On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Posts Tagged ‘Arnold Eisen’

Back to School

Three weeks after the election, Jews, like other Americans, can think of little else than the changes in store for our country and the world. Fundamental Jewish values and concerns hang in the balance; indeed, the Jewish communal agenda seems to pale in importance compared to anxiety about the policies and pronouncements of the new administration now forming. I believe, however, that our communal agenda is more important than ever. We need clarity about where our tradition stands on issues of the day. And we need to make sure that we are transmitting that tradition and those values effectively to the next generation of American Jews. Day schools have an essential role to play in that effort. I visited my neighborhood Jewish day school recently to see how well it is performing that task and came away with the sense that a lot we need to know about strengthening the Jewish community in North America can be learned from watching K–8 Jewish classrooms.

For one thing—to me, the main thing—the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan spends great effort teaching its students that their fulfillment as individual Jewish human beings is best served by participation in a larger community. The sense of community starts with the four-desk clusters common in many classrooms these days. No child sits alone, or works alone, or faces the day’s challenges alone. Learning in groups day after day teaches more than math skills or the nature of Greek city-states. It demonstrates that personal growth comes through cooperation, conversation, and shared responsibility. It helps too that class size is small; everybody seems to know everyone’s name. The buzz in the classrooms and halls was happy. Many American Jewish adults—perhaps most—have never experienced such buzz, perhaps because they have never participated in face-to-face Jewish community of this or any sort. Convinced that individual autonomy is threatened by strong communal involvement, they may not want to get involved—or, sadder still, they may have walked through Jewish doors seeking Meaning and Community and left sorely disappointed. 

I toured Schechter with Benjamin Mann, head of school, who I’m proud to say holds a master’s degree from JTS, is an alumnus of the Davidson School’s Day School Leadership Training Institute, and is currently a student in Davidson’s executive doctoral program. Mann told me that the school’s philosophy had always been to nurture independent learners who know how to solve problems and to tackle challenges—together. As he told me this, I flashed back on my wonderment, upon arriving in Oxford for graduate study, that only several hours a week would be spent in lectures, seminars, or tutorials. The rest of the time I would either be alone, reading and writing, or—from early morning until late into the night—talking with my fellow students in pubs, coffee houses, or common rooms. It took me a while to figure out the educational assumption behind this regimen: gather smart and highly motivated students, put them in conversation with one another, and they will naturally share what they are learning. The problems they are working on will find new and creative solutions. I wish our adult communities did more of this. We have a lot to offer one another that does not get communicated when we sit silently in synagogues or classrooms or board meetings.

The Manhattan Schechter School does something else that I admire: it aims, as I would put it, to nurture young Jewish human beings rather than to teach kids Judaism. All Jews I know, whatever their age, wrestle with the hyphen that enriches and bedevils Jewish identity in North America today. We are either American-Jews or Jewish-Americans (or similarly hyphenated Canadians). For better and for worse (and I believe it is both), we have to work hard at synthesizing these and other parts of our selves. Wholeness generally eludes us. Tensions abound. Books and classes about Judaism also abound—but how many guide us in putting all the parts together? Many Jews, young and not so young, flee Jewish community because they fear it demands exclusive allegiance, leaving no room for participation in other communities. They are wary of Jewish tradition because they think it requires them to give up other sources of wisdom, other parts of themselves—as if the twin tasks of growing into Judaism, and growing into personhood, were a zero sum game.   

Day schools (and overnight camp, as well) have a major built-in advantage where the search for wholeness is concerned. Unlike synagogues that most Jews visit weekly at best, or congregational schools that meet after the real work of the day for kids is done, or on weekends set aside for leisure, day schools bear the message that Judaism is the main business of life, integral to all the rest. Math and science, Shakespeare and soccer, take place in Jewish spaces. SSSM underlines the aim of wholeness by hiring bilingual teachers for grades K–5 who can model the integration of Jewish studies and general studies that they seek to foster in their students. The school, like the Torah, has no one philosophy on what these syntheses should look like but it is committed to the effort wholeheartedly. Students and teachers testify by being there how much Judaism matters to them. The virtual printer on the window ledge of the classroom is evidence that Judaism is perfectly at home in our 21st century world—and that this world has found a home in Judaism. When the students leave the school to feed the hungry or visit the sick, they bring their Judaism with them, along with everything else they are. Would that more Jewish adults did the same.

I asked to spend part of my SSSM visit observing and joining in tefillah. It has been my experience that prayer is the single hardest request made of contemporary Jewish adults outside the Orthodox world, and perhaps for many inside that world.  (The English word itself is a problem, constricting the range of the Hebrew to one sort of tefillah: petition to God). So much in the patterns and assumptions of our lives is at odds with the demand to sit quietly, pay attention, burrow inside words hallowed by tradition, allow emotion to show and be felt in public, express thanksgiving and obligation, confess inadequacy, and stand in the presence of the Highest. For kids, prayer can be a much simpler matter—their sense of wonder has not yet been dulled by the need to put up armor and be cool.

SSSM students do not receive a printed siddur until fifth grade. Until then, they use a binder of loose-leaf sheets on which they have written or drawn associations with lines from key prayers typed in bold at the top of the page. When they come to pray that particular line, they have before them not only the words of the prayer they will sing together, but the meaning they have found in it and for it—a meaning that, the sheets being loose leaf, can change over time. I’ve described this experience for adults as coming to shul wearing stereo headphones: in one ear you hear the words on the page, read or chanted, and in the other, the meaning it has accumulated for you.  Spend extended time on a single word or phrase, go deep into what it says to you, and the next time you reach that page, those words will stand out for you, perhaps over time even greet you as a friend. Music intensifies this experience of welcome.

I saw associations with the words of the siddur being born for a group of kindergartners as a teacher sat with them in a circle and asked why they thought we sometimes bow our heads in prayer. “To get a blessing,” said one. “To thank God for making the world,” said another. “Asking God for love,” said a third. “To save God.” Something profound had just happened in that room. I found myself wishing that my own minyan would spend time discussing what we think we are doing when we bow and sing, stand or sit, listen to Torah or say Kaddish.

This sort of education is quite expensive, more so even than other Jewish institutions.  This is not the place to debate the question of how much communal and foundation money should flow to day schools as opposed to congregational schools, camps, or training grounds for leaders such as JTS. We are a small community, struggling to persuade Jews that their people and tradition need them, and that Jewish life can supply Meaning and Community available nowhere else—but the price, unfortunately, is one that many individuals cannot afford or are unwilling to pay. Our survival and continued flourishing as Jews in this land of opportunity will not come without great resources and great effort. If we as a community really care about raising committed Jews in North America today, we will dig deeper and find the resources needed.

The investment in day schools like Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan is clearly worthwhile. For what I saw over and over again that morning was not only great teaching and learning, but kids and teachers at home in their school and in their skins.  That tremendous sense of belonging is bound to carry over to the way they feel about their community, their tradition, their society, and the world. Judaism, in this case Conservative Judaism, ceases to be philosophy at a school like this one. It becomes lived experience—what Judaism was always meant to be.

The Day After

I woke up Wednesday morning breathing deep with relief that the long nightmare of the campaign was finally behind us—and fearful that my fellow Americans and I will not be able to find it in ourselves to overcome divisions greater than at any time since the Civil War. After all, tens of millions awoke with immense pain and anger at the outcome of the election, and about the same number with the sense their voices had finally been heard. I do not know, in legislative terms, what the specifics of “coming together” will entail. But I do know that the Torah demands that we never give up on one another or our society; that we be better than we have been of late; and that we take concrete steps to return to the truth and ideals that are “self-evident” to Americans when we do not cover them over with cynicism. These are, I believe, the only ways to keep the house we share from burning. All hands are needed—and all hearts, too—to put out the fire and rebuild.

