Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tapping into the Relational Treasures of the Seder

One of the favorite preoccupations of Jewish communal leaders, it seems, is figuring out – and funding – innovative approaches to engage various interest groups in Jewish life.

Whether it is reaching out to the Next Gen, to families of young children, to teens, to Boomers or any other group, there has been a panoply of creative solutions to the problem of disengagement utilizing books, films, an Open Mike approach, a Shabbat format, new curricula, social action, contests, a nationwide initiative.

The success of these offerings rests in their ability to enable the formation of meaningful relationships. After more than a century of serving Conservative synagogues, we at United Synagogue know that the soul of successful programming hinges on its relational power. Indeed, in the wake of our Centennial this past fall, we initiated a Big Read of Ron Wolfson’s seminal work, Relational Judaism.

Utilizing the book’s teachings, we’ve created conferences for synagogue leaders all over the country about how to create congregations that focus on creating a deep sense of personal connection. And next month, we will be offering a webinar with Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, a pioneer in bringing a relational approach to his kehilla.

But why wait for our webinar? This upcoming week, the Jewish calendar presents a powerhouse opportunity for multi-generational, relational engagement in the form of the Passover Seder.

Of all the Jewish holidays, Passover is the most widely observed. Across the denominational divide, Jews are more likely to attend Seders than, say, Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur services. Additionally, people of other faiths are more likely to be guests at a Passover Seder than any other Jewish observance.

Herein rests the relational opportunity of a lifetime.

I hardly have to hawk the marvelous attributes of the Seder or promote the virtues of the Haggadah, a brilliant guidebook to the creation of living ritual. First-time visitors to Seders are usually struck by the interactive quality of the Passover meal, the iconic questions, songs, history, rituals, characters and commentary, the lively and sometimes argumentative discourse that arises from fulfilling the commandment of envisioning ourselves as the very generation that left Egypt.

The Haggadah distills all the elements of a blockbuster novel or film (and in fact, it has spawned both). It has heroes and villains, a tale of triumph against all odds. It has the revolt of nature, dangerous animals and diseases.  It has catchy tunes. It has the Angel of Death.

Each year, I find myself marveling at another aspect of the Seder and each year I am surprised anew by what engages my daughters, wife and Seder guests.

This year, I find myself repeatedly pondering the fourth of the Four Children – the One Who Does Not Know How to Ask.

It seems to me that contained within the character of this “child,” and the Haggadah’s instructions for handling her, is a message for the Jewish community at this very moment, a timely and relevant message for all who are concerned with increasing Jewish engagement by building relationships of meaning.

The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask follows the Wise, the Wicked and the Simple children. Her question is silence. The Haggadah instructs us to respond to her silence with the words, “You open (the conversation) for him, stating, “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: it is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt" (Exodus 13:8).

Reams of commentary have been written about this intriguing fourth child with various explanations for her silence and explanations of who the “You” is.  From a contemporary diagnosis of a learning disability to a psychological assessment of apathy to the silencing shame that comes from lack of Jewish literacy, the character of the Child Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask resounds for us; indeed, it is a Rorschach blot of a character, taking on numerous shapes and forms.

Having a silent person at one’s Seder is so inconceivable that the Haggadah commands a response. The expected outcome is that by personalizing the story of the Exodus from Egypt, heretofore blocked channels of communication will be opened and the disengaged Seder guest will become a full participant in the Passover kehilla.

As most Seders are often family get-togethers, the Seder also creates a built-in ideal multi-generational community setting where teens can hear the stories of senior citizens, where Shoah survivors can pass their life learnings onto those who have only read about the Holocaust in history books, where Boomers and Empty-Nesters and school children are equal participants, where liberal and conservative points of view can be voiced with an air of tolerance.

In Noam Zion and David Dishon’s groundbreaking Haggadah – A Different Night – filled with sidebar commentaries from around the world, a resonant story accompanies the section on the Four Questions:

Isidor Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics, was once asked, "Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?  "My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: "Nu, did you learn anything today?"  But not my mother.  She always asked me a different question: "Izzy," she would say, "Did you ask a good question today?"  That difference - asking good questions - made me become a scientist.

This Passover, may we harness the innate power of our heritage, which mandates that we reach out to those who are isolated in their silence. This year, may we tap into Judaism’s relational essence, building bonds with our tradition and each other that bring multiple levels of meaning to our lives.

