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Sometimes You Have to Close Your Eyes and Leap

As a child I was never much of a risk taker. I was so afraid of the water that I didn’t even learn to swim until I was nearly a teenager. I was also definitely an introvert as a child: while I did have a few good friends, I was never really comfortable with most group activities. Other than music and a passion to learn drums and percussion, my favorite pastimes were either reading by myself (I still follow my regimen of reading at least 50 books every year), or hanging out at my synagogue, where I always felt comfortable, at home, and safe. I even used to go early to religious school on the weekends to hang out with the maintenance staff, helping them polish the silver on the Torahs and clean up the sanctuary from Shabbat services. Go figure.

Thinking back on my career as a rabbi these past 44 years, though, “risk-averse introvert” is not the description that comes to mind. The ‘cutting edge’ nature of Reconstructionism helped inspire my personal rabbinate, and shaped the process of building KI into what has become the largest Reconstructionist congregation in the world.

My early Jewish life was spent in the Reform movement: my family was actively involved in a Reform synagogue in Santa Monica, California; I attended Reform summer camp; and in a pre-emptive “mea culpa,” I have to admit that not only was I ordained in the Reform Movement at HUC-JIR, but my first job as a rabbi was as National Associate Director of Education for the Reform Movement.

The transition from my home state of California to New York to finish rabbinic school was a great culture shock –much more even than the two years I spent living and studying in Jerusalem. After all, California is where people have been running for decades specifically to avoid rules and rigidity, the constant refrains, “But we have always done it this way” and “That has already been tried in the past and so we know it won’t work,” and the myriad ways that people have had their creativity squelched, repressed and discounted. I remember that when one of my classmates started the first week at his new synagogue in New York, someone from his board of directors delivered a half dozen starched white shirts with a note that said simply, “This is how we dress at our synagogue.”

While my early Jewish life was spent in Reform institutions, my parents were card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool, unrepentant Reconstructionists. The Reconstructionist magazine was on our living room coffee table, they studied Mordecai Kaplan’s writings, and we have used the original Reconstructionist Haggadah every Passover of my life to this very day. So I was thrilled when in 1986 I was hired by Kehillat Israel Synagogue in Pacific Palisades, the flagship Reconstructionist congregation of the West Coast, to be their rabbi. Their one condition: that I become part of the RRA and officially “join” the Reconstructionist Movement. Yay! Not only had I studied with Kaplan himself during my first year at HUC in Jerusalem, I was now fully ideologically at home in my professional life as well.

The most intimidating experience of my life was the evening I spent studying with Mordecai Kaplan in Jerusalem in 1971, as part of a small group of Reform and Conservative rabbinic students. He was 92, and larger than life in every way. I will never forget his challenge to the group: he stared at us all for a moment, then thundered, “Who created Judaism? Where did it come from?” We sat in silence because every one of us was afraid to speak and say something stupid in front of such a legend. He shook his head, pointing an intimidating, accusing finger at us all and said simply (but loudly), “Jews. It came from Jews. Created by Jews to help them make sense of the world. Jews were not created for it. Now go and create something yourselves that matters.” I never forgot that moment, and what I took from that remarkable evening with Kaplan was that being a Reconstructionist meant challenging oneself to be on the creative, cutting edge of religious life as a Jew.

I know that many lament how small the Reconstructionist movement continues to be, but for me “small” has always meant light on our feet, quick to evolve and change, and eager to experiment and try new things. In my view, innovation is not just a means to an end; it is valuable for its own sake. For me, Reconstructionism is not merely willing to innovate. Being cutting edge is an important value to be embraced, celebrated and held high with pride.

I am convinced that this spirit of innovation was central to the dramatic growth of KI. During the 29 years I was privileged to serve as one of its rabbis, the congregation grew from around 240 families when I first arrived to a thousand by the time I stepped down as senior rabbi. Achieving this milestone was only possible due to the freedom and encouragement that both my congregation and the Reconstructionist philosophy of Judaism itself gave me to put people and their needs before ideology, “rules” and “the way it’s always been done.” For example, from the moment I was ordained I have been known as a rabbi who officiates at interfaith marriages and gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies (and of course now weddings as well). I firmly believe that this public openness, this attitude of non-judgmental Judaism that is part of the “cutting edge” nature of Reconstructionist Judaism is in large part responsible for our tremendous success and growth throughout these years. I can’t even count the number of times each year that someone has come to talk to me about how they felt rejected by their home congregation and rabbi when they fell in love with someone who wasn’t Jewish, and had despaired of ever being connected to the Jewish community again in a meaningful way. When they heard about, were referred to, or stumbled upon KI, they finally felt that they had a spiritual home again.

