Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Brief Introduction to Why I Perform Interfaith Marriages

Updated October, 2013

One of the most difficult issues to address in the modern Jewish world is that of intermarriage between Jews and those of other faiths. Prior to the 18th Century, the issue had not been of any significant concern in Jewish circles for over well over a millennia. Laws in Christian and Muslim lands had prevented such marriages from occurring. Penalties in Christian and Muslim law were extreme with some codes declaring the punishment of execution for any sexual interaction between Jews and others. Jews and Christians did not interact socially, much less marry.

The coming of modern western states with unprecedented liberty for Jews began to change that. The Christian world came to see marriages between Christians and Jews as acceptable and since virtually all children of such marriages were raised as Christians (I do not know of any who were not, but hesitate to say there were none), there were few concerns on the part of Christian families. In fact, many Jews converted to Christianity. Jews, however, were largely divided on the issue with religious Jews, who we would call Orthodox, decidedly opposed to the practice and secular Jews who had given up any real religious connections, in favor of it. There were no Reform or Conservative Jews at this point in time.

The 19th Century brought major changes to the Jewish world including the essential formation of both Reform and Conservative Judaism. Reform Judaism at its inception was a movement seeking to reform Judaism just as Christianity had been reformed by the Protestant Reformation. Reformers possessed a wide range of beliefs and many would almost certainly be seen as Traditional Jews who simply wished to modernize Orthodoxy. In Europe, these reformers saw themselves as literally saving Judaism from the mire of outdated customs and superstition along with a resistance to reason that was antithetical to the age.

Why is this history relevant to understanding the performance of interfaith marriages? The answer is that this reformation of Judaism was indeed a slippery slope just as many had argued from the beginning. Once Halakhah, the inherited rabbinical legal Tradition, no longer had the final say, no longer needed to be maintained for the sake of Tradition, and contradicted the desired path of those modern Jews who could not in good conscience remain bound to it, laws, customs, and traditions all came into question. Among these was the practice of Jews only marrying other Jews and at that most often through arranged marriages.

The moment Jews were both allowed to fall in love with whom they wished AND could freely interact with Christians, that Jews were fall in love and marry Christians became inevitable. That said, Jews remained in largely insular communities well into the 20th century and such marriages were rare. With westward expansion after 1849 and even more so with the industrial revolution and massive Jewish immigration into the United States in the 1880s, social interaction between Jews and Christians increased dramatically and so did interfaith marriages. The vast majority of such marriages were performed by Christian clergy and the children were raised as Christians. However, the beginning of the 20th century saw American rabbis performing increasing numbers of such ceremonies and rabbinic officiation was addressed as an issue of concern at the 1909 Central Conference of American Rabbis national convention. The decision then by the Reform rabbinical body was to discourage, but not to ban, their performance.

For some rabbis, this was done out of respect for and deference to Jewish Tradition, a position held by many Reform rabbis today. For others, the decision was influenced by concerns that Jews would see such children as either not really Jewish or would ostracize them because of their Christian parent. In spite of this, interfaith marriage rates continued to rise and continue to rise today. Many are surprised to learn that interfaith marriages prior to the 1930s were far more common in Germany and France than in the United States. Here, they were relatively rare until after World War II, only rising slightly until the 1960s when broader social changes altered the fabric of Jewish life.

It was at the 1949 CCAR convention that the issue of rabbinical performance was once again discussed at length. The loss of six million Jews caused rabbis on both sides of the debate to reconsider their positions. The major sides at that convention argued from two distinct and seemingly irreconcilable positions. One side believed that the performance of interfaith marriages helped to foster assimilation from Jewish culture into Christian culture and was a sure path toward the further reduction of Jewish life in the future, both through a watered down Judaism possessed by children of these marriages who were raised as Jews and through the loss of no small number of potential Jewish children to Christianity. The other side, with which I agree, believed that evidence had shown that people would marry those that they loved whether or not their rabbi or any other rabbi would perform the marriage and that the only significant impact that a rabbi’s decision to perform the wedding or not to perform it had upon the couple was in either encouraging or discouraging their participation in Jewish life and their raising of Jewish children.

Thus, one side essentially stated that they would not perform these marriages in order to defend Judaism for posterity while the other side stated that they would do so in order to encourage the survival of the Jewish people, the very posterity for which the other side wished to preserve Judaism. In 2009, Reform rabbis from both poles of the debate are trying to move toward the center in the realization that Judaism and the Jewish people are both important and one cannot simply choose one alone while ignoring the other.

My belief is that if I do my job in welcoming parents of potential Jews into my congregation and into my community, I help to provide a future for the Jewish people to worry about what kind of Judaism Jews are practicing. In my mind, those who would rather see generations fall away because they are not good enough Jews or not Jewish enough promote an idea that will simply result in the slow death of both Judaism and the Jewish people.

My requirements for performing a marriage for those who are planning to raise their children as Jews, or who will not have children together for various reasons, differ based upon the particular couple. Some couples I will suggest or even require attend an Introduction to Judaism class. I often will speak with couples multiple times, sometimes by phone, over a period of months prior to a wedding. In all cases when performing a marriage, I assume the role of rabbi, representative of the Jewish Tradition. I will not perform a marriage as a “justice of the peace” acting in a secular manner. My rules for same sex couples desiring some sort of religious ceremony, be it a commitment ceremony or potentially a marriage ceremony, are exactly the same as my requirements for a heterosexual couple.

What I know for certain is that those families for whom I have performed wedding ceremonies, both the Jewish and non-Jewish sides, have been very happy with them and have in many instances become closer to the Jewish community than they were prior to the events.

Interfaith marriage will continue to be a major issue facing congregations and rabbis going forward and as I have done for years now, I will seek ways to both strengthen the Jewish people and the Jewish religion.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Marriage as Unification

Shalom All,

In a sermon that I wrote some time ago, I looked at the issue of rabbis who do not perform interfaith marriages, but who instead insist on conversion of the partner who is not Jewish. I noted that the idea that bringing "Jews" into Judaism who are Jewish in name only, but may even be hostile to Judaism because of the pressure to convert, does not ultimately benefit Judaism. Quoting Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver:

There is much which all religions have in common and much which differentiates them. Their common purpose in the world will not be advanced by merger or amalgamation. Were all arts, philosophies, and religions cast into one mold, mankind would be the poorer for it.

Rabbi Silver was not talking about unification or marriage, but about homogenization, the mixing of differences until differences are impossible to discern and the ingredients are no longer identifiable. Marriage between Jews and those of other religions should not result in some homogenization of Judaism with Christianity or Hinduism or Buddhism, but should result in a household that is led by a Jew and a believer in something other than Judaism.

