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!