Connections 2013 – Rick Sahar

Dear Temple Family,
A few months before I had made plans to visit my 2 daughters and 5 grandchildren in Israel, I was encouraged by a couple of caring Temple Members to consider attending the 36th Biennial World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Connections Conference at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem; they thought I would be inspired, and even learn a thing or two, to share back with them and others in our congregation… and in short, they were right: WUPJ conventions are inspirational gatherings full of spirit, learning, sharing and fun – where Reform, Reconstructionist, Progressive and Liberal Jews from around the world come to connect with and energise each other, build closer links and bridges between our communities worldwide and help shape the future of the Jewish People.

This year’s convention theme, “Being the Difference”, aimed to highlight the challenge of our commitment to various aspects of Tikkun Olam.

So I have decided to write this report and to thank you all for the financial support I received to attend the Conference and represent Temple Sinai (I paid the airfares). I will try to share as much of the “chavayah”, the experience, I had that is relevant to our shared Temple life in Wellington and as members of the WUPJ.

The first session I attended was aptly titled “WUPJ 101 for Newcomers” and presented in turn by Rabbi Richard (Dick) G. Hirsch, Prof. Paul Liptz and Rabbi Steve Burnstein (Israel). Here are potted biographies of the three session leaders.

An honorary life president of the WUPJ, Rabbi Hirsch has been called the architect of Reform Zionism and the world-wide movement for Progressive Judaism. He spoke of his work in establishing the WUPJ and the challenges he faced as an advocate for the global Reform Jewish community. A native of Cleveland, Rabbi Hirsch was founding director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC from 1962 to 1973 and helped pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 in America.

In 1973 Rabbi Hirsch moved to Israel to become Executive Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism; Beit Shmuel is built on land acquired from the Israel government in 1971 through his efforts and is an amazing facility. Hirsch insisted on moving Progressive Judaism’s international headquarters to Jerusalem, which many consider Reform Judaism’s most significant decision of the 20th century. He was also the prime mover in affiliating Reform Judaism to the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel – a milestone for both the WZO and the Reform Movement. Rabbi Hirsch outlined to us that he believes the future of Judaism is directly connected to the future of Israel and that Judaism as a spiritual path is based on “Tikkun Olam”.

Professor Paul Liptz was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in 1944. He obtained a BA (History and Philosophy) at the University of Rhodesia, which was then a branch of London University. Paul arrived in Israel one day before the Six Day War (June 1967). Paul is a social historian who lectures at The Anita Saltz International Education Center (the educational arm of the World Union for Progressive Judaism), in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University, as well as in Israel Studies at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. He has published articles on contemporary Jewry and Jewish History and has lectured and conducted workshops in 12 countries. In addition, he has travelled throughout Europe with numerous groups and is recognised as an outstanding Scholar in Residence, who is capable of translating complex issues and realities into easily understood language. Paul’s fascinating presentation to us was based on years of research that analyses how various Jewish communities define themselves, in religious, cultural, sporting and other categories, by use of various example congregations from around the world. Paul said every Jewish generation has faced survival challenges; congregations who do not keep up with trends and change will not last indefinitely. Paul sees that the Reform/progressive movement as “humanist based Judaism”. Paul is keen to visit New Zealand on his next lecture tour of Australia and I really hope he does…

Rabbi Steve Burnstein has held many education and leadership positions in America and in Israel since making aliyah in 1996. He is a member of Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism, synagogue Kehilat Birkat Shalom at Kibbutz Gezer, where he serves as assistant Rabbi and Cantor for the community. Steve has a BA in Jewish History and MA in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America; and rabbinic ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Rabbi Steve spoke to length about the challenges that secular Israelis face in accepting the Reform/progressivemovement. He advocates a pluralistic approach to Judaism and works to develop better relations between the WUPJ and the Israeli Reform Movement (IMPJ).

I came away from this first session inspired by Rabbi Hirsch, Rabbi Burnstein and Prof. Paul Liptz having heard and discussed the practicalities and the challenges in “co-creating” a Judaism that is relevant to individual and societal needs of today.

