New York Investiture and Ordination Address :by Barry Shrage, President, :Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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New York Investiture and Ordination Address :by Barry Shrage, President, :Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Barry Shrage, President of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, was the speaker at New York Investiture and Ordination Ceremonies on Sunday, May 2, 2010.  His address is below:


Serving at a Time of Hope and Opportunity: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Investiture and Ordination Address -- May 2, 2010

Barry Shrage, President, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston

This is an awesome moment for me and I am so honored and grateful to have been chosen to be with you here today.  Thanks to Rabbi Ellenson, thanks to the faculty and administration,and most of all thanks to you, our new Rabbis who have labored long and studied hard and dreamed great dreams  to bring you to this day.

Actually, I have also dreamed of this moment.  You may find it strange but it’s true that I literally imagined myself here even before I was invited because there is so much that I want to say to you.  To you, because you have so much potential,  to you because the Jewish people are ready to hear a new message, a new story of hope and holiness and redemption, to you because you, you and very few others will be positioned to be the carriers of this great message into the future.

I’ve wanted to speak to you since the beginning of the economic crisis because I heard that some here at Hebrew Union College and at URJ were feeling discouraged and concerned because any economic crisis and particularly one this severe brings fear in its wake, fear that extinguishes optimism, fear that stifles innovation and expansion, fear that kills hope. 

And so I wanted to tell you that this is no time for trepidation, but that this is exactly the moment for courage and not fear, optimism and not pessimism, hope and not despair. 

I have worked in the Jewish community for over forty years, starting in 1969 (yes, as my son frequently says: since the mighty dinosaurs roamed the earth!) and I think there has never been a better moment or a time of greater promise for American Jewry or for the Reform Movement, which both captures the American Zeitgeist, a culture of radical choice, and can also transform it into something greater, a culture of meaning and purpose.

On the surface, this is a time of assimilation and decline. But beneath the surface, renaissance and renewal.  For a moment, a brief moment perhaps, the American Jewish community has the power to define itself and to move toward a renaissance of its’ own design.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century we find ourselves with great institutions of learning and great scholars, creative minds and many seeking wisdom, and the wealth to accomplish any goal.  Nearly a century ago, a generation of grinding poverty – our grandparents and great grandparents, living at a time of assimilation, with few material possessions, created communities and institutions, synagogues and Federations and communal networks. And they had nothing.  And now we who have everything may lack the courage to do what we know we need to do to bring the Golden age that we instinctively know is within our grasp.

Americaprovides great opportunities for the Jewish community and the Jewish people, a home, safety and respite, political stability and physical security, freedom from anti-Semitism and economic success, democracy and honor.  But America alone cannot provide community and meaning, roots and wings, a “rumor of angels” or the possibility of transcendence; the identity of the mysterious Presence Who might fill our lives withawe and bliss, humility and a sense of greatness;a commitment to a unique people or a broader concern for the network of all humankind; values worth sacrificing for or a life worth living; a particular story of our own to contribute to the “dialogue among civilizations.”  Redemption. 

Some say that we must inevitably disappear in the fourth generation of freedom and safety and that only anti-Semitism can unite and preserve us.  I categorically deny this.  The opposite must be true.  America provides freedom and democracy and security.  These are the soil in which true renaissance can grow.  America can provide the environment that gives us the possibility of a good life, but only we can restore our voice and our place in history.  All of this is now in your hands to choose and engage, to create and sustain, to restore and to build.

Why this moment and why are you so critical to this great work?

There are two demographic realities that will reshape the future of our people.

The first is intermarriage and the second is Birthrightand you are in a critical position to address both of these realities.

The next ten years will, I believe, see the largest increase in Jewish interest and the largest potential increase in Jewish engagement in the next generation that we’ve ever seen.  Dr Steven Cohen tells us that the next generation of Jews is already, probably for the first time in American Jewish history, more spiritual than the last and that this is even truer for the children of intermarriage than for the children of in-married Jews!

And then there’s Birthright!