I hope that that household becomes a household that will raise Jewish children that honor and respect the religious beliefs of both of their parents, but do not believe themselves to be BOTH AND. Children may be taught the traditions of both religions, but they cannot be told that THEY ARE BOTH RELIGIONS. One cannot both be something and not be the same thing at the same time. One cannot be a monotheist and a polytheist. One cannot believe that Jesus was the messiah of the Jews, while awaiting his return, and be a Jew who does not believe that Jesus was the messiah, who expects a messianic age, not a personal messiah, and who believes that there was no "original sin" for which Jesus had to die to atone, not to mention that God doesn't have any children to begin with, unless you are talking about all of humanity.

To become one, to marry or to unify in whatever form that may take, is a matter of using the characteristics of individuals to create a partnership that is stronger than either individual was alone. One can be a proudly identifying Jew while having a respect for and understanding of Christianity. One can certainly love Judaism and a Christian spouse or parent. Unification does not mean abandonment of difference, but may in fact be a way to enable it to survive as couples support each other's spiritual journeys, often enabling journeys that they might be reluctant to take on their own.

Is it easier to be of one faith? Of course it is. It avoids conflicts. Yet, conflicts are often the times when we learn and work to improve ourselves. When others challenge our beliefs, we learn to defend them. When we do not question, we do not learn answers.

Just a few thoughts,


Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Rabbi for EVERYONE, Jewish or Not

Tikkun Olam and Repairing Friendships
Erev Rosh Hashanah 2005-5765

Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver was perhaps the leading American Rabbi at the end of World War II. He was one of the leading spokesmen for Israel and for Zionism long before most Reform Rabbis were anything but hostile to Zionism. Abba Hillel Silver was a visionary, a rabbi who at once could see the scope and causes of a problem and offer its solution.

At the end of the war, Judaism faced a crisis, not only because one third of the world’s Jews had been murdered, but because those that survived faced an increasing threat of assimilation and the continuing subjugation of Judaism and religion in general to other priorities. There was a fear that the persecuted Jews having witnessed their brethren’s fate in Europe might be willing to give up some of that uniqueness that separates the Jews from those around them, to give in to those who decry their difference and wish the Jews to be like those around them. Abba Hillel Silver took umbrage with that.

He wrote, “Any movement for good will which demands of me self-abnegation is a hostile attack. The man who would be my friend only if he can convert me to his way of living and thinking and believing, is not my friend. He is my enemy. He does not like me for what I am. He would like to see his own reflection in me.”

This is how we react when confronted by those who would have us cease to be Jews and to become something else. As we approach the caucus season, which will come all too soon for some and far too long from now for others among us, please remember that this is also true for politics!!! Sometimes diversity of opinions and diversity in general can be very uncomfortable. This is the reason that people are not supposed to discuss religion and politics at the dinner table!

I recently saw the movie Watermarks which is a documentary about the HaKoah Women’s Swimming Team which was the Jewish women’s swim team in Vienna, Austria prior to the conquest of Austria by the Nazis.

HaKoah was an organization founded for the purpose of allowing Jews to participate in sports. Other teams did not allow Jewish members.

In 1936, just before the Berlin Olympics, the top ranked female swimmer in Austria was a Jewish woman on the HaKoah team. She was asked to represent Austria at the Berlin Olympics. She refused. The Austrian Swimming Federation then not only banned her from future competition, but also removed all of her records from the swimming record books.

Not long after that, a parade was held, in which all of the sports teams paraded through the city of Vienna. HaKoah followed behind the Nazi party’s team which was cheered with shouts of “Heil Hitler” as it passed. In the movie, it was said that as HaKoah passed, there was absolute silence, a frightening silence full of hatred and loathing. The members of HaKoah ran from the parade back to their club worried not only about the future of HaKoah in competition with the other clubs, but about their safety in 1936 Vienna.

In the movie, one of the women states that she had no real connection to Judaism before she joined HaKoah. She simply considered herself, “Austrian.” Suddenly, events made all of the Hakoah members feel very Jewish.

Perhaps one of the most telling scenes in the movie occurred in modern day Vienna, where surviving members of the Hakoah swim team were gathering for the making of the movie. One woman, Greta, I believe, who had lived in the United States since the war was having a chat with the Austrian driver bringing her to the hotel.

It came up in the conversation that she had left soon after the Nazis took over Austria. The driver said, “Those were terrible times. Particularly for non-natives.” Greta immediately and rightly took offense. “I was born here, my parents and my grandparents were born here.” In fact, Greta’s family had lived in Austria for 400 years. The driver’s response was essentially, “Yes, but you are not Austrian.”

What does it mean to truly belong somewhere? What does it mean to be at home? To be welcome? Clearly the driver in the story believed that he was being welcoming of Greta. He seemed happy that she had come to visit his beautiful city. Only a generation or two earlier Austrians certainly were not welcoming of Jews. How different he was to be driving her around Vienna.

Yet Greta did not feel welcomed at all by this man. He had deeply rooted prejudices against Jews. Jews could not be Austrians, even Jews whose families lived in Austria for four centuries. When the driver said those words, “Yes, but you are not Austrian,” he demonstrated how much farther there is to go. Those prejudices which brought about the horrors of the Holocaust are still present. There is still too great a willingness to see differences and too little willingness to find similarities.

Even with that, if differences were seen as enhancing the world rather than corrupting it, if diversity of opinion and belief was seen as healthy for the advancement of humanity instead of as foiling it, and ethnic characteristics mattered less than our moral and ethical qualities… even then, even with minds focused on difference, the world would be a far better place.

Interestingly, Reform Judaism in this country has fought the battle at different times for and against difference. During that time when Jews were severely discriminated against, when they could not belong to the vast majority of Country Clubs, Dining Clubs, and Athletic Clubs American Jews created their own, just as the Viennese Jews created Hakoah. Synagogue Centers and Community Centers sprang up around the country in which Jews could swim, play sports, and dine without worry of discrimination.

Throughout the 19th Century and for the first half of the 20th Century, Jews were encouraged to assimilate, particularly Reform Jews, but to a degree, also Conservative and even Orthodox Jews. Rabbis regularly gave sermons, not on the Torah or Jewish history, but on secular books that helped the members of their congregations learn how to be more like other Americans. Many Jews on the Classical Reform end of the spectrum went so far as to bring Christmas Trees into their homes, almost none of which contained Christian family members as intermarriage rates were very low, for the purpose of blending in with their neighbors during the holiday season.
I can just picture it now, “Oy vey, Morty! It’s supposed to be a five pointed star, not a Star of David! And no, I’m not making my matzah balls because they’re hard enough for you to hang them on it! Morty, it’s tinsel, not Tallis, that goes on the tree! Oy vey, Morty!”

