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  • Towards an Engaged Jewish Future

    Posted on March 21st, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Being an alum of HUC-JIR means being part of a community of intellegent engaged Jewish professionals. When those professionals come together and share their passions and ideas, there is untold potential. A recent gathering of the Rhea Hisrch School of Education alumni capitalized on that potential. This week we welcome Rabbi Lydia Medwin who shares her reflection of the learning that went on.

    In a recent Day of Learning for RHSOE alumni, we spoke together on the topic of Jewish community – what it was and how to facilitate its being built.  After a communal breakfast, the alumni (which included a group of alumni who were video-conferenced in from New York) sat together with five panelists, who spoke about Jewish community from different vantage points: Community of Practice, Community of Learners, Community in Worship, Community through Action, and Community through Technology.  Each panelist presented on the ways in which they approached community building, followed by a question and answer period guided by the organizer of the day, Josh Mason Barkin.  The panel was followed by breakout groups where we discussed the implications of our previous conversation.  After lunch, we reconvened to brainstorm about ways in which we might further the goals of community building for our synagogues.  The following is an overview of what I perceived as the major take-aways from the day:

    Rabbi Lydia Bloom Medwin

    The sustaining and nourishing of the Jewish community is one of the foundational concepts upon which our synagogues stand.  It is a idea that includes nothing in particular, and everything in reality.  In some ways, it defies definition, because it’s so close to the center of everything that we do and are.  For what would a synagogue be that felt no sense of community?  Judaism emphasizes the community – we need a minyan of 10 people to pray a full service; we need a community to celebrate births and funerals and everything in between; we need each other to fill many of the basic commandments of our tradition.  And think of the implications – when we forge a thick social fabric, we also weave meaning into our lives, create a safe place for those who are alone, afraid, and in need, establish a refuge from the outside world in which we can consider a different kind of world, one that is slower, more thoughtful and self-reflective, one in which we are heard and in which our voice counts.  We can seek the Divine in community in a way that is different from our private seeking.  We can make changes in our innermost selves when we allow other people to join us on our journeys.  We can also begin to make some of those changes in the outside world, in our public lives, with the help of our community.

    And yet, as Jewish professionals, we struggle every day to help facilitate this sense of community.  We try desperately to imbue in our congregants a feeling that we need their presence to be fulfilled, and that they need us in many ways too.  We try to convey the message that they belong to the Temple, and that the Temple, their Jewish community, and indeed the entire Jewish people, belongs to them too.  They are, in fact, the Jewish people – not an idealized, Fiddle-on-the-Roof type of Judaism that (may have) existed long ago; not the small group of Ultra Orthodox Jews that our so many of our congregants consider the “real deal religious Jews;” and not us professional Jews that many have handed over their Jewish identities to.  Some clergy and educators risk sinking into resignation and despair when considering this uphill battle, and if we continue to think about community in the same old way, they will have reason to be sad.  Jewish community can no longer be about professionals planning programs for congregants.  It can no longer be about the professionals knowing what is good for our congregants.  It is not about a show and it is not about perfection.  Jewish community IS about getting into deep conversation with each other, one cup of coffee at a time.  Jewish community is about collaboration and making decisions based on broad-based consensus.  It is about creating a place where people can come to take off their masks, to share what matters in their lives, to not always be right but instead to just be.

    There is great power in the Jewish community – we are diverse, resourced, smart, and innovative.  We are risk-takers and, despite our geographic spread, we are quite hamishy.  We have much potential in our offerings to greater numbers of our own congregants, in addition to those thousands of unaffiliated Jews out there still in search for a spiritual home.  We need to re-envision community at every level, from its implications for how we make decisions to the values we hold up as most important.  We need to look serious at alternate models of membership and dues payment.  We should reexamine our stance on B’nai Mitzvah and its real relevance to our Jewish youth as disconnected from religious schools.  We should also take another look at the way we bring ever more people into the center of the synagogue, into leadership training, and into a way of life that emphasizes experimentation, honest self-reflection, and a devotion to helping our congregants discover their own gifts and promote areas of growth.  Most of all, we need to highlight the importance of relationship – between clergy and educators who work towards the same goals, between professional staff and lay people whose teamwork make the Jewish world go round, and between lay people and lay people who actually build the social fabric of the Jewish community in rich and colorful ways.  For while we can facilitate this process, the professional staff of a synagogue cannot fabricate community building for our communities.  Jewish lay people must be highly involved if we are to see the reemergence of an organic, holistic, and healthy Jewish community of tomorrow.

    It was these kinds of conversations that were just beginning to emerge at our most recent Rhea Hirsch School of Education Day of Learning hosted at HUC-LA recently.  While the work ahead of us is great, the reward is greater.  I hope this conversation will be continued in the months and years ahead.