The first building block, it seems to me, is speech. Words played a major role in turning us into this nation divided—name-calling, disparagement, smears of all kinds—and words will have to play a major role in making things better. God spoke the world into being, we learn in the very first verses of Genesis, and Jewish sages taught that human beings, having been created in God’s image, have the power to make and destroy—to build up and tear down other human beings—through speech.

Let’s all resolve to watch our mouths in the post-election period. No harmful speech, let alone violent action. Let’s listen so well to the words uttered by people who disagree with us, that we hear what is intended and felt even when it is not actually said. The disagreement likely will not go away. But the anger and pain need to be registered.  So does the fear—palpable on all sides—about where our country is headed.

A related casualty of this long and grueling election cycle has been the truth, so damaged that many Americans have apparently stopped believing that any politician ever tells the truth. The Torah says that Truth is one of the names of God. The Ten Commandments prohibit us from lying in God’s name; a major aspect of loving our neighbors, Leviticus teaches, is to be straight with them about what we think they are doing wrong. Jews have learned the hard way, as have other minority communities, that when those in power play fast and loose with the truth, individuals and groups who are powerless, as Jews have been in the past, are the first to pay a heavy price.

So let’s all make a promise, with the election behind us, to tell the truth on a more regular basis than seemed possible in the heat of the campaign. There is a time for political rhetoric, and a time to own up to complexity; let’s reject the lie that a person or group is either “with us” or “against us.” Let’s own up to the complexity of things for a change, admit that the policies and individuals we favor or oppose are not all good or all bad, and recognize that disputes over principle often mask fights over turf or privilege.

Third, let’s really be our brothers’ keepers. We mustn’t think the fire will consume only their side of the house we share. Let’s reach across every aisle, every fence, to every neighbor. Let’s listen hard to the anger and the pain. Most important, we must heed the Bible’s refrain that “widows and orphans”—all who cannot provide for themselves—must not be allowed to starve. Like many Americans, I don’t much care how we accomplish that goal, but it pains me that we don’t, that it seems we can’t, and—worse—that we act as if we do not give a damn.

Let’s channel that impatience into action. Christmas Eve this year falls on the same date as the first night of Hanukkah. Could we resolve as a country—individuals of all parties and creeds, corporations and businesses of every size and complexity, governments at the federal, state, and local level, religious organizations and secular charities, all of us—that no child will wake up the next morning without enough food to eat. For that one day, at least (and for as many days afterward as possible). To make the holiday a Holy Day for all Americans, regardless of religious beliefs. To show that we can work together on something valuable, that we care. That light in the December darkness would make all Americans proud.

Kol Nidre 2016

Message delivered by Chancellor Eisen at JTS Yom Kippur services.

I went fly fishing this summer with my son and a very patient instructor, and came away with three lessons directly relevant to the work of teshuvah.

First, fly fishing is hard, very hard, and if my skill at casting that day is any indication, it’s unlikely I will ever be very good at it.

Second, in fishing as in life one sometimes gets lucky. Norman Maclean, in A River Runs Through It, writes that “if our father [a Presbyterian minister] had his say, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching it.” I was lucky: I did catch a fish that day. It is important, as we undertake the labor of doing better than we have in the past, to know and face up to our inadequacies. But it’s also important to remember, as Jewish tradition insists, that there is hope for us nonetheless. Reverend Maclean put it this way. “All good things, trout—as well as eternal salvation—come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.”

The third lesson is that often, when we bend all our efforts toward a single, difficult goal, we may fall well short of it—but if we look around, we may find that we have been vouchsafed a gift that never would have come to us otherwise, and that is worth far more than the goal for which we were striving. I set out that morning wanting to learn to fly-fish—or, to be completely truthful about it, to use a fishing lesson as an excuse for spending a few good hours with my son. He and I had those hours together. But what I learned with him at my side was the joy beyond words of standing knee-deep in a sun-dappled river, surrounded by four shades of forest green, looking up at four shades of sky blue, with waterfowl gliding overhead and woodpeckers making their distinctive call—all of this raised to an exponentially higher level of stunning beauty when the wind churned the water, and clouds covered the sun, making for a show of light and shadow that causes me to shudder even now, as I recall it. Talk about a moment of grace!

Thanks to that experience, I know something of what Maclean meant in the (very Jewish) mystical affirmation at the end of his story. “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” We stand in that river, you and I, never with more awareness than on a glorious morning like the one I have described, or on a day like Yom Kippur.

It’s hard to do better than that sort of experience in this super- empirical age. Try to turn literature or memoir into theology or theory, I find, and you quickly run up against more conundrums than the technical terms in a fly fisherman’s lexicon. What is the “one” into which all things merge, exactly—or the One, the ehad, in the creedal affirmation that you and I will make in the final moment of Yom Kippur about YHWH, the God of Israel? When is the “eventually” when all things merge, or make sense, or allow us to figure out, as the characters in Maclean’s story ask, why it is so hard to figure out what people need, and to help them with it; why “it is those we live with and love and should know who elude us”?

I often meet Jews, young and not young, who throw up their arms in frustration that Judaism is so much better at asking questions like these than answering them. Sometimes, desperate for the answers, they mistake our tradition’s poetry, allusion, story, praise, reassurance, hope for things not seen, guidance for living, and companionship along the wilderness journey of life—for theology or even system. I too believe, and wish at times I could believe more. I am a seeker after every scrap of Truth that grace and art allow mere mortals to grasp. But my gratitude for Yom Kippur does not stem from the expectation that I will leave Ne’ilah with ultimate questions answered or will have all my deep-rooted doubts assuaged.

Why then am I here? What do I hope to receive in the next 25 hours, which we will spend largely with a liturgy that prompts introspection and resolve? I will answer by sharing two personal religious high points of the year that has just ended.

One was a conversation that took place at Yale University Hospital. I sat with a group of physicians, faculty, and staff who meet regularly to explore and strengthen the connection between “spirituality” and medicine. After a brief presentation by me on Jewish approaches to illness and healing, a physician at the far end of the table remarked that he goes to church regularly—and none of his colleagues understand why. “I go to church,” he explained, “because I find there a kind of discourse and community available nowhere else—certainly not at the hospital.”

Beautifully put, I think. I suspect that many Jews, perhaps many in this room, would say the same about their synagogue attendance, particularly at the High Holidays. The Pew Report of 2013 found that over 70 percent of American Jews self-identify as having a religion, Judaism. Yet 70 percent of those Jews declare in answer to a follow-up question that religion is not the major component of their Jewish identity. Judaism for them is rather a matter of family, ethnicity, tradition, ethics, or peoplehood. It claims their engagement, in other words, by providing a kind of discourse and community that is rarely available elsewhere.