Birthright has already transformed nearly a quarter of a million lives in ways that we still cannot fully comprehend. Who knows how many leaders and contributors, scholars and defenders of Israel, congregational leaders, and Rabbis, Jewish fathers and Jewish mothers, Jewish children and grandchildren—perhaps even Jewish prophets—Birthright can produce. When one young adult goes to Israel, one life is changed forever. When a thousand go, an entire community may be changed. But when a million go, an entire generation can be changed forever.  This may well be the tipping point of a generation—a moment of transformational change.  

The recent Brandeis Birthright study shows that eight years after a Birthright Israel experience:

-- Three quarters of participants still say that it transformed their lives

-- Non orthodox participants were 57% more likely to be married to a Jew than non Orthodox non participants

--Unmarried participants were far more likely to view marrying a Jewish person and raising Jewish children as very important in their lives, and expressed a stronger desire to raise Jewish children even if they don’t marry Jews.

-- Participants had a much stronger sense of Jewish identity and Jewish peoplehood.

In spite of these great results, we know that Birthright is, at best, a partial victory.

The American Jewish community has failed to fully fund Birthright and has generally ignored Birthright follow-up …and follow-up is critical.  And so when they return and inevitably form families, they will I believe, in the fullness of time, and at the right moment in the family life cycle join synagogues.  And most of them will be joining Reform synagogues because Birthright tends to serve mostly less traditional young people from less traditional households. 

Many will be joining your synagogues with a greater longing for spirituality than the last generation, higher expectations for meaning and purpose than the last generation and a hunger for meaningful caring communities, serious learning, real education for themselves and their children, serious volunteer engagement in the world or a yearning to express their Jewishness through a commitment to social justice. 

All these yearnings and dreams will be in your hands to fulfill or disappoint.  And I assure you that this adventure, this struggle for the interest and the souls of the next generation will not be for the faint-hearted, the fearful or the pessimistic.  This is the moment for a class like this to take courage, to fill your hearts with hope and to tell great stories about the coming golden age!

This is also your moment because nearly 50% of American Jewish households are already interfaith households, because nearly half our children already live in interfaith homes, because many of these interfaith families are committed to raising Jewish children, and because many of these children as young adults will be spiritual seekers, and former Birthright participants who will use their Birthright experience to bond their spiritual journey to a newfound commitment to Jewish peoplehood.  And those who join synagogues (and I believe most will) will overwhelmingly be joining Reform synagogues.  Your synagogues!  They will join your synagogues because the Reform Movement pioneered outreach and created congregations of warmth and caring over the last thirty years and because these efforts have made a real difference and have brought large numbers of interfaith families into our community.

So what will you do with these opportunities?  You have a received a superb education here at Hebrew Union College, but I still have some advice:

