Reflections from Day Two of Convention 2018 in Chicago

By Rabbi Michael Friedland, Chair, Rabbinical Assembly Convention 2018

Our opening panel featured innovative rabbis, most serving in the Chicago area. 

Robin Damsky, President of the Chicago RA, created In the Gardens, a program that develops garden design, education about gardening, the spirituality of gardening, and concern for the earth. Robin encourages her gardeners to give 80% of their harvest to food pantries, so the value of tzedakah and concern for others is essential.

Benay Lappe created Svara, a traditionally radical yeshiva. Talmud is the center focus and it is taught in a traditional manner. Benay sees the Sages as radical and disruptive. Svara’s initial goal was to open Talmudic study to those who had been shut out, specifically the queer community. She sees Talmud as a moral, creative and intellectual technology to create a fully human person. While her vision was originally to reach the queer community, her yeshiva is open to all. Her program reaches 1,800 students.

For Benay, queerness is not limited to sexuality. To be queer is to be disruptive of the status quo, to insist that one’s world view be reflected in how one lives.

Megan Goldmarche is Rabbi for the Silverstein Base Hillel project, that she describes as a non-Chabad Chabad approach. She works with a transitory demographic that lacks a Jewish base – college and graduate students. She and her wife run programming out of their home. The students she works with describe the most powerful Jewish experiences they have as connected to a ‘home.’  The goal of Base Hillel is to provide a home experience for the students and to teach them what a rabbi can provide for them. Relational experiences are the source of Megan and her wife’s strength in creating community.

Rami Schwartzer and his wife have a similar position, but their demographic and their funding is different. They work with the population between “college and kids” in the Washington DC area.  Their work is funded by a consortium of Conservative congregations who do not insist that the individuals impacted by Rami join their congregations. Rami says his work is 100% building relationships and using the data gained from his work to deepen those relationships.

Danya Ruttenberg is the Avodah Rabbi-in-Residence for the Chicago Avodah project. Her focus and Avodah’s focus is to understand systems and structures that create and perpetuate poverty. Her work is with post-college individuals who work for a year in local agencies that serve vulnerable populations. They live and study together. 85% of program graduates say the Avodah program helped them connect to Jewish community.

It is no coincidence that the rabbis in these creative endeavors are Conservative-trained rabbis. Their work depends on commitment to Torah and textual study, guidance from Jewish ritual life, and a wrestling with adapting traditional teachings to contemporary realities.

After lunch we heard from Martin Cohen, editor of the Lev Shalem Pirke Avot, and Gordon Tucker, one of the commentators of this new RA publication. Tamar Elad Appelbaum was the other commentator. Gordon and Tamar represented different voices and styles – Male/ Female, Diasporan/Israeli, Logic-rooted vs poetic.    Martin Cohen made the point that reading both commentaries together expressed a connection between these two very different approaches and helps us see the value of the distinctions between the approach of the ancient Sages and ourselves. 

In the afternoon we heard from colleagues serving in very different capacities as rabbi – education, hospice chaplaincy, Hillel work, military chaplaincy, organizational, and entrepreneurial. We then were given the opportunity to meet with others at the convention who serve in positions similar to each other and network.

The dinner was devoted to celebrating rabbis who have served for 50 years, and William Fertig who has served as a pulpit rabbi for 66 years! Eddie Feld shared recollections of being a student during the years when the scholarly greats walked the grounds of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the tumultuous year of 1967 when he and his fellow students studied in Israel during the Six Day War.

The evening concluded with a moving installation and energetic performance by Stuart Simon, Cantor at Am Shalom, President Debra Newman Kamin’s synagogue, and the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken choir.