Many Jews worked very hard to learn how not to appear to be Jewish.

There is of course the joke about the Jewish man who wanted to join the elite country club:

Harry Moses Abramovitz wanted to join the Greenvale Country Club, a place known not to admit Jews. First, Harry went to court and had his name changed to Howard Trevelyan Frobisher. After that, he flew to a plastic surgeon in Switzerland who transformed his Semitic profile into a Nordic one. Next, he hired an elocution tutor from England to teach him to speak like a native Brit. And finally, Harry worked his way into the graces of several well-established members of the Greenvale Country Club. Two years after embarking on his project, Howard Frobisher appeared before the committee. "Please state your name," the chairman said. In a clipped Oxfordian accent, Harry replied, "I'm Howard Trevelyan Frobisher." "And, tell us, where were you educated, Mr. Frobisher?" "Eton and Oxford." The chairman beamed. "And what is your religious affiliation?"

The sad thing is that for much of the last two hundred years, Jews spent a great deal of time an effort to appear to be anything but Jewish.

Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver had something to say about this trend toward assimilation:

There is much which all religions have in common and much which differentiates them. Their common purpose in the world will not be advanced by merger or amalgamation. Were all arts, philosophies, and religions cast into one mold, mankind would be the poorer for it.

In other words, our goal should not be to pursue commonality at the expense of maintaining our distinctiveness. We will not benefit from merging or amalgamating since inevitably it will be those things that make us truly exceptional that are lost. Would it have been better for Jews to have said, “You know, we really have so much in common with Christians, let us just drop those things that separate us from them.” Would the world have been a better place if there never were martyrs of any religion who stood up for what they believed in face of persecution? In the Jewish world, it would be easier for us all, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox to get along if we all just followed the Rabbinical Tradition according to the Orthodox interpretation. If only, Reform Judaism did not allow women to lead prayers or read Torah, if only Reform Judaism did not allow gays and lesbians to be clergy, if only Reform rabbis did not perform intermarriages, if only Reform Judaism did not recognize as Jews those whose father was Jewish, but whose mother was not, if only all of us kept Kashrut, if only… If only there were no differences, we would get along much better. At least, all of those who do not really care about any of those things, who are, of course, mostly the people who are pressuring us to change.

There are rabbis out there, even in the Reform movement, but for certain in the Conservative movement, who believe that after refusing to perform an intermarriage for them, interfaith couples will somehow feel welcomed when they return after marriage. I see it in this way. A couple seeking to be a part of the Jewish community and needing help to do so is slugged in the gut by the rabbi, who as soon as the marriage is over, perhaps not until they have children, extends his hand and says, “Now I’ll help you.” And what of those who will extend a blessing upon the marriage after the fact, but only privately and not even in the sanctuary? Can that couple feel anything but that their union is not good enough for either Judaism or the rabbi and that while he may care for them, he is ashamed to bless them in public?

I perform interfaith marriages because I see myself as creating a Jewish household, which means, a household in which Jewish children may be raised. I do so because I see that action, that embrace of the rabbi of two people in love, as not only something that might as well be done because the couple is going to get married with or without my involvement, but because I believe that by reaching out to them, I show them that Reform Judaism cares about BOTH OF THEM, Jew and non-Jew, and that Reform Judaism will maintain that respect and caring all through their life together. It is simply wrong in my mind to deny them that embrace when they come to get married, but to say to them if they return later with children, “Hey, our survival depends on your kids, let me teach them Judaism” and teach them Judaism in such a way that tells them that intermarriage, understood in no uncertain terms by the child as “MY PARENTS’ MARRIAGE,” is not acceptable in the eyes of God or of the Jewish religion. It is no different that telling that child that they are the product of sin.

For those who are not Reform Jews, there is the added slap in the face if the mother is not Jewish and the rabbi tells them that their children have to convert to Judaism before they can be treated as Jews. Reform Judaism saw that slap in the face as a major deterrent to those who wished to participate in the Jewish community and created and passed the doctrine of Patrilineal descent in 1983, in which a child whose father is Jewish, but whose mother is not, is considered Jewish as long as he or she is raised as a Jew.

Is it any wonder why such a large percentage of interfaith families do not raise their children as Jews? The only truly welcoming place for intermarried Jews is in the Reform Movement and, since many Reform rabbis do not perform intermarriages, only in those Reform congregations with rabbis who do perform them. I would add that how they are treated, not only by the rabbi, but by the congregation and the movement after the wedding is more important still. For those of you in sales, you know. It is difficult to get the customer in the door in the first place. Keeping them coming back is very difficult. Bringing them back after you or your business associates treated them badly and hurt their feelings? That is a lost cause. Judaism over the past 200 years has created far too many lost causes by refusing to acknowledge as holy to the Jewish people and the Jewish tradition the love of a Jew and a non-Jew. Those rabbis who continually hold the view that such love cannot be publicly sanctioned by them and by the Jewish tradition are doing irreparable harm to the Jewish future.

Some rabbis out there actually argue that we should lower the bar for conversion so that we do not have to perform intermarriages, essentially pretending that someone who is not really sure that they want to be Jewish is Jewish. They argue that most of us don’t keep all the mitzvot, most of us do not attend services regularly, most of us don’t keep kosher; why should we demand that of Jews by Choice. Let’s make conversion quick and easy so that we can avoid intermarriage!

In my mind, doing so lowers the bar of what it means to be a Jew well below what I find acceptable. Being a Jew should not be simply calling yourself Jewish or thinking that you might be a Jew, but not really being sure. While I would say that for every Jew by Choice there is a different standard of what being Jewish means to them, it would be an insult to every one of them and to all of us who believe that that there is something greater than our opinion of ourselves that matters, if there were no standard, or almost no standard.

Beyond that, does doing so not smack of what Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver stated that, “Any movement for good will which demands of me self-abnegation is a hostile attack. The man who would be my friend only if he can convert me to his way of living and thinking and believing, is not my friend. He is my enemy. He does not like me for what I am. He would like to see his own reflection in me.”

Would we not be demanding exactly that of a non-Jewish fiancée if we pushed conversion by extortion under the guise of the rabbi saying, “I cannot do your marriage unless you change who you are and accept what I believe.” There is no integrity in that. Integrity requires that we respect them for what they believe, not demand that they believe what we do.

