Friday, July 25, 2008

American and World Reform Judaism.

.יהדות רפורמית אמריקנית ועולמית

I want to start by posing a question inspired by an email I received: Why do some (most?) congregations charge (non-members) for High Holiday tickets? I'm sure there's some sort of "economic reality" that synagogues have to face, but the entire idea is distasteful to me.

The reason I bring up this point is that I recently received an email from an old list that I'm on advertising High Holiday ticket prices to "young people" in the D.C. area. While several places let students in for free, others require a ticket purchased at a "discounted" price of $18-200. Let's say I'm an unaffiliated 28-year-old in the DC area. I'm certainly not going to pay a dime to go to services, to my options for free services include:

Adat Reyim (Conservative)
Beth Torah (Reform)
Farbrangen (Independent)
Kehila Chadasha with Am Kolel (Havuah/Renewal/Reconstructionist)
Temple Sinai (Reform)
University of Maryland Hillel (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox)
and three Orthodox/Traditional services

Now granted, that's an enormous panoply of options compared to Roanoke (which has two congregations), but of the 56 options available in the area, it's sad that less than 1/4 are free. (And that's if you're under 35!)

One thing I don't know is whether this is a common phenomenon or one unique to American Judaism. I suspect that this is more of an American approach to High Holiday service attendance, though I can't back that up with anything more than a hunch. If it's true, though, then it serves as a sign of American Judaism's unique way of doing things and also reflects a certain amount of privilege and wealth not available to other communities.

Which leads me into my next topic: World Reform Judaism. On Wednesday afternoon, we had a chance to meet with Rabbi Uri Regev, the leader of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) (which is headquartered in Jerusalem ... in the same complex as HUC!). Rabbi Regev, a graduate from and later director of the Israeli Rabbinic program at HUC, shared with us the accomplishments of the World Union, largely in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) and in South America. Where the WUPJ has not had significant impact is in North America. Many of the Jewish communities there feel secure and insulated from the rest of the Jewish world, and Rabbi Regev believes that a mutual partnership and enrichment must take place between American and non-American Jews, a relationship that should be built with Israel as its heart.

Now, I'm all for the expansion of horizons of Americans' understanding of Judaism beyond the boundaries of our country. My trip to Israel on Hillel's "Winter Israel: Peoplehood and Pluralism" trip exposed me to members of Jewish communities in ten different countries and opened my eyes to the complexities and richness of (at least parts of) world Jewry. Some time ago, I overheard someone make a comment about how all Jews have something in common: Going to Hebrew School once or twice a week to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. My immediate reaction was, "Of course all Jews have something in common ... but it's not the religious school model that you grew up with!" She was referring, I believe, to American Jews, but her concept of Judaism defaulted to the familiar. Of course, upon reflection, she would have known that Jews outside America follow a diverse array of educational systems, but the gut feeling was that "all" Jews live in the United States.

If we can change that basic perspective, we can open our minds and hearts to other communities so much easier. I don't know very much about American Jewry's involvement in the movement to move Russian Jews from Russia to Israel, but I understand that the outpouring of support was significant. Something "clicked" with American Jews about their fellows across the world, and the result was a tremendous amount of support.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not trying to squeeze aid out of the American Jewish community to go toward improving the lot of poor Jews across the globe; not at all. What I'm suggesting is that, given a recognition of a common bond, people can be drawn together from across vast distances. The strengthening of our Jewish community can only serve to make us more world-conscious and therefore more likely to speak out and act against injustices around the world. If my home congregation had a sister congregation in Rio de Janeiro, for example, I might have been taught something of Brazilian life and culture in Sunday School. Perhaps I would have had a chance to go on a Youth Group exchange of some sort to see how Jewish youth live there. And today, perhaps I would have enough interest in my sister community to know that Brazil is facing an oil workers' strike that is still in negotiations.

However, what I'm less sure about is the second part of Rabbi Regev's message, that Israel has to be at the center of our world Jewish identity. Now, at this point in my Year in Israel, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don't know very much about Israel and the religious climate here (I've been here such a short amount of time, relatively speaking), and I don't fully understand the impact Israel has on the Jewish world at large. I believe that it is entirely possible that Israel should be central to a global understanding of the Jewish community, but this is an issue I still have to explore for myself. How much should Israel be my home away from home, and how much should it trump my thoughts about and support to communities in Eastern Europe, South America, and other places? This is a topic I'm sure I'll be returning to.

