Nava Tehila at the #URJBiennial, and renewal everywhere


A glimpse of where and how I davened on Friday morning.


One of the highlights of my URJ Biennial was davening last Friday morning with Nava Tehila.

This is not surprising. Longtime readers of my blog know that davening with Nava Tehila has long been one of my favorite things in the universe, anywhere. Let's see: great music -- check. Deep heart-connection -- check. Awareness of the flow of the matbe'ah (the structure of the service) -- check. Attunement to body and to silence -- check. Balance of contemplative and ecstatic -- check. Davening with Nava Tehila feels like coming home.

I love how they set the worship space up, in concentric circles with space in the middle, a kind of emptiness echoing the ancient holy of holies. I love how Dafna and Yoel work (wherever they are) with a cadre of holy levi'im, musicians who aren't just accompaniment but are part of the active leadership team. I love their melodies and harmonies. And all of these add up to more than the sum of their parts. Every time I daven with Nava Tehila, I come away with my heart and soul feeling recharged, reconnected, and rejuvenated, and my body buzzing from the dancing and the joy.

It was neat to daven with them at a gathering explicitly created by and for Reform Jews, and to see that they don't change what they do in any way based on the denominational identity of the community with whom they're davening. And I know that last week they were at the USCJ, the big gathering of Conservative Jews, doing the very same kind of thing -- and, I'm guessing, meeting with every bit as much joy and enthusiasm and wow! as they heard from the Reform crowd on Friday morning.

When I say that renewal flows through all of the denominations, this is part of what I mean.

Colorful tallitot are everywhere, for instance. Not only the rainbow tallit that Reb Zalman z"l designed so many years ago, each color of the rainbow representing one of the seven "lower sefirot" or aspects of divinity -- though I saw a bunch of those at the Biennial, as I do everywhere! (And I'm guessing most people have no idea who designed that tallit or what its origins are -- though if you're interested, here's the story, which I love knowing.) But the very fact of multicolored tallitot was one of Reb Zalman's innovations in the first place, back in the 1950s. Now they're a natural part of Jewish prayer life almost everywhere. 

And renewal melodies are everywhere. I can't tell you how often I've encountered a liturgical melody by Rabbi Shefa Gold -- come to think of it, we sang one on Friday night at the URJ Biennial before dinner in the ballroom where I was seated! Her melodies are known and sung across the Jewish world (and as with the tallitot, most people may not know where they come from -- it's easy for melodies to seem miSinai, as though we received them with Torah at Mount Sinai.) There are other renewal composers whose work is becoming part of the canon, too, like Shir Yaakov. And, of course, Nava Tehila, who share both their melodies and their way of davening not only in their Jerusalem home but in places they visit around the world.

Beyond the music, renewal modes of davenen (prayer) are everywhere. If you've ever been to a chant-based service, a contemplative service, a service that drew on Jewish meditative or mystical teachings, a service where people danced in the aisles, you've had a brush with some renewal ways of connecting with prayer. (I say "some" ways, rather than "the way," because there is no single way to pray in Jewish renewal. That's why as a renewal rabbinic student I was expected to learn how to lead prayer-ful worship using any prayerbook there is, from full-text to minimalist, across the denominational spectrum... and to pray not only with books and received liturgy but also with silence, and music, and the unfolding prayers of the heart.)

And the flow of renewal continues.  Renewal as it's unfolding now contains elements of what came before, remixed in new ways. I see Svara: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva as part of the flow of renewal. The Institute for the Next Jewish Future, the Jewish Emergent Network, the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute are all part of the flow of renewal. (Some of these people and places may self-identify as part of the renewal of Judaism. Others might not choose the term "Jewish renewal" to describe what they do. But they're all part of renewal from where I sit.) Bayit: Your Jewish Home -- the new nonprofit organization I'm co-founding; stay tuned for more on that! -- is part of the flow of renewal. And so are many other places and spaces besides.

Renewal flows through all of the denominations, and in and through post-denominational and trans-denominational spaces, too. As software developers say, this isn't a bug, it's a feature. It isn't an accident or a mistake -- rather, it's part of renewal's core design. Renewal was never meant to be a denomination. Renewal is a way of doing Jewish, a way of approaching Judaism and spiritual life, that can enrich and enliven Jewish practice of all flavors. I've been saying that for years, but there was something extra-special for me (as a rabbi who serves a Reform-and-renewal shul) about living out that belief at the Biennial this year. 



