Why Be Jewish! Dynamic Visions for Liberal Judaism

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


The New York campus of HUC-JIR kicked off the new academic year with a three-day Kallah at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Valley, CT. The annual Kallah provides an extraordinary opportunity for students and faculty to learn and pray together while connecting with old as well as new friends, and plays an important role in creating the deep sense of community that exists at the New York campus.

This year’s Kallah focused on the theme Why Be Jewish! Dynamic Visions for Liberal Judaism. Through a variety of faculty- and student-led sessions, students were challenged to conceptualize, articulate, and critique their visions for liberal Judaism. The theme and programs were developed by a committee of students from the rabbinical, cantorial, and education programs and led by Dr. Andrea Weiss, Associate Professor of Bible at the New York campus, and Rabbi Renni Altman, Associate Dean, HUC-JIR/New York.

"Small groups of students and faculty worked together throughout the summer to plan moving, creative worship services and to design a program that enabled everyone to share their ideas about contemporary Judaism in a supportive atmosphere," explained Dr. Andrea Weiss. "The energy and camaraderie of the Kallah showcased the HUC-JIR/New York community at its finest."

In preparation for Kallah, a number of faculty, students, and professionals in the field were invited to create two-minute videos that were sent to the all New York faculty and students. Contributors included Dr. Lisa D. Grant, Professor of Jewish Education at the New York campus, and Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, a member of HUC-JIR/New York’s Spiritual Direction team:

Dr. Lisa D. Grant:

Rabbi Sheila Weinberg:


Kallah programming began Sunday evening, August 24, with a “vision stand.” Students and faculty broke into small groups and were asked to articulate – in two minutes – their vision for liberal Judaism.  Groups included students and faculty from all programs and academic years, providing an opportunity to get to know one another. Presentations covered a broad array of topics and included aspects of liberal Judaism that need to change, need to grow, and should stay the same.

In Monday morning text study sessions, faculty members shared their own visions for liberal Judaism as they emerge from their particular discipline. Cantor Bruce Ruben, Cantor Ellen Dreskin, and Lily Wohl led “Uri, uri shir dabeiri - Arise, Awake, and Break Out in Song:  Kabbalat Shabbat as a Window into our Past and Future.” Dr. Evie Rotstein and Dr. Lisa Grant led “Teaching (and Leading) from the Soul.” Cantor Benjie Schiller, Merri Arian, and Joyce Rosenzweig led “The Song of our People: Music as a Conduit to Building Vibrant, Compelling Jewish Communities.”  Dr. Alyssa Gray and Dr. Michael Pitkowsky led “Why Be Jewish? Insights from Rabbinic and Halakhic Literature.”  Dr. David Sperling and Dr. Andrea Weiss led “Psalm 1 & Isaiah 56: Biblical Foundations for Contemporary Jewish Visions.”  Rabbi Nancy Wiener and Rabbi Kim Geringer led “Peace through Hearing: From the Interpersonal to the Global.” Lastly, Dr. David Ellenson and Dr. Carole Balin led “Feminist Visionaries of Liberal Judaism.”

On Monday afternoon the whole community participated in a session facilitated by Dean Shirley Idelson where Drs. Norman J. Cohen, Lawrence A. Hoffman, and Sharon Koren spoke about their own visions for Liberal Judaism.  Integrating personal experiences and texts from Hassidic literature, Torah and liturgy, their presentations touched a chord with all participants.

“My favorite experience of Kallah was our Community Shiur on Monday,” said Emily Langowitz, a third-year rabbinical student. “The three faculty members of the panel, diverse and brilliant, gave passionate and inspiring statements about their visions for the Jewish world which were rooted in their own personal stories. I was so touched to have been a part of making that powerful moment for our community a possibility, and I leave inspired by the faculty who help shape my learning here in New York.”

At the conclusion of the Kallah, students presented their “vision forward,” describing what they hope liberal Judaism will look like in twenty years if their vision materializes.   The planning committee created different categories in which participants were asked to focus their visions and create a “headline” to represent their vision.  Each of the categories, including Jewish practice, Jewish community, learning, and Israel, was represented by a different piece of colored paper.  The community gathered in a final circle, organized by color, so that we had a snapshot of our priorities at the moment.  We brought the headlines back to campus and posted them in the Conference Level (right) as a reminder of the work we had done at Kallah.

Prayer, like study, played  a central role in the Kallah. The Worship Working, comprised of students and faculty, met throughout the summer to plan Kallah services, always “pushing the envelope" and bringing the very best of their skills, talents, and creativity.  This year, the prayer experience reached new heights and inspired all participants.

Kallah is a unique opportunity for students and faculty to spend three days together in a retreat atmosphere – sharing meals, enjoying the outdoors, and building a strong sense of community.  Students led hikes and yoga sessions, and for fun, held a “Battle of the Classes” on Monday evening. The night ended with the annual Kallah campfire.

Cantor Bruce Ruben, Director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, said, “The Kallah broke new, creative ground, pushing both students and faculty to imagine their own ideal visions for liberal Judaism.” Dr. Evie Rotstein, Director of the New York School of Education, continued, “The Kallah provided our students with the most meaningful educational experience due to the fact that we were immersed in learning as we built a real community of learners.”  

Cantorial student Vladimir Lapin described the impact of his experience at Kallah. "This year’s powerful Kallah helped me begin the process of developing my own vision as to what kind of Jewish leader I want to be. Through sessions with our incredible faculty and facilitators, I was given the necessary push to wrestle with ideas and concepts that seemed abstract in the past. Through the powerful tefila, led so beautifully by HUC-JIR students and faculty, I was able to enter the month of Elul with a sense of reflection and transcendence. I believe that this year’s Kallah served as a great jumpstart to the academic and professional year, I hope that momentum continues through the holidays and the rest of the year."

Cantorial student Lucy Batterman reflected, “There is a vibrancy to the New York campus that really emerged at this year's Kallah. From the thought provoking programming to the beautiful services, our spirit as a campus really came out. The experience of spending those few days together really allowed us to come together as a community in a reflective and inspiring way. It was such powerful way to begin and set the tone for the year!”

Rabbinical student Lisa Vinikoor remarked, "At Kallah this year we strove to build a collegial environment where each of us invested in our own leadership development and equally in the leadership development of our colleagues.  We learned valuable skills, took risks, and stretched outside of our comfort zones.  I hope this experience will strengthen us as a community moving forward into the year and beyond."

Rabbi Altman concluded, “Kallah is a special way to welcome new students and faculty and sets a positive and upbeat tone for the year.  This year was particularly exciting as we had the opportunity to explore our own visions for the future of Liberal Judaism and to be inspired by that of others – our teachers and fellow students. The feeling of being a community was palpable at Kallah and we brought that great spirit with us back to One West Fourth Street.”

HUC-JIR/New York Kallah is made possible by a generous gift from Kevin and Erica Penn. Mr. Penn is Co-Chair of the Eastern Region Board of Overseers.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading 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 Jacob Rader Marcus Center of 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