That is another reason why I perform intermarriages. I do not want to force someone to lie to me or even to themselves, to falsely become Jewish to satisfy a requirement for marriage. Additionally, it seems to me that people who become Jews solely for that reason are likely to have some animosity toward the tradition. It is precisely in line with the words of Rabbi Silver, “The man who would be my friend only if he can convert me to his way of living and thinking and believing, is not my friend.” To be truly welcoming necessitates being welcoming of difference, not seeking to erase it, not ignoring it, and not simply tolerating it so long as it poses no challenge.

Would it benefit Reform Jews in their relations with Conservative and Othodox Jews to refuse to perform intermarriages and to eliminate the doctrine of patrilineal descent? Absolutely it would. When Reform, Conservative, and Othodox children celebrated Judaism together, there would not be a question of whether or not some of the children are not “technically Jewish” in the minds of the Conservative and Orthodox families. The Reform kids would not worry about their Jewishness being questioned.

Would it make Reform Judaism better? Absolutely not. It would imply that such children are not Jewish enough and coupled with a refusal to perform intermarriages, that their families are not Jewish enough. Such views are insulting to interfaith families, many of whom not only choose to raise their children as Jews, but are active participants in the life of Jewish congregations. Whether or not those families are welcomed the moment that potential mom and potential dad walk into the rabbi’s study or even talk to the rabbi on the phone, has an enormous impact on whether or not they will join the Jewish community and whether or not they will see Judaism as a welcoming place in which their children may grow up.

When interfaith families come to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and see, as they would in this congregation, the Christian mom who brought her son or daughter to Sunday school and Hebrew lessons for years, helped them study from the tapes, and worked with them on their speech standing in line in the Torah pass as a recognized participant in the transmission of Jewish identity and heritage, they feel welcome. When they see a Christian father of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah standing next to mom and being a part of the Torah pass they feel welcome. As they also do when they hear them read additions to the Jewish liturgy designed specifically to be read by anyone, Jewish or otherwise, and not to violate the integrity of their beliefs. How welcome do they feel when they see the mother or father standing silently behind her husband or his wife, or worse when they see that she is not standing on the bimah at all because they are not Jewish?

How do they feel, when having committed to raising their child as a Jew, that not only are thanks NOT offered by the congregation, but they themselves are seen as part of an abomination, an intermarriage. Such a place cannot consider itself to be interfaith friendly in my mind.

The Reform movement has come to the realization that simply not being hostile to interfaith couples and tolerating their presence is hardly being welcoming. Not pushing someone away does not imply that you are happy to see them. Telling them, it’s okay for you to be here, but God forbid you speak and certainly don’t touch the Torah, is not being welcoming, it’s being insulting and humiliating, not only to the mother or father who is not Jewish, but to the Jewish spouse and even worse, their children. Who wants to be part of a religion that does that to the mom or dad that they love? Is it any wonder that children who have grown up in those congregations may not have a positive view of Judaism as a welcoming place for interfaith families? Being welcoming takes positive actions, not simply the absence of negative ones.

If we are to instill a love of Judaism in the generations to come, it will be by embracing every member of each family. It will be because we see everyone who is part of a family in this congregation as part of our strength and because we have let the children of interfaith families know that Judaism considers both of their parents important, not merely tolerating one of them in order to achieve support from the other. It will be because we have reached out to them and said, you are important to us and we are very happy to have you here.

I consider myself the rabbi for every member of every family in this congregation, whether they are Jewish or not. If there is someone in need, I am there to help.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Living Our History – Passover

Sermon on Living Our History – Passover
March 30, 2007
Rabbi David Kaufman

This week, I had the opportunity to deliver the invocation for the Iowa State House and Senate. I have had one previous opportunity to do that and have joked about the fact that what I should have said in that context is “I pray to God that the state of Iowa will enforce a real separation of church and state!” Yet, it is an honor to speak in that context and a wonderful opportunity to teach about Judaism.

This time, when Paulie Lipsman called me Monday afternoon to ask if I would fill a vacant slot the next day, I remembered a conversation that I had with Ako Samad, who is serving in the State House now. Ako told me that the invocations are always very Christological and that he would like me to come and he would sponsor me. So on Tuesday morning, I delivered the invocation standing on the podium with a Muslim, Ako, and a Christian, State Senator Mark Hatch, who co-sponsored me. It was, as far as we know, the only time that a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim have ever stood together on the podium of the Iowa state House or Senate for the invocation.

I talked about the coming Passover holiday and its themes, particularly the importance of the Freedom of Religion.

This evening, I would like to share with you, some of my thoughts from that morning and also some as I look forward to the coming Passover week.

On Monday evening, Jewish people from around the world will be thanking God for the blessing of freedom as we recall the Exodus from Egypt during our Passover Seder meals. We are commanded by our tradition, not merely to retell the story of the bitterness of slavery; not merely to retell the story of the wonders that God did for our people in ancient times as told in our scriptures; but instead, we are to act as if we ourselves have been brought from slavery to freedom. Our texts remind us, “Remember that YOU were a slave in Egypt.”

We also read the text, “Arami Oveid Avi,” “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” That text reminds us that our ancestors were wanderers who had nothing, and that, we, who have blessings in life, should be thankful for them.

From these traditions comes a third, “Remember the stranger, for you were a stranger.” There were times, for many Jews all too recently, that our people were forced to flee their homes, to live as strangers, to suffer curses in order to obtain blessings in a new land. We must remember, as we deal with the strangers in our midst, that we were once strangers ourselves.

The former President of Israel, Ezer Weizman, said, in an eloquent speech to the German Bundestag in 1996:

All Jews, in every generation must regard themselves as if they had been there, in previous generations, places, and events.

● I was a slave in Egypt.

● I received the Torah at Mount Sinai.

● Together with Joshua and then with Elijah, I crossed the Jordan River.

● I entered Jerusalem with King David, was exiled from it with King Zedekiah, and did not forget it by the rivers of Babylon.

● And when Adonai returned the captives of Zion, I dreamed among the builders of its ramparts.
● I fought the Romans and was banished from Spain.

● I was bound to the stake in Mainz.

● I studied Torah in Yemen and lost my family in Kishinev.

● I was incinerated in Treblinka, rebelled in Warsaw, and emigrated to the land of Israel, the country from which I had been exiled and where I had been born, from which I come and to which I return.

● I am a wandering Jew who follows in the footsteps of his forbearers, and just as I escorted them there and then, so do my forbearers accompany me and stand here with me today.