#URJBiennial 2017: Ten Years of the Women's Torah Commentary

24033021147_99aca2340e_zIn the shul that I serve, two editions of the Torah are tucked into the seats in our sanctuary. One is The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by Gunther Plaut -- the standard (male-authored) commentary that appears in most Reform congregations. The other is The Torah: A Women's Commentary, ed. Eskenazi and Weiss, which came out ten years ago featuring entirely the commentary and voices of women.

I attended a session celebrating the book at the URJ Biennial featuring Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss, associate professor of Bible at the NY campus of HUC-JIR (also responsible for American Values and Voices) who served as associate editor of this book.

Rabbi Dr. Weiss began by explaining that the story of this volume started 25 years ago. Cantor Sarah Sager was invited to be the scholar-in-residence at a district biennial in Albany, and as she prepared her d'var Torah on Vayera she started to think about Sarah and asked a question that 25 years ago was a novel one: where was Sarah when Abraham took their son up the mountain?

She researched this, and discovered that she wasn't the first to ask the question, and that in fact people were beginning then to work in diverse fields to uncover and recover a more complex picture of women than the pshat (surface) Torah narrative suggests. But there was no organized, cohesive way to access this work. She ended her d'var Torah with the charge to commission the first feminist commentary to the Torah.

The leaders of the Women of Reform Judaism established a commentary committee that brought together rabbis, scholars, WRJ leaders and others. (We see a slide depicting the agenda for that gathering, including items like "Discussion of 'feminism, 'womanism' and other related terms." Wow.) The next step was a pilot project called Beginning the Journey: A Women's Commentary on Torah, edited by Rabbi Emily H. Feigenson, featuring the voices of HUC-JIR graduates. That book made clear, Rabbi Dr. Weiss says, that the way to move forward was to focus seriously on scholarship: women scholars in Bible, rabbinics, and other fields.

The editors were named; an editorial board was established (and oh, wow is it a "who's who" of amazing women in Biblical scholarship!); and they came up with the vision of a multivocal edition. For each Torah portion they would feature the Hebrew text, translation, commentary, a section called "another view" that offers another voice on the parsha, a post-Biblical piece, a contemporary reflection, and a section called "voices" which collects poetry and other creative responses. The intention was for the book to be definitively Jewish and definitively feminist, modeled in some way after Mikraot Gedolot which is always printed in editions that feature text surrounded by commentary.

Rabbi Dr. Weiss spoke about the diversity of the book's readership, and the extent to which it's been embraced across the denominations. She offers us a quote from Blu Greenberg:

Here are the voices of women from across the entire spectrum of Jewish life... although this work was initiated, funded, shepherded, overseen, edited, and largely produced by two extraordinary Reform Jewish scholars... it does not have the feeling of being owned by any one group, which explains why it has become the property of the whole Jewish people, as indeed any good commentary should.

It sounds like the book's creators have a sense now that what they did was historic -- in a way that wasn't entirely clear to them at the time. Rabbi Dr. Weiss says now that "The book translates feminist Biblical scholarship into a format that's useful for...laypeople and clergy of all genders." I agree.

Rabbi Dr. Weiss shared with us also an excerpt from this article by Rabbi Hara Person, Why Women’s Torah Commentary Matters Today More Than Ever Before. Rabbi Person writes:

The publication of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary was historic because when women become scholars and commentators of Torah, we take our rightful place in the sacred dialogue of text study, fulfilling the age-old Jewish responsibility of creating ongoing Jewish engagement and meaning. When women create a Torah commentary, we declare that the lives and experiences of the women of the Torah matter, and thus that the lives and concerns of contemporary women matter, too. This commentary stakes a claim for women in the narrative of our tradition and the sacred endeavors of our community, and in so doing, women are empowered to share their voices both within the Jewish community and in greater society.

I was also excited to hear from Dr. Ruhama Weiss (no relation to Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss!) that the book is now being translated both into Hebrew and into an Israeli women's culture idiom. There are plans afoot for an Israeli women's commentary that will feature some of what's in this book and also some of what's happening in Israeli women's commentary now.

