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YamJam in The Tent: A Real-Time Resource for Synagogue Leaders

Fri, 04/24/2015 - 09:00

As summer looms, congregational leaders are thinking about how to welcome potential members into our synagogues. What do they see when they visit our websites? What do they hear when they call the temple office? Who do they meet when they walk through the lobby during their first visit? How can we give everyone who walks through our doors the gift of audacious hospitality?

Find answers to these questions and others in the first-ever YamJam in The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum, on Wednesday, May 6th, at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Hosted by the URJ, in partnership with the National Association for Temple Administration (NATA) and the Program and Engagement Professionals of Reform Judaism (PEP-RJ), this event will offer an opportunity for congregational leaders and Movement experts to discuss ways our congregations can demonstrate audacious hospitality –not only to new members, but to anyone who comes through the synagogue doors.

What is a YamJam, you ask? It’s a moderated, live Q&A session on a particular topic – in this case, membership – that is open to all members of The Tent, the URJ’s online communication and collaboration forum. YamJams allow participants to connect with other congregational leaders in a real-time, 30-minute format to share topical information, ideas, and expertise of interest to all in attendance.

No reservations or special software needed. Just bring your ideas, suggestions, and questions, and plan to join us in the Membership group in The Tent on May 6th at 2:30 p.m. EDT. In the meantime, if you have questions about this YamJam, email us. We look forward to seeing you there!

An Open Letter to President Obama About the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide

Thu, 04/23/2015 - 11:58

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), sent a letter to President Obama about the upcoming commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, invoking the timeless words “Never forget. Never again.” The full text of the letter follows.

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

Last week we marked Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. As you said in your eloquent statement that day, “Yom HaShoah is a day to reaffirm our responsibilities to ourselves and future generations. It is incumbent upon us to make real those timeless words, ‘Never forget. Never again.’”

In that spirit, and mindful of our community’s sacred obligation to make sure that the “timeless words” you invoked are not empty phrases, we write to you today concerning the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

We are pleased that you are sending a high-level Presidential Delegation to the Republic of Armenia to participate in the memorial later this week. One of the most shameful chapters of modern history demands commemoration.

It also demands honesty in how we describe what happened 100 years ago. The genocide of over 1.5 million Armenians beginning in 1915 by the Ottoman Turks and the subsequent exile of an additional 500,000 Armenians cannot be described accurately by any other term.

In her Pulitzer prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power, currently our brilliant U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, marshals history as call to action. “In 1915 Henry Morgenthau Sr., the U.S. Ambassador in Constantinople, responded to Turkey’s deportation and slaughter of its Armenian minority by urging Washington to condemn Turkey and pressure its wartime ally Germany.” Morgenthau also defied diplomatic convention by personally protesting the atrocities, denouncing the regime and raising money for humanitarian relief. When the Turkish interior minister pressed Morganthau, “Why are you so interested in the Armenians anyway? You are a Jew, these people are Christians…. What have you to complain of? Why can’t you let us do with these Christians as we please?” Morganthau replied, “You don’t seem to realize that I am not here as a Jew but as the American Ambassador…. I do not appeal to you in the name of any race or religion but merely as a human being.”

We recognize that the Turkey of today is vastly different from the Ottoman Empire of Morgenthau’s day. However, our respect for modern Turkey’s traditions of pluralism should not deter us from learning the lessons of past mistakes.

Jewish history compels us to be forceful and clear on this issue. In this we join with Pope Francis and other religious leaders who rightly respect the magnitude of this historical slaughter.

Mr. President, as you know better than most, words matter. What we choose to call things matters. Failing to call the slaughter of over 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 “genocide,” not only diminishes the suffering of those who were annihilated but teaches those of us living today that it is acceptable to recast the retelling of past massacres to ease modern sensibilities.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs
President, Union for Reform Judaism

Portuguese Jews Gather on Remote Island To Rededicate Oldest Synagogue

Thu, 04/23/2015 - 10:50
Dozens of Portuguese Jews were set to convene on an island in the Atlantic Ocean for the rededication of the country’s oldest intact synagogue.