Please write and share your Seder questions, stories and shtick with us. What do you like to do around your table? What are your unique traditions, how do you build a kehilla in your home? And how do you take the power of the Passover Seder with you even when the special dishes are packed away and the final piece of matza is consumed?  Send your comments to Andrea Glick, co-editor of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism. Check out some of the answers that people have shared here.

Best wishes for a meaningful, relational and memorable Passover.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Circle of Life – A Contemporary Purim Tale

One of the most profound lessons of the Hebrew Bible – and of Jewish tradition --  is to be found in Chapter Four of Megillat Esther, which we will read this weekend when we celebrate Purim. Therein, Mordechai compels Esther to go to King Ahasuerus not only for the salvation of the Jewish people but for her own sake as well.

Mordechai informs Esther that she is mistaken if she imagines that her royal position will protect her from Haman’s genocidal plot. He then goes one step further, appealing to her sense of personal mission, enabling her to envision herself within the context of Jewish history:

U’mi yoda’ah im l’et kazot higa’at l’malchut -- And who knows if it was not for a moment just like this that you arrived at your royal position?

From the construction of this sentence, beginning with the word “and,” one can imagine Mordechai musing aloud, turning this concept over in mind, perhaps even stroking his beard as he pondered whether Esther’s royal position was tied up with the history and fate of the Jewish People.

Every year, this verse jumps out at me in the middle of the boisterous megillah reading, filling me with deep emotion. Yes, the concept of having been put on earth to fulfill a mission is deeply Jewish, but the resonance of this pasuk is also deeply personal for me.

Three decades ago, when I was 15 years old, my father’s second wife, the only mother I ever knew, passed away. Needless to say, this was a very vulnerable time for me. Aside from the trauma of maternal loss (compounded twice because my biological mother died when I was an infant), our family was plunged into distress as my mother’s death obviously had a devastating effect on my father as well.  By the time I got to college, I had to work full-time. Because of relationships I had formed at USY, I was able to get a job with an automotive warehouse whose Jewish owners were very involved with the local Jewish community and Israel.

One day, my boss called me into his office and slid an envelope across the table.

“What is this?” I asked with trepidation.

Smiling, he said, “It’s for you. Open the envelope.”

Wordlessly, I opened the envelope. There was a document inside showing that I was registered for a trip to Israel. “What is this?” I repeated.

“Our local Federation is sponsoring a trip to Israel and my partners and I decided that you should be part of it,” he told me. “This is your registration.”

I was a junior in college, a rabbi’s son, but I had never been to Israel before. That act of generosity changed the course of my entire life, setting me on a path towards the rabbinate and service to the Jewish People.

U’mi yoda’ah im l’et kazot higa’at l’malchut?

I came back from trip to Israel the same way that most everyone does: uplifted, inspired, transformed. That experience is ultimately the reason I went to JTS and am now the CEO of United Synagogue.
Rabbi Wernick, pictured with Rabbi Rick Jacobs (URJ) and Steven Weil (OU)
That moment of kindness brought me to the most recent AIPAC gathering, where I told this story.  It was a seminal moment in my life. And it was inspired by the recognition – on the part of my bosses -- that individuals are capable of changing the course of Jewish history.

But there is a postscript to this story, a further extraordinary outcome to my having shared it at AIPAC.

What I didn’t know as I ascended the stage to speak was that the president of that automotive company was in the audience.

The man who changed the course of my life -- from late adolescence and onward -- was attending the AIPAC convention with his family.  The act of my sharing this story provided them with tangible, quantifiable, measurable proof that acts of chesed – loving-kindness – can change the world…often one person at a time.

Leaving AIPAC, I was awash in so many feelings. Yes, being part of a mega-gathering in support of Israel is heady enough; this year’s convention drew over 14,000 people from a wide ideological spectrum. And I had come to AIPAC on the heels of a recent, remarkable trip to Israel with the Conference of Presidents, the Jewish Agency and Masorti Olami, our worldwide Conservative Judaism.

But the thought that has occupied me since my AIPAC presentation is best encapsulated by Mordechai’s words to Esther on the eve of destruction: U’mi yoda’ah im l’et kazot higa’at l’malchut?

What, I wonder, would it mean if we lived our lives with the understanding that we are capable, at every moment, of great acts of transformation and action – through our own agency or through the enabling of someone else?