Dr. (Ruhama) Weiss led us in a study of a poem by Nurit Zarchi called "She Is Joseph," touching on questions of feminist interpretation and women's representation in the Bible, and explored how our male sages responded to the story wherein Joseph resisted the advances of Potiphar's wife (and what their responses say about their own anxieties about masculinity and gender) -- a fabulous exploration, and the kind of Torah study that reminds me why I'm grateful this book exists. 

Biennial-bound again

DownloadToday I'm off to the URJ Biennial, the big gathering of the Reform movement. 

The last time I attended a Biennial was 2005 in Houston, Texas. In 2005 I was a baby rabbinical student, only a few months into my first year of study. Now I've been a congregational rabbi for six years (and I served for five years before that as a rabbinic student intern alongside Reb Jeff!) I expect the Biennial is going to be a different experience for me this time around. 

If you want a window into how I experienced the Biennial a dozen years ago, here's the roundup of the 18 posts I made during the 2005 Biennial. The internet was a very different place then. Twitter didn't exist yet. Facebook was a mere eighteen months old. We spoke in terms of the "blogosphere" and the "J-blogosphere" -- terms that make me sound like an internet dinosaur now! I don't know whether I'll blog much from the Biennial, though if something unfolds that feels appropriate to chronicle in this space, I'll do so.

There are a handful of sessions I'd particularly like to attend, and a handful of colleagues I'd particularly like to see. Beyond that, I'm keeping my schedule intentionally open so I can take advantage of whatever opportunities for learning, growth, and networking arise over the course of the next several days. If you'll be at the Biennial, drop me a line and let me know -- perhaps our paths will cross...

URJ Biennial Wrap-Up

The 2005 URJ Biennial was a fascinating, overwhelming, and all-in-all good experience for me. Over the course of five days I attended panels and lectures and workshops; voted on issues of importance to the Reform movement; met a lot of new people; reconnected with a few old friends; had interesting and thought-provoking conversations about liturgy, peoplehood, the rabbinate, and more; worshipped in a few different ways; learned new melodies and savored old ones; bought a bunch of books.

I also blogged thousands of words about the experience. If you were there and want to relive the convention through my eyes, or if you weren't there and would like to read all about it, you're in luck: this post offers a convenient list of links to my seventeen previous Biennial posts. (This one is number eighteen, an auspicious place to stop...)

(You can also see my handful of Biennial photos here at flickr, if that interests you.) By the end of my Biennial experience I was pretty exhausted, definitely short on sleep, and glad that I chose to attend -- I learned a lot, I met some great people, and now my brain is chock-full of fascinating things to continue thinking about in the weeks and months to come.

Thanks for coming along for the ride. If you have thoughts or questions about any of these posts, please don't hesitate to respond, either here or via email!

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[URJBiennial] Shabbat; Sermon; Kamenetz on dreams

Morning worship today went from feeling like Shabbat: The Musical! to Shabbat: The Choral Concert. I really liked some of the choral arrangements that the Biennial Festival Chorus performed; I'm hoping that Liz, my fellow congregant who was in the choir, will save her music so I can peek at it when I get home. I love good choral music, and I've often found that singing it feels worshipful to me...but listening to it usually doesn't, and today was no exception. The Torah reading was neat, though -- there were six Torahs around the room where people could gather for aliyot, and a camera helpfully enlarged one of the scrolls onscreen so we could follow along...

Rabbi Eric Yoffie's Presidential Sermon -- a kind of State of the Union address, where the "union" in question is the Union of Reform Judaism -- lasted for about an hour and contained several interesting points, and I hope they'll publish it online at some point. He got wild applause when he spoke about the need to care for our gay and lesbian teens, and about the Reform movement's struggle to convince the Israeli Supreme Court to treat an Israeli Reform rabbi (who happens to be female) like they treat her Orthodox (and male) counterparts.

After services there were a series of study luncheons; I went to Dream Interpretation from Genesis through the Rabbis, a talk by Rodger Kamenetz (author of eight books, among them my perennial favorite The Jew in the Lotus). I didn't have my computer with me, so I wasn't able to transcribe it, but I jotted a few notes down on paper. It's simplistic, he said, to assert that Judaism is purely a religion of the word; instead, "Judaism is a religion of the struggle between the word and the image, between the interpretation and the dream."