After a sumptuous lunch, that also included meeting people from all around the world and sharing about each of our joys and challenges particular to our own Jewish communities, I attended part of the WUPJ International Assembly held in the Blaustein Hall at Beit Shmuel. This was followed by the official Opening Ceremony held off-site at the YMCA Theatre that featured a performance by students and staff from Bialik Rogozin School – A unique model school in Tel Aviv where refugees and children of migrant workers, some of them with little or no schooling at all, are integrated into Israeli society with special educational programmes. The Bialik Rogozin School received international acclaim when an HBO film about its special program, “Strangers No More”, won the 2011 Academy Award for Best Short Documentary.
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The Bialik Rogozin School is a great example of “Tikkun haChevrah”, helping to create a more just society, by providing education and integration for poor and illegal residents’ children. Many of the students are children of migrant workers, political refugees, immigrants and others from low socio-economic backgrounds. The youth hail from 49 different countries and are mostly Christian, Muslim and Jewish. Many of them start school for the very first time while in Israel. I was moved by their heart-felt, energetic performance, the values they are learning to live by, and how these kids are leaving behind their past traumas and shaping into good, happy, positive young people.

The first day ended with… more food; a lovely Dessert reception that led to more mingling and networking; people are very interested in New Zealand and I encouraged many to come visit us. I handed out nearly 100 Temple Sinai business cards during the conference and expect that quite a few of the many people I told about our wonderful congregation will actually visit us – I hope so.

Thursday, May 2 started with a Keynote address in the Hirsch Theatre on the subject of “Jews as Global Citizens: Our Responsibility to Repair the World”, by Ms. Ruth Messinger, a New York City Councillor, who reflected on her own experiences in the developing world and proposed how the Jewish community can actualise Tikkun Olam by promoting human rights for vulnerable communities that face hunger, poverty and violence.

connections-keynoteMs. Messinger shared her vision for how Jews in the 21st century can be powerful agents of change, a quality I can recognise in several of our own Temple members that is no less inspiring to me.

The next session I attended was Tefillah K’tikkun: Prayer as a Means of Tikkun Atzmi (Self Development/Growth). The session was described in this way: “Prayer has an important role in a person’s journey. It can lead to the improving of the soul and greater personal meaning. So how can we use tefillah as a means of personal healing and growth?”

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The session was chaired by Miriam Vasserman (Brazil); the Speakers were: Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman (Israel); Rabbi Nir Barkin (Israel); Rabbi Esteban Gottfried (Israel)…

Rabbi Levi started with chanting “Haleluyah”, a nigun that many are familiar with at Temple, since introduced by JoEllen who studied with Rabbi Levi a few years ago. Rabbi Levi came across as a humble Rabbi who spoke clearly from, and to, the heart – that prayer is aimed not for the selfish, that it leads us beyond ourselves as a form of surrender – that we need to find change, the transcendence, from when we started to pray to when we have completed our praying. He pointed out interesting observations about our prayer’s verb form; when we rise, our first prayers in the morning service are in the singular, as waking up is like being “resurrected” from death. This leads on to the Amidah that starts as a singular prayer then changes to the plural verb form; those of us that lead services understand that prayer is a balance between the personal and communal and that prayer can only be authentic when we begin with humility.

I really appreciated his teaching and how Rabbi Levi then encouraged us to speak with one another as if we are talking with God, for words are powerful in both good and negative ways… Rabbi told a story that showed the “revelation” of “minyan”; how the “nine are seeking the one” and in turn, “one is seeking the nine” illustrates the transformative power of individual, and communal, prayer. I attended Rabbi Levi’s congregation, Kol haNeshamah, on the Friday night and saw how this Rabbi lives up to his teachings in creating a meaningful prayer environment that was both joyous, musical and spiritually transformative.

Rabbi Nir Barkin spoke next, of his family’s journey to settle in Israel, several generations back, and how their prayer, “Hashanah haba’ah b’Yerushalim” was answered. Rabbi Nir then echoed what I have heard from specific lay-leaders of our own, who believe in “watering the seed” in our youth to sprout awareness of t’fillah; he takes pride in the b’nei mitzva in his congregation (in Northern Israel) that can pray as well as him – nice!

The third speaker was Rabbi Esteban Gottfried, born in Argentina and had a background in professional theatre and film. His congregation, T’fillat Tel Aviv, is aimed to attract more secular Israelis as its services are held on the beachfront of Tel Aviv! Rabbi Esteban continued discussing the seed idea: that it is up to the
teachers/leaders to help others develop “prayer skills”. He also spoke how our sacred texts made a lasting impression on him to become a Rabbi and that prayer time needs to include singing, silence and reflection.

