"Sea Changes in the Pursuit of Tikkun"

Thursday, April 1, 1999

Albert Vorspan, Senior Vice President, Emeritus
Director, Emeritus, Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
Union of American Hebrew Congregations

Founders' Day Address 
New York 
March 18, 1999 / 1 Nisan 5759

Despite that generous introduction [of my address], you may wonder why him? I do too. Well, I think there are three reasons: one, I am not a rabbi; two, I am a world-class expert on rabbis. Not only are some of my best friends rabbis -- all of them are. Indeed, when I went to jail in St. Augustine, Florida, I accompanied 16 rabbis, including Gene Borowitz, and when the rabbis were all practicing their upcoming sermons in the cell, I appealed to our jailer, Hoss Manucy, to spring me on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment. In addition, I wrote the scholarly academic tome on the care and feeding of rabbis, entitled My Rabbi Doesn't Make House Calls, which was characterized by a total absence of footnotes and also has the saving virtue of being out of print for some 10 years. During my four decades of service with the UAHC, I had the good fortune to serve under three superb rabbi presidents -- Eisendrath, Schindler and Yoffie, the latter of whom we honor today along with many other distinguished rabbis and cantors. Actually, I was once Eric's boss and I taught him everything he knows. Eric is not only a worthy successor to exceptional presidents -- he has already built a solid reputation for clarity, courage and creative visions of the future.

So, you may ask, you were with the Union all your life? Well, not yet. There is life after the Union as there was life before the Union, during which time I served as a gunnery officer in the Pacific in World War II -- an excellent preparation for serving in the organized Jewish community.

Being deep in my anecdotage entitles me to at least one war story. The ship is at sea. It is a dark night. The look out shout: Captain, target sighted 8,000 yards, bearing 270. Captain: send them this message. You are on a collision course. Turn to starboard immediately. Look out: Captain, they refuse to change course, they demand that you change course. Captain: Tell them I am captain of an American vessel at war, and I demand that you change course immediately. Look out: Captain he says he knows you are captain of a ship at sea and knows it is war time, but he says Sir, I am a lighthouse.

So my questions are: have we been on the right course in our voyage of social justice? Did we make a difference? Has the time come to make some corrections in course?

Well, one more story first. You all know that the UAHC has sold its building at 838 Fifth Avenue and moved to 633 Third Avenue in New York City. The new owner of 838 is apparently planning to develop snazzy, upscale condos. Imagine, the best view in New York City -- which was the 10th floor men's room in the House of Living Judaism -- now being the centerpiece of some multi-million dollar pad for some Donald Trump wannabe. But a controversy has erupted, according to the New Yorker, as to whether to retain the words "Love Thy Neighbor" which are inscribed on the limestone wall on the 5th Avenue front of the building. After all, the new owners say this will be a posh condo and these people are more likely to hate their neighbor -- or at least ignore them -- than to love them. And how can we impose kindly relations upon exclusive New Yorkers? Well, it is their problem now, not Eric's. As for the Union, the College, the CCAR and the ACC, those words do not have to be etched on our walls because they are imbedded in our tradition, and they are inscribed forever on our broken and circumcised hearts.

So, have we been on the right course, this movement which has staked its life on a vision of tikkun olam?

We helped to transform America. I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota in the midst of the Depression, in a city virulent with anti-Semitism and relentless discrimination in every aspect of daily life. These things were endemic to every American city and they permeated the Congress and the State Department, rendering them virtually useless to open doors and to reach out to the doomed Jews of Hitler's Europe -- and this despite an immensely popular president, FDR, beloved by Jews. It was a racist, anti-Semitic, and closed society. Today, anti-Semitism is mostly an irritant; discrimination is illegal; the back of racial segregation broken; Jews play vital roles in every sphere of life from the presidency of Ivy League Colleges to CEO's of our largest corporations. And, far from being a pariah in American foreign policy, we have benefitted from a pattern of virtual group preference, almost affirmative action, under Republicans and Democrats alike, to give a special hand to Soviet Jews, to Ethiopian Jews, and to reserve almost 40% of all U.S. foreign aid to a sliver of a country called Israel. And you do not have to be Jewish, or even have a large Jewish constituency, to embrace these initiatives which, of course, are welcomed by some 30 Jewish members of the House and 11 in the Senate, including two Jewish women from one state of California.

How did all these revolutionary changes take place? In part, because the American Jewish community played a vigorous and critical role in building coalitions of decency which pushed the envelope of social change. No ethnic group played as seminal a role as Jews did in the struggle for civil rights and equal justice. It is appropriate that the landmark civil rights laws of this nation were drafted under the leadership of the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, our partner and tenant, in the Religious Action Center in Washington. But the moral force that made those laws possible -- inevitable -- was provided in significant measure by rabbis who filled our jails, who got their heads bloodied and their lives threatened, who toiled in their own communities for equal rights, who developed strong Social Action Committees in their temples, and who joined with Christian clergymen as witnesses to justice. And made a difference.

