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The Summer We Didn’t Get to Look Away … and Beyond

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By Seth Rosen

Seth Rosen, chair of Reconstructing Judaism's Board of Governors
Seth Rosen, chair of Reconstructing Judaism’s Board of Governors

At a mid-July meeting of the Reconstructing Judaism Board of Governors, I had the opportunity to offer a d’var Torah on the double parashah Mattot/Mas’ei.

Mattot/Mas’ei is not warm and fuzzy Torah for liberal Jews. It begins by telling us that promises made by a man are binding, but that promises made by a woman are only binding if they are not disavowed by her father or husband. Next it tells us in vivid detail about a genocide, demanded by Moshe and carried out by an army drawn from all 12 tribes, against the Midianites. The Midianites are the people who took Moshe in and protected him when he ran from Pharaoh into the wilderness. Ziporrah, Moshe’s wife, and Jethro, his father-in-law, and their extended family are Midianites. Yet Moshe commands: Wipe them all out. When the army returns without having killed all the women, Moshe — of all people — demands angrily that all of the Midianite women who are not virgins must be put to death. There’s more, but for present purposes it’s sufficient to say that Mattot/Mas’ei doesn’t get much better and, in some ways, gets worse.

Reading Mattot/Mas’ei inspired me to imagine the genius and foresight of the editors who compiled the Torah, in addition to the sages who decided when in the annual cycle each portion would be read. Yes, we read every word of the Torah, at least triennially, and yes, we believe that the whole Torah is inspired by our aspirations toward the Divine. But maybe, someone figured out, let’s stick this part in the middle of the summer. We’ll read it in July. The kids will be in camp. No one will have to struggle with this one for their bar or bat mitzvah. Everyone else will be on vacation. Ten, 12 people, tops, will be in shul. This part makes us feel uncomfortable. We’ll read it, but we’ll stick it in the summer, and we’ll make it really easy to look away.

But, of course, this was the summer that we didn’t get to look away.

This summer we faced a global pandemic that still requires constant vigilance: masks and hand washing and social distancing and a careful eye towards everyone we pass in the street or the supermarket. Each day of the summer, the increasing numbers of new cases and an awful, mounting, U.S. death toll forced us to understand just how dangerous looking away from COVID-19 can be.

This summer we encountered a growing movement that forces us to stare into the face of racial injustice. For those of us who are accepted as white, it demands that we stop looking away. It requires us to try to imagine what it means to raise a child of color in America and examine how we, despite all of our best intentions, fail in our efforts to include and empower people of color in our civil and religious communities.

And this is the summer when we had to look hard at the possibility that Israel would flout international law and opinion, including the opinions of liberal and moderate Jews who are lovers of Israel, and annex Palestinian territory. Though the late-breaking diplomatic accord between the United Arab Emirates and Israel has at least temporarily delayed annexation, Netanyahu’s insistence that it is still possible means we still must grapple with how this move could impact our relationship with Israel and our long-held aspirations for its future.  

We had to look hard at the reality of a massive economic dislocation that has caught us by surprise. What does it mean to us as individuals, as a community, as a country and as the Reconstructionist movement? Like all nonprofits and most small businesses across North America and Europe, we at Reconstructing Judaism have had to face the reality of making hard choices about our future with existential implications in a world we can’t predict, let alone control.

And we are staring down the barrel of a presidential election that — more than any other I can remember — confronts us with stark alternatives and a feeling that the outcome will determine America’s future, and maybe our place in it.

This was the summer of not looking away. This summer was not the place we could tuck away the parts we don’t like to deal with. This was the summer of coming face to face — panim el panim — with the hard stuff. And maybe finding our own way to godliness there, too. We were not on vacation. We were sitting in board meetings. We were glued to our Zoom for work and prayer and study and community gatherings and “visits” with our relatives and friends. This summer and beyond it into the fall, we are called upon to examine the world and ourselves in the clear light of scary and sometimes unpleasant realities, and maybe come out stronger and closer to our aspiration to bring godliness into the real world.