When our forbearers, those Jews who fled Czarist Russia in the 1880s, the Jews who fled from persecution in the aftermath of World War I, and the Jews who fled from the throes of genocide during the darkest time in our people’s history, sat around their Passover Seder tables in this country; they realized the true meaning of the Passover Seder, from oppression to freedom. Not only had they understood its meaning, not only had they remembered the trials and tribulations of their ancestors, but that meaning had become real for them.

As they sang the songs of Passover, these American Jews added a new song to their and our American Jewish repertoire, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty.” And Irving Berlin, born as Issador Baline, whose family fled from Russia and came to this land of liberty in 1893, wrote one of his own to add to it, “God Bless America!”

What blessings we have! Our journey has been long and arduous and those blessings are always under threat. The future is an unknown. The famous Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai wrote:

And what is the continuity of my life?
I am like one who left Egypt.
The Red Sea is split in two and I cross on dry ground,
With two walls of water—on my right and on my left.

Behind me—Pharaoh’s soldiers and horsemen.
Before me—the wilderness
And perhaps, the Promised Land.
This is the continuity of my life.

Our people are walking upon dry land. The future is unknown. There are always pursuers, those who wish our people ill, behind us. Yet, it seems also that our survival is overseen by a miraculous force that brings us through tribulation time and time again.

How many times could we say, “Dayeinu?” How many times remember miracles and tremendous deeds that saved our people? We say, “Dayeinu,” “it would have been enough for us,” but we know that “Lo Dayeinu,” “it would not have been enough for us,” is our reality.

Were God to have parted the sea for us, but allowed Pharaoh’s army to chase us and catch us, would it have been enough? Would it have been enough for us to have entered the wilderness, but never to have emerged from it? Would it have been enough for us to have survived the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, but not the Babylonian exile? Would it have been enough for us? Lo Dayeinu. It would not have been enough for us.

Were it not for all of our blessings as a people, we would not still be a people and many of our families would not have survived the generations.

May we be thankful and remember our history, its blessings and its curses.

This coming week, as the Jews of the world celebrate the Passover holiday and the Christians celebrate Easter, let us all, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Americans of all religious traditions, of all races, of all ethnicities, remember and cherish the blessing of religious freedom and all of our blessings in life.

Hag Sameach. Happy Passover Holiday.
And Shabbat Shalom.

Jewish Joy

Sermon on Jewish Joy
May 14, 2004

The last blessing of the Sheva Brachot, the Seven Blessings bestowed upon bride and groom, thanks God for creating Joy and Happiness. God created light to shine into the physical darkness of the world. Joy and Happiness were created to brighten its spiritual and emotional darkness. Joy and Happiness are things whose presence or absence, like light, we notice.

We feel a tangible difference when we enter a house of mourning or one in which there is a new baby. Joyous times bring us something extra, energy and enthusiasm. In a vibrant Jewish community, there are many moments of Sasson V’Simcha, of Joy and Happiness, many times when we sing the Shecheheyanu prayer and thank God for bringing us to this special time in our lives.

Many of these times are experienced in community with others. Beautiful melodies sung at services elevate our spirits and fill our souls with joy. What is joy? The dictionary tells me that it means gladness or pleasure. I do not think that those are complete definitions of the term. I think that joy implies something more than that. Joy, for me, is something achieved only when we are thankful for something. That is how I differentiate between Simcha, happiness, and Sasson, joy.

I must include many events in my family, my marriage, the births of each of my children. The first time they said daddy. The first time I spoke to them on the phone. These are some of my greatest joys.

But what is Jewish Joy?

Some say that Jewish Joy is when someone realizes that the Atkins diet gives them an excuse not to eat Aunt Rita’s rock hard matzah balls. I think that Jewish Joy is something present when Judaism is celebrated in families. For instance, I must include, as times of joy, the first time my daughter Hanna sang the Shema and every night when my daughter Eliana asks me to sing the Shema for her before she goes to bed.

How many Jewish life cycle events are filled with joy?

When I conduct a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony and watch a child who has struggled to learn a Torah portion do it well, there is Jewish Joy, the joy of the child knowing that he or she has done something difficult, risen to the challenge, and of course, there is the joy of the family, kvelling in pride. Some of the best moments at B’nai Mitzvah are when grandparents, for whom Judaism has played a meaningful role in their lives, come forward a present a tallit or pass the Torah to their grandchild. Often they are beaming with joy as they witness their traditions being passed on to the next generation. It is also a matter joy, when the aspirations of loved ones who have passed away are realized by the child. With tears of joy in their eyes, parents say, “Your bubbe would be so proud of you today.”

At a Brit Milah and at a baby naming, the happiness is often overwhelming. Parents, grandparents, family and friends not only rejoice in the coming of a new member of the family, but they recall other times of joy in the family as well. “I remember just how radiant you were at your wedding my dear, you look even more radiant now.” Unless you are in one of those families, and there are many, that could find the dark side of the sun. “You won’t get much sleep now! All those diapers to look forward to. Better start saving for college!” But most Jewish families are happy with babies. There is a heartfelt thankfulness, a swelling of pride, and a profound sense of happiness, especially after the circumcision is over.

Weddings are certainly joyous times, not just because we are happy for the couple and their families, but in the Jewish tradition, we are literally commanded to celebrate with the bride and groom. In more traditional circles, complete strangers attend weddings simply to celebrate.

Perhaps the most powerful ceremonies are conversion ceremonies. People who were born Jewish do not necessarily realize that being Jewish itself could be a joy. Those born Jewish may not understand the yearning to be Jewish, the battles of conscious, and the striving to forge a new identity as a Jew. Many are surprised that the moment when someone who has chosen Judaism realizes that they are a Jew is a very powerful and joyous moment.

Perhaps it is when they utter the words, “I am a Jew.” Perhaps it is when they hold the Torah and recite the Shema before the open ark. For some it is when they receive their Hebrew name. For others, it may not be until they are asked to light the Shabbat candles or lead the Kiddush. When that moment of joy, that moment of happy thankfulness, is reached, it radiates to all of us. Tears of joy fill everyone’s eyes and we understand, if only a bit better, the joy of being a Jew.

On Jewish Identity

Sermon for Kol Nidrei 2003-5764

As most of you know, I have two daughters and a son. Hanna is three and a half years old. Eliana is almost two years old. And Avi is barely a month old. It is amazing to watch children learn and grow up. Infants learn about their world by trying to put it in their mouth, their hands, a parent’s hands, the couch, a sibling’s hair, the dog’s tail…. When they start pulling up on the furniture, watch out! There is so much more to put in their mouths!