It's also a topic touched upon by someone else we met with on Wednesday. Iri Kassel, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), shared several stories with us that communicated the state of Progressive Judaism (a term used to describe non-traditional alternatives to Orthodoxy) in Israel. To summarize, the IMPJ is growing in strength and influence but very, very slowly. There are 24 progressive congregations in Israel, and the IMPJ has programs in 80 schools. Last year, the IMPJ sponsored 85 "Bat Mitzvah is not Just a Party" programs that sought to bring meaning to girls' Bat Mitzvahs since in Israel, generally, a girl doesn't actually do anything or receive any recognition as a Jewish adult (but still receives a big party with lots of presents and delicious food). There's also a one-year Mechina program for students who have graduated from high school and who are delaying their full term of military service for a year. This program seeks to prepare the young men and women to fluent in the values and moral dilemmas of military service.

These are all very exciting programs, but there is a lot of work to be done before Progressive Judaism is recognized as a viable religious community and spiritual expression. For example, there are currently 3,000 orthodox rabbis getting paid by the state; 0 progressive rabbis have that privilege. However, there's a case in the Israeli Supreme Court right now that will hopefully result in the state paying a Reform (woman!) rabbi just like an orthodox counterpart. Recently, the IMPJ received four (worn-down but standing) buildings from the government, and that's a victory of precedence that will hopefully be replicated in the future.

Naturally, I believe that Progressive Judaism is a vibrant and fulfilling means of spiritual and communal expression, and it hurts to see it degraded, sometimes violently, in the Jewish state. Nevertheless, I'm inspired by the work that IMPJ is doing, and I fully support it. I don't know what I can do aside from talk the talk, however. Even when asked what we can do to help, Mr. Kassel could only suggest that we visit the Progressive synagogues in Israel, make relationships with the communities, and if possible, bring Americans to visit them in the future. Not exactly a concrete answer ... but on the other hand, I can also see the importance to Israelis for Israelis to make this happen. It's one thing when an American rabbi says to an Israeli "Reform Judaism is beautiful!" It's another thing entirely when an Israeli (who was more than likely raised either observant or secular) tells her friends and colleagues about the importance of Progressive observance in her life. I certainly hope that the IMPJ continues to make significant strides, and I'm here to lend support if I can!

It's interesting that, the day after meeting with the IMPJ, we had our first "tiyul" (trip) in Jerusalem. We walked (a lot!) around different parts of the city and explored texts that highlight the significance of Jerusalem in Jewish tradition and observance. The tour brought us closer and closer to the Kotel, and as we drew near, we discussed the significance that gaining the Western Wall in 1967 had for the secular soldiers that fought for it. We talked about the changing character of the Wall and how only since 1969/1970 or so has it been controlled by the orthodox - prior to that, men and women prayed together (and the space was much smaller). Overall, we discussed how Jerusalem belongs to all Jews, not just the orthodox, and this is reflected in poetry and songs from Israeli society and history.

Many of my colleagues have expressed extreme difficulty relating to the Western Wall. I believe that a significant part of their unease (and mine) is the oppressive weight of the orthodox always on alert for a bare shoulder or uncovered head. It's a shame that they have declared the Wall theirs when clearly it's not, and it's a challenge for myself and, I believe, for progressive and Reform Jews in general not to let them "get away with it." To me (and I'll talk more about this another time, I'm sure), the Western Wall represents a unity of the Jewish people, but recently (very recently in the scope of Jewish history), it has become a symbol of division.

And perhaps as Progressive Judaism "catches on" and people start recognizing the value of spiritual and communal exploration outside orthodoxy, the observant community will have no choice but to become partners rather than overseers. Next year in Jerusalem.


Religion and State in Israel said...

According to JTA:

"The Reform Movement [on July 23, 2008] sent out a mass email appeal seeking $500,000 to help make up a shortfall in its budget for Israeli program.

The movement has lost 30 percent of its budget because of the falling dollar, said the email signed by the Reform hierarchy — and is soliciting one-time gifts of $500..."