So how are we, the organizations and affiliates of the Reconstructionist movement, doing so far?

Facing the pandemic:

  • Rabbis, educators, administrators and lay leaders of our affiliates across North America and beyond have responded to the COVID-19 crisis with energy and creativity. Our communities have mobilized to provide check-in calls and food deliveries and, in some cases, crisis care for one another. Rabbis and communal leaders have created new ways for us to be in community through virtual services and life-cycle events, as well as newly invented learning opportunities and ritual experiences. If you have not done so, I urge you to visit ReconConnect. From there, you can link to live online experiences from Reconstructionist communities across the movement. And we also sponsored movement-wide programming, including a month of learning sponsored by our Chesapeake region, a Hallel sing-along for Passover, and a movement-wide Tikkun Leyl Shavuot that featured more than 30 rabbis and teachers that attracted hundreds of participants from around the world.
  • At Reconstructing Judaism, our Thriving Communities, Innovation and Impact and Communications teams have responded with energy and vigor:
    • We have made available online versions of our Daily Prayerbook, Prayers for House of Mourning, Shabbat and Holidays, Prayerbook for the Days of Awe, Siddur Kol Ha’Noar: The Voice of Children (Transliterated) and (with the collaboration of Rabbi Joy Levitt and Rabbi Michael Strassfeld) our Passover Haggadah, A Night of Questions, to members of Reconstructionist communities at no charge. (If you would like to purchase actual copies of these books, visit the Reconstructionist Press).
    • We introduced a weekly “Virtual Shabbat Box” to provide meaningful at-home Shabbat experiences for thousands of individuals.
    • We distributed similar “Virtual Box” experiences for Passover, Shavuot and Tisha B’Av. Look for the upcoming virtual boxes for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
    • Our online properties, including Ritualwell and Evolve, saw users increase by 50 percent or more during the crisis for an aggregate of more than 253,000 visits during the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic alone.
    • Our expansive online Reconstructionist Learning programming, which includes Ritualwell Immersions, Reconstructionist Learning Networks and Evolve’s Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations, offer tremendous online adult-education opportunities.I invite you to visit Reconstructionist Learning and join the hundreds of people who have already experienced these live opportunities.
    • If you’re interested in graduate-level rabbinical study, you are welcome to virtually attend class with students from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. To see the selected course offerings, visit the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s website.
    • Our podcasts, Hashivenu and Evolve, continue to present Jewish teachings and practice focused on resilience and thought-provoking conversations about the urgent issues faced by Jewish people today.
    • For the High Holidays, and in collaboration with the RRA, we have developed a platform to access original music, groundbreaking rabbinical teaching videos, newly reinterpreted liturgy, pre-recorded family services and other Reconstructionist offerings from movement rabbis, musicians, educators, camp counselors, lay leaders and congregants, all of which you can find in our ever-growing High Holidays 2020/5781 webpage. I invite you to bookmark this webpage and check back regularly as it develops throughout the High Holidays.
    • From the beginning of the crisis, our Thriving Communities department has provided direct support to our affiliated communities through countless phone calls, Zoom meetings, webinars and listserv discussions. During the first three months of the crisis alone, rabbis, lay leaders, executive directors and education directors from 65 of our affiliated communities participated in one or more “role calls” sponsored by Thriving Communities, generously sharing their problems and solutions with one another.
    • Havaya Summer Programs offered Havaya@Home and provided an immersive, online two-week summer-camp experience. Havaya@Home is now offering High Holidays programming for families in our affiliated communities also at no cost.
    • The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College faculty and staff have moved with agility to adopt new online learning modalities to continue to train rabbinical students with dedication and excellence. We are very excited to welcome 15 new students in the incoming class this fall. If you would like to know more about them, look for their biographies that we’re posting once a week on the College’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter platforms.