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[URJBiennial] Shabbat

Shabbat shalom! Tonight involved two huge Shabbat experiences, one of which I loved and one of which I...didn't, though it was definitely interesting.

Services came first, at 6pm. We gathered in an enormous room we hadn't seen before, which felt like a rock concert stadium, complete with big lights overhead and several Jumbotron screens which, when we arrived, were cascading through a slideshow of Reform sanctuaries around the country. (That was pretty neat, actually.) The service was led by four sh'lichei tzibbur, rabbis and cantors together, along with a full band (in an orchestra pit), and the screens switched from camera to camera to give even those of us near the rear a clear view of the faces of the prayer leaders.

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[URJBiennial] Rabbi Marmur on Heschel

Rabbi Michael Marmer, from HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, presented a session on Gordon Tucker's new translation of Abraham Joshua Heschel's Heavenly Torah, which presents Heschel's understanding of how the Sages of the Talmud set the agenda for Jewish life (an agenda which has not changed in essence since their day).

Heschel lived 1907-1972; born in Poland, and left his Hasidic family (though he never left Orthopraxy) and moved as a teenager to Vilna, where he received a secular education and wrote poetry in Yiddish; then went to Berlin, studied for a doctorate at the University of Berlin, and studied and taught at the Hofschuler for the Wissenchaft des Judentums (the precursor to liberal rabbinic seminaries around the world). He came to North America, spent the years of WWII at HUC; he was uncomfortable both at HUC and, later, at JTS, where he taught from 1945 until his death.

"His literary output...was extremely varied. He was a generalist," said Rabbi Marmer. He wrote significant works on the Biblical period, on the Sages (rabbis of the late Second Temple period, early centuries of the Common Era), the great figures of medieval philosophy (among them Maimonides, Saadia Gaon), the Hasidic movement into which he was born, and independent works of theology and liturgy -- not to mention that little book on the Sabbath. (This broadness made him unpopular with specialists, who resented the fact that he had something to say about all of those eras.)

He wrote in Yiddish, German, Hebrew, and English. To some extent the difference in language had to do with periods of his life -- e.g. he wrote his dissertation in German because he was in Berlin. But sometimes, after coming to America, he chose to write not in English, and that was deeply significant. In 1962, he wrote a huge, monumental work in Hebrew called Torah Min HaShamayim, v'aspaklaria shel ha-dorot -- Heavenly Torah, As Refracted Through the Generations, in translation.

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[URJBiennial] Voting

In Friday afternoon's plenary session we voted on several resolutions. None were close enough to require paper votes; they were all voice votes, and all of them passed. The list included resolutions on Global Poverty and the Polticization of Science in the United States (we're against both of those) and Jewish Military Chaplains and Jewish Military Personnel and their Families (we support them).

My favorite comment was on the resolution to support Voting Rights in the District of Columbia:  "The resolution was endorsed by the Dalai Lama. Can we do less?" That was the whole comment, right there. Ahh, the pleasure of a pithy comment during a long plenary!

The resolution which engendered the greatest discussion was the Resolution on the War in Iraq. Most of the comments were in favor of the resolution (which, writ large, condemns the war and asks the Bush administration for greater transparency and for a clear exit strategy); a few folks clearly felt it didn't go far enough. Here are a couple of representative comments on that one:

"As a Vietnam Veteran I find it difficult to speak dispassionately about this resolution...Forty years ago...I asked myself, 'Why in God's name are we here?' I couldn't justify the carnage and death...There are just wars and there are unjust wars. You can hate war, as I do, and yet honor the bravery of those who serve, as I do....This is not a just war."

"I am voting for this resolution to support our troops, who put themselves in harm's way and who we as a nation are failing so miserably. Yet I am saddened that this resolution speaks not with moral clarity...but to the war's popularity and lack thereof, and success and lack thereof. I ask, when will we have an opportunity as a Union to speak about the justice of this war? To speak unambiguously about how wrong this war was in the beginning and continues to be?"

