Conservative Judaism with 2020 Vision
Rabbi Scheff and I arrived in Boston on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2019 for the USCJ/RA (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and Rabbinical Assembly) conference and planned to have our first dinner together with OJC leaders Sharon Aach, Michael Pucci and Hara Hartman. What an additional pleasure to be joined by Michael and Hara’s two daughters, Greta and Sophia, who are both students in Boston. Sophia is a freshman at Northeastern University, and Greta is studying optometry at New England College of Optometry. As Greta filled me in on what it is like to be studying optometry, I reflected on how perfectly apt was the name of this year‘s conference: 20/20 Judaism.
As we are on the cusp of entering a new decade, Conservative Judaism’s leaders, professionals, clergy, and educators need to see clearly. With our vision corrected for 20/20, we will be able to make sense of today’s great challenges.
At this tumultuous time of change, threat, and discord the conference provided an optimistic space for sacred dialogue, for harnessing our collective wisdom and strength.
While there are many who claim that the Conservative Movement is broken, I see us instead in a period of transition. We are the Ramah Camping Movement, United Synagogue Youth, Day Schools, Nativ Year Course, seminaries and graduate schools, synagogues and their supplemental schools. We are powerful communities, institutions, and places of higher education bound together by a collective belief in the covenant we hold with God. Within our movement, there are many ways to understand this covenant, but we are all bound by it.
It seems to me that the unique task of Conservative Judaism among the many rich streams of Judaism is to hold the center. Tradition and change, practicality and spirituality, prayer and action, halakha (law) and autonomy… in each pair of values held in tension, we strive to be balanced.
It is not easy to hold the center. It is not as seductive as claiming one side or the other. But after spending days praying, learning, debating, and singing with the people of my particular brand of Judaism, I believe that it is the essential way to live Judaism today.
If the meaning of community has changed, still the need for meaning is stronger than ever. We must go deep and we must be real.
If Judaism is the creative application of Torah across the generations, then Abraham Joshua Heschel was correct: It is not required of us to take a leap of faith but rather a leap of action.
B’yedidut, With friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Getting “ahead” as an egalitarian community
This past week, 36 years ago, the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary decided to admit women into its program. And after 36 years of a “battle being won,” there is still much work to be done in making Judaism truly egalitarian in our communities and institutions. Language, symbols, existing Torah education, and deeply rooted emotional attachments have made the process of change a slow one. Practically two generations later, our daughters (and sons) still lack role models, teachers, rituals and customs that support an equality of access to our tradition and, by extension, to God. Conservative Jews, by and large, still seem content with perpetuating a tradition shaped by men for men.
Six years ago I authored the following piece about our synagogue’s choice to continue advancing the cause of egalitarianism in our community by promoting the use of headcoverings for men and women. We have had limited success in this effort, and have learned that we can’t let six years go by again without reiterating this teaching. So here it is:
Here is how the conversation with my Kitah Vav (sixth grade) students went. I asked, “Why do we require boys to wear a kippah or some kind of head covering?” The bright youngsters answered: “It is a sign of respect for God.” “Great answer,” I responded. “It shows that we know God is with us,” another suggested. “Fantastic,” I replied. “So,” I continued, “why don’t girls cover their heads?” Silence. No good answer. Finally, one student offered, “There is no good reason. It doesn’t make sense. Girls should show respect the same way boys do!”