What if we lived life with the knowledge of the power and potential of chesed?

As we approach the holiday of Purim, let us take a lesson from Mordechai and his modern-day descendants – Harold Scherling, Michael Schoenberger, and Dan Ribnick – who were able to recognize the concept of et hazot – this moment.

As surely as the sun rises, each new day presents us with innumerable opportunities to act, to seize the et hazot.

And just as the decision of Harold, Michael and Dan to send me to Israel grew out of their communal consciousness and sense of Klal Yisrael, the core of our work at United Synagogue is to build, strengthen and transform our kehillot so that they are sacred communities of meaning and relationship.

This Purim, may we be able to act in the spirit of et hazot. This Purim, may we be like Mordecai and Esther, agents for redemption.  

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Masorti World Through the Lens of Shabbat

It is late on the final Thursday in February, on the final week of my trip to Israel. As always, it was a whirlwind of meetings – both formal and serendipitous. As always, there was the magical sense of living in miraculous times, of being part of the greatest start-up nation initiative in the contemporary world. As always, there was the awareness of a tenuous existence, the presence of hostile neighbors, multiple opportunities for tikkun within the borders of our beloved homeland.

Though I met with lawmakers and newsmakers, heard reports of sobering situations and was briefed about breaking stories, what remains with me most of all are the personal conversations I had with people over the course of a single Shabbat.

These impacted me greatly and inform my agenda as I return back to New York.

So let me start by telling you about Jeremy. A British Jew, Jeremy is 23 years old, an alum of Noam UK and now a lay leader in Noam Olami (our worldwide Masorti teen movement).  Having attended our Centennial this past October in Baltimore, Jeremy told me that the gathering was "over the top" for him as he had never had an opportunity to be around so many other Masorti Jews, to be inspired by them and witness the learning and spiritual cross-pollination that was taking place. As a result of having been there, the Noam leadership decided they needed a structure to bring more value to their work and appointed Jeremy to be the first chair of Noam Olami in Europe.  

This represents a seismic sea change in our global fellowship…and kicked into motion a whole new way of operating. As Jeremy and his peers are learning from us, we, in turn, are learning from his organization? what it means to have more of a youth-run youth movement. To that end, our regional youth director from the New York area went to London recently to share our knowledge of organizational structure and to learn from Noam about creating more peer-led youth groups. We’re also looking to send two USYers to Noam’s camp in London this summer to further the relationship.  

And here’s a bonus: As a result of being at our convention Jeremy met Limmud founder Clive Lawton. When he returned to England, he was able to make Clive his mentor at the United Jewish Israel Appeal, completing the circle. This is a beautiful example of how United Synagogue’s influence in the international Jewish world is being felt.

Jeremy and I had a chance to connect at the Shabbaton hosted by Masorti Olami. Over the course of this event, I prayed, ate with, sang and connected with dozens of lay and professional leaders from around the Masorti World –  the UK, France, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, Ukraine, Canada, Israel and the United States. What was especially exciting was engaging in visioning exercises toward creating a new strategic plan for Masorti Olami. As United Synagogue is the largest constituency of worldwide Masorti Judaism, people were overjoyed that we were there. It is important to our global family that we are engaged in their wellbeing. With our strength comes the responsibility of leadership as well as the opportunity to learn from others and their experiences.

We are indeed stronger when we broaden our lens and realize that our family extends beyond North America, hearing about the challenges, successes and experiences beyond our borders.
Remembering the Shabbaton, I also cannot stop thinking about Rabbi Reuven Stanlov and his wife, who are from Kiev. While I originally met them last June while on the JAFI mission to the Ukraine, the Shabbat we spent together provided me with an opportunity to get a first hand account of what's going on in their community during this time of great instability and to hear their needs.  

Topping the list is security for their institutions as anti-Semitism is rearing its head again, posing a very real threat. The Jewish Agency in response is providing $150,000 for the Kiev Jewish community. As it turns out, our Masorti kehilla Midreshet Yerushalayim is just a twenty-minute walk from the center of the violence.  Additional resources are being made available to facilitate quick Aliya to Israel too.