Beit Midrash – Tikkun HaChevra (Fixing Society) was Chaired by Jay Geller (USA) and our Teacher was Rabbi Naama Kelman (Israel)…

Rabbi Naama is an American-born Rabbi who was named as Dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion campus in Jerusalem starting in July 2009. In 1992, Kelman made history as the first woman in Israel to become a rabbi when she received her rabbinic ordination. I mention her, and other, backgrounds to emphasise the high calibre of teachers at the Conference.

I enjoyed Rabbi Naama’s teaching, drawing from nature and Torah; I felt like I was with a familiar study-partner, together exploring what we can glean from the texts to find inspiration and reference to Tikkun HaChevra in our daily lives. Rabbi Naama said “every holy day is an archeological site”, that it is up to us to “excavate” and go deeper and deeper into the meaning and significance each holy day can have. After much analysis of the texts from Parashat Ki Tavo and Mishneh references regarding Shavu’ot, I came away with a better understanding of the social justice elements of this holy day and how I would like to bring that out more in future celebrations at Temple.

Come Pray with Me – Tefillah and communal engagement. Chaired by Ian Samuel (Australia) with the Speakers: Rabbi Elyse Frishman (USA); Rabbi Golan Ben-Chorin (Israel); Fabian Sborovsky (Germany)…

This was a great followup to my last session as the aim was to look at different approaches to tefillah as a means to engage the community and build community involvement in the congregation.

Some of the points raised were:
* More than 50% of Jews gather to be with other Jews.
* Services compete with other leisure activities.
* Create engagement in services through leading with “authenticity”.
…and others, but the lasting impression I have from this session was when Rabbi Elyse Frishman (Editor of the Mishkan T’fillah prayerbook) asked us to look into another person’s eyes for a full minute without turning away… After a brief sharing about that experience, Rabbi Elyse unrolled a Torah on a table and gathered us around, emphasised that it is no different to look into each other’s eyes than it is to look into the Torah. The more we use the Torah the better – not to lock her away but to “give her voice” and to experience what she can offer as much as possible. This spoke to me very deeply, as did what Rabbi Elyse said regarding Mishkan T’fillah; that prayer is not to be invisible – when we pray in congregation, it is to be like a symphony and that halacha should not get in the way of prayer… and we should be able to do so as we look into each others’ eyes.

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I found the meaning behind her teaching represents the “heart-element” of our tradition; I would like to develop this quality further as a spiritual approach at Temple Sinai… to more consciously practice with ourselves and each other. It is the true meaning of being a “progressive” Jew; one who is pluralistic and not bound by one’s own limitations.

“Step By Step – Sauwa Sauwa “connections-step

Later that evening, we were treated to a performance by forty Moslem and Jewish teenagers that was inspired by the actions and hope of 10 Leo Baeck Jewish and Ein Mahel Moslem teenagers who participated in the Friends Forever, World Peace Grown Locally project in the summer of 2011 (friendsforeverusa.org). This Arab-Jewish musical production is being performed in Israel and abroad. In addition a fly-on-the-wall documentary was filmed during rehearsals, in school and at home, in Haifa and Ein Mahel. Like the original Broadway show Chorus Line on which it is based, the musical is set on the bare stage and focuses on the lives and world of the teenagers auditioning. The show gives an insight into the personalities of the Arab and Jewish performers as they describe events that have shaped their lives and why they want to become performers. It deals with the worlds of the young people who live in the same country yet are worlds apart: what they have in common, what separates them and how they see themselves in the future. The show’s message is that the impossible is possible. Through direct experience of one another on an equal basis we can overturn traditional fears and stereotypes and live together in peaceful harmony and respect.

As an inspiring conclusion, the principal of Ein Mahel school declared that such cooperation between Israelis and Arabs must be the future of Israel.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ Keynote address was titled “Reform Judaism: Think Globally, Act Locally”.connections-keynote2

 

 

 

Rabbi Jacobs spoke about our values and deep commitment to Tikkun Olam, the State of Israel, global social justice and equality, and how that reflects upon our responsibility to “Be The Difference”. I think it important to include a short biography about the fourth president of the Union for Reform Judaism that proves with what
authority he can speak on this subject…

Rabbi Rick Jacobs served as spiritual leader at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY, where, during his 20-year tenure, he reshaped communal worship, transformed the congregation into a community of learners, and strengthened WRT’s commitment to social justice and inclusion. Prior to his service at WRT, Rabbi Jacobs served the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, where he founded the first synagogue-based homeless shelter in New York City… wow!