  1. First define a vision and be prepared to follow your vision with superhuman persistence.  My old friend, the late great business consultant (and Talmud scholar) Michael Hammer used to quote Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there.”   Define your Derech and follow it.  When I started working for a Federation over 30 years ago, the very idea of a Federation/Synagogue partnership was a joke.  But we were able to make it happen in Boston and now other Federations are beginning to take notice.  Define your Derech and follow it with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul!
  2. Second, don’t sell your congregation short….don’t listen to the latest conventional wisdom and don’t believe that “lowest common denominator” Judaism is the correct response.  Ten years ago, Boston launched Me’ah, one hundred hours of serious Jewish learning, mostly in Reform and Conservative congregations.  Me’ah demands two years, two hours a week, and two hours of homework, focused on Torah, Talmud, Jewish history and Jewish philosophy.  So far, 2500 have participated and if we had listened to the market researchers, we never would have tried.  Jews want to be inspired to stretch and grow and learn (whatever they tell market researchers!).  It’s also been suggested that interfaith households require “lowest common denominator” programming and a less “Jewish” environment to feel comfortable.  I don’t think this is true (and, of course, I wouldn’t do it even if it were true!).  Non-Jewish spouses, having grown up in other faiths, are frequently under the misapprehension (I know this will be a shock!) that we are actually a religion and not a club!  They want to know about Judaism as a religion which is why young interfaith families join Reform synagogues much more frequently than JCCs.  In Boston, our strategy for interfaith outreach is to fund and partner closely with Reform outreach to create communities with no barriers to entry but with a vision of Jewish life as high as Sinai!                                     
  3. But outreach cannot work without content and learning, meaning and purpose.  If our communities are spiritually and intellectually empty, if they are cold and uncaring, outreach must certainly fail.  In Boston we believe that over 50% of interfaith households are raising their children as Jews and joining congregations, much higher than the national average which is much closer to 30%.   Dr. Steven Cohen frequently reminds me that our success is only partly dependent on our serious support for outreach (around $400,000 a year), but also requires the radically increased support we have given to day school education, synagogue change, caring congregations, informal education, adult learning , camping and social justice in the context of a meaningful commitment to congregational life and the creation of communities of Torah and Tzedek and Chesed, serious Jewish learning,  social justice and caring.  So it’s vital that you set concrete goals for your congregations and for yourselves.  We know what doesn’t work …’s what we’ve been doing for the last 100 years! It’s the old paradigm.   Afternoon schools are largely disastrous failures (did A Serious Man strike a familiar chord?) but 100% of your kids suffer through them.  Intensive Jewish summer camp almost always works but only a tiny minority of your kids ever sees one!  Imagine what would happen to congregational life if far more of your children went to day school (Boston has a magnificent Reform movement day School—I love the Rashi School!)  50% experienced intensive Jewish summer camp; 50% of your adults had intensive adult Jewish learning experiences; 50% of your families participated in congregation sponsored journeys to Israel; 50% of your teens participated in Jewish experiences that integrate formal and informal Jewish education and50% of your families participated in meaningful social justice programs of the kind that Rabbi Jonah Pesner pioneered in partnership with our Federation and JCRC and that URJ’s “Just Congregations” Program is now making available to congregations across the country.What would happen if you conducted an intake interview with each new congregant and tried telling each one the truth: that you can’t create a meaningful experience for them or a Jewish life worth living for their children without their full involvement?  What would happen if your goal was truly to create a community of Torah and Tzedek and Chesed!
  4. And then, of course, there’s God and prayer.  Prayer may be the reason that most people come to our synagogues (at least for the High Holidays when you see most of your congregants), but even with cantors as wonderful as today’s ordinees, who surely can produce aesthetic services, it’s difficult to make prayer spiritually powerful for congregations that are Jewishly empty.  If your congregants are demanding a glimpse of the divine when they visit three times a year, the heavenly choir itself would probably fail.  But sometimes I think about the possibility of meaningful prayer and an encounter with God in the synagogue emerging from true communities of Torah and Tzedek and Chesed.  I once saw a hologram at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. Three projectors created a hologram, a three dimensional image, of a column that dominated the ancient gate at the beginning of the Cardo in the ancient Roman City.  It seems to me that in a congregation filled with Torah and Tzedek and Chesed, (the three “projectors”) real meaning and real community that the “glory of God” “Kvod Hashem” would appear in the midst of the congregation and meaningful prayer would finally become possible.  And of course, Zeh Dor Dorshav, this is the generation of seekers and many are seeking nothing less than the possibility of redemption, “intimations of immortality”, and a “rumor of angels.
  5. But what about money?  Don’t be afraid to ask….Ask nicely and then demand help from your Federation. It’s becoming clear to more Federations that they actually need you more than you need them and that the well-being of the community depends on the success and vitality of the congregation!  Back in 1965, Abraham Joshua Heschel shocked the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations.   He told them a hard truth:

Our young people are disturbed at parents who are spiritually insolvent. They seek direction, affirmation; they reject complacency and empty generosity.

There is a waiting in many homes, in many hearts for guidance, instruction, illumination, a waiting, which is often intense, pressing, nationwide.  So many are heartsick at the spiritual failure of our community . . .