Poland Still Waiting for Apology Over FBI Chief's Holocaust Remarks

Thu, 04/23/2015 - 07:38
Poland was still waiting for the United States to apologize for remarks by an FBI official that it says implied complicity in the Holocaust during World War Two, a government spokeswoman said on Thursday. FBI director James Comey’s remarks, published in the Washington Post last week, prompted an outcry in Poland and drew condemnation in the media and from politicians. Poland is one of the United States’ closest European allies, a relationship strengthened by the conflict in Ukraine and related tensions with Russia. Polish politicians have repeatedly called for an increased U.S. military presence in the region. Comey’s article said: “In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do.” Poland says the passage wrongly implied it was complicit in the Nazi genocide of European Jews. On Thursday, government spokeswoman, Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, told private broadcaster TVN24: “We expect the word ‘apology’ from the U.S. side.” The U.S. State Department spokeswoman said on Monday that Comey did not intend to suggest in an article last week that Poland was responsible for the Holocaust during World War Two. Asked by ABC-affiliated broadcaster, Wate 6, on Tuesday whether he had an apology for Poland, Comey said: “I don’t. Except I didn’t say Poland was responsible for the Holocaust. In a way I wish very much that I hadn’t mentioned any countries because it’s distracted some folks from my point.” “I worry a little bit in some countries that point has gotten lost. There is no doubt that people in Poland heroically resisted the Nazis, and some people heroically protected the Jews, but there’s also no doubt that in every country occupied by the Nazis, there were people collaborating with the Nazis.” Poland’s deputy foreign minister Rafal Trzaskowski told public broadcaster TVP Info on Thursday: “The FBI director is trying to back out from what he said, but he didn’t have the courage to apologize.”

Pope Francis to Knight New York Rabbi

Wed, 04/22/2015 - 13:49
Pope Francis will confer papal knighthood on Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue.

From Heartbreak to Action: Racial Inequality in California

Tue, 04/21/2015 - 19:00

by Rabbi Rebekah Stern

I lay in bed one night late last summer, scrolling, as I often do, through my Facebook newsfeed on my phone. As a congregational rabbi and a mother of two young children—a now almost five-year old girl and two-year old boy—these last moments before I fall asleep are the only ones I seem to have to catch up on the lives of my more distant friends.

These were the first painful weeks after Michael Brown’s death. The weeks when we were reminded that there is sometimes a shocking discrepancy between the way that my white family experiences interaction with law enforcement and the way that black families often do.

I say ‘reminded,’ because, of course, this isn’t new. Structural inequalities and racism persist in our country. This is not about bad people—we all carry assumptions about people who are different from us. I know that because I walk around with white skin, different opportunities are open to me and that I experience the world differently from many people of color. But that’s the sneaky thing about structural racism: when it isn’t making headlines, as a white person I have the luxury of forgetting about it. As our cities and communities are ever more segregated, the effects of this systemic racism and bias are invisible to many of us. The tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and most recently, of Walter Scott, jolt us out of our forgetfulness. They remind us that members of our own communities are suffering every day from the effects of structural racism in our country. It just isn’t always making the headlines.

On that late night last summer, many of my Facebook friends shared passionate reflections on the events in Ferguson. More and more of these reflections were punctuated with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. One friend shared a blog post entitled, “Dear White Moms.” (You can read it here.) I lay awake in the dark, reading. And I cried. I cried because the author, Keesha Beckford, addressed me, her reader, as her ‘dear friend,’ and my heart broke.

It broke because she wrote about the blinding, primal love that all mothers feel for their children—the love that I know so well—that Michael Brown’s mother certainly felt for her own son, now dead and buried.

It broke because Keesha Beckford will have to raise her then six-year old son with an awareness that I do not have to instill in my own son: how to survive in our communities, in our country, when he is no longer a cute little boy, but, one day, a grown up young black man.

And it broke because, towards the end of her heart-wrenching piece, she wrote, “I need to know that you are not merely worried about this most tragic of worst case scenarios befalling my son; I need to know that you are out there changing the ethos that puts it in place. That you see this as something that unites us as mothers, friends and human beings.” And what was I doing to change that ethos? What could I do?

Well now, as a Reform Jew in California, I have the beginning of an answer. I will work with Reform CA, in partnership with other Reform Jews across the state, to build and strengthen meaningful relationships in our communities across lines of difference. We will partner with members of African American churches, with our allies of many races and faiths, and listen especially carefully to the experiences of Jews of color who are members of our own communities. We will work to pass two critical pieces of legislation, AB 953 and AB 619. These bills Together with our partners across lines of difference, we will share stories about how experiences of race and racism touch our lives and break our hearts and we will and commit to amplifying the voices of those who are most directly affected by these issues. As we seek to strengthen our communities, our efforts will reflect our deep respect and appreciation for our brave law enforcement officers who risk their lives and wellbeing every day to protect California’s residents.

Torah teaches us that we are forbidden to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors. Keesha Beckford finished her piece by writing, “I need you, too, because I can’t do this alone.” I’d like to answer Ms. Beckford by saying: I need you, too, and I am with you.