There are times when I wonder, as much as the next person, why we really need to say all these prayers, the same ones day after day, or year after year, almost all of which were not written with 21st century Americans who carry smartphones in their pockets in mind. I have to tell you, though, that after following the latest news of the election campaign, reading the paper, listening to the pundits, I often feel cheapened, lowered, even sullied by what has been said and done. Is this the best that adult Americans can achieve in pursuit of the leadership of our country at this crucial time in the world’s history? This is the way we talk to and about one another, this is role-modeling for young people, this is what life is for and about? Maclean says gently, with the wisdom of his Presbyterian father, that “if you have never picked up a fly rod before,” as I had not before this summer, “you will soon find it factually and theologically true that man by nature is a damn mess.” This election campaign has proven that, with or without rods and reels. The question this Yom Kippur, more than any other in my personal memory, is whether we will sink into the mess beyond hope of rising. Words and melodies like Kol Nidre, and the 25-hour immersion that follows, constitute an alternate discourse and a restorative experience of community. They are to me, and perhaps to you as well, a very welcome antidote to the mess all around. They may even help us to do better.

Last fall I had the privilege of joining about 200 other religious leaders and public officials at the service of prayer and remembrance that Pope Francis convened at Ground Zero. The pope’s words were moving, and, especially to an audience sitting in those literal and moral depths, his presence was palpably elevating. No less moving, to me at least, was the silence that greeted the Pope’s entrance; the multi-faith character of the audience that he led in prayer; and the singing of Oseh Shalom Bimromav with that group, in that place, at that moment. Had the Pope sought theological agreement from those assembled, he would have failed before he began. The members of the audience, dressed at Francis’s request in the distinctive garb of their various traditions, probably brought dozens of different notions of prayer to the prayers we shared. They held divergent notions of the shalom that exists in heaven and the shalom we hope to see on earth. Without doubt, they cleave to widely varied ideas of the Higher Power to which that day, we all agreed to attach the word God. The degree of theological unity among us counted for less that morning than the fact that we were humbled to stand before God as mere mortals, our time on earth fleeting, the work to which we are called immense, the planet with which we are entrusted in real danger of irreparable harm.

They, at that moment, you at this one, are my community as we face up to, and face down, the terrorists and the nihilists and those who think only fools believe in any goal other than self-seeking. They, you, are the community that guarantees the existence of an alternate discourse, a better language, a higher path. Joining with you in this space—a Christian space, davka, loaned to us by allies of another faith who know how important it is for us to exercise and strengthen our faith on Yom Kippur—I am raised up and you with me.

The rabbis, as they did so often, front-loaded a lot of the meaning of Yom Kippur into the opening moments of Kol Nidre, knowing perhaps that they had our maximum attention then, and wanting to take full advantage. Let me in conclusion draw your attention to what we said and did a few moments ago at their direction. With the ark open, and Torahs in hand, we said with as much solemnity and focus as we could summon, that “by the authority of the court on high and by the authority of this court below, with divine consent and with the consent of this congregation, we grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed.”

Who else is there to pray with, after all? How could permission to pray be given if we, all of us transgressors, did not grant it to one another?  Who else except a community like this, gathered at a moment like Yom Kippur, blessed with a discourse like the one we will inhabit for the next 25 hours, could affirm, in the face of the moral relativism peddled daily by our culture, that there really is an “above” and a “below”? That there is Good and Evil, Truth and Lies, and we need to turn from evil and lies to goodness and truth, and can turn? That there is blessing to be had, and we can choose it. That there is life—and with God’s help, we can choose that too, at least for a little while yet.

Then we turned the page, and requested release from vows we have not even made yet, and declared before God and each other that our promises shall not be considered promises, lest our inability to fulfill those vows and promises paralyze us from helping one another and making the world better. Finally, the liturgy offered the precious reassurance, in God’s name, that we can be and will be forgiven for whatever needs forgiving. We quote God’s words to our ancestor Moses, “I have forgiven, as you have asked.” That’s when we say sheheheyanu, having been given the promise we need in order to go on, and face another year.

Yom Kippur reminds us, in the Kol Nidre prayer and many others, how hard it is to get life right at any point. It teaches me that we may get it right nonetheless. We may get lucky. There may be grace. We may do better next year than we did before. And even if we don’t, there will be unexpected blessings, moments when we might be pierced by a melody, or a phrase, or the pleasures of a shared community.

I thank God for the blessing of this day, the blessing of this discourse, and the blessing of this community. I wish us all a day studded with moments of great meaning, and a year of both art and grace.

High Holiday Message from Chancellor Eisen

JTS High Holiday services are being held this year in borrowed space at Riverside Church—a graphic reminder, if one were needed, of how this Rosh Hashanah is different from all other Rosh Hashanahs for JTS faculty, students, staff, and extended family. In the final months of 5776 we witnessed the demolition of our 1980s Library building. (The bulldozers are active, outside my window, as I write.) Long before Passover of 5777 we will break ground on construction of our renewed campus, which is set to open in Fall 2019. I want to reflect briefly on the wider significance of these developments. I believe they carry meaning at this season that is both communal and personal.

Gerson Cohen, a renowned chancellor of JTS, expressed the matter eloquently in Fall 1980 at the dedication of the building that is now giving way to new construction:

It is as if this simple act of digging a hole constitutes the affirmation that we have all been awaiting. We are building—and by so doing have demonstrated our belief in the authenticity of Conservative Judaism, our faith in the future of the American Diaspora, our confidence in our scholars, our schools, our publications, as the sources from which the American Jewish community will draw the strength it needs to guide our institutions into their second century. Those shovels, the blasting, the expanding foundation hole, are doing more for our sense of identity, our acceptance of mission, than all the arguments we marshaled while we debated whether or not to build.

Cohen’s words resonate with me—as they will with many readers who have resolved to embark on an ambitious path, personal or institutional, after long consideration of the alternatives, and in the face of skeptics who said it couldn’t—or shouldn’t—be done. “Why are you building a new campus,”  I have been asked, “when American Judaism (Orthodoxy excepted) has an uncertain future at best—and may not exist in 50 years?” Or: “Why are you investing in the preparation of leaders for the Conservative movement in particular, when its future is particularly bleak?” I have spoken with Jews who see no point in preserving an institution loyal to the Jewish religious tradition because they are convinced that all religion in America is declining steeply. Others expressed the wish for greater certainty in these troubled times. So much is changing,  and the change is so fast and so far-reaching. Perhaps JTS should hang back and wait a while, until the horizon clears.

I think it’s important to say,  as Cohen did—and never more so than at the High Holidays—that we build in full awareness of the data and the trends. We seize a unique opportunity presented to us at this moment because we are confident of JTS’s future, that of Conservative Judaism,  and that of the Jewish community in North America. We believe it is important—now as much as ever—that the sort of religion for which JTS stands, the sort of Judaism we have maintained and transmitted for over a century,  survive and thrive. The world is increasingly given over to intolerant fundamentalism on the one hand and militant (and no less intolerant) atheism on the other. We urgently need Jewish leaders who are trained to broadcast the opposite message, and help their communities navigate uncharted territory, alongside respected allies from other communities and traditions. JTS will provide these leaders.

We know that Judaism can make a tremendous difference to Jewish lives and communities in North America, because it already does for many hundreds of thousands, offering experiences of Meaning and Community (Capital “M,” Capital “C”) available nowhere else. And the record shows that wise, learned, and inspiring leadership is crucial to the success of this endeavor. That is the “core business of JTS,” one which requires a community of teachers and students committed to the endeavor and a constant flow of people and ideas into and out of that community, enriching conversation at 3080 Broadway and throughout the Jewish world and beyond.