It seems like such a simple and logical conclusion, and yet it is so complicated to teach, especially when generations of communities have held onto customs based in outdated norms, reinforced by bad education and laziness. It is true that long-held customs over time gain the weight of law; but when those customs undercut the values of a community, they must be changed. Especially for an egalitarian Conservative community, it is important to understand what we do, why we do it, and how our customs advance or detract from our ideals. If you ask most women who cover their heads in our community why they do so, they will say it is out of an acknowledgment of, or respect for, God’s presence when we pray or study. The fact that most of these women are married, and didn’t start covering their heads until they were married, stems from an understanding of this custom in an entirely different light. In Orthodox circles, married women cover their heads out of modesty, not out of respect for God. Whether the custom was generated from the desire to make single women easily identifiable, or the notion that a married woman who exposed herself to others beside her husband brought shame to herself or her family is irrelevant for our purposes. Neither rationale holds true any longer in our egalitarian communities. To hold onto a distinction between married and unmarried women in our community is to perpetuate a belief system that is untrue to our values. How are we supposed to explain to our ten year old daughters why they are not required to cover their heads? In a similar vein, how do we explain to our sons why they must? The Conservative movement set out on a bold path decades ago to empower women in all areas of Jewish life, ritual and leadership. We are so much stronger in so many ways as a result; yet, we have been lazy and slow to teach a sense of equality of obligation. One of the most difficult aspects of this change has been the absence of role models for our daughters. When something new is presented as a choice, and there are few who exercise it, what adolescent wants to stand out from among her peers? Our daughters for too long have only seen married women and rabbis covering their heads, even though true egalitarianism lies in the equality of obligation for all.
As it is our goal to advance the egalitarian ideal, and to give every child and adult, male and female, the opportunity to experience a connection to God through all rituals available to us as Jews, our OJC Ritual Committee has adopted a new policy that will go into effect in January (2014). We will continue to require all males to cover their heads in the sanctuary and daily chapel at all times (though we would never demand that anyone leave for their refusal to do so). We will continue to request that all females cover their heads in the sanctuary and daily chapel; however, anyone who ascends the bimah or who functions in a role of ritual leadership (like davening, receiving an aliyah or reading Torah) will be expected to wear a headcovering. In this way, the people who choose to lead us or represent us in prayer will model our understanding of how we show respect to God.
We understand that any change involves an ongoing process of education. The Ritual Committee undertook a year of studying the topic of headcovering, taking time out of its monthly meetings to learn before reaching this policy decision. Rabbi Drill offered three teaching sessions following Shabbat services in the summer of 2012 that ignited the committee’s consideration. Last spring (2013) I lead a session of The Observant Life dedicated to the topic. Prior to the beginning of the academic year, the majority of our teaching staff studied the issue, and took on the obligation to model for our religious school children, all of whom are now covering their heads in class and prayer. Our teachers’ aides, the group for whom fulfilling this obligation as role models is least comfortable given social (and stylistic) considerations, engaged in a text study with me and has been encouraged to continue the conversation. Our religious school children are being engaged in hands-on activities to learn the significance of the ritual. For children who will grow up seeing role models and peers following one mode of ritual expression, the only question remaining will be whether their sanctuary will be consistent with their classroom.
I recognize that so many of our customs are emotionally rooted in “how we grew up.” Intellectual and spiritual honesty with ourselves and our children, however, sometimes requires that we revisit and revise what we do so that our norms don’t lose their meaning. Our policy does not result in the exclusion of anyone from being a participant in our community as they always have. It only asks that people who want to assume a place of ritual leadership be willing to model what we want the next generation to comfortably own.”
Since the original writing of this piece, I’ve adopted a fairly liberal interpretation of what qualifies as a headcovering. Anyone may choose to wear a kippah or a hat; just as anyone may choose to wear a lace “doily” or a wide headband. It is the intention that matters most: the headwear itself is symbolic, and one’s hairstyle need not be an obstacle to giving expression to the intention.
After six years, it is clear that without the support of women sharing this passion and owning this effort, an egalitarian understanding of how Torah applies in our lives will remain elusive. I still believe that the issue of headcovering is the lowest rung of the ladder to be climbed, and the one that makes the most intellectual and educational sense as a first step.
I hope we can dare to achieve a new height together.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Join me now to consider four possible levels of conversation: Conform, Confront, Connect, and Co-Create as taught by Dr. Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT and co-founder of the Presencing Institute. https://www.presencing.com/
This past week, I spent two days continuing my work of visioning a new identity for the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative Rabbis worldwide. We were challenged by Liz Alperin Solms and Marie McCormick, our change project facilitators, www.insytepartners.com, to understand and experience deep levels of productive conversation.
