It takes time to integrate the experience of spending five days with 5000 Jews learning from our movement’s thought leaders and encountering our talented artists, collating wisdom from session after session offered by experts in Jewish text and culture, organizational psychology, and education. However, I can already say that this year’s Union for Reform Judaism Biennial was jam-packed with jewels. And while I’m not yet sure how all this will translate into an infusion of new spirit and action into our congregation’s life, I can share with you some personal highlights.
I was invited to participate in a training offered by Resettling the Table, an organization that has developed a highly structured technique for helping communities engage in difficult conversations. They observed that in the highly networked world in which we live, we rarely learn what personal experiences led a person to hold a position on a given issue. More likely, we are confronted by their deeply held beliefs before we ever know what events in their life mapped their coming to their particular viewpoint. Taking the time to find out why someone feels so deeply that immigration policy needs to be addressed, or why they feel so out of touch with Israel, is the route to creating receptivity on both sides of the table to having a deeper conversation, especially when we disagree. Consider inquiring after someone’s personal connections to an issue and when they came to understand what they do about it and see where the conversation goes.
In a Shabbat program, AJ Jacobs, author of “Walking the Bible”, spoke about his latest book, “Thanks a Thousand,” his quest to thank all the people responsible for his cup of morning coffee. While his five pieces of advice about becoming more grateful were sweet, the best part came when he invited us to share something for which we may not have offered enough gratitude. Suddenly the audience wasn’t hearing about what gratitude is, we were experiencing it. A woman from Hong Kong stood up and said, “I can’t ever say thank you to him, but I am grateful to the police officer who picked me up off the street and brought me to the orphanage. I’m literally a foundling.” In the sharing, a sixth lesson emerged for me: we can get the benefits of gratitude not only first hand by offering it, but second hand, too. I look forward to finding more opportunities to cultivate our collective gratitude.
Deborah Lipstadt, who spent forty years studying and fighting Anti-Semitism, was cautionary. After Pittsburgh, Poway and Jersey City, what we do as Jews should never be shaped by those who hate us. Rather, Jewish life should be determined by quality and merits of our rich tradition. It would be a shame, offered Lipstadt, if we cowered behind armed guards or worse stayed home altogether, but it would be equally wrong to become more “Jewish” in protest of those who hate us. We should be Jewish not because of what they do to us, but despite it.
As with all Jewish gatherings, there was the requisite handwringing about who we aren’t yet reaching (millennials), and who in our midst needs more or different attention (baby boomers). These remain the most challenging questions that our leadership will continue to address in the coming months and years. We welcome your continued partnership in building our temple into a home where all can nurture their highest aspirations, confront their deepest beliefs in community with others and shape their lives to be bearers of light and peace.