I hope you’ll join us.

Join the Reform CA email list and join the B’Yachad campaign at rac.org/reformca.

Rabbi Rebekah Stern is the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley and is a member of the Reform CA Leadership Team.


At the Consultation: Fighting Climate Change with the Green Climate Fund

Tue, 04/21/2015 - 17:00

Starting on Sunday, April 26, Religious Action Center staff will be welcoming over 400 rabbis, cantors, and lay leaders to Washington D.C. to participate in our Consultation on Conscience. Over the course of the weekend, participants will have the chance to hear from amazing speakers, attend workshops and lobby their elected representatives on Capitol Hill.

Climate change will be a main focus of the Consultation on Conscience. GreenFaith Scholar-in-residence Rabbi Larry Troster will be leading a workshop on congregational greening and energy efficiency initiatives, and participants will have the opportunity to lobby on climate change and the Green Climate Fund.

What is the Green Climate Fund? The Green Climate Fund (GCF) is an international fund to help poor and developing countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change adapt to their changing climate and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions through sustainable development. The Obama Administration has pledged $3 billion to the fund and allocated $500 million in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget. 30 other countries, both developed and developing, have also pledged contributions to GCF and many see it as a necessary step towards an international emission reduction agreement.

As Jews, we believe that addressing climate change requires us to learn how to live within the limits of the earth so that we will not compromise the ecological or economic security of those who come after us. Genesis 2:15 emphasizes our responsibility to protect the integrity of the environment so that its diverse species, including humans, can thrive: “The human being was placed in the Garden of Eden to till it and to tend it.”

What is our legislative ask? Since the Obama Administration included $500 million for GCF in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget appropriations, it is now up to Congress to allocate that money to the Fund. We must urge Congress to support GCF allocations as the budget process moves forward.

What can you do if you’re not attending Consultation? There is still plenty you can do if you can’t make it to the Consultation on Conscience this year! Tune into our livestream or follow along on Twitter using the hashtag #RAC15. You can urge your Members of Congress to support the Green Climate Fund by filling out this action alert. Also consider talking to your congregation about becoming more energy efficient and implementing environmental initiatives through GreenFaith certification. You can also check out our Monthly Greening Tips to see how you can make small changes in your life to reduce your personal carbon footprint.

Reconstructionists May Lift Ban on Intermarried Rabbis

Tue, 04/21/2015 - 14:00
The Reconstructionist movement is on the cusp of making a historic decision about whether to drop its longstanding ban against intermarried rabbinical school students.

At the Consultation: Black-Jewish Relations Past, Present and Future

Tue, 04/21/2015 - 12:00

At the RAC’s Consultation on Conscience April 26-28, 2015, we are thrilled to have Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, Missouri and Aaron Jenkins of Operation Understanding DC lead a workshop on how congregations can engage in the important civil rights work of our time. Rabbi Talve will speak about her activism in the St. Louis and Ferguson area in the time since Michael Brown’s death, and the role of congregations and faith leaders in leading this work. Mr. Jenkins will talk about his work as Executive Director of Operation Understanding DC and the importance of dialogue, especially between the black and Jewish communities.

In their workshop, Rabbi Talve and Mr. Jenkins will work with participants to prepare them to have similar conversations in their home communities and understand what it really means to be an ally and how it is tied to our Jewish culture. Racial justice is one of the focuses of our conference this year, and we are also very excited to also have renowned civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson speaking during Monday morning’s plenary session. You can watch his remarks on our livestream at youtube.com/racrj.

The RAC’s civil rights work can be traced back to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. As longtime Reform Movement leader Al Vorspan reminded us:

“I myself was with King from the beginning days of the Montgomery bus boycott, mayhem in Birmingham, the march in Selma, the garbage strike in Memphis. Along with me, and in other strife-laden towns, were untold numbers of rabbis and Jewish lay persons, many of whom could not name a Hebrew prophet or identify the Jewish values driving them to action. With 16 Reform rabbis, I had the honor of going to jail in St. Augustine, Florida with King and Reverends Abernathy, Williams and Vivian.  We were arrested for the crime of trying to have lunch together in the town’s nicest restaurant and we were placed in the custody of the sheriff who was also the grand dragon of the local KKK.”

More than 50 years later, we are honored to continue this strong allyship and continue to work for racial justice. As we are taught in Genesis 1:27, all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and therefore, we know that everyone must receive equal treatment and equal rights. The Consultation on Conscience and our phenomenal group of speakers provides us with an opportunity to assess the progress that has been made and prepare to continue working until we achieve a world of justice.