Since I'm leaving early on Sunday, I won't be present to vote on the resolutions relating to international human rights, torture, and the Confederate flag. It's interesting being a delegate, even though our votes haven't been close and I've been largely aligned with the prevailing mindset; I like feeling a part of the decision-making process, even though I know these resolutions are largely formalities.

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[URJBiennial] The Crisis in Darfur

I was late to my first morning workshop because I was in the exhibit hall buying a whole set of JPS Torah and Bible Commentaries, all nine beautiful hardbound volumes, on my rabbi's strong recommendation. (I got a great deal on them, though this credit card bill is going to pain me when it arrives...) Anyway, I slipped in the back door of the panel I'd wanted to attend, already in session:

The Crisis in Darfur

"It is clear that we need to raise a holy ruckus." When I entered, Rabbi Richard Jacobs was showing slides from a humanitarian visit to the Sudanese refugee camps in Chad, and was talking about why the United States hasn't taken action: "Because the phones aren't ringing." He asserted that China is buying Sudanese oil and is therefore in bed with the Sudanese government, and that the UN is therefore a difficult group to convince to take action on this.

"Al chet, for the sin we've committed before You, of indifference -- every time we pray for forgiveness, for repentance, we should be considering our failure to take action on this....How are we going to answer our grandchildren? How will we answer the question,'Grandpa, what did you know about the situation in Darfur? What did you do?' I am kept awake at night worrying about having to tell my grandchildren, 'I was very busy. And the situation was very complicated. So I didn't do anything.'"

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[URJBiennial] Madeline Albright

Right after shacharit (I went to the all-Hebrew one again; not remarkable, but pleasant enough) I followed everyone else into the George Bush Grand Ballroom for the morning's first big talk, by Madeline Albright. Before she came on stage, Helen Waranch, president of Women of Reform Judaism, opened by speaking briefly about the WRJ Biennial that's been happening concurrently with ours in the Hyatt hotel nearby.

(There are three sub-conventions or mini-conventions happening this week besides the big one: one held by Kesher, the Reform analog to Hillel, e.g. the association for college-age Reform Jews; one held by the National Federation of Temple Youth, for high-school students; and one held by WRJ, the organization formerly known as the Association of Temple Sisterhoods.)

Anyway. The president of WRJ welcomed us, and Rabbi Jerome Davidson introduced the speaker, and then both of them ceded the stage to the former secretary of state.

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[URJBiennial] Innocence Project and Rabbi Eugene Borowitz

Once again I was late to the evening plenary, this time because I went out for barbecue with the North Adams delegation and the Madison, WI delegation. Cantor Diane Krasnick, who lives in Wisconsin year-round but celebrates the Days of Awe with us, invited us to join them. (I hope it was fun for her to have folks from her two congregations together!)

Anyway, I got to the plenary just in time to see the presentation of Eisendrath "Bearer of Light" Award for Service to the World Community to the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate those who are wrongfully imprisoned; an Eisendrath Award for Service to Reform Judaism was also given to Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, a major Reform teacher and theologian.

I didn't catch the name of the former prisoner who spoke when the award was presented to the Innocence Project, but here's what he said:

I'm the 113th person exonerated through our program. I hope for the day when we have a justice system that doesn't make mistakes...For years, I sat on death row, and it was like I was all alone out there. I would pray and pray for the truth to come out. Eventually God did bless me...but I just want to say that the Innocence Project has been working to save lives. Not only does it save lives of people like myself, but it also gives the victims who were victimized justice also. Because if the wrong person's in prison for a crime, then there's no justice... It's really great that we have the Innocence Project. There's a lot of people in prison waiting to be discovered, in this flawed system, and we really appreciate it.

Texas state senator Rodney Ellis accepted the award and welcomed us to Houston. "As you know, we're in the heart of the religious right here; we're glad to have visitors from the religious middle and the religious left!" He accepted the award on behalf of his colleagues, staff, and the 163 people who have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit.

He said, "I want to stress how important religion has been for all of our clients, and anyone who has been wronged by a criminal justice system. It has been the primary reason they can survive and go on with their lives. This award from you matters; it shows you think our work is important, and that's how we can go on doing what we do. Thank you; this shows that justice really does flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream."