Institutions that have been around for a long time can change dramatically to meet new challenges—just as individuals who have resolved to change at Rosh Hashanahs past, with disappointing results, can undertake teshuvah this year that,  unlike all past attempts, really turns their lives around.  Maimonides urges us in his Laws of Repentance not to heed those who tell us all is determined or decreed, with no “degree of freedom” left to you and me to alter the course of our lives. “This is a great principle, a pillar of Torah and mitzvah, as it is said (Deut. 30:15)  ‘Behold I have set before you this day life and goodness, death and evil…blessing and curse.…’”

That call is sounded for individuals,  this Rosh Hashanah as every other. It applies to the Jewish community in North America as it does in Israel. It holds true for our society, which at this moment seems to be struggling with its very soul. And it holds true for our world—which, if we heed the climate scientists, is in desperate need of our resolve to keep it habitable.

“Wake up!” a broadside issued by JTS declared in 1981. “It is Rosh Hashanah—the birthday of the world. The hungry need to be fed, the illiterate need to be taught. The old as well as the young need to be loved…Wake up. Accept your role as a partner in creation. Rosh Hashanah is the time and wherever you are is the place to begin.”

So much has been invested in us, the Jews of today,  individually and collectively. Returning that investment with interest, for the benefit of those “here with us this day,  as well as those not here with us this day” (Deut. 29:13)  is one of the greatest satisfactions a person can enjoy. May it be yours this Rosh Hashanah, ushering in a year that is good and sweet.

Teaching The Torah of Conservative Judaism

The following address was given at the 2016 Rabbinical Assembly convention.

Let me begin by saying that for me it is an honor beyond words to address my colleagues in the RA once more as chancellor of JTS. Working with you over the years; visiting the institutions that you lead; teaching and learning with you each January at RTI; benefitting from the excellent mentoring that you provide year after year to JTS students; getting the benefit of your wisdom, experience, and friendship in frank conversation on issues we face in our community and at JTS; partnering with RA leadership on these issues, publicly and behind the scenes; hearing the Jews you work with sing your praises—which does happen more than you might realize—all of that and more fills me with pride.

At a deep, personal level, you provide me with the pleasure of companionship, as together we walk a path in Torah that is not as well-travelled these days as we might like, if it ever was, but which—I believe, as you do—is of great and enduring importance for the future of our community and to the vitality of Torah. JTS would not be investing in the campus construction that has forced us to meet at Park Avenue Synagogue instead of 3080 Broadway if we were not confident in the future of our institution and in the kind of Judaism that inspires us. For reasons I shall explain in a moment, I believe that future is bright.

The personal meaning I have in walking our distinctive path in Torah is greater still because of the close connection to Conservative Jewish leaders who preceded us. For me, of course, that means especially the men and women who walked the halls of JTS and paced the dalet amot of the Chancellor’s Office. This year, I’ve spent a lot of time in virtual conversation with Gerson Cohen. Many in this room, of course, knew him well. I spoke to Cohen at length only once: about 30 years ago, when he offered me a position on the JTS faculty. But I’ve been reading him a lot lately, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the “Blessing of Assimilation” address. In the course of that reading I was particularly struck by an essay called, “Modern Jewish Scholarship and the Continuity of Jewish Faith,” which Cohen delivered at an RA Yom Iyyun in 1981. Several passages in it say a lot about the Torah that is distinctive to the kind of Judaism that you and I teach and try to live.

The first occurs in the opening paragraph of the talk, right after Cohen asserts that “critical scholarship and traditional faith and practice are the pillars upon which Conservative Judaism rests.” He then says the following: “If learning and scholarship do not affect our religious faith and behavior, we are simply engaging in a kind of antiquarian exegesis. If critical learning does not have an effect on our theology, on our experience of God, we have to ask ourselves why we are engaging in it with such tenacity.”

Exactly. To me, “Conservative Torah” as you and I teach i—whether our Torah she bichtav, found in the set of texts from Frankel to the present that I teach in my seminar on Conservative Judaism at JTS—or Torah she b’al peh, transmitted and embodied in countless drashot, modes of practice, and styles of discourse, as well as in distinctive sensibility, emotional valence, and musical traditions—is permeated by our desire to bring together what we know about our history, our texts, and the history of our texts, with what we know about our world and from our world.

We seek wholeness, we Conservative Jews; we want the two parts of levaveinu, minds and hearts, to be in sync as much as humanly possible, and to be in sync too with our souls and our strivings; we want to serve God as best we can in this world, in shul and out, in our homes and on the way. We want to be God’s partners in making the world more just and compassionate. And we know, oh do we know, how hard that is. The work requires serious Talmud Torah, in the expanded definitions of learning and of Torah that have always been a distinctive feature of our Conservative way.

Citing etymological evidence from the Akkadian, Cohen argued that the passage from Proverbs that serves as his key text—“bekhol derakhekha da’ehu” (Proverbs 3:6)—means “that we must experience God in every ramification of our lives.” Lada’at means to know something [or someone] “ethically, sexually, physically, intellectually.” We should make it the central principle of our lives, Cohen said, “to experience the presence and the Word of God in every area of our being.” Only so “will we be able to overcome the fragmentation that threatens to overwhelm us.” And because the point is to live God’s Torah in the real world, which is rapidly changing, “one thing is certain: we cannot allow ourselves to be rigidly confined by the authority of earlier ages.”

Several implications follow directly, in my view, for the teaching of our Torah. One is that contemporary Jewish ethics, both personal ethics and social ethics, must be front and center when we Conservative Jews teach Torah and seek to live Torah. My veneration for Abraham Joshua Heschel stemmed initially from the fact—and photograph—of his march beside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, and from his remarkable integration of great learning and piety with courageous social/political activism. That is true for many of my generation, and remains the case today.

I believe that Gerson Cohen would have strongly approved of JTS’s new degree program and adult learning initiative in the field of ethics. Indeed, it seems to me that in 2016 we cannot but recognize that humanity faces a global ethical challenge never before encountered: all the children of Noah may soon be unable to “live upon ha-aretz la-vetach,” in such a way that “the land yields its fruit and we can eat our fill,” as Parashat Behar puts it (Lev. 25:28-19). Leviticus is in many ways the most intimate of the Torah’s five books. It meets us frail, mortal human beings where we live, in our skins and with our families, in private spaces of home and tabernacle. But in this passage the Torah instructs us as a society, as a species, that divine blessings of rain and sun will surely turn to curses if we do not do our part in stewarding God’s earth properly.

The curses we will soon read in Parashat Behukotai bear time-sensitive significance as never before. Massive disruptions of rain and fertility are happening before our eyes, millions of people are already without food and shelter as a consequence, human dignity suffers greatly every day—all this the result not of divine punishment (at least not visibly so) but from human action and inaction. Ancient Israelites were promised a second chance by God, once the Land has observed the Sabbaths it had been denied by non-observance of sabbatical laws. The scientists hold out no such hope for us.

Conservative Torah, echoing Moses’s Torah, must have a lot to say on this point now and in coming years. We can’t allow the universality of the problem to dissuade us from raising a distinctive Jewish voice of alarm and address, any more than we can permit the particularity of our love and concern for Israel to silence our defense of its legitimacy or our aspiration that it live up to the promises of its Declaration of Independence and the prayers of countless generations.

In order for Conservative Torah on this or anything else to be heard in 2016, or to deserve to be heard, two other aspects of bekhol derakhekha da’ehu seem to me essential.