Jews and Christians, Muslims and Jews, people of every gender description have all been welcomed equally, felt validated for who they are without reservation, and as a result encouraged family and friends to join them as well. This welcome didn’t stem from any unique wisdom that I possessed. It was simply one of the most concrete reflections of what I have understood as “cutting edge” in my personal rabbinate. Moreover, for the decades that I served KI, it was the Reconstructionistexpectation and valuing of innovation that helped inspire me to take risks in what I do, what I say, and how I conduct myself within the congregation and in the community at large as well.

Sometimes the simplest gestures have had the largest impact. For example, the year that Proposition 8 (banning same-sex marriage) passed in California, I invited all our gay and lesbian couples to stand on the bima during Yom Kippur, as the cantor and I wrapped them in a tallit, recited the traditional Priestly Benediction and publicly blessed the sanctity of their relationships. It was a simple blessing by one rabbi and one cantor, but there wasn’t a couple standing that didn’t have tears in their eyes. To this day, many of those couples continue to talk about what a transformational moment that was in their lives.

Realizing how much the non-Jewish partners in our congregation continually contribute to the strength, vitality and success of our community, on another Yom Kippur I had every non-Jew who was present stand while I publicly thanked and blessed them. I praised their remarkable support for their families and the contributions that they make to our community week in and week out, noting their presence is central to KI’s becoming the vibrant spiritual community that it is. The notes and calls expressing shock, amazement, and gratitude for those simple words of acknowledgment reverberated throughout the community.

As Reconstructionists we have glibly spoken of Judaism as the “evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people” ever since Mordecai Kaplan first penned those words almost a hundred years ago. But what do we really mean by “evolving?” Most of us have been taught that “evolution” is something like the slow, inexorable march of those inevitable changes that come with the organic growth of a species or organism. It’s “revolution” that we usually think of as sudden, passionate and “cutting edge,” not evolution. Yet I believe that it is that very idea at the core of Reconstructionist thought that makes us “cutting edge” in the first place. It encourages us to innovate and constantly be searching for new and better ways of serving the Jewish people and transforming the world itself into a sacred community that transcends and unites all faiths. It is precisely because we expect Judaism to evolve, to change, and to constantly innovate, that the Reconstructionist community continues to be so vibrant and alive.

Now that I am no longer the senior rabbi at KI, having gladly turned over those 24/7 responsibilities to the able hands and heart of Rabbi Amy Bernstein, I have turned my own creative focus to larger communal issues. I am in the midst of creating a project called “Home Shalom” with the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. Our goal is to have every synagogue in America publicly declare itself to be a “Home Shalom Sanctuary.” Each Home Sanctuary will serve as a safe haven from domestic violence; have written materials, “palm cards” with referral information and resources always publicly available in every synagogue lobby; and train clergy to recognize victims of domestic violence and know what resources are available to help them. We intend “Home Shalom” to raise the consciousness of the Jewish community regarding the reality of domestic violence in our own community, so that rabbis will speak of it from their pulpits and victims within our own congregations and communities will feel that their synagogues are safe places to turn for life-saving help and support, without shame or fear.

I first spoke about Jewish domestic violence in a Yom Kippur sermon at KI over 20 years ago. I thought it was “cutting edge” at the time, and sadly continue to see the widespread denial and avoidance that is endemic in the Jewish community decades later. ”Home Shalom” is my commitment to end that denial and allow us as a community to literally save the lives of untold numbers of victims whose shame and guilt, and their sense that they are alone with no place to turn in the Jewish community, prevents them from reaching out for help. I see this initiative as a direct reflection of what it means for us Reconstructionists to be “cutting edge” as well.

We have never been merely about prayer, or study, or the celebration of life cycle moments. We have always recognized that to be a vibrant synagogue or Jewish community means to engage with the difficult ethical challenges of our time. To be a Reconstructionist is to believe that fulfilling our potential as Jews and human beings demands that we believe that what we say matters, that what we do matters, and that who we are matters. This is the true fulfillment of the rabbinic phrase,“Letakken olam bemalkhut Shaddai,” – To be partners with the Divine in healing the broken pieces of the world. What could be more “cutting edge” than that?

The Reconstructionist Network

Serving as central organization of the Reconstructionist movement

Training the next generation of groundbreaking rabbis

Modeling respectful conversations on pressing Jewish issues

Curating original, Jewish rituals, and convening Jewish creatives

The Reconstructionist Network