Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Just Walk Beside Me and Be My Friend

Last week, in the midst of a meeting at United Synagogue, I was astonished to discover that the woman I had just met 20 minutes earlier was, in fact, someone I had previously known some thirty years ago.

The clue was the way she used her hands when she spoke. A passionate and articulate marketing professional, the woman – Pam Goldfarb Liss - had requested a meeting to discuss our new Strategic Plan. My initial reaction was gratitude for the opportunity to meet such a committed member of one of our nearby affiliated synagogues, the Orangetown Jewish Center… and then her hands went to work, punctuating and underscoring her points.

In an instant, a long-ago memory was evoked. I know her, I realized.

But from where?

And then three letters formed instantly in my mind: USY.

After a quick volley of questions – beginning with “Are you from Minneapolis?” – we nailed down the connection. She had been the chapter president of USY and I was newly arrived from Winnipeg. The year was 1984. It was a difficult time in my life involving loss and dramatic transitions but my USY chapter became my haven, my home, my community.

Having discovered our common bond, we both broke into wide smiles that didn’t abate until the meeting ended. The realization that we were teens together in USY was, quite literally, a conversation changer. Once that fact was ascertained, we morphed from organization head and synagogue member into friends, family, fellow sojourners. 

That powerful moment of serendipitous connection happens all the time, everywhere around the world. The shared bond of having been a USYer becomes a shorthand for a whole set of values, beliefs and aspirations.

And though there is a rush that comes from reconnecting with, say, old school and camp friends, the USY bond is especially deep and durable.

It is not merely the excellent programming that USY provides for Jewish teens; it is the lifelong relationships that USY fosters. Time and again, we find that USYers remain bonded with Judaism, with Israel and with one another.

In today’s mobile, disconnected, Jewishly-fragmented world that sense of meaningful relationship is rare.

To encourage the sustainability of USY, we at United Synagogue have been improving the USY experience by bolstering signature programs like Israel Pilgrimage, Nativ, and USY on Wheels, while launching several new initiatives.  We have raised more scholarship money than ever in order to allow more teens to experience our transformational immersive programs.   We’re intensifying our focus on social action and service learning, empowering USYers to become change agents in their communities and the world.

Connecting with Pam through USY last week lifted my spirits, made me feel ageless. The passage of thirty years meant nothing. In a flash, I recalled the transformative power of being part of this most unique fellowship at that most vulnerable moment in my life. I remembered the soul-stirring Shabbat experiences, the rousing songs we sang, the commitment we shared to being fully Jewish, fully North American, fully alive.

And as I was reflecting on the happiness of my USY memories, I remembered a conversation I had two summers ago with a young woman on Pilgrimage. The word she had used to describe her experience was “transformative.” When I pressed her to detail what she meant, the young woman told me that USY helped her face her fears.

This was a hefty claim and I must have looked skeptical so she continued. Walking through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, she told me, had been a terrifying prospect for her as she was highly claustrophobic, with an extreme fear of the dark to boot. So large was her dread that she almost sat out the trip; however, she was encouraged by her peers to face her fears with the reassurance that inside the tunnel she would be protected at all times with a USYer in front of her and one immediately behind her.

And so she was emboldened to take a journey she never would have taken otherwise.

Over the past few days, the story of this young woman has evoked a song that brings me back to my USY days; that the teens still sing. Known as “Lo Yisa Goy,” it begins:

Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow
Don’t walk in back of me, I may not lead
Just walk beside me and be my friend
And together we will walk in the way of Hashem

My serendipitous reunion with Pam reminded me of something I had always known: to paraphrase another popular song, I’ll never walk alone. Because of USY, I have companions walking beside me in sacred friendship, seeking the way of Hashem.

There is still space to journey to Israel on Pilgrimage or Nativ, with scholarship money available. Give your child the transformative gift of USY. For further information, please visit USY's summer programs information page.  

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.