To maintain devotion to Judaism, to succeed in the effort to convey my appreciation to my child, I need a community, as we all do.  In this emergency we call upon the Federation: Help us!

We must create a climate of elucidation . . . of pronouncing our people’s waiting for meaning . . . by discovering and teaching the intellectual relevance of Judaism, by fostering reverence for learning and the learning of reverence . . .

  We need a revolution in Jewish life.

That revolution is still being born but its success will lie in your hands and in the hands of the Federations in the cities you will serve.

And don’t be afraid to talk to your congregants.  Once they understand that the Jewish future is in the hands of their community’s congregations they will help but of course they won’t unless you believe in the power of your congregation yourself.  If you are grasshoppers in your own eyes you will certainly be grasshoppers in theirs! 

All of this is in your hands and Rabbis that are deeply committed to these goals with faith and optimism tend to succeed!  And those congregations that succeed will define the future of American Judaism.

Faith and optimism are in short supply these days but if we are to succeed, we must believe deeply in our work and provide answers when our children ask us why they should choose Judaism.  And we have good reason to believe in our work, in our people, in our culture, in our values and in ourselves.

And your congregants may indeed ask you:  “What is this service to you?”  When they do you must answer:

  • In a time that lacks vision and prophecy and that yearns for meaning, we are carrying an ancient faith in an ancient God so that our children and grandchildren will have spiritual options to fill their lives with light and joy.
  • In a time of greed and selfishness, we’re part of an old—a very old—tradition of caring for strangers—love of the poor and oppressed—and responsibility for widows and orphans, the elderly and handicapped.
  • In a time of forgetfulness, we’re part of the oldest living chain of learning and literature in the world, inheritors of an ancient and hauntingly beautiful culture.
  • In a time of anomie and loneliness, we carry the secret of community making and caring to provide our children and grandchildren a sense of community and belonging.
  • In a time of rootlessness and alienation we’re connecting to a 3500-year-old history and an infinite future.
  • In a time of religious intolerance, murder and terror we represent a faith that recognizes (in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks words) the “dignity of difference” and has the potential to foster religious communities that are serious and learned and particular in their spiritual  core but also universal in their concern for the oppressed and connected to the network of all humankind

 You are the representatives of a deep and significant 3500-year-old religious civilization that can provide personal spiritual meaning and purpose for our lives.  We are part of intimate, face-to-face Jewish communities through which that religious civilization is transmitted.  They are the community structures of caring and warmth that make Jewish life worth living.  Those communities are part of the Jewish people . . . the network of “sacred responsibility” (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s phrase) that allows us to turn our culture and civilization into transformational action and that serves as the visible sign of our Jewish identity.  The point of our religious civilization is the perfection of our communities and our ultimate responsibility for the betterment of humankind in the name of the God whose story is at the heart of our existence.  All together, all of these, as an integrated whole, are the source of a Jewish life worth living.

And all of this is your responsibility as Rabbis and as leaders to teach and to create.

And you can succeed, you must succeed, with faith in the future and absolute faith that change is possible and that obstacles can be overcome. 

Two of my favorite books, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and Moses as a Political Leader by Aaron Wildavsky speak to us of possibility of change and the power of leadership:

Gladwell teaches us that:

“What must underlie successful social change in the end is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus.  In the end, Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action…

 Look at the world around you.  It may seem like an immovable, implacable place.  It is not.  With the slightest push -- in just the right place, it can be tipped.”

Gladwell’s words give us hope but Wildavsky’s torah must guide our leadership as we face the future at this moment of promise:

“Faith is the willingness to act in the absence of things seen; but faith in the future requires knowledge of the past, from which stems the fortitude to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  The faith of leaders should thus be retrospective as well as prospective: they leap into the void of the present, illuminated by past memory of promise for the future.  Israel is taught to be historically minded, to speak of and interpret its history. 

“Without memory there is no learning; without learning there can be no teaching; and without teaching no one else will be able to remember.  This social circle of remembrance is God’s gift to Israel, without which its people would long since have perished.” 

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 leaders to serve 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, museums, 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.