And we did the same on a host of issues including immigration policy, feeding the hungry, fighting the epidemic of guns, demanding affordable housing and shelters for the homeless, combating the death penalty, and protecting the environment, ending an unjust war in Vietnam. We safeguarded the wall of separation of church and state and helped to flesh out its meaning. Indeed, I believe that we -- and especially Rabbi David Saperstein and his tiny band of warriors at the RAC -- together with the broad-based coalition we built in Washington -- blunted the main assault on the Constitution by the Christian Right, seeking, at the crest of its power, to impose Christian Amendments and extremist agenda upon America. Now, listen to their gurus, furious that they failed to enact their agenda or to deliver President Clinton's scalp. They are kvetching that life is unfair, the American people are just too dumb or too passive or too immoral to share their outrage, so maybe now is the time to abandon politics altogether. I say: Go in peace but, for us, this is no time to abandon ship, to go on leave and to disarm. We must stay the course for who knows better than we that the pursuit of justice is an endless mission.

Our fight for social decency and human dignity is not just a contest with others. It is a fight for our own integrity. This College has committed itself to equal rights, to gender equality, to respect for sexual diversity. In all these efforts, we have all become partners in this movement, and that in itself is a sea change from years ago, when we were not on the same page at all on the momentous issues of social justice. This rabbinate has been on the cutting edge of all these efforts. Happily, the ACC has played an increasing role in the CSA and in the community. It has seemed to me that this Reform Movement has become a goad and a stimulant to the broader Jewish community, compelling it to be a bit more honest, a bit less insular, self-righteous and gvaltist than it would otherwise be holding its feet to the fire. Who, if not this movement, has made the Jewish community as a whole reckon with the dignity and the rights of women, the need to affirm Jews by choice and to reach out to our gay brothers and sisters, the need to respond to people with AIDS, the Jewish need to see the humanity of non-Jews, of minorities, of Palestinians, of Christians, of Muslims, to accept the revolutionary and historic changes in the Catholic-Jewish relations, to demand respect for people with disabilities. Only people with broken hearts can be fully human. Reform Judaism has tried to use our Jewish broken-heartedness to make us fuller and more caring human beings, engaged in the world beyond the walls of the synagogue. So our synagogues not only stand in splendor, they stand solid.

You rabbis and cantors we honor today were shaped and tempered by a most tumultuous moment in history. Shirley and I have four children who, like you, grew upon the shadows of Vietnam, in the din of civil rights, in the glow of Jewish re-emergence into history in the State of Israel. They and you grew up with a fire in your belly. It was indeed the worst of times and the best of times. It was certainly the high water mark of social idealism in the U.S. -- a vision of a gentler America where blacks, Hispanics, women, Jews, all people could fulfill their God-given potential. And where you could drive your parents and administration mishuga. One of my books in the 70's was dedicated to your generation. So your kids are revolutionary. And now you are establishment.

And now, where are we? Whether baby boomers or geezers? For us, social action is a religious compulsion, not a boutique fashion of the day. Nothing irritates me more than people dismissing social action as the distemper of the 60's, arguing that there are no transcendent issues day, no sexy issues, in this era. Indeed, after this squalid year in Washington, even sex is no longer sexy. But it is a moral blindness not to see that, after Jasper, Alabama and police brutality in New York City and elsewhere, racism is alive and well; after Wyoming and Georgia, homophobia is not dead; that Pat Buchanan, cranking up his nativist and chauvinist appeals, will inflame the culture wars again, summoning the peasants to brandish their pitchforks -- against whom? Church-state separation is always under strain, now more from vouchers than from prayer amendments. Israel is at risk less from the Palestinians than from the ominous and intensifying war of the Jews over pluralism, freedom of religion, and how to secure a democratic and Jewish Israel for all Jews. The New York Times picture of Steve Fuchs standing up to a vilifying mob of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem is a portent of the future.

Looking ahead to the next century in America, our primary unfinished business is economic justice. The real moral disaster in Washington is that, at a time of unprecedented and continuing prosperity, when the roaring bull market has washed out deficits and afforded unique opportunities to address our deepest problems -- crumbling schools, hopeless inner cities, a crisis in affordable housing, 43 million American without health insurance, millions of Americans silently slipping through the welfare cracks into a netherworld of suffering while politicians celebrate the dramatic drop of welfare rolls -- at such a time, the poor and the weak are not on our political radar at all. Indeed the chasm between rich and poor, as politicians demand cuts on food stamps, medicaid and health care, together with large increases for the defense budget. Politicians have concluded that the poor and the minorities constitute the Third Rail of politics. If one out of four children in America grows up in poverty, they can be ignored because they do not vote and their spokespersons deliver no checks and no lobbyists represent them. At such a moment, religious leaders must speak for them.