While considering how best to help our Kiev kehilla, I happened to speak with Hillary Gordon who works for Masorti Olami.  She told me that our kehillot in Canada had no way to make a tax-deductible contribution directly to Masorti Olami to help our Kiev kehilla. I sent an email to Rabbi Paul Drazen, our director of special projects, and four hours later we had set up the fund and mechanism to receive contributions on behalf of Masorti Olami not just in Canada but in the US, as well. As of this writing more than $7,000 has been raised specifically for it. These funds will be used to supplement security and to provide much needed resources for celebrating Purim.  

Just as we were able to serve as a clearinghouse for assistance rendered and needed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, United Synagogue is able to be a nerve-center to our worldwide kehillot during perilous times.

You can help by donating here. (Click on the “direct my gift to” radio button, and select Masorti Kehilla Support from the drop-down box 

In my next blog post, I will debrief on my meetings with the Conference of Presidents, my visit to Rawabi –  the first planned city developed in the Palestinian Authority, my meetings with JAFI and WZO and the new awareness I have for the issue of African Asylum, a pressing social issue that I confess I had not paid enough attention to before.

There is much information for me to share with you regarding Israel’s security, especially regarding Iran, the progress of our struggle to achieve religious pluralism in the Jewish homeland, ongoing discussions about 21st Century Jewish identity, and the prospects for peace.

For now, as I approach the first Shabbat following this Israel trip, I wish to hold onto the power of personal connections enabled by sitting next to my Conservative and Masorti brothers and sisters from far-flung places. I am aware -- more than ever -- of the truly awesome responsibility that United Synagogue has to convene a global conversation about the viability of our centrist, passionate stream of Judaism. I return home to the United States aware – more than ever – of the manifold gifts of being Jewish in North America.

May God spread a canopy of peace on us, on Israel and on the entire world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Rejoice, Rebuild and Rachamim: Reflections on the USY International Convention #ICNOLA

Recently I attended the International Convention of USY.  Seven hundred teens, 100 college students as staff and more than 100 adult volunteers converged on New Orleans for a week of fun, study, service, and prayer.  It was a transformative experience for everyone, including me.

On Monday, the USYers spread out across New Orleans to participate in the city’s ongoing efforts of rebuilding.  I was touched by their energy, enthusiasm, seriousness, and commitment to tikkun olam, to repairing the world.  That evening I was inspired by the weekly Torah reading and shared with them the following thoughts.  That I continue to reflect on this moment demonstrates how deeply their actions transformed me.  And that’s why I share them now with you.
This week’s Torah reading begins in a somewhat odd way.  God says to Moses that to Israel’s ancestors God appeared as El Shaddai (God Almighty), but by His name Y-H-V-H (pronounced Adonai, meaning my Master) God was not known to them.  What’s odd about this is that any reading of Genesis clearly shows that God’s name Y-H-V-H was clearly present.  So what then does the text mean when it says that “by My name Y-H-V-H I was not known to them?”
Our sages suggest that it was God’s attribute of rachamim, mercy, that was not known because the promise of redemption was not fulfilled.  It’s only now that God hears the cry of the Israelites and through Moses comes to redeem them that this element of God’s name, His attribute of rachamim, becomes known.
Today USY, this attribute is well known to you for YOU made it known to each other and to others through your incredible acts of rachamim in New Orleans.
Today you formed a band and played music to the elderly in a home for the aged.  You lifted their spirits with song.  You fulfilled the mitzvah of honoring your elders.  You brought rachamim into their lives
Today you, USY, cleaned up a lagoon.  And when you got there and realized the challenge of how to get into the water to do the job right, you didn’t hesitate.  You created wading pants and shoes taking garbage bags and wrapping yourselves in them.  Then you waded into the cold water and did the job that had to be done.  You did this because you know that shomrei adamah, that caring for the Earth is more than is good deed.  You know it’s a mitzvah, an expectation of God.  So you brought more rachamim into the world.
And today, USY, some of you went to a woman’s house and worked to complete its repair.  You laid insulation, drywall, flooring and more.  And then, at the end of your day’s work the woman who owns the house came to greet you.  And you learned that the reason it is still not livable is because her husband while working on it suffered a massive heart attack and died.  You brought rachamim into her and her children’s lives today; rebuilding her home so she is that much closer to reoccupying it.  And when she does; you will have played a role in her rebuilding her life.  That’s rachamim.
And USY, tonight as we celebrated a Taste of Bourbon Street here at the hotel, I happened to go to the vendors to thank them for coming and adding to our evening.  In so doing, I met a man, a jewelry maker, who said to me, “No rabbi.  It’s me who must thank you.  Let me tell you my story.”  So he told me how his wife died in his arms during Hurricane Katrina and how at that moment, his middle class life was washed away.  It’s been a long haul rebuilding his business, rebuilding his life.  This year, he said, has been a particularly tough one economically.  “So, Rabbi,” he said, “it is I who must thank you.  And these wonderful young people who have been buying my jewelry and more importantly, I am so moved by how respectful and kind they are to me.” 
USY, this is the definition of rachamim.  When we read the Torah this week and we come to its opening verses in which God reveals his attribute of rachamim lift your head and say God’s name.  For unlike our ancestors, this week, you KNOW this name.  You lived it.  And you shared it with all of us.  This week, New Orleans knows God’s name.  Thank you for making this world that much better!
That evening we honored our USY teen change makers.  We heard from Jessica Abo and Andy Fickman, USY alumni who though extraordinarily successful in their careers, continue to be change makers, inspired from their time as USYers.  They inspired and charged our USYers to do the same.  And we celebrated USY’s 18,000 hours of community service challenge -- a goal they far exceeded with more than 32,000 hours logged!