The whole room rose to standing when Rabbi Borowitz came onstage. Having transcribed his speech (which follows) I can see why he's such an influential thinker and teacher...

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[URJBiennial] Worship

During the first 36 hours of the Biennial, I experienced three very different styles of worship/davvening. Two out of the three prayer experiences made me pretty happy; all three were interesting and instructive.

In this post I'll speak briefly about each experience -- one led by two people, and one by twenty; one all in Hebrew, one in Hebrew and English, and one in Hebrew, Spanish, and Ladino -- and will close with some musings on performance and participation, language, and the range of Reform worship.

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[URJBiennial] How Can Reform Jews Encounter God?

This session was led by Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the school of rabbinic studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. He began by talking about the statement of principles passed by the CCAR in 1999, which assert that Reform Jews are engaged in a dialogue with God, with Torah, and with the Jewish people. This is different language from the language of autonomy or informed choice, which was used in 1976. "Of course we are independent individuals, but we are not alone, and the religious decisions that we make are made in conversation with other people, with the Torah as we encounter it weekly and during the seasons, and at all times with God."

"If you have any sense at all that there are connections in the world, even on the level of atoms and molecules or people with each other, between you and the mountains and lakes and heavens -- if you believe that there are connections -- I think it's not a big jump to feel that there is a sum of all of those connections, even a Source behind all of those connections. And that's not a bad definition of God. And so the religious life is... trying to experience what those connections are."

He asked us to look at the people sitting beside us, and to remember that that person is made b'tzelem Elohim, bears the image of God. What might we learn of God from that person? Even the annoying person tailgating you on the freeway is in the image of God, and if you look in the rearview mirror long enough, you'll meet God there.

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[URJBiennial] Plenary: Robert Reich

[Excerpts -- almost a full transcript, but I missed a few sentences here and there -- from former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich's speech during the Thursday afternoon plenary session.]

"Politics comes from the Latin. 'Poli,' meaning many, and 'tics,' small blood-sucking insects." [laughter]

"The economy...depends on choices that we make. I want to talk about the economy in the context of choice, and in the context of morality. Public discourse these days is controlled by people who have a very constrained vision of morality. They're concerned with the morality of what people do in their bedrooms, but not in our boardrooms! or in the coatrooms of Congress. Public morality is where we need to center the public discourse."

"We're living in an economy in which the richest one percent owns as much as the bottom ninety percent put together. We have not seen this degree of inequality of income and wealth and opportunity since the 1920s. By some measures, it was the last decades of the 19th century, the era of the robber barons. I have nothing against people who own so much; but we also have a huge number of people who are poor, or near poverty, or holding on barely to the working class, and are in very grave danger...last year a million more Americans fell into poverty than the year before."

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[URJBiennial] Plenary: Robert Heller and Rabbi Michael Melchior


I had a delightful lunch with two new friends, a rabbi and a Jewish educator, which I promised not to blog, though we had some excellent conversations. (One metaphor I couldn't resist writing down: that the Reform trend toward reclaiming once-abandoned observances is like the second-wave feminist philosophy which makes it possible to choose lipstick. Expect a post expanding on that notion sometime after the conference.) Meanwhile, here's a partial transcript of the afternoon plenary session, which featured Robert Heller, chairman of the board of trustees of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Michael Melchior, an Orthodox rabbi and member of the Israeli Knesset.

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[URJBiennial] Integrating Social Justice Throughout the Congregation

"It has been said, don't just build a congregation -- build a just congregation!" This panel aimed to help us figure out how to integrate social justice throughout synagogue life. It was led by Rabbi Marla Feldman of New York, NY (the URJ's director of Social Action), Rabbi Steven Chester of Oakland, CA, and Sharon Polansky of Toronto, ON. They began by handing out a veritable library of papers, including two little bound booklets, Speak Truth to Power: A Guide for Congregations Taking Public Policy Positions and K'hilat Tzedek: Creating a Community of Justice.

I arrived slightly late to this one, having spent a while standing in line at Starbucks for a truly enormous mocha (a scant five hours of sleep + lots of intellectual stimulation = Rachel In Need Of Coffee) so I walked in as they were beginning a text study session looking at Jeremiah 22:13-16, a passage which begins, "Woe to one who buildings a house by unrighteousness, and chambers by injustice, who uses a neighbor's service without wages..."

