Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A World Upside Down

Jennifer and I were out of touch over the weekend. We returned on Sunday evening to find (in the words of megilat Esther) an “olam hafuch” – “a world upside down." Our hearts are broken by the horror of what is still unfolding in Japan, and by the horror here in Israel of the Fogel family brutally stabbed to death. My experience of the past few days has been filled with extraordinarily painful images.
Doing something highly unusual in Israeli society, the grandparents of the Fogel family gave permission to the media to publish photos of the murder scene “so that,” they said, “the world will learn the truth of what happened to their family.” Those photos are on the internet. Other pictures with faces of the Fogel parents and children – including a 3 month old infant – are on posters in the streets, on the news, in newspapers. Like you, I have watched the terrible images on TV and the internet of the earthquake, the tsunami, and the continuing danger of the nuclear power plants in Japan. As I have walked the streets of Jerusalem these past few days, I have thought about how, in the past, very few people in history lived with the visual memory of what a tsunami looks like. Video recording didn’t exist; most of those who actually saw a tsunami died moments later. A few who survived walked through the world able to convey perhaps through poetry and myth the stark reality of such calamity. It is a distinctly modern experience to walk through the world carrying with us images of such terrifying power and awful destruction.

Our challenge as Jews and human beings who live with such difficult images is to let our hearts grow, not to replace but to add to the circle of those we care about. It is understandable that, for a time, we may need to shield ourselves from the unending stream of images from a broken world, but we may retreat only for a time. Then we must continue again to give and, in doing so, to be God’s hands in the world.

I pray God gives us each the strength to return to a world so much in need. May our hearts expand, our generosity increase. And, as we read the story of Purim again, may we be granted the vision to sense God’s hidden presence and behold a better day when the world will be made right again.


On a very different note, if you are interested in reading some thoughts on Judaism in the public square written by Rabbi Aaron Alexander and me - click here:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Young Adults and a Movement’s Future

I have been following from afar the debate about the new Strategic Plan for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ).   Below are some thoughts about its implications for the movement's future.
I know synagogues are important - they are the "bread and butter" of USCJ. But if you don't put adequate resources into the 18-30 age group there will be very few synagogues left to serve.”  That simple wisdom was offered as a comment on one of the “message boards” currently debating the draft of the Strategic Plan for USCJ.  I hope it is heeded.
About Koach, the movement’s Hillel presence, the plan says: “While the Conservative movement cannot abandon Conservative Jewish college students, it needs a more effective vehicle than the current Koach program.”  What is suggested are “highly focused interventions.”  About the Conservative Yeshiva at the Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem, largely serving post-college young adults, the plan calls for a “an independent blue ribbon commission to undertake a complete strategic review of the Fuchsberg Center in Israel, including its relationship to USCJ.”  To be fair, the plan hasn’t yet cut either program, but Koach and the Conservative Yeshiva are on the chopping block – both of their funding could be gone in a year or two.  Yet college students and post-college young adults represent the future for a movement that sorely needs one.
 “Conservative congregations face financial stress, declining and aging membership, narrow leadership base, weak denominational commitment,” the plan acknowledges,” and a loss of meaning for many young people.”  Wouldn’t programs for college students on campus and for young adults learning in Israel be the last things you’d want to cut?  Students at the Conservative Yeshiva find deep meaning in Jewish life, possess (for the time being) a strong commitment to Conservative Judaism, and, as passionate and Jewishly knowledgeable young people, represent the future leadership of Conservative synagogues. They possess the potential to serve as a powerful link to the next generation of membership.
In reconstituting USCJ’s leadership, the plan says, “the majority of the leaders of the new USCJ should be drawn from a pool of philanthropic investors who are capable of, and motivated to, making [sic] significant investments in the new USCJ.”  Those funders will be less motivated by “highly focused interventions” than by big ideas that represent a vision for the future.  They will give larger sums for big, innovative projects; they are unlikely to invest in leaner, “focused” versions of what has not worked before.
Why not create Koach co-ops on campus where Conservative Jews can replicate the energy and passion of Ramah summer communities by living, eating (kosher), praying and learning together?  Rather than compete with Hillel, as many Chabad houses do, these co-ops can partner with Hillel on campus to strengthen Conservative minyanim and foster stronger Jewish life on campus.  Similar to how Kollel and Chabad couples in the Orthodox community are dispatched to campuses and communities as role models who exemplify for college students and young adults what the next stage of engaged Jewish life can look like, graduates of the Conservative yeshiva could be paid to return to live in these co-ops.  Having obtained text and prayer skills from a year or two in yeshiva, and with the availability of internet distance learning, these graduates can continue their own learning while supporting Jewish life on campus.
Similarly, why not create kollels at Conservative synagogues where groups of yeshiva alumni can receive stipends to live together in homes or apartment buildings within walking distance of existing congregations?  Once rooted in the community, they can support the daily minyan, host Shabbat dinners (especially for new young members), teach texts about social action, organize service projects such as soup kitchens and community gardens, and form the backbone of a creative, young religious school staff?
The vitality of the Orthodox world today is largely due to young adults in their 20s and 30s, many of whom are products of the yeshiva—a place where participants worship together, live together, form a dynamic religious community, and most importantly, study together.  Conservative yeshiva alumni represent a powerful, yet untapped resource for the movement’s future.  USCJ would be wise to dream big about how to strengthen, not cut, its relationship with its yeshiva in Jerusalem.  Conservative yeshiva alumni can support the movement’s college students on campus and the revitalization of its existing synagogues.  Those synagogues should be USCJ’s bread and butter, but the raw ingredients must come from somewhere.