Reflections from Day Three of Convention 2018 in Chicago

Posted on: Wednesday April 25, 2018

By Rabbi Michael Friedland, Chair, Rabbinical Assembly Convention 2018

Day three began with Brad Artson, Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler Rabbinical School, reminding us to consider what is our purpose as Conservative Jews and Conservative rabbis. The malaise that seems to be so prominent when speaking of Conservative Judaism is because we allow ourselves to be sucked into institutional issues and leave behind the consideration of what and why we do what we do. He asked all of us, “Can we say that we should do mitzvot because it makes our lives better?” If the answer to that question is yes, then all the other concerns we have – are we losing memberships?, why aren’t more people in shul? Even “Are our children following in our path?”  become less significant because our rituals, our lifestyles, our calendars lift us up and that is profound. In a line reminiscent of Cub’s manager Joe Madden (“Don’t let the pressure get in the way of the pleasure”), Brad told us not to let the chores of our work get in the way of the blessings our lives and our teachings afford us.

He encouraged us not to think in terms of brands for this generation has more choices than we could ever imagine (a message that would be heard again from Howard Tullman at 1871), and not to think we need to be rabbis for everyone. Be worthy through our choices, our offerings, our programming, and trust that our people have always found ways to survive and thrive.

The Global Visions session included colleagues Mikie Goldstein and Chaya Rowen Baker from Israel, Ariel Stofenmacher from Argentina, Jonathan Wittenberg from England, and Gesa Ederberg from Germany. The key message that the panelists wanted the assembly to hear was that the framing of the RA in the past in which US colleagues asked international colleagues “How can we help you?” is over. The Conservative rabbinates and movements in Israel, Europe, and Latin America are equal partners with colleagues in the US and Canada, many communities are thriving and growing, and we must move to a model of ‘give and take’ among colleagues wherever their rabbinates are. 

Gesa hoped that in the future that would not need to be a special session with rabbis from these locations because it would be internalized within the RA that all Conservative rabbis are included in a “Global” perspective. Chaya understood that in our Global movement, discussing Israel can be a political challenge, but the Masorti movement can be held out as a positive and glowing example of what Israel can and should be. Ariel informed us that in Latin American communities it is Masorti Judaism that is the majority Jewish choice.  They are working now on strengthening networks among communities and institutions. Jonathan hopes to create relationships across international boundaries among RA rabbis based on goals of creating friendships, strengthening solidarity and sharing of best practices. Mikie spoke of how the work of Masorti rabbis in Israel goes beyond concerns of specific religious affiliation but assists neighborhood groups in Israel who wish to build community.

We then went on a site visit to 1871, the leading incubator of start-ups in the country. Deena Siegel gave us an introduction into what 1871 does, which goes beyond assisting start-ups to actualizing a vision of social justice and equality. Three panelists, representing Bosch tools, One Table, a Jewish concern that brings people together for the purpose of having Shabbat meals, and Upstart Labs, whose goal is to tie technological innovation to Jewish communal institutions, spoke to us about issues of technological change, innovation, collaboration, and assisting established systems to open themselves up to change in order to meet the needs of the contemporary scene. Howard Tullman addressed us with an entertaining, energetic, informational presentation about the speed of change in society. We cannot even speak of change; it is now all about acceleration. If we think the idea is to get a handle of the changes going on today, we are already behind. The talk was funny, terrifying, and enlightening all at the same time.

We came together in the evening at Anshe Emet, one of the premier urban congregations in the country. Dinner was catered by Milt’s BBQ, a kosher neighborhood restaurant that would have been unthinkable to have existed in this neighborhood even 20 years ago. But demographics have changed. Milt’s is also unique in that the owner donates all profits to tzedakah and asks patrons for tzedakah selections each month. Gil Troy and Birthright spoke to the diners about the amazing work that Birthright does and encouraged all of us to use the experiences that participants, our young people, have to further their Jewish identity when they return.

The evening concluded with an inspiring series of panelists who spoke of three amazing relational models that bridged Jewish and African-American communities. The first was a project of seven Jewish and African-American communal organizations that came together to create a teen trip for 33 Jewish and African-Americans, led by D’ror Chankin-Gould, one of Anshe Emet’s rabbis and Nichole Carter, Director of Community strategy and Development at Bright Star Community Outreach. The teens visited several southern cities that had important histories in the civil rights movement. Relationships were created on two levels – the kids themselves connected and Mpatanishi Hatcher and Ari Handelman shared their bonding experience; and the organizations who supported and developed the trip built a relationship by acknowledging that none of them knew what was best and the only way to create such a program was to listen to each other.

The second speaker was Tamar Manassah, a rabbinical student of Rabbi Capers Funye, a graduate of Akiba Schecter day school and a resident of Engelwood, a Chicago neighborhood plagued by gun violence. Tamar created MASK, Mothers Against Senseless Killing, which provides food and meaningful activities for the youth in one small area of Engelwood and has transformed that neighborhood due to its efforts. Lindsey Haigy, a member of Anshe Emet, was one of a number of Anshe Emet members who went to Engelwood to support Tamar’s efforts. Tamar told us that we in the wider Jewish community have been doing Judaism all wrong: We have confined it to the synagogues. “Judaism is big enough for everybody.” She also offered her definition of Tikun Olam – problems in the world are ‘cracks’ and it is our responsibility to fix the cracks by spackling them and painting over. That is literally the meaning of tikkun.

Finally, we heard of the remarkable friendship between Michael Siegel, the senior rabbi at Anshe Emet, and Chris Harris, pastor at Bright Star church and CEO of Brightstar Community Outreach. Their friendship began at an AIPAC meeting between rabbis and African-American pastors. Both Michael and Chris were frustrated that such meetings are simply “greetings with eatings” and produce nothing. Thus, they began a collaboration that has drawn their two communities together.  When Chris took a trip to Israel with AIPAC he learned about NATAL, an Israeli organization that assists victims of terror who suffer from PTSD. When Chris returned he told Michael he wanted to bring NATAL to his community in Bronzeville where over 3,000 people have died, victims of gun violence. The goal is to train 100 pastors in the NATAL techniques because in his community people will seek out pastors for help, not therapists. Chris left us with this bit of tochecha: If the great example you wish to share of Black – Jewish relations is the famous picture of Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel then keep the frame and put a new picture in there. That was 50 years ago and we need new models.