Click here for article:
Reform movement says short dollar is killing its growth in Israel

For more on issues of religion and state in Israel, visit:

Religion and State in Israel

Jessica said...

There are a lot of issues in this post that I'd like to comment on - but we can also talk about them in person soon! I think that this will be a journey of discovery for both of us and that we will both be asking and exploring similar questions. I spent a lot of time last year in my "Jews in the Frontier" class wondering if, in fact, Israel was the center of the Jewish community with others on the porifory (or if the US was for that matter) or if there was a better model for understanding world Jewry (which, I think, there is and has to be). Maybe we can develop this model together. In the mean time, with regard to High Holidays, I wonder if it is better ot have a price for HH tickets and set membership dues and a policy that both are negotiable if you can't afford it (as most synagogues do have) or to pass around a basket during services every week. The second is problematic because A) only those showing up for services are paying - which may or may not be a big deal, and B) I think it disrupts and interrupts prayer, or it could be seen that giving money to the synagogue is an extension of prayer and would make your prayer more successful, which I'm not sure is a message we want. I agree that charging for HH services is a problem. I just don't know what the solution is for an institution like a synagogue which needs a lot of money to run (upkeep building, pay salaries, etc). Something to think about. I can't wait to see you in just over a week!

Jeff H. said...

The question of paying for High Holy Day services is one on which I have strong and bitter feelings. When I was growing up, our family belonged to a Conservative synagogue where I had my bar mitzvah. Each year all members received an invitation to buy tickets to services during the High Holy Days. We didn't attend--because we couldn't afford the tickets. Not my idea of Judaism. And yet another reason why Marcia and I chose to affiliate with the Reform movement.

As for the Wall and its political role, have a look at this (if you haven't seen it already):

Daniel said...

To reply to Jessica and Jeff - I think that paying (negotiable) dues to a synagogue is fine; I just don't like the notion of charging for high holiday tickets. I understand that members generally don't get charged (unless the practice Jeff encountered growing up still persists), but even non-members shouldn't be asked to pay to attend high holiday services. And in DC, if I'm the kind of person who doesn't want to pay for tickets, I have only a handful of options (half of which are orthodox). Just doesn't seem right...

Jessica said...

Fair enough. Everyone should have place to go to services if they have an inclination to do so, regardless of how much money they have.
But then, consider that most congregations barely have enough room for everyone for high holidays. Most sanctuaries are equipped for more than enough seats for Shabbat - but when the high holidays come around they are overflowing. I don't know if charging for tickets (and discouraging people from coming) is a good solution as I'd like as many people to be able to go as possible, but I do see that it is a pretty serious problem if there isn't enough physical space to be able to have outside guests for the holidays.

Sam & Debbie said...


In regard to paying for HH tickets. We have belonged to numerous congregations in several different countries. They all handle it differently - and of course no matter how they do it - someone will be offended.

For example at Holy Blossom, tickets are included in yearly membership fees. But, if you aren't a member - you can't buy tickets at all (unless you are a close family member - or if you belong to another reform congregation and are visiting Toronto).

The issue of room in the sanctuary is a big problem for most congregations. And fee structure is a big problem no matter how they do it.

Again, HB used to have a fee structure based on income. But that relies on everyone self determining their membership. But that became unworkable and was viewed as unfair. So now, they have a fixed membership fee and rely more heavily on donations. For those that can't afford the membership fee, they can ask for reduced (or waived) rates).

Most synagogues do have significant breaks or waived fees depending upon age. But, I'm not sure that entirely addresses the issue. For example, when I was 21 I was working as a full-time engineer for Exxon with a good salary. So, should I pay reduced / no fees versus say a 40 year old teacher who might have been earning less than I? What about reduced rates for senior citizens? We belonged to one Synagogue that had a very low membership fee for seniors but some of them were amoung the wealthiest in the congregation.

I just don't know. It's a tricky issue. I can see where a long term member would be upset say not being able to find a seat because a Synagogue welcomed everyone through it's doors.

Anyway, I'm sure that when you are a Rabbi - you'll have it all worked out :-)

- Sam

Daniel said...

Thanks for your input and perspective, Sam! I don't know if I will have it all worked out by ordination, but if I do, I sure hope the congregations will listen! ;-)