Visioning Our Jewish Future

Every other year the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation holds its biennial convention bringing together Reconstructionists from all over the world. In November the convention was held in Newport Beach, and University Synagogue in Irvine served as the host congregation. “The purpose of these conventions,” said Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue, “is to bring the delegates together to enrich their Judaism through study and expand their practical skills.” This year, with the theme of “Visioning our Jewish Future” the topics reflected new ideas and new concerns.

More than three hundred people began arriving Wednesday for the four-day meeting at the Hyatt Newporter. Many represented large established congregations, others smaller lay led congregations and still others chavurot. Many congregations indeed began as chavurot and grew into larger organizations. While the size and, often the style of Reconstructionist congregations may differ, they all share a common theology: a concept of God, God not as supernatural, but one that animates the universe and that works through us to bring godliness into the world. However, each Reconstructionist expresses his or her theology in different ways, mixing elements of tradition and modernity.

The convention’s goal was to address both the intellect and the spirit. As par for most conventions there were breakout sessions that focused on the various ways to approach spirituality or personal Jewish practice. But the soul of the convention remained the spiritual experience.

Because the JRF probably has the greatest diversity of membership, Shacharit and Shabbat morning services were designed to respond to those differences. Attendees had a choice of three or four different types of services from meditative to musical to more traditional.

University Synagogue had the pleasure of hosting the Shabbat service, which was a Shabbat Alive, a musical service with dancing and followed by a talk by featured speaker, Erwin Chermerinsky. The evening culminated with a concert by Harmonyia, a network of musicians from Reconstructionists around the country that meet regularly to develop liturgical music and folk music.

For Shabbat morning services, attendees were offered three choices of morning prayer services; everyone then joined together for the Torah service led by male and female rabbis from across the world. “It was especially gratifying,” said Rachlis, “to have three girls from University Synagogue — Sarah Wong, Samantha Schwarz and Hannah Douglis –chanting Torah.” Two of them, children from intermarriages, represent not only the diversity of the Jewish community today, but the positive effects of an inclusive philosophy, according to the rabbi.

One of the most exciting moments was when the leaders from Bet Tifilah Yisraeli – Israel House of Prayer – shared their story. The group was led by Esteban Gottfried from Argentina who made aliyah and felt the need for an Israeli homespun liberal Judaism. He served as the inspiration for this lay-led group that meets all year long. During the summer they hold Shabbat services at the harbor in Tel Aviv, where about 400 people show up for the Friday night outdoor service. This is the first indigenous Israeli liberal service, according to the group.

Another of the many highlights was the keynote speaker, Jane Eisner, who became the first female editor of the Forward in 2008. She addressed the convention’s central theme, Visioning Our Jewish Future, comparing some of the same issues the newspaper faces as does the Jewish community.

She cited as one of the greatest casualties in our lives today as “a lack of confidence in our relevance and identity.”   The Forward that Eisner edits today “is far more limited in its scope than The Forvertz of Ab Cahan, which had three-quarters of a million daily readers from coast to coast in its heyday.” While she noted that those days may be gone, Eisner believes that what she does is unique and essential to our community and must be pursued. She pointed out that everyone in the room would undoubtedly say the same thing about Judaism

The Forward’s readership in print is largely outside the New York metropolitan area. Eisner believes it is because many people subscribe to the paper to connect to other Jews. The need or lack of connection mirrors the challenge of the broader Jewish community. “Whether it’s in discussion of promoting “peoplehood”… or a more blunt recognition of the tribal quality of our Jewish identity, we depend on Jews feeling connected to other Jews,” said Eisner.

Another highlight was the dialogue between Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, and Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Gutow is a lawyer, rabbi and political organizer. As leader of the JCPA Gutow has helped move the Jewish community and the government to end genocide in Darfur, reform immigration policy, support Israel, maintain poverty programs and create a sustainable environment.  In 2007, Gutow was named to the “The Forward 50,” and in 2009 Newsweek named him the 20th most influential rabbi in the US. Gutow presently serves on the Economic Recovery Task Force of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president of J Street, described as the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans. He has twenty-five years of experience in government, politics and communications, in the United States and internationally, including numerous political campaigns.

While both share a two-state outlook, it is well known that their tactics differ. “What struck me,” said Rachlis, “was the civility of the exchange. There was neither rancor nor attacks of either party against the other. There are very few national organizations that would allow J Street to be represented and present its perspective.”

The third highlight was pure fun! One cannot have a meeting in California and not have a touch of Hollywood. Hollywood and Values and featured movie and television writers, directors and producers who are also members of JRF affiliate Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades: Jeff Nathanson, Steve Gomer, Janet Leahy and Lew Schneider. They spoke about how Judaism influences their writing and how difficult is it to maintain integrity in the Hollywood world. All agreed that is has been Judaism that helped them maintain their integrity — and that Judaism has something significant to say to the secular world. “It is as though the secular world is waiting to be hallowed, and in that respect Judaism can offer that,” said one member of the panel.

As the convention ended, members commented on not only how good it was to see old friends, meet new people and renew acquaintances, but how important it was for them all to connect with each other.  The next convention will be held in 2012 on the east coast. But until then, there are Shabbatons and learning days that will take place throughout the year in Reconstructionist congregations throughout the world.

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