Shabbat Shalom and Happy June, as we all look forward to this Sunday's Cantor's Concert. It's especially gratifying to be able to pay tribute to Gary Lessen. Gary has made an enormous impact TBE helping to guide us through challenging times.
This past week marked three watershed moments for the Conservative Movement. In Washington, a group of Conservative leaders met with President Obama (read JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen's reactions to the meeting). In Israel, the government's decision to fund Reform, Conservative rabbis set a dramatic new precedent. Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, head of the Rabbinical Assembly, called it "a historic day for Israelis and Jews around the world." She added that "In order for Judaism to grow and thrive in Israel, it is necessary that the government recognize its obligation to provide equal funding to various Jewish religious streams and expressions that flower in the Jewish state."
The third watershed event was the publication of, "The Observant Life," a massive yet practical one-volume explanation of the hows and whys of "doing Jewish" in these changing times. It covers everything from Shabbat, Israel, kashrut, lifecycle and prayer to charitable giving, sibling relations, medical ethics, military service, animal rights and same-sex relationships. In short, it's long. And it covers everything you need to know about being a Jew, from a Conservative perspective. The last time that was done was Isaac Klein's "Guide to Jewish Religious Practice," which came out so long ago that I was still in Rabbinical School! This new book goes far beyond Klein and should become an indispensible addition to every bookshelf. I plan to feature it in my teaching over the coming year.
I'll also be reviewing this new book at services on Shabbat morning. (BTW, we had a fabulous time at our camp-style service outdoors last Shabbat morning - see the study packet that I assembled for a discussion we held about Israel's emerging moral crisis involving large numbers of African refugees). Join us and hear about the new book tomorrow. And of course join us tonight for our always amazing Kabbalat Shabbat service at 7:30.
Wednesday night was TBE's Annual Meeting, a real feel-good evening, where we discussed lots of great things happening here. Below are some excerpts from my remarks:
What is it that takes a community and transforms it into a congregation? What separates us from other places people gather - workplaces, schools or clubs? There is something that makes it so special to be here, but what is it?
There are innovative programs, to be sure, and this year we've stretched ourselves even more to reach groups that traditionally have not flocked to suburban synagogues. Shabbat is cooking on all cylinders for all age groups and we want to do even more for next year. This past fall, the cantor and I went to JTS to teach future rabbis and cantors how make age old prayers jump off the page, mixing them with lovely melodies and dousing them in contemporary meaning. Services have been great, for all ages, but this year our greatest leap has been in Adult Education, which had its best year ever here, with more people participating in more vibrant classes taught by passionate teachers. The ConTEXT series brought university level classes here and cemented our bond with JTS and our movement. We took interfaith dialogue to new heights with our comparative religions series, the 9/11 Concert and the Interfaith Seder. We've had great fundraising and social programs too, culminating in our Cantor's Concert this coming weekend.
So we've had great programs.
But that's not what takes a community and transforms it into a holy congregation - or to use the Hebrew term that is now in vogue - a Kehilla Kedosha.
It's about the people.
It's about a group of lay leaders and professionals not afraid to roll up their sleeves and address any challenge. That goes for board members, committee chairs and everyone who builds community here. It goes for our superb staff as well, collectively the greatest group of people I've ever worked with - our dedicated office and maintenance staff, our superb teachers and tutors, Steve Lander, Ronnie Brockman, Al Treidel, Rabbi Michelle Dardashti and Cantor George Mordecai are the 1927 Yankees of synagogue staffs.
It's about people who look at potential budget deficits and see a challenge, not a crisis; people who are willing to take calculated risks, even to risk failure, knowing that stagnation is not an option. People who give credit and accept responsibility, rather than the other way around. People who truly love Israel and understand its centrality to our future. People who understand that this is more than just a business - it is a sacred calling. People who understand that it's less about serving our members then about helping our members to serve God. And by doing the latter, we accomplish both. Lay leaders passionate about being Jewish and wanting our children to be. Leaders who feel a fiduciary responsibility to every child who walks through that door. And that fiduciary responsibility also translates into love. People who seek excellence. People for whom the cup is always half full - but on its way to overflowing; people who are a glowing example of what a loving community can be.
People who care about the cost of being Jewish. A few weeks ago, the board passed a new policy granting a year's free membership to day school families in grades K, 1 and 2 (we already have such an offer for Hebrew School families). Today Rabbi Dardashti and I told a prospective member about that offer and it absolutely sealed the deal. She and her husband had been deciding between us and another synagogue and when we said we understand how expensive it is and we want you so much to be part of our family, she could only say "wow."
Is that the Beth El you know? The Beth El that is about people? It is for most - it needs to be the Beth El that everyone knows.
Beth El is about people...
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