Two year olds love giving things labels, identifying everything. That’s mine, that’s Daddy’s, that’s Mommy’s. Ellie is learning more and more names and vocabulary. She is learning to sort the things in her world. I remember when Hanna was about Ellie’s age, we would hear her say, “Hanna is a girl,” “daddy is a boy,” almost daily. Soon after that she even began saying, “I am Jewish. Hanna is Jewish.” Much of childhood is about identity, learning about who we are in relation to others. For much of Jewish history, this night has also been about identity.

On Yom Kippur, Jews are drawn to worship from far and wide. Jews who rarely even see other Jews seek them out on this day. Those who, throughout the rest of the year, find their lives too busy and their calendars so overbooked that they cannot come to the Temple on a regular basis, clear their calendars for this day or at least a part of it.

Many make a special effort to come to the Kol Nidrei service, to hear the Kol Nidrei prayer sung. It is a beautiful and weeping melody that enters our ears and embraces our soul. We feel at home spiritually. It is chicken soup for the Jewish soul, reminding us of who we are and making us feel good about it.

Two hundred years ago, Jews needed no reminders of who they were. A Jew was someone who was born to a Jewish mother. There were exceptions, people who converted to Judaism, but these were extremely rare. All Jews practiced roughly the same brand of Judaism. Though, there were some differences in practice between Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardi Jews as well as additional variations among the ultra-religious. Jews generally dressed differently than those of other religions living in the same regions. They tended to live in communities together, often forced to do so by national governments. They often spoke languages that were their own, whether Yiddish, a combination of Hebrew and German, or Ladino, a combination of Hebrew and Spanish, in addition to the language of the nation in which they lived. Socially, Jews interacted with other Jews exclusively or almost exclusively. There were a few Jews, court Jews and other wealthy Jews, who were able to interact in the broader social world. Jews even had their own courts. All of these things kept Jews together and reinforced their Jewish identities.

So what happened? Things began changing with the enlightenment, with people like Baruch Spinoza, who questioned the Truth. Yet, freedom and opportunity, toleration and assimilation brought change more rapidly.

Suddenly, in Western Europe and in the United States, Jews had the opportunity to practice their religion freely and to interact socially with others. They also the opportunity to study at colleges and universities. Jews became more aware of their place in the world, in society, in history and of how others viewed them. Jews stopped simply accepting the fact that they could not blend in to modern Christian society and began trying to figure out how they could.

The formation of Reform Judaism was as much due to this desire as to any internal developments within Judaism. Fitting in demanded changes in the order and decorum of Jewish worship. It meant being mindful of the ways in which what we say and what we do might be interpreted by others. One of the biggest casualties of this concern was the Kol Nidrei prayer.

Traditionally, the Kol Nidrei is about asking God to absolve us of vows made to God that we are unable to keep. God was the assumed subject because the formula upon which the Kol Nidrei prayer is based originated in a Jewish Beit Din, a Jewish panel of Rabbis, and was only used to seek forgiveness from God for a vow made to God. The prayer itself does not mention God, because in its original context it was assumed. Thus, a non-Jewish listener or reader might misunderstand the Kol Nidrei and believe that Jews are asking to be absolved of ALL vows, ALL promises, that they might make to anyone in the year to come. Unfortunately, there were those who interpreted the prayer in exactly this way and some nations even forced Jews to take an oath stating that the Kol Nidrei prayer would not apply to their testimony or business agreements.

Many Jews eagerly sought to remove the Kol Nidrei from the liturgy, so to avoid being accused of invalidating vows. The Kol Nidrei is not found at all in the original Union Prayer Book from 1894, nor is it in the Revised Edition from 1926. It did make it into the 1946-1947 edition, but without the words either in Hebrew or in English. In essence, the post World War II edition of the Union Prayer Book allowed for the singing of the prayer, deciding, in essence, that the music WAS needed, even though the meaning of the words was NOT. The Gates of Repentance, the New Union Prayer Book, includes the Hebrew with an English translation that notes that the prayer applies only to vows made to God and not to other people. Can you Imagine a Kol Nidrei service WITHOUT the Kol Nidrei? Our prayers and our practices change with the needs of each generation.

Today, we sing a little more than we once did and we sing a whole lot more in Hebrew than Reform Jews once did. Congregations that once would not allow worshippers to wear a tallis or a yarmulke now may encourage their use and call them a tallit and a kipa as well. People who grew up in Reform Jewish congregations prior to 1967 look at today’s congregations and their worship style and find it a completely different world. Which is, of course, because it IS a completely different world for Jews.

The past two summers, I have gone to Goldman Union Camp Institute as one of the faculty members for the National Federation of Temple Youth Institute. This year, 180 high school students from around our region came to learn and to discuss, to socialize and to enjoy Judaism. This year, we examined controversial issues in Jewish life, bioethics, the Peace Process and Terrorism, and interfaith issues among others. Last year, the topic of the institute was Threats to Jewish Identity.

I wish that I could offer a short list that would name every one. We talked about apathy, anti-Semitism, anti-Israel sentiments, rebellion, intermarriage, peer-pressure and other social factors that may make it difficult or undesirable to identify as a Jew. As adults, we do not face all of the same concerns and certainly not in the same degrees that face today’s Jewish youth.

Most of our young people attend elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and colleges in which, as Jews, they find themselves in a small minority. They may interact with few Jews on a regular basis, and if and when they do, Judaism may not be part of the interaction. Their schedules are so full, particularly as they get older, that it is often difficult for them to find opportunities to participate in Jewish life. Many of them drop out of the Jewish community after B’nai Mitzvah or Confirmation only to return again when they become parents.

Years ago, they might have been singled out as Jews because of their physical characteristics: dark hair, dark eyes, a proud and distinguished nose. They might have been singled out because of their last name, Cohen, Schwartz, Goldberg, Rosen. They might have been singled out because of where they lived.

Now, among Jews, and particularly among Reform Jews, there are many Blue Eyed Blondes, and quite a few people of Asian, African, Indian, Arabian, American Indian or South American ancestry. Jews can live anywhere and because of intermarriage and conversion, our family names include Smith, Jones, Gonzalez, Jung, O’Malley and even Mohammed and Christian. Where once a Jew could not simply blend in, now it is almost difficult to stand out.

The kids with whom I have worked at the National Federation of Temple Youth Institute do not attend in order to figure out how to blend in to their larger community. They go to NFTY Institute to learn how to be Jewish in its midst. How to live a Jewish life.

For most of today’s Jewish youth the question on their minds is not “Why BE Jewish?”, because they feel their Jewishness in their souls. The question for them is “Why DO Jewish?” Why celebrate the holidays? Why come together for Shabbat services or Passover Seder? Why take the time to light candles when you are running out the door to go to a concert or a movie? Why learn the history of our people?