In connection with the movement for racial justice:

  • In January, 2020, our joint Tikkun Olam Commission (formed in collaboration with the RRA) determined that its primary work will be to develop resources and programs to support movement-wide engagement on the issue of racial justice, and the impact of racist attitudes and policies on non-white populations. That commitment was subsequently affirmed by votes of the Plenum (the congress of affiliated communities), the Reconstructing Judaism Board of Governors and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association Board of Directors. I invite you to read the Mandate for the Tikkun Olam Commission.
  • Shahanna McKinney-Baldon, a member of Reconstructionist congregation Shaari Shamayim in Madison, Wis., has agreed to be the lay co-chair of the Tikkun Olam Commission and, in that role, a member of the Reconstructing Judaism Board of Governors. Shahanna is a nationally recognized leader in the movement to increase access to Jewish community life for Jewish People of Color (JOCs), through growing diversity work centered on JOC leadership. I encourage you to read Shahanna’s article, “I helped coin the term ‘Jews of color.’ It’s time for a history lesson,” published in JTA on June 3, 2020.
  • We have continued our work to form a Jews of Color and Allies Advisory Group to promote equity and empowerment for JOCs in the Reconstructionist movement and our affiliates. Carmen Amalia Corrales, a member of our affiliate B’Nai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue in Montclair, N.J., and a lifelong advocate for diversity, empowerment and inclusion, has agreed to chair the JOC and Allies Advisory Group. In that capacity, she will also join the Reconstructing Judaism Board of Governors. I invite you to read the Mandate for Jews of Color and Allies Advisory Group.
  • On June 19, in response to a call from Not Free to Desist, Rabbi Deborah Waxman and I issued a statement committing the Reconstructionist movement to developing specific, ambitious and achievable benchmarks for racial equity, diversity and inclusion throughout the movement, as well as expressed our determination to be held accountable in our pursuit of racial justice and equity. You can read our statement here.
  • By far, the most visited section of the Evolve essay website are those under the “Race” topic. On the Evolve podcast the episode, “Racism in the Jewish Community” drew approximately 30 percent more traffic than any other Evolve podcast episode in 2020.
  • Our Joint Israel Commission, also formed in collaboration with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, has been working diligently to model and promote thoughtful and open-hearted discussions across differences regarding Israel-Palestine, and will work to develop materials to facilitate discussion and study for our movement. Our Evolve project is deeply immersed in this work, and under its “Israel-Palestine” topic has solicited and published nearly 20 thoughtful essays from a wide range of viewpoints intended to facilitate respectful dialogue across differences.

With regard to other challenges we face as the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement, we — like all nonprofits in the Jewish sector and beyond — need to understand how the dislocations of the last six months will affect our ability to continue to function and to provide the support we have offered to Reconstructionist communities, our rabbinic students and other individuals who are drawn to the Reconstructionist approach. The economic dislocation that has accompanied the pandemic (including the cancellation of our summer camping season) and other economic factors (some unique to our movement and some more broadly felt) have made it clear that we need to take a hard look at how we function — both to insure that we are making the best possible use of the philanthropic resources available to us and to work hard to show our worth so that we can broaden and deepen our sources of financial support. That work has begun at our board and our senior staff levels, and we will reach out to our rabbis and to members of affiliated communities for guidance and support as it continues.

I want to credit Sam Shonkoff, whose essay on reading Mattot/Mas’ei called “Coping With Complexity” inspired me. He writes that we cannot evade or explain away, but must connect intimately with, Torah, even when it blatantly contradicts our contemporary notions of equality and justice. Similarly, he writes, we must apply this discipline in our relationships to the world around us, and not shirk from confronting with a clear eye the realities that remain unpleasant or make us uncomfortable: oppression, poverty and epidemic. It is only, he writes, by looking hard at reality and acting on what we see — and by engaging in the world as it really is — that we can achieve shalom, which he defines as “wholeness,” a predicate to peace.

That blessing — the blessing of wholeness and of peace — is my wish for all of us in the Reconstructionist movement as we begin the new year. Shana Tovah.

Seth Rosen is the chair of the Board of Governors of Reconstructing Judaism.