Our work over the past year has been anchored in a passion to re-envision a new path for the RA, ensuring a vital and vibrant future for Conservative Judaism.
Over the past year, I have been part of this exciting Vision Team of fifty rabbis representing a variety of years of experience and professional paths.
Throughout the work, I have been sensitive to the fact that the change work we are doing for the RA is translatable to our OJC community. I share with you now the ideas of deep conversations so that we can apply them to our synagogue life.
At the first level of conversation, Conforming, we talk “nice,” speaking to try and provide what the other person wants to hear. We use polite routines and empty phrases to conform to expectation. “Yes, of course, what you care about is important to me.” “No, of course, I don’t think that you are being difficult – I am glad to hear your thoughts.” “Sure, that’s just fine with me.”
Next, Confronting. We talk tough. We speak from an unshakable position of our own beliefs and understandings. Because we are our point of view, we become defensive. In these conversations, I am right and therefore you are not.
At the third level, Connecting, our conversations are reflective inquiries. Now I speak from a place where I see myself as part of the whole. I might still think differently from you, but now I want to know why. Rather than defend my position, I want to connect with you and come to understand your viewpoint. “I may not agree but I hope that you will tell me more about that.” “I have never thought about the issue in that way before.”
Finally, Co-Create is the fourth level. At this deep level of experience, conversation is a generative flow. I understand my place as being part of a collective, I practice stillness and experience the flow. This final level of conversation leads to collective creativity. In co-creating conversations, we might feel that something extraordinary has entered the space.
When I learned about collective creativity, I suddenly saw that our Rabbis of Tradition understood generative flow. Talmud teaches that when two people sit together to study Torah, the Shekhina, the nurturing aspect of God, rests upon their shoulders. The students of Torah lose their sense of separateness in the connection through Torah.
Our project facilitators explained that most conversations in our lives happen at one of the first two levels, and indeed, both are necessary to live successfully in the world. Sometimes we have to just be polite. Sometimes we just have to say what we really think and stand by it.
But if we want something to change and grow, we must dig deeper in our conversations. If we want our synagogue to prosper and thrive in adaptive and exciting ways, we must practice conversations at the third or even fourth level.
Scharmer’s theory about conversations for change feels very Jewish to me. To succeed as a community, we must let go of the inclination to begin every conversation from our own point of view. For success, we must say: I am part of something bigger than myself: this synagogue, this history, this particular people, this covenant with God. To fully participate in such a collective endeavor, I must listen carefully for clues about what you think and remain open to the possibility that my thinking is not enough. Together, we are stronger, wiser and more creative.
I look forward to continuing the conversation,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Vote Now for Israel’s Future
There is a story that charms me from the annals of Zionist history at the turn of the 20th century. Arthur Balfour, a Member of the House of Lords asked Chaim Weizmann, who later would become President of Israel, “Why do you Jews insist on Palestine when there are so many undeveloped countries you could settle in more conveniently?” According to the story, Weizmann answered, “That’s like my asking you why you drove twenty miles to visit your mother last Sunday when there are so many old ladies living on your street. Mr. Balfour, if you were offered Paris instead of London, would you take it?” Lord Balfour was shocked and surprised by the question, “But London is our own!” Weizmann answered, “Jerusalem was our own when London was a marsh.” This same Member of the House of Lords famously crafted the Balfour Declaration in 1917 that made public British support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
At the Orangetown Jewish Center, we talk about Israel, our Jewish homeland, proudly, passionately and with the assurance of safety. There is room for debate and discussion, but we all agree that our home had to be established in 1948 on that tiny strip of desert and marsh. Then Palestine, today Israel, is “our own.”