One is the emphasis upon experience. Conservative Judaism, with strong input from JTS, has never lacked intellectual heft. Its ideas, its emphasis upon learning, its devotion to intellectual achievement and intellectual integrity, have been of incalculable importance to many of us over the years. They are obviously important to me. I’d venture to say that Benjamin Sommers’s book, Revelation and Authority, published last year, will take its place on the shelf of key texts that define Conservative Torah and fortify our conviction as Conservative Jews. I trust that books and ideas will never cease to play a central role in our kind of Judaism.

Even so: when I look back upon my life—upon my life as a Jewish human being, upon my life as a Conservative Jew—it is not the intellectual piece that seems most salient. Experience counts for more. Reflect with me now upon your own lives and I bet the same will be true for you.

I’m thinking of the wedding made for my wife and me by Minyan M’at in 1982; the day, like the congregation that danced us to and from the huppah, was a creation of havurah Judaism that was in turn a direct outgrowth of Conservative Judaism and could not have existed without it.

The single greatest religious experience of my life without a doubt was watching my daughter come into the world at Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus. I remember dancing around the room with her in my arms, singing “Baby, baby I hear a symphony,” and saying over and over again, “Thank God, thank God.” I had reviewed some reproductive biology, and accepted it as scientific fact; I also knew for a fact that my wife and I had not performed that miracle alone. God was in that place, ve-anokni kein yada’ti (“I, I did know it”). Conservative Judaism had freed us for that synthesis of faith and science, undergirded it with reason, and helped me to translate it at that moment from thought to primal emotion.

I know from the survey data that I am typical in the fact that so much of the deepest meaning in my life is bound up in my family. Sovereign selves melt in gratitude at ritual events with children, grandchildren, or extended family. In my case the memories that pack the most emotional punch, even now, include my daughter’s brit bat in Jerusalem and my son’s brit in Palo Alto; blessing our kids at the Shabbat dinner table, and watching my father cry every time he was present for that blessing; the way my wife and I learned from our communities to celebrate our kids’ bat and bar mitzvah, just as those communities helped us to find the strength—emotional and cognitive, to deal with our parents’ deaths.

Kaplan was not entirely wrong when he said that recital of the Shema is an occasion for experiencing the thrill of being a Jew. I certainly feel that thrill when the Torah is returned to the Ark each Shabbat morning to one of the soaring chants we use in Conservative shuls for Etz Hayim Hi. I know that Torah is my life, and it is satisfying to feel that, and to know that everyone around me is feeling it, too, each in his or her own way. The same is true when we dance at Simhat Torah or chant that final Avinu Malkeinu at Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur, or rise to sing Ha’tikva on Yom Ha’atzma’ut. The gifts of Community with a Capital C and Meaning with a Capital M are on vivid display on such occasions. The power of those two gifts acting in unison is deeply felt.

My point, familiar to every rabbi here, is that we dare not neglect this non-intellectual, affective, and highly personal aspect of the Jewish self: the one that forms the backdrop to most of Leviticus; the one so wrapped up for me (and not only me) in music. Conservative Torah needs to take its cue from Moses’s Torah in addressing this experiential dimension of the self, evident when Rebekka cries out to God during childbirth, or Esau cries out to Isaac with bitter weeping, “Bless me too, my father” (Gen 27:34), or Jacob, having run a from Laban and about to face Esau, says to God in one of his finest moments, “I am unworthy of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have done with Your servant” (Genesis 32:11). I am grateful to God for the chance to meet up with those pesukim and many others year after year. Heschel’s lyrical evocations of the soul’s yearnings stir me to the depths. Be’khol derakhe’kha da’ehu.

I believe, despite all the depressing statistics of Pew reports, that if Conservative clergy continue to share this sort of experience with others, Jews and non-Jews alike, drawing on all of who we are, many of those individuals and families will want to be part of our community of Torah. That reference to the survey data will not be my segue to defending our movement’s strength and prospects at length yet again. But I will say a few words on this subject. We all know, or should, that Conservative Jews have a lot going for us right now—and that we have a lot of work to do. Our numbers are not what they once were, and will likely continue to fall in coming years. But that is no reason for talk of decline, let alone demise. If you are among those driven to despair by the 2013 Pew Report on American Jewry, make sure you are familiar with the valuable context provided by Pew reports on American religion as a whole, as well as the altered view of the data that results from disaggregation of the “non-Orthodox” category. We’re indebted to Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer for that important work and to Alan Silverstein and others for bringing it to our colleagues’ attention.

My confidence in the future derives in large part from the quality of our people: proud Conservative Jews who in so many cases are leaders in their fields, and who do what they do in the world, whether professionally or as volunteers, because of the Judaism they have been taught in Conservative auspices. Our future is bright as well because of the kind of talent gathered in this room, and—perhaps most important—because of the excellence of the students, person for person, who have elected to spend their lives serving the Jewish people and our Torah. As of last week, I am happy to report, 19 new rabbinical students are signed up to join the JTS community this coming fall—chai plus one, a very good number for signifying vitality and growth.

I am not Pollyanna-ish, as you know, but I have no patience with reports that confuse numerical decline with imminent demise. The figure always cited for Conservative Judaism’s decline reflects self-identification: an answer to the survey question, “What kind of Jew are you?” If you look at membership percentages, however, Conservative Judaism comes in at 11 percent, compared to 9 percent for Orthodoxy and 14 percent for Reform. The number of the most active Conservative Jews has actually grown in recent years. Success stories in camps, schools, synagogues, and elsewhere abound. Our new Lev Shalem siddur is another case in point. Please: Let’s not lose respect for ourselves or our Jews.

Instead of talking more sociology, I’d like to conclude by stressing one final aspect of the bekhol derakhekha da’ehu theme articulate by Gerson Cohen: how the quest to experience God’s presence and Word in “every area of our being”—the sacred, the Transcendent, the Most High and Deep, the “ineffable” realm of the spirit—helps to overcome the “fragmentation that threatens to overwhelm us.”

Cohen had that right. I don’t know about you, but I know from experience what he means by fragmentation. I am familiar with the feeling of being overwhelmed. Life pulls us in so many directions. So much to do, so little time, so much suffering to bear with and ease, so many needs to meet, so many desires, noble and less so, so much anxiety for Israel, for America, for our families. I am intensely grateful for the sense of wholeness that Judaism provides. The words “every” and “all” mean a lot to me. We cannot experience this sense of wholeness if we repress the doubts and convictions of our 21st century minds, or if our minds are at odds with our hearts or with our souls. It is not possible to seek wholeness, let alone achieve it, if we are unaware that we have souls and that our souls are in need of cultivation—or if our ritual observance is out of sync with our ethical striving—or if my love of Motown or Cezanne, for example, cannot co-exist in synergy with my love of Carlebach niggunim and the Rambam.

The Torah calls on all the heart, all the mind, all the soul, all our effort to find happiness and fulfillment as part of a people and a faith larger than ourselves. The older I get, the more I am convinced that the possibility of you and I achieving any “be-kholness” in life is a function of God’s “ehad-ness.” The Shema connects the two for us, in plain sight, and has us recite the promise of that linkage—and its unbreakable connection to love—each morning and evening of our lives. At rare moments we get to experience it—and perhaps to figure out, thanks to such experience, what the words mean. This central element of Conservative Torah is one for which I am deeply grateful.

I love this Judaism of ours, and I cannot be pessimistic about its prospects, certainly not when I am here with you, surrounded by rabbis older and younger, women and men, gay and straight—our collective “be-kholness.” I cannot not believe our future is anything but bright, given all we have going for us.