If you are unable to join us in person this coming weekend, I hope that you will follow along on our live stream. To learn more about our work on these issues, visit our page on civil rights.

Communities of Practice: Learning, Change, and Other Benefits that Strengthen Congregations

Tue, 04/21/2015 - 09:49

by Amy Asin and Rabbi Esther L. Lederman

On May 5th, the URJ will launch applications for a new set of Communities of Practice (CoPs). Topics will include:

  • Building a Brand: Excellence in Reform Movement Early Childhood Engagement
  • Creating Connected Communities for Families with Young Children (for congregations without Early Childhood Centers)
  • Strengthening Israel Engagement in your Congregation
  • Pursuing Justice: Becoming a Community of Action (with the Religious Action Center)
  • Finding the Sacred in the Mundane: Reimagining Financial Support
  • Engaging Congregants: Small Groups With Meaning

How can your congregation decide if participating in a CoP is right for you? You should apply to be part of one of the new CoPs if your community is:

  1. Ready to take innovative action – small steps or large ones, depending on your congregational capacity – in a particular topic area addressed by one of the new CoPs;
  2. Interested in learning how to facilitate change in your congregation – in the specific topic area and overall;
  3. Interested in learning from experts in the field and receiving support from URJ staff;
  4. Seeking the wisdom and partnership of congregations facing challenges and goals similar to yours; and
  5. Looking for a project that will promote leadership development and partnership among congregants, clergy, and other professional staff members.

Being part of a CoP strengthens congregations in countless ways. As participants delve deeper into their topic area, they also will have opportunities to interact with experts, see what other innovative congregations are doing, and understand the costs and benefits of trying new things.

But the CoP experience is about more than just learning. The URJ’s Communities of Practice are designed for congregations that want to go a step further, taking action to create deep and lasting congregational change. Perhaps your congregation has been wondering what it would be like to experiment with a new revenue/membership model, try new programming or outreach to families with young children, go beyond social action to social justice, or make changes in another area addressed by one of our new CoPs. If so, we’re ready to dive in with you. We will work with you to choose initial steps that are right for your congregation, balancing risk and reward, along with your capacity to devote necessary resources to the project.

One of the goals of our CoP model is to lower the risk of change in your congregation. Joining with other communities that also are trying new things allows your congregation to be in conversation with other innovators, to learn from what they are thinking and trying, and to share stories and get advice. Each new CoP cohort will receive support and individual coaching from URJ staff to help participating congregations make tough decisions and move forward in accomplishing real change.

Participation in a CoP is also a terrific way to develop new leadership for your congregation. By engaging a mix of veteran and new leaders, board members, clergy, and staff, your CoP experience will bring together multiple perspectives, and give new leaders a voice in shaping the congregation’s future, inspiring them to take on more responsibility. Often, lay participants in CoP projects go on to become board members and congregational presidents.

Although each congregation has a different CoP experience, many participants not only innovate successfully in the CoP topic area, but also learn skills that apply to other aspects of congregational life. Take, for example, Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD: The skills their participants learned in a CoP about families with young children helped drive innovation in the religious school. Other congregations might use newfound skills to help manage a rabbinic search process, enrich social action programming, or engage young adults.

To learn more about the CoP application process or to sign-up for an informational webinar, visit the CoP website.  If your congregation is considering participation in a CoP, complete an expression of interest form.  For additional information about the new CoP topics or to read about congregations that participated in previous CoPs, login or register to join the conversation in The Tent or contact Jessica Ingram, Manager of Communities of Practice.

Amy Asin is the URJ’s Vice President, Strengthening Congregations. Rabbi Esther L. Lederman is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Micah, Washington, DC. She will join the URJ as Director of Communities of Practice in July.

Op-Ed: Strength and Humility are Key in Defending the Jewish State

Tue, 04/21/2015 - 05:00

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, published an op-ed today in Haaretz titled “Strength and humility: the key to defending the Jewish State.” He writes,

It would be all too easy to spend Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Haatzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) debating the rights and wrongs of the complex political issues that have absorbed Jewish communities of late. I wonder, though, whether it would be possible to forego debates on these issues – from stopping Iran’s rush to nuclear weapons, to the formation of a new Israeli coalition after a divisive election campaign – and instead spend these back-to-back observances reconnecting with the Israel we love.

Perhaps it’s the first trip you took to Israel, or the first moment of deep solidarity you felt for its population. Whatever be the case, it feels to me that without the core connections between Diaspora Jews and the holy land, we get lost in politics. Don’t get me wrong, these political issues matter greatly. But underneath our intense arguments must be a true love and commitment to the Jewish State.

