

 ·      I enjoyed Shabbat meals with old friends while, at the same time, making new friends. 

·      My spirits were lifted high by energetic zemirot* sessions led by one hundred USYers, over twenty-five Bogrei Nativ, and emerging adults from Marom Olami. 

·      My soul and intellect were enriched and challenged by a vast, rich menu of shiurim – classes – led by superstars of the Jewish world, from Clive Lawson, founder of Limmud, to Vanessa Hidary, the Hebrew Mamita, to my mentor, teacher and friend, Rabbi Bradley Artson, all teaching at levels where every person could walk away having learned something.

Perhaps the greatest difference between this Shabbat in Jerusalem and Baltimore is the quality, the depth and the optimism I heard in conversations about the future of Conservative Judaism.  Before, during and after sessions, the corridors were filled not only with conversations about how fantastic the presenters or the shlihei tzibbur* were but about what the messages were about the future of our approach to Judaism.  People argued passionately, and respectfully, about the implications of the lessons and take-aways.  A few examples: 

In a world where people have multiple identities, how do people identify with and strengthen their commitment to their identification with the values of Conservative Judaism.  Clive Lawson brought the difference between identity and identification to the forefront.  

The Hebrew Mamita, Vanessa Hidary, raised our sensitivity not only to our own self-perceptions but how we perceive Jews from whom we are different.

Rabbi Artson presented an integrated theological approach, weaving our experiencing of the world with discoveries in a variety of fields of science as well as with the layers of ideas contained within our rich tradition.  What are the implications of an integrated theological system on our behaviors, on our relation to Mitzvot and commandedness? And how do we engage members of Conservative Kehillot in this kind of conversation. 

Just to name a few. 

In its variety and quality, this weekend was the demonstration of reaching an understanding that in a world where one can choose not only from five hundred cable channels but can opt out of the regular/cable television system entirely and stream shows from sites like Netflix and Hulu, the one size-fits all kehilla approach needs to and is changing. 

Shabbat ended with a summer camp-style Havdalah.  Our cup overflowed with exceptionally positive energy.  USYers and eighty year olds danced and sang together.  The power of over six hundred voices shouting “Amen” was testimony to the different feeling about our future.

On Tuesday, I will return back home to Israel.  Much of my work there is to help strengthen the lives of North American Jews and Kehillot via intensive learning and experiential programs.  The Shabbaton and Conversation of the Century send me home with a renewed energy and optimism that the Jewish world needs a vital and vibrant center, that we are positioned to be that center in the future in new and exciting ways just as we were in the past, and that there is much exciting work and opportunity ahead. 

To all those who made the Shabbaton and Centennial happen, thank you.

Now go and do! 
Shavua Tov.

This post originally appeared this past sunday on the USCJ Centennial Site,

Friday, October 11, 2013

Lekh Lekha - And You Will Go Forth!

Baka, Jerusalem: October 27, 1990 – Sitting in the basement of The Efrata School on Gad Street, I listened intently to the d’var Torah.  The woman stood, speaking haltingly in Hebrew with a heavy American accent:

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
“Go out from your country and from your homeland and from the house of your family to the land that I will show you.” Genesis 12:1
An Olah Hadasha, a new citizen of Israel, spoke of her choice to leave the comforts of America to make a home in Israel, the motivations for her choice and the adventures she experienced over the course of the year.  
By this time, I was in Israel for a total of two weeks.  Listening to the refrain of Lekh Lekha, “Go Forth!”, I knew I would never give such a d’var Torah.  I felt a tremendous sense that there was something I was supposed to do in the US. In addition to my personal sense of purpose, the idea of serving in the IDF was simply beyond my comprehension. For these and other reasons, I returned to the US after an incredible year filled with exceptional Torah, a few weeks of life in a sealed-room during the first Gulf War, memories of helping participants in the second Aliyah from Ethiopia and a lot of very good friends in Israel.
It seems my choice to return to The US was correct.  I met Becca, we built a family and have three truly magnificent children! I was privileged to be the founding director Ramah Darom, a family and home that created numerous Jewish leaders and continues to inspire thousands to be more involved in Jewish living, learning and community. Working with a few very good friends, I got to create Camp Yofi: Family Camp for Jewish Families with Children with Autism. I feel confident that I can honestly say, “Mission Accomplished.”
The Midrash asks why God, while directing Abram to leave Ur for Canaan, uses multiple words to describe the place from which Abram will depart.  Abram does not want to go and for each word God uses, Abram has a retort.  The give-and-take continues until Abram overcomes fear and begins his journey to “the place I will show you.”
Let’s be clear: I am no Abram.  But, like all people, I have internal dialogues filled with voices of fear and of strength.  When confronting choices or challenges, I hear encouraging voices pushing me to take risks and try to change worlds just as I hear my own voices of criticism, lack of confidence, fear. Do you hear those voices? Are they purely human or are they partially the Divine within us?  I don’t know.  But in 1991, I heard voices of mission and vision driving me back to America just as I cowered in fear of the implications of making different choices.
When Rebecca and I made the final decision to make Aliyah, I remembered that Shabbat morning at Kehillat Yedidya in 1991, to the woman with her heavy American accented Hebrew, and to my internal voice telling me I would never stand in that spot. I laughed. How right and how wrong I was! The years of fulfilling North American missions were completed.  There would always be voices telling me why it was not the right time to make Aliyah, that I would not succeed, that it was not right for so many reasons.  The voices of confidence, of desire to live in Eretz Avoteinu v’Imoteinu, The Land of our Matriarchs and Patriarchs, the constant pull of the air of Israel, the desire to contribute to the Jewish State  won out over the voices of fear.  On August 20, we landed at Ben Gurion Airport and our Aliyah adventure started.
As fate would have it, I am not in Israel for my first Shabbat Lekh Lekha as a new Israeli citizen.  I am in Baltimore, on the waterfront, at the United Synagogue Centennial.  We will discuss the future. There will be impassioned voices for a variety of strategic directions.  It will be lively and invigorating.  There will be great Torah.  I will meet new people and reconnect with mentors and friends.  And all the while, the words of Yehuda HaLevi, will ring in my ears:

לִבִּי בְמִזְרָח וְאָנֹכִי בְּסוֹף מַעֲרָב

My heart is in the East and I am in the distant West…

Unlike all my previous trips back from  Israel, when I felt what Yehuda HaLevi expressed, this time I know that on Tuesday evening, I will board Delta Flight 268 from JFK back to Tel Aviv.  My body and being will be reunited in Israel with the heart I left behind as a deposit.

And I know I am blessed:  I continue my life work of creating communities where we strengthen  the committed core of Jews seeking more Torah, more knowledge, more spirit, more connection and commitment to Jewish living.  Now, however,  I get to do it where my heart truly is, BaMizrah, in the East, in the State and the Land of Israel, living with the People of Israel and with Torah Yisrael.

Finally, for those of you who are thinking about making Aliyah, I hope and pray that you too  will reach the point where the voices of confidence, of support, of action overcome the voices of fear and the perceived and sometimes real barriers to Aliyah.  I hope you will choose to start your own Lekh Lekha journey and join us in living in and contributing to The Jewish State, The State of Israel. 

Who knows? Maybe next year, you will be giving the Shabbat Lekh Lekha Drasha in Israel!

Shabbat Shalom.