Conservative Torah is alive and well because it is Torah that we live for and live by, drawing on age-old Jewish wisdom about the needed balance between that which must change, lest Torah fail to speak to dramatically changed circumstances, and that which must not change at any cost, lest we lose what is most precious in our tradition—and in the process lose ourselves. I hope that that in the weeks and months to come every member of the RA will take advantage of the increasing number of ways in which JTS can help you to locate that balance and bring this Torah to more and more Jews hungry for the community and meaning that is Torah’s gift to all who take hold of it.

Commentary Symposium: The Jewish Future

The impossibility of predicting the long-term Jewish future in America or anywhere else was highlighted for me recently by the announcement of a scholarly conference devoted to the question of whether the world’s food supply would still be adequate in 2030—a mere 15 years from now. Commentary’s questions implicitly assume, among other things, that solutions will have been found to global warming (or that the ecological disasters currently forecast prove false alarms); that China will not have supplanted America as the dominant economic and political power in the world (a development that would curtail the influence of American Jewry and threaten the security of Israel); that Islamic terrorism will have been eliminated or contained; and that Israel will have found a way to live peaceably with the Palestinians inside its borders, with Arab and Islamic neighbors, and with the diverse, contentious groups of Jews who comprise the majority of its citizenry. All these variables bear directly on the Jewish future. They greatly disturb one’s sleep in 2015 and make it difficult to dream about better days.

Continue reading my contribution to “Symposium: The Jewish Future” in Commentary.

Jerusalem and Zionism on Edge

Jerusalem was on edge this week, its Jews fearful of the next knifing or shooting that would come soon and without warning; its Arabs subject to added inspections and fearful of police and Jewish popular anger alike. Fewer people than usual were on the sidewalks; busses had fewer riders, with soldiers prominent among them. Security around the prime minister’s residence, located directly across the street from JTS’s Schocken Library, where our students in Israel meet for classes, was even more rigorous than usual. One friend told me his kids were afraid to go to school. Reassured by their parents, they went nonetheless. No one to whom I spoke had panicked; no one cowered at home, even if no one was taking needless chances. Cafes and restaurants had lots of patrons and had not posted guards at the door.  My friends agreed, as they prepared to mark the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, that this latest and worrisome chapter of the matsav might go on for some time and would not lead to anything positive.

I sensed the same mix of foreboding, resolve, and focus on tasks near at hand in the halls of the 37th Zionist Congress. That gathering of world Jewry is what drew me to visit Jerusalem this time, as a member of the Mercaz Olami delegation of Masorti-Conservative Jews. It felt good to be there, to stand with Israel and Israelis at a time when their sense of isolation is acute. Two Israeli friends told me how much my presence there meant to them. Shabbat really did seem like a taste of the world to come, its respite followed at once by news of more violence. Israel—despite all this—was a wonderful place to be. But calm, in Jerusalem, it was not.

The most meaningful part of my trip was sitting with JTS rabbinical students at Schocken, hearing about their experience in the program in Israel thus far and giving them a chance to air their feelings at being caught in the latest outbreak of violence. I told them of the steps JTS is taking to maximize both their safety and their sense of safety. They were understandably anxious, appreciative of JTS’ concern for their well-being, and quietly determined to face whatever challenges the situation presented, along with the rest of Israel. Our brief discussion of what could or should be done to improve the situation evinced a variety of views, as it has among Israelis in general.  The intimacy and honesty of that conversation brought home the toll that violence takes, but also the solidarity it fosters, the resolve it breeds among many to work harder still for a solution.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress drew worldwide attention for his claim about the role of the mufti of Jerusalem in inciting the “Final Solution.”  To me the Prime Minister seemed worn out, exhausted, hardened. I appreciated the burden of the immense responsibilities he bears and even so could not understand why he made no effort to rouse this audience with the thing most needed right now: vision, hope, and aspiration. His lecture on the “ten big lies” circulated by the Palestinian Authority drew only scattered and perfunctory applause. If offered neither hope nor vision. I found that depressing.

The plenary panel of which I was a member took the future of a Jewish and democratic State of Israel as a given, and asked whether—in 2015—there is still any point to Zionism. That movement is also somewhat on edge, and has been for some time. I explained in personal terms why I believe the bonds joining Judaism, Zionism, and the Jewish people remain inseverable. . . despite frequent attempts in many quarters to break them apart and widespread cynicism among Israelis that Zionism—as opposed to the State—serves any purpose. The full text of the speech I prepared is available on the JTS website.

For all my sobriety when it comes to Israel’s challenges and failings, I remain compelled by the Torah’s vision of a land given to the Children of Israel in order to build a society more just and compassionate than any that has ever previously existed, and in so doing be “a blessing to all the families of the earth.” Some Jews and Gentiles, I know, find such teachings an excuse for religious or ethnic chauvinism, or reason to reject both Judaism and Zionism out of hand. But I won’t give up on the notion that Israel remains a prominent vehicle of achieving the good that we Jews have stored up in us.  Zionism, to me, means the work done by the Jewish people the world over, together, as a people, to carry out that responsibility – work focused on but not limited to the project of building a secure, just, and democratic Jewish State in the Land of Israel.

For this purpose, thanks to this labor, Am Yisrael Chai—“the people of Israel lives” despite everything. I believe in all humility that such aspiration will ensure the continuing relevance of Zionism and would actually make the State more secure.

On the plane to Tel Aviv, I was greeted by a full page in Yediot featuring a picture of the Rebbe and his 1974 proclamation that “the Land of Israel is the most secure place in the world” because “the Holy One Blessed be He guards and protects every single person in Israel.” May it only be so. There is much work for you and me to do as well.

Betting on Hope

It’s not often that a museum makes history as well as chronicles it, and rare too when otherwise cautious observers, chastened by the repeated experience of expectations gone awry, remark at the opening of a new museum that it may prove a source of hope and pride that propels an entire society forward. Both of those things happened this week in Warsaw, with the opening of Polin: The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the stunning museum erected on the site of the ghetto where, 70 years ago, Jewish history seemed to come to an end. I travelled to Poland for the event, as did Reuven Rivlin, the new president of the State of Israel, and hundreds of other Jewish leaders, scholars, and activists from around the world, including several members of the Jewish Theological Seminary family. The occasion was not only moving but portentous. A once-ravaged and much-reduced Jewish community, and a long-suffering country far from innocent in the suffering of its Jews, had come together for a moment, in a joint project of ambition and consequence. The two seemed to be grasping—simultaneously and together—at new life. I wanted to be there to cheer them on.

The museum’s opening has received enormous press coverage, both in Jewish and non-Jewish media. I will therefore say little about the building itself (placid, graceful, light-filled, and dramatic without a hint of pretentiousness) or its creative engagement of visitors through ingenious storytelling, state-of-the-art technology, and—in the galleries devoted to the modern period—utterly riveting photography and film. I went through the 43,000 square-foot core exhibition from start to finish three times, and would happily return to spend entire days in the sections devoted to the shtetl and yeshiva; the inter-war years; and the tragic, ambiguous tale of Jews in post-war Poland, to which the museum has added another chapter. The years of Nazism and the Holocaust are captured with power and restraint, I think, neither overshadowing all that precedes them nor downplaying the magnitude and horror of the Shoah. Anyone who has ever taught a class will marvel at the thoughtfulness and consistent high quality of the museum’s “lesson plans.” Teachers of Jewish history will likely take special note of the pedagogy on view. The museum owns few items from the past: its point is not to preserve and display objects, but to tell a story that it wants its visitors to carry forward.

