Reform Rabbis Respond to Seismic Shifts

The Jewish world is undergoing tremendous shifts, the train has already left the station, and we rabbis have an opportunity and a choice.

by Rabbi Paul Kipnes

A paradigm shift is overtaking the American Reform Rabbinate. This is not the first time we have encountered such seismic pressures; yet the intensity far surpasses anything I have before experienced in my 21 years as a rabbi. Uniquely, the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis confronted these shifts head on.

The Jewish World is Changing… Rapidly

Recent literature has been slowly nibbling around at the edges, suggesting that as the world was changing, so too the American Jewish world was changing. Hayim Herring addresses it; Dr. Ron Wolfson does too. The CCAR Journal devoted a whole issue to it (New Visions of Jewish Community, co-edited by Rabbi Alan Henkin and myself). Like everyone else, rabbis are struggling to figure it out.

We are confronted by the perfect storm: an economic downturn which is siphoning off resources from the Jewish community at an alarming rate; the community’s aging which, as Rabbi Richard Address has been warning us, is creating new pressures on the community; the pervasiveness of technology which is flattening the preexisting hierarchies of Torah study and ritual life and obviating the need for a synagogue for so many people; and the increasing disengagement of younger generations of Jews from the organized Jewish community.

Addressing the Economy, Relevance, and Technology

So when 600 reform rabbis and their spouses and partners gathered in Long Beach, CA for the CCAR  convention, we were primed for learning. On one level we rabbis did everything we have done in the past: experienced inspiring worship, engaged in thought-provoking Torah study, and grappled with the latest perspectives on Israel, social justice, youth work and the like. On a more pervasive level, each rabbi at the convention, and the group as a whole, struggled openly and humbly with these titanic shifts in the Jewish world.

After a year of sharing stories of shifting economic priorities, concerns about the relevance of synagogues and the denominational movements, and questions about technology changing human interactions, we embraced our mutual desire to work together to shift focus, skills and intentions so that rabbis can lead our communities and places of work through the era of rapid change.

In large group presentations, intimate intentional conversations, and professionally facilitated seminars, we endeavored to define the shifts taking place in our Jewish and secular worlds. We explored how we could face those changes, working together, to lead the Jewish community forward.

Unorthodox Presentations at a Non-Orthodox Convention

In this pursuit, we learned from an unorthodox bunch of presenters. A filmmaker, a politician and a doctor (acclaimed documentary filmmaker Tiffany Schlain, and LA Board of Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, and UCLA Hospitals CEO David Feinberg) spoke about how narrative, community building and the pursuit of customer service excellence could lead us through the shifts. A genetic testing web company founder and a Facebook VP (Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and CEO of 23andMe and Marne Levine, Vice President, Global Public Policy at Facebook) illuminated realities and issues raised by the prevalence of technology in our lives; they urged us to face these shifts by embracing the technologies and the conversations that must follow.

In separate sessions, an Emmy award winning TV producer (Howard Gordon of 24 and Homeland fame), a Pulitzer Prize winning author (Michael Chabon of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and ClayThe Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Telegraph Avenue fame), and nationally-known Jewish newspaper editor-in-chief (Rob Eshman of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal) explored the use of narrative storytelling to capture and mold the experiences we seek to explain and perpetuate.

We reenvisioned the conversation about Israel with the help of Los Angeles-based Israel Consul General David Siegel, who as part of the Prime Minister’s inner circle is able to bring forward his insights on Jewish pluralism. Siegel is the son of the conservative rabbi who created the Israeli conservative Masorti movement and a member of a Progressive Jewish synagogue. The perspectives of a bevy of Israeli Progressive rabbis made it clear that colossal shifts were happening vis-a-vie religious pluralism in Israel while simultaneously we may be seeing a drawing closer to Israel by American Jews.

Reform CA: Organizing a Jewish Religious Voice for Justice

Most significantly, we gave birth to two new community organizing movements, each seeking to transform the pursuit of social justice, one in California and the other throughout the United States. First, we officially founded Reform CA, a movement of Reform Rabbis and Jews dedicated to ensuring that our Jewish values have a voice in the pursuit of a better California. Simultaneously we created Rabbis Organizing Rabbis as a nation-wide group committed to serious social justice activism through the prism of pluralistic progressive Reform Jewish values. Both groups recognize that with the world changing so quickly, there is a need for steady, value-based perspectives  to guide us toward truth and right in the face of power and might. Both groups agreed to address comprehensive immigration reform as our first issue, with the Trust Act as the Californian effort of choice.

Addressing the Shift

Too soon the convention ended, leaving us to ponder: what ideals, perspectives or knowledge will help guide us forward?  I suggest five:

  • Listening is Key: As Dr. Ron Wolfson’s new book Relational Judaism suggests, successful rabbis need to spend more time listening to our congregants or members and their concerns. Such conversations will enable us to connect up individuals with each other, creating communities of shared concerns.
  • Community Conversations Build Relationships: Since individuals are able to access learning online and ritual as a fee-for-service experience, successful rabbis will strive to facilitate conversations within the community over a wide swath of issues. These conversations build relationships, increase commitment, and deepen the connection to everything from Torah to ritual to issues of personal importance.
  • Torah is Real: As always, the narratives of Torah provide poignant touchstones to the realities of our lives. Successful rabbis will use everything the world has to offer – video, conversation, outside-of-synagogue locations, social media, personal storytelling and more to invite the Jew out of the pew to read him/herself into Torah and our Jewish tradition.
  • Technology Tells the Story: Jeremiah Knight, noted marketing/advertising expert and brother of convention chair Rabbi Asher Knight, illustrated how successful social media campaigns tell stories, invite simple but meaningful actions and provide constant connection to the story and the values they embody. Successful rabbis embrace social media for what it is: a primary means of connection and learning for multiple successive generations of people. Instead of arguing pilpul – whether online interactions are as significant and real as in-person connections – successful rabbis will utilize everything at our fingertips to connect, engage, listen and learn.
  • The Personal Trumps the Programmatic: While we crave meaningful experiences of learning and dynamic ritual, most Jews eschew programs which seek to teach or transform. Successful rabbis will shift the shape of Jewish engagement from “programmatic” to “relational.” As Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, CEO of Jewish Outreach Institute, has been teaching for years, successful rabbis move beyond their desks to stake out public space – in the foyer, the youth lounge, the local bookstore, the supermarket kosher aisle and the coffee shop – to meet people where they are.

There are so many more lessons with which we must grapple; these are but five. Perhaps the take-away from the CCAR Convention is this: the Jewish world is undergoing tremendous shifts, the train has already left the station, and we rabbis have an opportunity and a choice: to face the reality and embrace the possibilities, or to ignore and become even more irrelevant.

As Torah teaches, u’vacharta bachaim, we ought to choose that which bring Judaism back to life.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is rabbi of Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, California and blogs at Or Am I?