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[URJBiennial] What Does It Mean to Be Good?

The first session I attended this morning was a talk by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of many books (among them The Book of Jewish Values and Jewish Literacy). "More than simply an issue of behavior, for Jews being good is about living a life that reflects the values and ethics of our tradition; about living a life that matters. How do we live such a life?" Rabbi Telushkin spoke beautifully in response to this question, and at the end of the panel Rabbi Jan Katzew gave a brief response.

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[URJBiennial] Dinner with the San Antonians; Ruth Messinger

On the first night of the Biennial, I had the profound pleasure of dining at Artista with the San Antonio delegation to the Biennial, at the invitation of Rabbi Barry Block. There are twelve delegates here from Temple Beth El; the dinner also included another former San Antonian, a really nice guy who lives in Atlanta now and with whom I chatted about our shuls, his travels, and GLBT inclusion in the greater Jewish community.

Toward the end of dinner, I got to sit a while with Barry and talk about all kinds of fun things -- how Jews respond to Christianity, the meaning of symbols like the cross or the mezuzah (to insiders and outsiders), the trend within the Reform movement toward reclaiming traditional observances, my Aleph studies and how I hope they will progress. It was a highlight of my day.

When I got back to the Convention Center, I realized we were in danger of missing Ruth Messinger's speech, which would really have bummed me out. I admire her work with American Jewish World Service tremendously -- she has done amazing things to help heal the world, raising money to do important work around the world, and I particularly admire her persistence in sounding the shofar to awaken the Jewish community about the genocide happening in Darfur, Sudan.

Fortunately for me, though we missed the first part of the plenary session (the welcoming speeches, and the presentation of the Eisendrath "Bearer of Light" Award for Service to World Jewry to Ruth), I caught a good part of her speech in response to the award. Unsurprisingly, it was terrific. I offer what I was able to transcribe of her remarks in the section of this post that follows.

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[URJBiennial] Creating Meaningful Worship in Small Congregations

This panel was led by Rabbi Burt Schuman of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, PA (100 families), and Dale Wallerstein, lay leader of Kol Shalom in El Dorado Hills, CA (44 families). Before it started, I had a neat conversation with Rachel, a second-year rabbinic student at HUC in Cincinnati, who spends one weekend a month (and holidays) serving a shul in West Virginia which has fifteen active families. (Now that's a small congregation!) That was neat -- hearing about her program and what she's up to, and seeing the pleased recognition in her face when I mentioned the Aleph program that I'm in. (YAY! I love being able to say I'm a student there.)

We began the panel by going around the room and saying our names, the size of our congregations, and the type of leadership we enjoy (rabbinic, student, or lay-led). There were about 25 of us in the room, so it felt pleasantly intimate. Congregation size ranged from 22 members to 350 families. A lot of what people said rang a bell for me: "Sometimes on Shabbat evening we get four people..." or "We have 100 families, but we get 20 people on Shabbat morning most of the time..." We represented small shuls in Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin, California, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and a dozen other places besides. One fellow, a newly-ordained rabbi serving a congregation in Nebraska, said, "We get 5 people for worship, and as soon as services are over, we get 15 more who show up for Torah study!" (Fascinating.)

Once we'd introduced ourselves, Dale asked the first big question: "What is meaningful worship?"

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[URJBiennial] Are Dietary Laws Kosher for Reform Jews?

We began this panel with some text study, looking at the changes in attitude towards kashrut over the Reform movement's history, from the original Pittsburgh Platform to the recent Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism. Two representative quotes from those two documents:

We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state... -- Pittsburgh Platform, 1885

We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times. -- Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, 1999

There are fascinating changes from the old document to the new, obviously, and we spent about ten minutes reading and discussing those. After the brief text study session, we moved to the official panel presentation, featuring three leaders: Rabbi Lucy Dinner from Raleigh, NC; Dr. Stephen Marmer from Los Angeles, CA; and Rabbi Bennett Miller from New Brunswick, NJ. (As a side note: there's something really funny about having a Rabbi Dinner leading a panel on the dietary laws...)

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