That objective struck me forcibly again and again. Committed Jews have far more at stake in the telling of Jewish history on this site than mere recital of facts and dates. Poles committed to the rebirth of their country as a liberal democracy in the heart of Europe likewise have much at stake in the recognition that Jews have long played a major role in their history and must be welcomed now if the current experiment is to succeed. Polish Jews perhaps have the most at stake, betting with their lives that their community has a future, despite the recent past of Holocaust and Communism, and in the face of anti-Semitism that has not entirely disappeared. They hope to build on a thousand years of life that was far more than persecution, including centuries of real cultural and economic flowering, as basis for renewed achievement.

I was hard-pressed to remain unmoved by this effort, which speaks through gallery after gallery of the core exhibition, and I doubt that Polish visitors will be able to preserve distance either. The Jews who walked through the museum with me wiped back tears and commented about how much the experience meant to them. Words such as “exhibits” or “galleries,” which connote viewing a spectacle apart from oneself, do not capture the emotion elicited by the place. This is true even as one admires the exquisite craftsmanship in evidence throughout and nowhere more visible than in the already famous reproduction (at 80 percent scale) of the wooden synagogue of Gwozdziec. Its gorgeous colors and zodiac designs held me for long moments. I did not want to move. The museum’s curators have made it the literal centerpiece of the story they tell: halfway point on a march through Jewish history and perhaps a pointer, in a way only time will reveal, to the future of that history.

This is the point at which I want to pause as well. JTS, to my mind, represents a similar commitment to building a vibrant Jewish future by reaching deep, again and again, into the Jewish past. We too disdain mere nostalgia for the past, because rosy pictures of what was allegedly easy and nice will not help us navigate conditions that, like all human conditions, and certainly all Jewish situations, are difficult and complex. We prefer engagement, critical inquiry, conservation, and transformation aimed at giving the past new vitality. Like the new museum in Warsaw, JTS rejects the picture of Jewish history as entirely one of suffering and loss, and has no interest in elegiac approaches that consign Jewish history to a past that makes no claim on you and me, here and now. At JTS we feel that claim and act on it every day. We take the past seriously enough to understand its complexity, challenge its assumptions, and dare to change its rules.

I confess I felt the claim of the Gwozdziec Synagogue and of the house of study attached to it most keenly. (So did JTS Professor David Roskies, who like me sat long in that exhibit and kept returning to it, notebook in hand.) How could we not? The synagogue’s soaring but fragile wooden roof made me feel privileged to serve the same God, and be part of the same people, as the Jews who inhabited the original. I carry their path forward, with a comparable mixture of love, self-concern, anxiety, and imperfection. History is the story of change, of course, and the move from gallery to gallery, and within galleries, drove home the fact of change for me better than any lecture on the subject. No differences are denied at Polin, and no conflicts pampered-over. But these are my ancestors, I kept thinking to myself. My history has been shaped by theirs in ways too numerous to count. By bringing their story to life with such care and quality, the museum had brought those Jews home to me—and me to them. I am grateful for that.

At Tuesday’s opening ceremony, held on the plaza outside the museum, the theme of continuity with the past, along with marked contrast from it, was paramount. The presidents of Israel and Poland together, flanked by a Polish honor guard and numerous members of the Polish and Israeli security forces, laid wreaths at the monument honoring the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto. As if that symbolism were not powerful enough, the Polish president, Bronisław Komorowski, then confronted the horrors of so much Jewish history on his soil and the complicity of Polish bystanders to the Nazi murders, while also paying tribute to Poles who had risked and lost their lives while protecting Jews. He also cited the interdependence of Jewish and Polish cultural achievement over the centuries, and pointed out that only in a free Poland, resolutely committed to democracy, to the West, and to Israel, could this museum have been dreamed or built. (It represents an unusual partnership among private donors and foundations, the government of Poland, and the city of Warsaw.) Marian Turski of Polin’s Museum Council quoted the refrain of Zog Nit Keynmol: Hymn of the Jewish Partisans over and over again: “We are here!” (“Mir zaynen do!”). He himself had survived Auschwitz and then Communism. Now he was presiding over a museum that contained that past—his personal past, his people’s past—inside the larger frames of the thousand years of Jewish life that preceded it and of this ceremony, taking place on the site of the ghetto uprising, with the participation of the president of the reborn State of Israel. Jews and Poles, Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, had partnered in mutual hope carefully poured into concrete and glass. Amazing things do happen sometimes.

I too have a personal, though far less substantial, connection to the museum: my friend Tad Taube, a longtime supporter of the Jewish Studies program at Stanford University and now a supporter of JTS, worked and dreamed tirelessly for about 20 years to bring the museum into being. The opening was a personal triumph for Tad, and I wanted to be there with him. But to me the museum seems the fulfillment of another prayer, said by Jews repeatedly during the High Holidays: Zochreinu L’Chaim (Remember Us for Life). Jews address that prayer to God when we recite it in shul. During my three days of visits to the museum, I heard in my head the voices of Polish Jews from centuries past, including those who lived and fought in the ghetto, directing those words at us—and I heard Jews and Poles directing the prayer to one another. So many people have told me over the years that it is folly to invest in the future of Poland or its Jewish community, and many more have told me that it is folly to invest in the future of non-Orthodox Jews and Judaism in America. Wrong on both counts, I believe. We Jews remember for life, live through memory, and—at our best, with God’s help—transmute memory into life. We bet repeatedly on a future that breaks with, as well as continues the past, and sometimes that bet succeeds.

Tuesday’s gathering in Warsaw gave voice to a silent resolve to give hope a chance once more.

Chancellor Arnold Eisen Speaks at the “New York Stands with Israel Community-Wide Rally”

This week, Jews in New York join with Jews in Israel and Jews around the world in beginning to read Sefer Devarim—the book of the Torah that more than any other sets forth the eternal bond uniting the people of Israel, the tradition of Israel, and the God of Israel with the Land of Israel.

The promise and dream of the Land of Israel, and what the people of Israel can accomplish there with God’s help, has inspired Jews for over 3,000 years, and still does so today, July 28, 2014, here in New York and around the world. We cleave to it in the face of enemies who do not want the Jewish people living in its homeland once again, some of whom do not want Jews to be living anywhere.

We pledge eternal loyalty to the promise and the dream, to the families of young Israelis who have given their lives—and continue to risk their lives as we speak—in this latest chapter of a long struggle. We will remember them and the millions of Israelis making sacrifices daily on the home front, the way Jews remember—not just in words or mental images, but by pursuing with all our strength the dream they share, and giving heart and soul to the fulfillment of the promise that is the State of Israel.

To those listening to our words in the State of Israel I say know that the Jews of New York stand with you at this moment as we will stand with you always. You are not alone in the face of our enemies. “The people of Israel lives” and prays in one voice on this Rosh Hodesh day that the Holy One will protect our soldiers from every trouble and evil design and cause the work of their hands to be for blessing and success and shall bring them home for life and for peace.

We shall stand with our soldiers and their families and communities always, despite political and religious differences in New York as in Israel, grateful to be alive at this unique moment in Jewish history when the State of Israel is once more alive to nourish and sustain us with its many blessings.

We shall stand with you—whether Reform or Orthodox or Conservative or any other kind of Jew; whether old or young, male or female—in a bond that is fundamental, nonnegotiable, and unbreakable, knowing that the strength and well-being of our community in New York are bound up with the strength and well-being of the Jewish communities that comprise the State of Israel.