With the onset of Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance for those brave souls who died creating and protecting the State of Israel over the past 67 years, we enter a phase of darkness. This year, there are many fresh graves to visit, following last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. For those of us in North America, it is hard not to think of Max Steinberg z”l, the young man from Los Angeles whose love of Israel was kindled during his Birthright trip. He joined the Israel Defense Forces to express his commitment to the Jewish State and was killed in the Gaza Strip. He died as a lone soldier, meaning a young man who made the commitment to move to Israel without his family and serve in the military there. Thousands attended his funeral to mourn and to declare that, spiritually, there is no such thing as a lone soldier: he was and remains a part of the larger Jewish family.

Read the entire op-ed on Haaretz.com.

Women of the Wall Make History

Mon, 04/20/2015 - 16:21
Joint Statement by Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Anat Hoffman on a Rosh Chodesh Celebration with a Torah Scroll at the Kotel

At the Consultation: Hear From Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick

Mon, 04/20/2015 - 12:00

On April 26-28, hundreds of Reform Jews will gather in Washington, D.C. for the RAC’s Consultation on Conscience, the Reform Movement’s flagship social justice event. This year’s Consultation will feature Former Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick, among many other luminaries. Tune in to the live stream of Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner’s installation as Director of the RAC at 10:15 a.m on Monday morning to hear Gov. Patrick’s remarks.

As Governor of Massachusetts (2006-2014), Gov. Patrick supported funding for public education at a record high for the Commonwealth and oversaw affordable health care’s expansion to over 98% of Massachusetts residents.  Last year, Gov. Patrick signed legislation to raise the Commonwealth’s minimum wage to $11 per hour by 2017, which was at a time the highest in the country. Gov. Patrick led Massachusetts’ economy to a 25 year high in employment, despite the recession (2007-2009). He was also the first African-American to serve as Massachusetts’ Governor.

Gov. Patrick’s work complements our commitment to combatting economic inequality at the RAC. We advocate for much-need change and for reforms to fight inequality, such as a higher minimum wage, paid sick days for all Americans, and for important tax credits that help our most vulnerable. We also fight for all to have access to ample, nutritious foods and ensure that all Americans have a safe place to call home.

Our Jewish tradition is explicit in commanding that we advocate for programs that lift up our most vulnerable. Jewish history also provides us with an example for helping the needy. During Talmudic times, much of tzedakah (justice) was done though tax-financed, community-run programs that helped those in needed, paralleling the social safety net that we continue to fight for today. Our Jewish tradition calls on us to “speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor, and the needy” (Proverbs 31:9), and we must fulfill our obligation to engage in issues of economic justice. We have a responsibility to address these issues, and at the Consultation we will have the opportunity to delve deeper into these topics.

Be sure to tune in for the livestream at youtube.com/racrj, and learn more about the Consultation on Conscience here.

Union For Reform Judaism Announces Partnerships To Publish Torah Commentaries, Study Materials, Religious School Curricula And More

Mon, 04/20/2015 - 11:45
URJ to Partner with Behrman House Publishing and Central Conference of American Rabbis to Advance Jewish Learning

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Modern Orthodox Scholar, Dies at 81

Mon, 04/20/2015 - 08:34
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a leader of the Israeli national-religious movement and a prominent Modern Orthodox scholar, has died.

Women Read From Torah Scroll at Western Wall

Mon, 04/20/2015 - 06:44
Women of the Wall read from a full-size Torah scroll during the group’s monthly prayer service at the Western Wall.

Elio Toaff, Rabbi Who Brought First Pope to Synagogue, Dies at 99

Mon, 04/20/2015 - 06:27
Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Rome for half a century and a pivotal player in Christian-Jewish reconciliation, has died at the age of 99.

Poland Demands Apology from FBI Chief Over Holocaust Remarks

Sun, 04/19/2015 - 12:03
Poland’s Foreign Ministry protested remarks by FBI director James Comey in which he said the Poles were the Nazis’ accomplices during the Holocaust.

FBI Chief James Comey Says Holocaust Key Lesson for Agents

Fri, 04/17/2015 - 07:47

FBI director James Comey called the Holocaust the most significant event in history and said that’s why a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum program on its lessons is mandatory for new agents.

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Chilly Scenes of Cleveland Synagogues

Fri, 04/17/2015 - 06:00

What happens when a senior rabbi announces from the pulpit on Rosh Hashanah that he is suffering from ALS? In his posthumously published novel, Raphael Silver chronicles the power struggle.

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