You can view Jessica and Andy’s talks, and the USY Changemakers video, here.

The power of USY is that we teach that tikkun olam is not simply the performance of good deeds –  Tikkun Olam is a mantra and a lifestyle. The enduring power of our International Convention is that takeaway. The committed, impassioned teens of USY go back to their communities, infusing them with vital energy. In New Orleans, I have seen the future of Conservative Judaism and it is bright; it is our youth, the next generation coming of age. They hold the secret to the Jewish tomorrow: Tikkun Olam is a verb.  

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Pew Poll and Our Passion for Renewal

(cross-posted; originally appeared at eJewishPhilanthropy)
 With one week to go until the historic Centennial of United Synagogue, I would like to thank the Pew Charitable Trust for publishing its provocative study – “Portrait of Jewish Americans” – which provides a demographic snapshot of American Jews and their affiliations as well as a sober prognosis for Jewish life in America.
I write these words in all sincerity. The findings of the study are a catalyst for the very conversations we expect to host at our Centennial, which we have dubbed, after all, The Conversation of the Century.
After the publication of the new poll, it seems that an even better subtitle might be: A Conversation for the Coming Century.
Headlines in the press trumpet some of the more potentially alarming findings of the Pew study. “Jewish Secularism on the Rise,” says the Los Angeles Times. “1 in 5 American Jews Have ‘No Religion,’” states The Jerusalem Post. Or more sedately, “Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of American Jews,” according to The New York Times.
Instantly, pundits and observers of Jewish life are weighing in. While some, such as Dr. Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary, term the findings “grim” in the Times article, there are no surprises for us – grim or otherwise – for the work of United Synagogue has been to develop strategies and approaches to the current landscape that is being detailed.
 Perhaps more than many Jewish organizations, United Synagogue has served as the foot soldiers in the field, speaking to synagogue leadership and laity, learning what is broken… and what works … in the house built by Solomon Schechter, which still occupies the epicenter of contemporary Jewish life.
We have kept our ear to the ground, hearing the rumbling underfoot. The time for change is here. We have known that for a while. And the Pew poll proves that.
Further, the fact that more than 900 people have registered to participate in United Synagogue’s collaborative, crowd-sourced Conversation of the Century is testimony of the willingness of those who care about the center of Judaism, Conservative and otherwise, to convene under a big tent and agitate for change on both a grassroots and institutional level.
We have high aspirations for our Centennial, describing it as the big RESET button for United Synagogue, and by extension, Conservative Judaism. This is the moment when we rise up to reverse the last years of decline, rewrite our story, and become inspired by the spirit of renewal. This is the pivot point for Conservative Judaism as well as North American Judaism.
Portrait of Jewish Americans validates our hunch that the time has come for broad and sweeping changes … both micro and macro. And Conservative Judaism, which is the vital center of American Jewish life … no matter what the numbers in this study say … is in the perfect position to bring about that change.
We at United Synagogue believe that meaningful relationships, framed by a Judaism rooted in tradition and informed by the day, will keep Jewish life in America vibrant and relevant. We further believe that leadership must be both enlightened and intuitive and have been on the cutting-edge of leadership training and development. We believe in the centrality of Jewish learning and literacy and have created a new paradigm for learning that will be rolled out over the next several months.
 As we head into our Centennial, we are examining the findings of the Pew study to learn how this research might refine our vision of today and tomorrow.
For the past century, Conservative Judaism has shaped and defined the Jewish world. As we settle into the 21st Century, we must learn what to take with us and what to leave behind as the realities of a new era dawn on us. This moment is key; it is our great, transformative Reset button.
Wherever we are headed, we carry with us the centrality of the importance of our kehillot – our sacred communities – which continue to be the iconic institution of transmitting Jewish identity, These kehillot are the heart and soul of Conservative Jewish life. We believe in the transformative power of holiness that takes place therein. We believe in fostering relationships of meaning. And we embrace the formidable task of strengthening these synagogues and the hundreds of thousands of people served by them.
We don’t yet know what will come out of the conversations that have yet to take place at our Centennial but we do know that they will be infused with the passion of a people who are forever yearning for renewal and transcendence.
And we know that talk is not cheap. Meaningful conversation lead to thoughtful planning and actions. From the Conversation of the Century, we expect the “take aways” to be transformative; providing a much need antidote to the alarm evoked by the Pew study.
Let the conversation begin.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

