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Building the Jewish Future

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My rabbinical career has been anything but planned. I would be a career counselor’s worst nightmare: the conventional ladder of professional advancement has never suited me. Instead, I’ve tried to think boldly about what the Jewish community needs, and have done my best to build institutions that could address those needs.

The Public Square

Two major passions have motivated my work. The first, which drew me to the rabbinate, is politics and social justice. I spent 25 years as an activist for Soviet Jewry. The cause made me a passionate Zionist and instilled in me a commitment to work for the human rights of oppressed people all over the world. My first job after rabbinical school was as the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington D.C. In that capacity I was able to work on domestic social justice issues as well as on Israel advocacy and endangered Jewish communities around the world. I had the unique opportunity to be among the planners of the Summit Rally for Soviet Jewry in December 1987, which took place the day before President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The turnout on that frigid Sunday of 250,000 people, mostly Jews from all over the country, changed the course of history.

The day after the rally I left my position to found a new institution: PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. My vision was a very Reconstructionist one: to create an educational program that would integrate Jewish learning, Jewish values and social responsibility. Reconstructionism has always held up the ideal of the organic Jewish community. In contrast the existing Jewish institutions were fragmented. One set of institutions championed religion and Jewish education, while another set championed social and political issues. The former orbit of organizations, including synagogues and Jewish educational institutions, were failing because they did not root their work in real world issues. The latter orbit of organizations were effective, but had no recognizable Jewish content.

PANIM’s mission was to bridge this gap: to offer a holistic Jewish identity that gave equal weight to Jewish content and to social and political activism. We were among the pioneers in the field of Jewish service learning. In the 21 years that I led the organization, we touched the lives of over 20,000 teens through programs that included Panim el Panim (4-day seminars in Washington DC), the Jewish Civics Initiative (year-long service learning curriculum and volunteering) and J-Serve (the day of Jewish service). We also published three curricula, trained teachers, and ran a fellowship program for recent college graduates.

Transforming the American Synagogue

My other great passion was to re-invent the American synagogue. While I was active in Jewish youth movements as a teen, I was not particularly fond of the synagogue of my childhood, nor its rabbi. In fact, in my application essay to RRC I noted that I was unlikely to pursue the congregational rabbinate because it did not seem to be a place where Jews were inspired to be their best selves. Youth groups and Jewish summer camps seemed to me where the best work was being done to create vibrant and engaged Jews.

It was therefore pretty ironic that in my second year at RRC I was hired to become the student rabbi at Beth Israel in Media, PA. The president who hired me said: “You are sure to leave here in a couple of years to take a bigger job. Just make it interesting and make it fun.” It was quite an empowering charge and I took it on with a full heart. I stayed at Beth Israel for eight years, four as a student and four more after I graduated. I used the synagogue as a laboratory to experiment with the kinds of informal educational models that worked so well for me when I worked in camps and youth groups. Already as a student I started to write up some of my innovations as articles in The Reconstructionist magazine. It was because of that work and my articles that, after I graduated RRC, I was invited by Ira Silverman (then President of the RRC) to develop a course that we called “Creating Alternative Communities.”. A few years after teaching that course (and in the same year that I launched PANIM) I helped to found Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD.

For many years leaders of the Reconstructionist Movement talked about the need to seed new congregations around the country. Of course, everyone looked around and said: “So who will do it?” My wife and I moved to the Maryland suburbs in 1984 and joined a progressive Conservative synagogue. It was OK but I thought that a Reconstructionist congregation could thrive in an area where the educational level was so high and there was a significant density of Jewish population. With some modest support from Mordecai Liebling, who was then the executive vice-president of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, we launched outreach High Holiday services in 1987 and attracted about 120 people. Among that group were a few couples who were good friends of ours. We invited everyone back to our house for break the fast and the energy for what had just happened at services was through the roof.

I cultivated the relationships that were forged during those few days and six weeks later, a meeting was convened at which a decision was made to form a congregation as long as I consented to serve as the very part time rabbi. I agreed. From day one my message was that the congregation was about empowering Jews to create a vibrant Jewish community. I was clearly the catalyst but I was intent on tapping the gifts of our members so we had the energy of a DIY minyan. Our Shabbat morning services became a happening, followed by a pot luck lunch catered by a rotating team of members. We became the talk of Washington and a destination synagogue for many. It wasn’t long before we expanded our scope into the areas of child education, adult education, social justice, chesed work and more. Adat Shalom became an amazing laboratory for what is possible for a Reconstructionist congregation. It was with deep regret that I had to step down as its rabbi after eight years simply because I could no longer manage its rapid growth alongside  the expanding scope and growing staff of PANIM. It has been one of the great blessings of my life that Fred Dobb (my student rabbi who then succeeded me at Adat Shalom) has made it possible for me to have an ongoing rabbinic role at the congregation (now 500 households strong).

Adat Shalom became the inspiration for my first book, Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue (2000). The book helped me launch yet another career as a consultant to rabbis and congregations across the country. For the past ten years I have been leading retreats for students from eleven rabbinic seminaries across the denominational spectrum that help future rabbis think more creatively about what might be possible in their rabbinates.

When I stepped down as president of PANIM in 2009, I became a senior fellow at Clal to advance my work with rabbis and synagogues. My most recent project is the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI). The premise of CLI is that the current model of the American synagogue can no longer address the needs of a rapidly changing Jewish community. Instead, synagogues need to pursue the paradigm model that I developed at length in Finding a Spiritual Home. After more than a decade of work with congregations and rabbis I was persuaded that rabbis needed to be trained to be effective change agents. CLI is a two-year program to support and encourage early career congregational rabbis (years 2 to 10) in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. We just graduated our first cohort of CLI and are beginning Cohort 2.

More information about CLI can be found at http://www.cliforum.org//. I’d be delighted to have more applications from RRC graduates for future cohorts.

Senior Fellow, CLAL

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