We also agree that while we advocate and educate about the need for secure borders and freedom from terrorism in Israel, we must also pay close attention to Israel’s soul. As Conservative Jews, we have a specific vision of Israel that is anchored in religious freedom. We yearn to be a part of an Israel that is a pluralistic Jewish and democratic state with which every Jew can proudly identify.
Rabbi Scheff and I often suggest ways to lift our voices in support of the official recognition in Israel of all the major streams of Judaism. We believe that the authority of rabbis from non-Orthodox movements should be respected regarding all issues of personal status and ritual. Rabbis of the Conservative and Reform movements should be able to officiate at weddings, conversions, divorces and funerals in Israel as they do here in America.
Today, there is one specific action you can take to be a part of the potential Israel you envision. It is time now to vote in the World Zionist Congress that will meet this year in Jerusalem. The World Zionist Congress has met since 1897 when it first laid out the principles of Zionism, the belief that the Jewish people of the world must have a homeland of their own, the land of Israel. Today the WZC elects the officers and decides on the policies of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency.
It is time now to vote. It is time to vote for Mercaz, the political arm of the Conservative–Masorti Movement of Judaism. According to the Mercaz mission statement, a vote for Mercaz is a vote for an Israel that is pluralistic and inclusive, egalitarian and unified, sustainable and diverse.
Go to http://votemercaz.org/ to get started, to get educated, and to cast your ballot. It costs just $10 for your opportunity to change the future of Israel. And while you are at the website, you can see a great photograph and statement by our own Josh Drill. He writes about what Mercaz means to him as a young man making aliya this August.
Mercaz has also made a series of short, informative videos that you can share to educate friends and family about the important vision we share about the soul of Israel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnfPe8s6VCU
With friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Beyond the Walls of the OJC to the DC Convention Center
Truth is, on a daily basis, there is no where I would rather be than at the Orangetown Jewish Center. My creative energy runs high at the shul, interactions feel profound, learning feels new, and God feels close. My rabbinate makes sense when I am with you in the classroom, my office or the sanctuary.
It is necessary, however, to throw open the windows of our synagogue and look around at the world we inhabit. And it is important to go out into that world to learn about what is going on. If you are with us on Shabbat or in a class, you know that one of the values of the OJC is that our Torah moves from the text to the lives we lead. The lives we lead are fulfilling when we are having an impact on the world: improving families, communities, Jewish organizations and secular institutions. You hear it in our teaching and in our sermons. Find a passion and pursue it! We begin in Torah, but we use Torah to move to issues about Israel, the Jewish world, Conservative Judaism, and social justice.
This past week, I spent time in the wide world beyond Independence Avenue in Orangeburg, New York. I returned today renewed, re-energized and ready to bring all that I learned back to the synagogue. I spent three days with twenty four OJC congregants and 14,000 of our pro-Israel allies at the AIPAC Policy Conference.
At AIPAC, many of the messages resonated with all that I have experienced and learned over eight years of participation in Israel advocacy through AIPAC. Our elected officials on both sides of the aisle unambiguously support Israel as a valued friend. Israeli leadership is grateful to feel the power of our support. People of color and leaders of many faith movements join with us every year to add their voices with ours as important allies in support of Israel. 2300 college leaders, Jewish and not Jewish, join us to state clearly that young people are learning how to advocate for Israel.
The rabbinic leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox streams stood together on the dais and proclaimed, “Jewish life is not about singing in unison but rather in harmony.” Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism stated, “We are not asserting the perfect nature of Israel. There is no perfect country. But we are here to protect the precious relationship between Israel and America.” The ideal of shared values and creating relationships rings true to all of us who have heard Israel sermons in our sanctuary or traveled to Israel on an OJC trip.