Judaism has taught us much, and we, Jews, have much to teach humanity. We do indeed have a Mission. We have a role to play in the world. Jews have been and remain a Light unto the Nations. So when I am asked, “Why DO Jewish?” I say that, it is precisely what we DO in our lives, how we act toward one another and toward those who are less fortunate than we are, how we better our communities and our world, that accomplishes our Mission.

When everything around us is dark, let us be the beacon light. When everything seems hopeless, we will say “Never Say You Walk the Final Road.” When the world around us seems badly broken, let us not despair, for Tikkun Olam is our Mission, the repair of the world.

If someone should ask you, “What is it that Jews are supposed to DO?”, even if you are the least Traditional Jew in Iowa, you can look at them with a glint in your eye and a smile on your face and say, in the words of the prophet Micah:

God has told you what is good, and what is required of you: Only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.

Avinu Malkeinu, Our Loving Parent, Our Righteous Sovereign, may we be proud of our Jewish heritage, may we thrive on its uniqueness, and may all of humanity continue to be blessed by its blessings. Help us instill in our children and grandchildren the desire that burns within us to keep the light of Judaism shining brightly. May we all be proud of who we are and continue to strive for the betterment of humanity and our world.

Good Yom Tov.

Interfaith Families and Respect for Different Beliefs

You can lead them to the Mikvah
A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5767
Rabbi David Jay Kaufman

For me, Reform Judaism teaches:

●That what we believe is one truth among many potential truths;
●That our Jewish decisions should be informed choices; and
●That we should be respectful of our differences.

Regarding Interfaith Families in particular, Reform Judaism encourages:
●That we honor and deeply appreciate those parents in our congregations who though not Jewish, have chosen to help raise, or have already raised, the next generation of Jewish leaders;
●That the Jewish identity of children in interfaith families is strengthened when they see that we respect and love BOTH of their parents and BOTH of their parent’s extended families; and
●That we actively promote the involvement of interfaith families as families in our congregations, not only seeking to involve the Jewish members of those families; because we know that our community is strengthened when our families are treated as unified entities.

I have spoken and written more than a few times about ways in which Reform congregations could be more welcoming of interfaith families. I wrote my rabbinical thesis on the role of the non-Jew in Bar and Bat Mitzvah services, a life cycle ceremony that in my view should involve extended family members and friends. And I have written a service for Bar and Bat Mitzvah services that is specifically designed to be welcoming of interfaith families, while creating a meaningful and joyous Jewish experience for all in attendance.

How I as a rabbi, we as a congregation, and Reform Judaism as a movement reach out to interfaith families and encourage them to raise their children as Jews is of vital importance to me. How we make a spouse, connected to the Jewish community, though not Jewish him or herself, feel cared for, loved, and a functional part of our congregational life is a priority. Interfaith families must feel comfortable in the midst of our Jewish environments and, it must be said, that our congregation with its strong history of outreach, does an exceptional job of this. On a national level, I wish it were so.

Last year, I, along with a number of members of our congregation, sat in an assembly hall in Houston, Texas at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Convention, listening to address of the President of the URJ to the General Assembly. Rabbi Eric Yoffie spoke about a number of topics, but one caught my attention more than the others. He spoke about the need for Reform Jews to, in his words, “ask potential converts in our midst if they are interested in conversion.”

I was and continue to be significantly bothered by the sentiments expressed, some of which were included in his column printed in the Summer 2006 Reform Judaism Magazine.

Rabbi Yoffie wrote:

In recent years, the number of non-Jewish spouses who convert to Judaism has declined, and anecdotal evidence suggests that interest in conversion has waned in our congregations as well. What happened? Perhaps we've forgotten the advice of my predecessor and Outreach initiator, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, z'l: "We need to ask. We must not forget to ask." Following his lead, in the early years of Outreach, many of our congregations actively encouraged conversion and made conversion ceremonies part of regular worship services. Such ceremonies are far rarer now. Perhaps, by making non-Jews feel comfortable and accepted in our congregations, we have inadvertently signaled that we do not care if they convert.

Less than half a year before Rabbi Yoffie uttered those words in Houston, worried about a lack of interest in conversion to Judaism, our congregation had brought TEN Jews-by-choice before this very Ark over a span of three months. While that number was and is quite high, we have had significant numbers of people choosing to become Jewish, choosing to become involved in the life of the congregation, and even choosing to become leaders in the Jewish community before and since that time.

Interest in conversion to Judaism in Des Moines and at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in particular is extremely high. I do, as Rabbi Yoffie suggested, regularly hold conversions during Friday night services with few exceptions. One Friday night last year, five Jews-by-choice came before this congregation during one very memorable evening. I do not remember asking a single one of them if they were interested in conversion. They came to know that we saw them as valued members of our community, loved, desired, and respected for their views, before they chose Judaism. Public conversion ceremonies may serve as confirmation of that feeling, but they are not its cause. Jews by choice come to me, not because it is important to us, to our congregation, or to our movement, that non-Jews convert to Judaism, but because it became important to them.

Do we care if people choose Judaism?

Of course, we care if people choose to be like us. We care if for no other reason than that it makes us feel good to be who we are! Knowing that someone has consciously chosen to join us has a profound effect upon us. Watching someone weep and listening as they read the words “I am a Jew because” brings tears to OUR eyes, tears of joy and happiness. Oftentimes, we do not appreciate the value of Judaism in our own lives, or do not appreciate it enough, and hearing that value uttered by others reminds us. It is great to be a Jew, despite the challenges our people face and have faced for generations! We also care because we know that Jews by choice can have a profoundly positive impact upon our congregation, adding their skills and their energy to our own.

Rabbi Yoffie also answered the question of whether or not we care if people choose Judaism. He said that:

In fact, we care a great deal (whether or not someone converts)… Because it is a mitzvah to help a potential Jew become a Jew-by-choice…

Wait just one minute! In what text from the Jewish tradition do we find the commandment to help a “potential Jew” become a Jew? In fact, in what text are we taught to look upon those around us as Jews and “potential Jews?” There is not a single place. On the other hand, the Torah teaches us that “God’s house shall be a house for all peoples.” The prophet Micah teaches us that while “All the peoples walk each in the name of its gods, we will walk in the name of Adonai, Our God, forever and ever.” If anything, our tradition teaches us that we should see those who are not Jewish as created B’tselem Elohim, in God’s image, worthy of our respect, caring, and love.