How is Cycling Like Teshuvah?

This is the question 200 Hazon ( participants -- riders, crew and family members -- have been contemplating this Shabbat, Sunday and Labor Day.  We gathered for a spiritual Shabbat at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in preparation for a series of rides on Sunday of various lengths culminating on Monday riding 67 miles into Manhattan.

The proximity of Rosh Hashanah to this year's Labor Day ride begs the question.  Here are some of the answers we came up with:

10. It takes preparation.
9.   Involves circular motion that also pushes you forward.
8.   You need a map for when you veer from the path.
7.   Community matters.  There is nothing like people cheering you on when you reach a milestone.
6.    One has to have the right gear.
5.    It takes work and commitment.  Those hills are hard to climb, but in low gear and constant and consistent pedaling they can be overcome.
4.    You have to nourish your body and soul along the way.
3.    No pain no gain.
2.    You need a teacher.
1.  An open and intentional mind inspires you to the finish line.

Shanah tovah tikateivu from my family to yours.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Occupy the Center: A Mantra for Centenarians

Rabbi Steven Wernick
Address at Alpha Epsilon Pi
Friday, August 9, 2013

Hinai Mah Tov U’Manayim, shevet ahim gam yachad. 

When I visited the webpage for the AEPi Foundation to learn more about your philanthropic giving, I was heartened to see – emblazoned across the top – the very verse that first came to mind when I was asked to speak at this brotherly gathering.

"How good and pleasant it is for brothers to sit together."

Hinai Mah Tov is one of the most well-known Jewish verses, appearing right at the beginning of Psalm 133. Hinai Ma Tov has been put to music in practically every Jewish culture around the world. If you went to Jewish summer camp – you sang Hinai Mah Tov. If you belonged to a Jewish youth group – you sang Hinai Mah Tov. If you went to a Jewish Day School – you sang Hinai Mah Tov. If you spent time in a synagogue – you sang Hinai Mah Tov.

The psalms – or tehillim -- are the oldest of our prayers. And I believe that AEPi chose this excellent verse as its mantra not just because it had the word “brothers” in it, but because as college students, its words had deep resonance.

How good and pleasant it is for brothers – family members, mishpoche, members of the tribe – to sit together, to eat, to laugh, to cry, to muddle through that awkward and amazing time of life known as adolescence.

We are gathered to celebrate an auspicious milestone – the 100th anniversary of that great American Jewish fraternity – Alpha Epsilon Pi -- AEPi.

I share the joy and pride of this momentous achievement because the organization for which I serve as CEO – the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism – is also celebrating its Centennial this year, with an ambitious convention in Baltimore this upcoming October.

Based on our matching birthdays as well as the values we share – which are rooted in Jewish ethics and tradition – and on our model of relationship building, I wish you mazal tov!  Hinei Mah Tov -- how good is it to be with you today!

So brothers…how did we get so OLD?

And by that question, I really mean…what did we do RIGHT to withstand the test of time?