We shall stand with you in mourning together the lives that have been lost in defense of our homeland, and in mourning, too, the innocent lives lost in Gaza because a brutal terrorist regime uses its citizens as shields and cynically exploits their suffering for political gain.

And we shall stand with you in coming months, praying alongside you for a just and enduring peace and an ultimate resolution of the conflict that has claimed so many lives.

On behalf of Conservative-Masorti Jews around the world, and our friends and family members who walk other Jewish paths, I assure our friends and family in Israel that Od lo avda tikvatei’nu. The book of Devarim commands Jews to choose life. Choose good. Choose blessing. No devarim, no words, penetrate more deeply into our hearts and souls. No devarim, no facts on the ground, arouse our commitment and resolve more than those being created and defended by our brothers and sisters in and for the sake of Israel.

Let’s promise again at this moment, each one of us individually and all of us together, that we will never cease striving to fulfill the promise and dream that is Israel.

Israel Under Fire

The last time air raid sirens blared across Israel at the approach of incoming missiles fired from Gaza, in December 2012—a conflict that, as awful as it was, inflicted less suffering on both sides than the current war—I happened to be in Israel for a round of meetings. It felt profoundly right to be there for all that friends and family back in the States were concerned about my well-being. The friends and family in Israel who were being fired upon needed to know that the world—or at least the Jews in the world—cared about them. It was important for me to demonstrate with hugs and hurried discussions held in safe rooms that Israelis do not stand alone at moments of duress like these—a message best conveyed when, standing together physically, no words need be said. For their part, Israelis wanted Jews from abroad like me to see that life goes on, as normal as they can make it, despite the threat to life and limb. We shared a hope that their resolve would rub off on the rest of us. For we Jews all need to be in this together, and for the long haul, regardless of religious or political differences. I took great comfort in the quiet courage of the Israelis who stood beside me, and do so again this week, as Israeli troops fight in Gaza, and I sit in faraway but near-at-hand New York City.

Far away because, of course, the air raid sirens do not sound here, the television is not on nonstop with continuous coverage of the conflict, we are not on the phone day and night exchanging words of encouragement with parents, friends, and spouses of soldiers plucked from daily routines just like ours and sent to hellish patrols and firefights in Gaza alleyways. I’m proud that North American Jewish leaders are making solidarity trips to Israel, including a mission of Conservative and Masorti rabbis who are in Israel this week to offer comfort, pledge emergency financial support, and demonstrate up close and in person the concern that is keeping so many of us awake at night and glued to news reports all day. Teens on Ramah Seminar are in Israel too, along with JTS rabbinical students who arrived several weeks ago for their year of study in Jerusalem. Fate has presented them with an opportunity to be with Israelis and experience firsthand a crucial part of what it means to take part in the contemporary Jewish situation. None of the visitors, as far as I know, are asking to come home. Their families in North America are trusting that they will be well looked after (as they are), despite the war taking place a mere hour’s drive away and the missiles flying within striking range almost daily.

It seems we have made a collective decision as committed North American Jews to stand with Israelis as closely as we can during moments like this one. There seems to be more widespread recognition than ever before that our own well-being as Jews on this continent is tied directly to that of Israel. The Israeli prime minister, sending troops into battle or holding them back, has immediate impact on Jews around the world. Our role, too, carries considerable consequences. The support we provide or withhold—particularly given widespread lack of sympathy for Israel’s existential dilemmas—is critical. The voices we raise while the war goes on and when the fighting stops need to be as wise and forceful as we can make them. Our voices need to be heard.

Perhaps, too, this mutual understanding is a function of how near-at-hand the conflict has become, thanks to technology that did not exist, or was less readily available, even in December 2012. My smartphone—and perhaps yours—clicks every time a warning siren sounds over Israel’s major cities. Internet radio dials can be set to receive Israeli news bulletins on the hour. We can and do watch in real time as Hamas missiles streak across the sky and are met, in some cases, by the Iron Dome defensive shield. TVs carry live broadcasts from Israel. No more need we rely exclusively on American media to supply facts and commentary (or, all too often, jumbled mixtures of the two). Yesterday I watched an Israeli channel that featured almost-real-time footage of Hamas fighters (including some who were filmed, machine guns at the ready, piling into vans painted white with the letters “UN” on them to take advantage of the humanitarian cease-fire) and of Israeli troops on patrol, including the wounded being rushed to helicopters. The newsreel was explicated not just by the usual experts and pundits, but by Israeli reservists sharing in the studio what it had been like to be fighting in Gaza several years ago. I feel no distance whatsoever from those young men in the studio, despite the ocean separating us. In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem too, Israelis watched these men on their TVs, their hearts racing at the very same moment as mine from the anxiety.

Ten days ago, as the conflict moved toward a ground campaign that most of us hoped would not take place, I met with the dozen or so Israelis who had come to North America for the summer to join the staff of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. I always treasure these conversations with the Israeli delegations at Ramah camps that I visit, because the Israelis involved are often experiencing North American Judaism—or this passionate, vitally communal, Conservative-Masorti form of it—for the very first time. The discussion in Wisconsin this summer was even more intense and probing than usual, in keeping with the seriousness of the moment. There we were in a faraway corner of the Midwest, while back home for them in Israel, things were getting more and more dangerous. What were they doing here? What were we doing here?

In some ways, this Ramah experience was a microcosm for the split that divides the two major sectors of the Jewish world today. There, in Israel, Jews live as a majority, in public Jewish space and time, claim a spot on the map of the world, protect it with an army, and are Jews (though not all in the same way, and despite the fact that many Israelis deny it) simply by virtue of being who they are. Here, in North America, Jews live as a distinct minority, largely in public space and time that are (like Wisconsin) overwhelmingly not Jewish and in private space and time (like Ramah) that are. We decide, over and over again, whether and how to be Jewish; we work hard at transmitting a culture, a set of values, an idea of ourselves, a faith that cannot for one moment be taken for granted—and that in Israel, to a large extent, come with the territory.

The group got the fact that I, as a North American Jew, was living out one of the two major options for contemporary Jewish life, and they, visitors to my reality, as I had often visited theirs, were living the other option. My Jewish life is immensely satisfying and meaningful. They felt the same way of their very different Jewish life. But our story was one. Most of them knew that the weekly Torah portions we read during this period—our shared narrative as Jews—uncannily describe tensions and occasional pitched battles between ancient Israelites and neighbors who did not want them there; I suspect the Israelis remembered, from required high school reading, that Theodor Herzl had stated with eerie prescience in Der Judenstaat that the Jews, once returned to Israel, would always have enemies, just like every other nation.

That we do. Yesterday, July 20, 2014 / 22 Tammuz 5774, my email box, and perhaps yours, brought news of the death of Second Lieutenant Bar Rahav of [Masorti] Kehillat Succat Shalom in Ramat Yishai who was killed during Operation Protective Edge on July 19. There was also news that IDF–enlisted US citizens Max Steinberg, 24, a native of San Fernando Valley in California, and Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, from South Padre Island, Texas, were killed as well. May their memory and that of all the others, the far too many others, who fell and will fall in this battle be for a blessing. May those who mourn them be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. May peace and comfort come to the families of innocent Palestinian victims caught up in this tragic conflict. May the Israeli soldiers serving in Gaza return home safely and in one piece. And may the Jewish people be of one piece, as we work together during the war, and after the war, to bring peace to our Land.