The commandments of which we need to be reminded are that we should be welcoming of difference, embracing of those who come into our midst, respectful and even nurturing of their spiritual journey. Regardless of whether or not they walk upon the very same footsteps on their path, they join us on the road less traveled in the modern world; walking with our community, with our families and our friends.

Rabbi Yoffie points out that raising children in a multi-faith household can be confusing, something with which I agree. However, it seems to me that conversion to Judaism should be a process of the spirit and the soul, a journey of emotions and not a purely rational decision based upon what would create the best Jewish household and the least confusing for the children. Conversion should be an instrument of faith and not a new coat of paint that goes better with the décor of the household.

Those who are thinking about choosing Judaism should do so because they feel that they have a Jewish soul, not because choosing Judaism, while they themselves do not feel Jewish, would help their children feel more Jewish. The mitzvot should be in welcoming everyone who enters our congregations, something that benefits all of us, and in aiding those driven by the yearning of their spirit to become Jewish to do so, for their sake, not for that of our movement or our congregation.

The Jewish Outreach Institute and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky posted a response to Rabbi Yoffie’s speech at the Houston convention. He noted some things with which I strongly agree:

People who have joined synagogues have taken major steps in joining the community and casting their lot with the Jewish people. They are raising Jewish children… Part of being a warm and nurturing community is understanding people’s needs at different points in their lives, and providing meaningful experiences at every point along the way. If conversion is part of that journey, terrific. If not, there’s still a place in our community for warmth and growth without judgment or coercion.

From my perspective, there is no problem of a lack of spouses interested in conversion to Judaism. Our congregation has a very high number that have chosen to become Jewish including many recently and more are in the process of doing so. A good number of those have chosen to convert years into their marriage and many, after having already raised their children as Jews. Yet those who have not chosen this path are appreciated for their role in ensuring the Jewish future through raising Jewish children, through supporting a Jewish spouse, and in many cases, for their efforts in assisting the well functioning of our congregation.

In my mind, their choice to choose Judaism is an honor for me, for our congregation, for our community, for their spouse and their family; as is their choice to raise their children as Jews regardless of whether or not they choose to become Jewish. It means that they feel welcomed and a part of us. In most cases in which a spouse has decided to become Jewish, conversion was a matter of simply deciding to formalize a relationship and an identity that had already developed. Jews by choice and Jewish parents by choice warm our hearts, raise our hopes about the future, and make us feel good about being Jewish ourselves. If that choice were simply one of practicality, I’m not sure that I would feel the same way.

From where does this anxiety about the conversion of spouses who are already part of the Jewish community arise anyway? It comes from those rabbis who believe that the survival of the Jewish people is dependent, not upon Jews, but upon Judaism. What do I mean? Rabbis who believe that the survival of the Jewish people is dependent upon Jews do whatever is in their power to encourage that children of interfaith families be raised as Jews, meaning that they will identify themselves as Jews.

On the other hand, some rabbis believe that we should not allow the forms of Judaism practiced by the next generation of Jews to be, for lack of a better description, less Jewish. There is a belief that children of interfaith marriages do not feel as connected to Judaism and therefore are less likely themselves to raise Jewish children of their own. The result is that these rabbis put up barriers to involvement in the community, clearly treating non-Jews, even those raising Jewish children, as something other than part of “us.”

I believe that the anxiety concerning these families has occurred primarily within Conservative Judaism and among those Reform rabbis who are among the more traditionally oriented in our movement, those opposing intermarriage. They see the survival of Judaism as dependent upon the next generation of Jews not practicing what they consider to be a “watered down” or “assimilated” form of Judaism. This battle for the Jewish future can be summed up this way:

“Judaism requires Jews” versus “Jews require Judaism.” Which alternative should be given the priority?

The Executive Vice President of the United Synagogue, the organization of Conservative Congregations, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, recently wrote:

The Jewish community’s ongoing loss of interfaith couples and their children testifies to the failure of past strategies designed to keep them within the fold. If we are to reverse this – and we must to stabilize Judaism’s future in North America – a new and creative response is needed immediately. Moreover, this new response must recognize both Jewish values and the reality of the situation...
For too long Jews discouraged non-Jews from seeking to convert. Even in this modern era that outmoded policy lingers in our psyches. The effect has been to limit our ability to passionately encourage those closest to us to convert to Judaism. That has been to our detriment.
We can no longer afford that complacency born of an historical insecurity. Not as a movement, a people, or a religion. Not if we truly care about survival.
Sound the alarm!!! Sound the alarm!!! Wait a minute!

Reform Judaism is flourishing, not only nationally, but worldwide. Judaism as a whole in North America may not be growing by much, but that probably has something to do with the fact that North American Jews have a birth rate that is quite a bit less than adequate to replace the existing population. Just about the only warm blooded creatures out there with a lower birth rate are pandas! More than a few Jewish leaders point out that we should not be worried about intermarriage or pressing for conversion, but instead actively promoting fertility treatments!

Let all Jewish families have three or four children or more and this issue will rapidly vanish. Our community does a pretty good job of replenishing the next generation, by the way: there are twenty one students in the pre-school class on Sunday mornings!

One of the greatest joys of my rabbinate is standing before this ark, handing the Torah to someone who has chosen to become a Jew, and hearing them utter the Shema.

In fact, I would offer that one truly converts the moment that saying those words, “Shma Yisrael,” one considers him or herself to be “Yisrael.” When we perform a conversion ceremony, we are recognizing a change in identity that has already taken place. Another of my favorite moments as a rabbi is this: standing before the congregation trying their hardest not to tear up, the joy, the power of the moment of recognition is overwhelming. The words come forth full of emotion:

I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands of me no abdication of the mind.I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires of me all the devotion of my heart.I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.I am a Jew because the word of Israel is the oldest and the newest.I am a Jew because the promise of Israel is the universal promise.I am a Jew because for Israel, the world is not complete, we are completing it.I am a Jew because Israel places humanity and its unity above the nations and above Israel itself.I am a Jew because, above the image of humanity, image of the divine Unity, Israel places the unity which is divine.

How appropriate, on this night, when we uttered the words of the Kol Nidrei, words that were the refuge of our ancestors who were compelled to swear oaths in which they did not believe in order to feel a part of the communities in which they lived; how appropriate for us to remind ourselves of the spirit, the power, the essence, the joy of being Jewish; and to be thankful for all of those who of their own free will have chosen to enter the eternal covenant between God and the people of Israel.

Hazak, Hazak, v’Nithazeik. Be strong, be strong, and may we all strengthen one another.
Good Yom Tov!