Similarly, if politicians know that our national drug policies have become colossal and expensive failures; if they know we now have a prison-industrial complex and an American gulag, housing more prisoners than any other country in the world; if, as a result, we are now distorting our national priorities, pouring more money into prisons than into higher education; and if one of every four black males is destined for prison, in part, because of mandatory and draconian sentences meted out even to mothers or small fry first-time offenders caught up in the web, while drug kingpins laugh all the way to the bank. Politicians are afraid and unwilling to admit that unleashing this Frankenstein has not even reduced the level of drug use, then religious leaders must fill that void and demand some mercy, some sanity, a priority or comprehensive treatment so we being to deal realistically and humanly with a profound national problem.

Similarly, we have to join hands with other Americans who are sick of the organized bribery which has turned our political campaign financing into a mockery. Looking outward, we must cry out, as Jews and as human beings, when the world turns its back on acts of genocide anywhere in the world. And we must be there to nurture and support those few small initiatives to establish the rule of international law, to apprehend and try the perpetrators, and to warn would-be mass killers that they will be held accountable. Similarly, it will be our task to help people live in a world of diversity, an America in which Anglos will be a minority early in the next century, and in a world which will increasingly rely on international machinery, especially the UN, to address the over-arching problems of disease, environmental degradation, genocide, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and world wide terrorism. This will require us to play a much larger role in the United Nations, which despite its penchant for empty anti-Israel posturing, is nonetheless the practical and daily embodiment of tikkun olam for the children, the women, the needy of this world. Paying our dues could be a beginning for the USA.

When I was a kid, my family belonged to a synagogue in St. Paul and I went regularly to a Cheder. But those things did not make me a Jew. Hitler did, anti-Semitism raw and real in my own life did, and especially the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland fired my Jewish passions. That was then. Now, getting old, I know my only immortality is the continuity of the Jewish people. And how do we guarantee that? We can't, but we must face the reality that the old ways will no longer work. Sea changes have occurred. Anti-Semitism has waned and it will not keep my grandchildren Jewish, nor will Zionism, whatever that now is, nor the memory of the Holocaust, nor Jewish food, nor Jewish humor, not Jewish guilt, nor Yiddish, not even the yearning for social justice by itself. As Shelly Zimmerman and Eric Yoffie have argued so eloquently, Judaism is the source from which our values derive. Judaism and the synagogue are the touchstones of our future. If the synagogue fails, our Jewish future will inherit the wind. For neither philanthropy, nor bonds, nor community relations, nor Israel, by themselves, can assure our Jewish future. Only a vibrant Judaism, embracing both the inner spirit and the outer tasks, both Torah and action, can inspire our young people. And it is specifically the Reform synagogue which speaks in modern terms to Jews who live in the real world. Our movement has something to say about the urgent issues of today and tomorrow -- women's rights, abortion, intermarriage, outreach, inter-religious dialogue, homosexuality, civil liberties, aging, bio-medical ethics, world peace. Of course, Judaism is more than a passion for justice; it is an entire way of life. But Judaism without that passion is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, a failed mission, an exhausted promise.

Is there an urgency to reach inward, to deepen our Jewish sensibilities to answer the yearning for God, to make an end to the shame of our Jewish illiteracy? Yes, definitely, and the leaders of all our institutions have charted such a course, recognizing together that it must be both and not either or, lest we surrender that unique sense of identity which has been the signature of this movement.

Rabbis and cantors sometimes are viewed as if we are solitary trapeze artists, balancing precariously on a high wire without a net below us. But we are not circus performers. We are teachers and leaders and our lives are our best sermons. God will not judge us by our plaques, our degrees, even this prestigious one we receive today, nor by our press clippings, or our bloated resumes, but by our lumps and scars earned in worthy battle to strengthen our people, to reduce human suffering and to advance the hope of justice in the world; by our refusal to yield to fatigue, or cynicism, or despair in trying to heal this hurting world. This is my and your only immortality: to sustain this unbroken chain of Jewish continuity. For 25 years -- for 3000 years -- your task has been the same: to be Jews and therefore to be co-partners with God and to be a people not only successful and privileged but a holy people and to be a blessing unto all of humankind. We salute each and every one of you.

Yasher koach, kol hakavod, and may you go from strength to strength.

 


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu