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
That’s right, you read the title correctly. I am inviting you to not pray. Come to synagogue tomorrow morning, sit for an hour, or two, or three, and don’t pray. I am allowed to say that because, frankly, I have no idea what the English words “to pray” mean. The meaning of the words, I believe, will necessarily change depending on what is our definition of God. Implicit in the word “prayer” is some recognition that we are engaging in an effort to connect to something beyond ourselves, whether that something is above us, beyond us or within us. Are we asking for something, actually expecting a response? Are we seeking the granting of a wish? Are we hoping to gain a perspective that puts our lives into a context of something greater, thereby either maximizing or minimizing our significance, our achievements, or even our wrongdoings? Prayer is not necessarily an act of petition, supplication or thanksgiving. It may be all these things, it may be none of these things.
In our Siddur Lev Shalem, the new prayerbook published by the Rabbinical Assembly which we introduced to the congregation two weeks ago, the phrase Barukh Atah Adonai, commonly translated as “Praised are You, Lord,” is intentionally left untranslated. In the English text, the phrase appears simply as Barukh Atah Adonai. I love the affirmation of the idea that the words cannot be translated easily, if at all. How do we approach sacred purpose? How do we express shared values and shared search for meaning? How do we establish a space for safe vulnerability? How do we sing in gratitude for our freedom and in lament of those things that still enslave us? How do we find inspiration and comfort in the company of others who are as imperfect and broken as we are? That which we can’t translate into words is left to the service of the heart.
The beauty of our new siddur is found in its acknowledgment that there is no single way to pray. The book is an invitation to a dialogue with God, certainly, but it is also an invitation to meditation, to study, to quiet contemplation, to communal song. It is as modern, creative, and untraditional as we need our expression of faith to be. It is as ancient, as set and as traditional as we need our expression of faith to be. It is an invitation to explore our desire to connect emotionally, intellectually and socially to purpose, values, tradition, shared history and shared mission.
Jewish tefillah–self-examination–is time set aside from the mundane distractions in our lives. The siddur serves as the open doorway to that time–time for perspective, time for growth. Join us tomorrow morning for an hour or two or three. Join us for you. Join us to learn more about this new magnificent resource and our own personal searches for meaning. Join us to sing, learn, connect, and be. Join us, you know, to pray.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
18,000 of us converged on Washington for three days: Jews of every stream, nationality and political persuasion; Jews who are high school kids, college students, Holocaust survivors, rabbis. Also gathering were delegates who are Hispanic, people of color, Evangelical Christians, main line Christians, politicians. We came to AIPAC’s Policy Conference because all of us are supporters of the Israel–America alliance.
Imagine it: 18,000 filling the hallways and meeting rooms of the Washington Convention Center. 18,000 dramatically filling the arena of the Verizon Center to hear Vice President Biden, Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, and most of the candidates currently running for president.
The person sitting next to me in a session about the refugee crisis in the Middle East may not have agreed with me about most things, but we are both similarly committed to Israel’s right to exist as a free, secure, Democratic nation. The people on either side of me during the campaign speeches may be voting differently than me, but we all agree on the necessity of friendship between Israel and America. The rabbis at my table listening to Natan Sharansky speak about the rise of anti-Semitism and the insidiousness of BDS may have different politics from mine, but we all agree that Israel is as necessary to American security as America is to Israel’s.
As always at AIPAC events, I listened to thinkers and politicians from the left and the right. Stav Shafir, Member of Knesset and one of the founders of the Israeli social justice protest (Mechaat Tzedek Hevrati), shared her idealistic vision for a progressive and optimistic future for Israel.
Author of My Promised Land, Ari Shavit criticized the current government in Israel, saying that Religious Zionists are endangering our home and Ultra-Orthodox Jews are endangering our religion. From the other side of ideology, Pulitzer Prize winner Bret Stephens shared his vision of security for Israel. Writer for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, discussed his critique of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.
The voices were a cacophony of harmonious disagreement. For me, this fact is the power of AIPAC.
As delegates, we listen respectfully to learn about a variety of perspectives and make up our own minds. Learning from the diversity of thought at AIPAC has enhanced my understanding of one of the most complicated situations in our world today. Over time, I have definitely changed my mind about certain things. But never have I wavered from the belief that when Israel and America are strong, the world is more stable.
This year for the first time in nine AIPAC Policy Conferences, I chose NOT to listen to one of AIPAC’s guests. I did not stage a protest or a walkout. Together with Rabbi Scheff, our intern Paula Rose, and fifty other rabbis, I chose to study Torah rather than to be in the arena when Donald Trump spoke. We gathered in a restaurant inside the center to hear words of Torah and sing Olam Chesed Yibaneh, (with loving kindness the world is built).
I do not judge the choices that others made with regard to Mr. Trump’s speech. Some walked out but did not gather with others, other delegates stayed in to listen to his words. Some maintained silence and others clapped politely. Some clapped enthusiastically. I acted according to my own conscience and not in anyone else’s name. I acted, but not in order to judge others.