Something new was ringing loud and clear throughout the Policy Conference. We have heard the message before at AIPAC, but now it feels like a central theme ino all that we are doing: Despite being in the middle of seemingly intractable conflicts, Israel is a dynamic country filled with innovators who are improving life around the world. We heard from Israeli scientists, technology gurus, and medical researchers breaking through to new frontiers in medicine, security, communication and economic cooperation. There is another story of Israel being played out and we had an opportunity to feel its power. The Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. had a clear answer to the magnificent success of Israeli progress. Ron Prosor said that the secret is The Jewish Mother who believes that her child is a genius and the world just does not yet know it. So if that child takes a risk and fails, the Mother says, “Just go and try again.” And thus we have the Start-Up Nation! It’s a brilliant theory, no?
There was optimism in the air despite the heaviness of world realities right now. John Kerry said, “When Bibi looks me in the eyes and says, ‘We cannot accept a treaty that does not make Israel safer than she is right now,’ he and I agree 100%.” On Monday morning, Netanyahu was downright buoyant (honestly!). He claimed that Israel must be strong to make peace, but peace will make us stronger.
World events change on the hour and I am no prophet. Three days of learning and advocacy, however, allows me to believe that our Torah will lead us eventually to a stable Israel. As Rev. Dr. DeeDee Coleman shouted to an AIPAC crowd that loves her dearly, “Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live!”
I am grateful to have gone out to learn. I am grateful to return home and share it with all of you.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Women Rabbis Lean In at JTS
I was one of sixty women, all members of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism, who gathered at the Jewish Theological Seminary on Monday and Tuesday, December 9 and 10 to connect, learn and replenish our minds and souls. The title of the conference was “Leaning In, Leaning Out, Learning from Each Other.” The learning, prayer, and opportunity to connect were all valuable.
But that is not what is on my mind as I think about the conference in the days since it ended. I am thinking about what it means to be present, completely and wholly present. In her opening talk, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first ordained woman of the Conservative Movement of Judaism, explained to us that her work has been about cultivating compassion. That work, she asserted, can only happen through true listening, through being present to another and thereby to God. She reminded us that careers in the rabbinate are guided by what we believe God wants of us more than by ambition.
I spent the rest of the day asking myself how I could ever know what God wants of me. As I listened to fellow rabbis, talked in small groups, and took notes, I asked myself the question about what God wants. And then the answer came to me as I pictured myself in our sanctuary at the OJC. Above the ark, the words are carved: “Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid.” I place God before me always.
I can know what God wants of me by being quiet enough, in the sanctuary of my soul, to listen. And to do that? I must be present. I must be in the moment with each of you, with the children of the Religious School, with the youngest children and their grown-ups at Early Kabbalat Shabbat. I must be fully present in your loved one’s hospital room, at your kitchen table or across the table from you at Starbucks. I must be present in the moments we share on the telephone.
And then, at the end of our moment, I must listen to my soul deeply enough to reassure myself that I am doing what God wants of me. Did I listen to you? Was I fully present to you?
It is not easy to be fully present in the year 2013. As we rabbis sat in a room, sharing our dreams, our insecurities, our prayers, many of us focused on the faces of whoever was speaking. If I place God before me always, then I must look for God in the faces of my fellows.
But a great number of us were typing away on i-pads, laptops, phones. Several in the room were tweeting. A difficult conversation erupted about this fact when confidentiality was breached with tweets that quoted what specific women were saying. Those who were tweeting defended their actions by stating the importance of sharing what was happening in the room with the public. I wonder how we can be in this moment, however, when we are already shaping it to share it with a nameless public. I understand that tweeting is meant to connect us, but doesn’t it distance us instead?
One rabbi said that she is more focused when she is tweeting than when she is just listening. There is a difference, however, between being focused and being present. Rabbi Eilberg had just told us that we must remember to be present to others. The result of the conversation was to shut down the tweeters. Sometimes it is valuable and important to get the word out. I understand the value of social media; after all, here I am blogging to you all! But sometimes it is much more important to get the word in. Lean in, lean out. Utimately, we chose to lean in, to lean within, to be present to each other and to ourselves — with the hope and prayer of being present to God.