Let me let you in on a secret: our twin Centennials are built on a tradition of thousands of years. United Synagogue exists to strengthen, support and transform Conservative kehillot, sacred communities, who share a vision of Judaism that challenges us to be better than we are and demands that we challenge it. The synagogue is an iconic institution in Jewish history.  It has been the most successful institution for the mass transmittal of Jewish identity for 2000 years.  And we believe that they remain the heart and soul of Jewish life.

AEPi is also a heart and soul of Jewish life.  It exists to support, strengthen and transform the experience of being an American Jewish college student by creating a collective called a fraternity…a band of brothers.

AEPI exists to create a sense of belonging for Jewish men in college and beyond. It provides a framework to others with shared values. It adds values to decision-making during those years when it is daunting to make decisions. A fraternity functions much like a community – it nurtures and helps and surrounds you. It is an intentional family with relatives whom you get to choose.

AEPI enables Judaism to come alive through relationships in a dorm, on campus an in classrooms. It enables one of the BIG IDEAS that the Jewish people bring to the world today…that is our willingness to take up the challenge in the modern era of how a people maintain a sense of uniqueness while being fully engaged in the world we live in.

For 100 years, AEPi has brought Hinai Mah Tov to life every day in every chapter around the country. By explicitly embracing a Jewish identity, for example, earmarking funds for philanthropy – tzedekah – you live Jewish values within the collective of a brotherhood.

AEPi is a brotherhood that is built on the notion of making the world better.

And this 100th anniversary functions as a window, to look backward; a mirror, to see the present; and a crystal ball – to try to divine the future.

For the past few years, we at United Synagogue have been preparing for our own Centennial. This anniversary jolts us into transformation mode as we take note of the sea change wrought by the contemporary American Jewish social landscape.

Never have the stakes been higher for us yet, never have there been such grand opportunities for growth and rejuvenation.

You see, for the past century, Conservative Judaism has been synonymous with American Jewish life. Conservative Judaism spawned great rabbis, big synagogues, vibrant communities, heads of major organizations, award-winning camps and schools. It represented modernity in dynamic relationship with tradition. It was alluring and totally in sync with the zeitgeist of the 1900’s.

But with the approach of the millennium, the demographic picture changed.

Now we -- the venerable 100 year old association representing nearly two million Jews worldwide stand poised between our past successes and a future that requires a brand-new model – one built on relationship and meaning… not membership and events, one that is egalitarian, not hierarchical, one that focuses on education and spiritual engagement and the next generation.

The locus of this transformative effort will be our Centennial this fall, which we have dubbed The Conversation of the Century.

We are not setting the ground rules for this conversation, merely asking the question: What does Conservative Judaism need to stay vibrant and relevant in the 21st Century?

Substitute AEPi for Conservative Judaism. I know that this question occupies everyone in this room; indeed, it is the reason you are all here today.

The ethic of building and sustaining relationships is one of the secrets of AEPi’s staying power. The network of brothers who care about one another and are invested in helping each to meet their maximum potential speaks for itself. Look around the room. This gathering is a vast web of relationships nurtured by AEPi. And outside of this room, there are tens of thousands – perhaps even hundreds of thousands of such bonds.

So, at the core of an organization with staying power is the concept of relationship above mere membership. 

I want to leave you with one final thought about the shared mandate of United Synagogue and AEPi as we embrace our second Centuries. It occurs to me that both organizations have been able to succeed in their mission because they occupy the center of American Jewish life.

What does it mean to occupy the center of American Jewish life?

It means to believe in a contemporary fusion of our Jewish and American identities and values, to build strong ties and monuments to both. It means to achieve in ways that contribute to the greater society, to be philanthropic beyond the bounds of our parochial interests, to engage in the issues of the day, to be inclusive and pluralistic and driven by conviction, not fear, prejudice or a blind adherence to rules.

It means to be – as AEPi and United Synagogue are – beacons for the larger community. It means to ignite vital conversations and serve as a home base for individuals and families. It means to honor the great gift of American religious freedom and Jewish tradition. It means to stand on the cusp of 100 years and know that the future awaits, glistening with possibility.

Brothers and friends of AEPi – Occupy the Center. Build it and sustain it and your future will be assured. On behalf of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, I wish you a hearty mazal tov and give you the blessing that may you go from strength to strength – m’chayil l’chayil – in the 21st century and well beyond.

Hinei Mah Tov Umanayim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad.

Thank you!