I understood from the outset that AIPAC’s mission requires all presidential candidates to be invited and I support the invitation to Mr. Trump among all of the presidential candidates. But I could not in good conscience listen to a person whose rhetoric has been anchored in racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, misogyny and calls to violence. Judaism’s most fundamental value teaches us that all people are worthy of respect because we are created in God’s image. As a rabbi and as a Jew, I felt a moral obligation NOT to listen, to refrain from lending legitimacy to a candidate for the highest office in America who engages in hateful speech.
Over my 10 years of participation in AIPAC, I have been taught to welcome all speakers with dignity and respect. No one boos or heckles a guest of AIPAC. We clap if we agree and we are quiet if we disagree. I have listened to policy with which I agreed and sharply disagreed. I have always listened. At Policy Conference 2016 I chose not to listen.
In so doing, I pray that my fellow rabbis and I made space for words of loving kindness.
I pray that words of loving kindness will disarm words of recrimination and anger flying on social media regarding AIPAC, Donald Trump, Israel’s supporters and her detractors as well.
Today is a fast day, Ta’anit Esther, commemorating Queen Esther’s request of the Persian Jewish community to join in solidarity with her as she faced the challenge of her lifetime. I dedicate my fast to similar solidarity of the Jewish community. Too much is at stake for us to stand apart in judgment of each other.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
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
By a surprising coincidence of timing, this week I celebrated two thirtieth anniversaries. In Columbus Ohio, I celebrated the thirtieth year of the Wexner Foundation together with 1200 Jews who were graduates of the Israel Fellowship Program, the Heritage Program or, like me, were alumni of the Graduate Fellowship. I flew home on Monday night to drive into New York City for a two day Rabbinical Assembly celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the ordination of women.
Why such a big deal about thirty? (Believe me, I ask myself that question as I consider that Jonathan and I will celebrate thirty years of marriage this May.) In Ethics of the Fathers, one chapter lists developmentally significant ages and identifies each with a unique characteristic: “At five, the study of Torah. At ten, Mishnah. At thirteen, responsibility for mitzvot. At fifteen, Talmud.” The list continues until it declares: “Ben shloshim, l’koach.” At thirty years, the age of strength.
A midrash asks why thirty is the age of strength. The answer begins with a list of those who rose to greatness upon reaching thirty: Joseph began to serve Pharaoh at thirty. Priests began service in the Beit Mikdash at thirty. David became King of Israel at thirty. Then the midrash asks: why at thirty did they rise to greatness? The answer is stunning: Because at thirty, they were humbled and heartbroken.
This teaching played like a leitmotif in my mind throughout four days of intense learning, listening and rejoicing. True leadership requires humility and vulnerability. At the Wexner conference, much of the message was about leading through change – change in our lives, organizations and the world. Yes, leadership requires optimism, grit, resilience, and creativity. But in order to respond to the fierce urgency of now, we must first and foremost cultivate empathy to the other.
I felt challenged by questions of how to move people from caring about an issue to acting on it. I understood that in order for Jews to sit in a room together, we must acknowledge that all of us think about our Judaism from our own prisms. Partners in leadership must be asked to fine tune skills and generously use their gifts.
Shimon Perez was the great anniversary surprise. He told us that Israel is not just a country. Israel, he asserted, is an idea. He promised us that there are two things in the world that we can experience only if we close our eyes a little bit: love and peace. The common thread throughout the Wexner learning was that the leader who can lead through change must be humble and vulnerable enough to recognize the potential greatness in others.
At the conference of the Rabbinical Assembly, we learned sweet Torah, discussed models of successful change, and heard from inspiring thinkers and teachers, including one of my heroes, Letty Cotin Pogrebin, in conversation with her daughter Abigail Pogrebin. We celebrated with great joy the change that affected the whole Jewish world thirty years ago when Rabbi Amy Eilberg (another hero of mine) became the first woman ordained in the Conservative Movement after years of halakhic and sociological study and debate.
At the same time, we acknowledged that there is much work still to do in the arena of an equal place for men and women, boys and girls, in our congregations, schools, camps and communities. Rabbi Pamela Barbash taught that egalitarianism is not about women’s participation; rather, it is about increasing the adherence and participation of all Jews through obligation, study and mitzvot. I was reminded that women’s rise to a place beside men in Judaism would have never begun without the humility and vulnerability of men who became empathic allies to the cause as they studied and interpreted the Torah through the eyes of modern Jews.
Rabbi Scheff and I delighted in seeing OJC rabbinic interns, now our colleagues over these two days. We reconnected with friends and classmates, ate and prayed together, and recharged our leadership batteries. We’ll be teaching about the halakha, the sociology and the moral questions of the 30th anniversary of Women’s Ordination during Sisterhood Shabbat, June 19–20. We might even give you a version of the session that we taught about men and women as equal partners in pulpit life! Both rabbis look forward to sharing with our community the learning that filled us at the RA.
Kol tuv, All the best, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
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.