Ordained in 1982 by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York, Rabbi Jacobs received an honorary Doctorate of Divinity, also from HUC-JIR, in 2007. Deeply committed to Israel, Rabbi Jacobs is a senior rabbinic fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, where he has studied for two decades. A product of the Reform Movement, he has held numerous leadership posts within its institutions, as well as in Jewish communal organisations, including the American Jewish World Service, UJA-Federation of New York, and Synagogue 3000.

Devoted to global social justice, Rabbi Jacobs visited Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake to find out how to help. He also has observed the plight of refugees in the Chad-Darfur border area, and has participated in an annual conference of Muslim and Christian leaders to build understanding between the West and the Muslim world.

Back to his address; Rabbi Jacobs emphasised the importance of building our congregations the same, respectful way we meet and interact with each other at this conference; where “me” becomes “we”, respecting the various views while sharing skills and knowledge and for our synagogues not to become too focused on money and structure. Rabbi Jacobs acknowledged a common challenge in most congregations; how to involve the 20-30yr age group when there is so many alternative activities attracting their attention? Rabbi Jacobs suggests that we simply need to work with, not for, this age group, including encouraging their involvement, and therefore their sense of belonging, at Board and every level, in our synagogues.

Rabbi Jacob’s address (which can be heard on YouTube) left me in awe; I came away thinking that at Temple Sinai we need to be more active in encouraging our people to attend these conferences and other courses that will enhance our members knowledge and enthuse our congregation with life-long learning and service.

The next session I attended was… Making Change Through Music:
Described as: “How to use music and other performing arts in building bridges, developing communities, facilitating change and improving our world?” Chair: Dennis Gilbert (USA), Speakers: Aviv Weinberg (Germany); Isidoro Abramovich (Germany); Rabbi Or Zohar (Israel); Cantor Iris Weiner (USA/Israel)

What a wonderful assembly of Cantors/Chazzanim! Two classically trained (Isidoro & Aviv) and two more contemporarily trained, a wonderful combination and example of pluralism in Jewish liturgical music. We sang together traditional melodies, variations and original works, with each of them also speaking in turn about how they introduce new melodies – and encouraging us to be brave enough to try new ones and be willing to also drop what does not work!

I felt a strong connection to Cantor Iris and Rabbi Or in their style and approach to music as a language of prayer; a view that has encouraged me to be involved in singing at Temple… Words, prayers and music can fade with routine – that is why our lay-leaders are to be encouraged to try innovations and new melodies to bring additional meaning and relevance to our services and also possibly our lives. One of my favourite quotes is “singing is like praying twice”.connections-sing

Shabbat morning services were undoubtedly one of the Conference highlights. Rabbi Daniel Freelander (USA), Cantor Zoe Jacobs (UK), and Rabbi Maya Leibovitz (Israel), assisted by other rabbis, and rabbinical and cantorial students, led us through a spiritual and ruach-filled service, with music, songs, and readings in different languages, while facing the amazing backdrop of the Old City walls. The Shabbat service sermon was delivered by Rabbi Lenny Thal (USA), veteran World Union activist and rabbi serving the Singapore UHC congregation. Shabbat services were coordinated by Rabbi Joel Oseran… A personal highlight at the Shabbat morning service was participating in the Conference Choir. I enjoyed our two fun rehearsals. The choir was led by Cantor Zoe Jacobs, a bubbly, young woman who gave us word sheets and encouragement as she played guitar. We might hear a new tune or two at Temple in coming months, perhaps…?

After services there were study lunches, led by leading rabbis and educators from around the world. After a short rest, and despite the heat, many of us set out on afternoon walking tours, led by Beit Shmuel and the Anita Saltz International Education center staff, to hidden sites in the Old City, through alleyways and over rooftops, stopping to see, touch, smell, taste and hear the sites and stories that are Jerusalem. I took part in “Walking the Psalms in Jerusalem” with Rabbi David Wilfond.This tour provided not only an opportunity to recite the words and physically trace the path of several Psalms and experience what the poets were writing about as they composed this beautiful literature. It was skilfully led by Rabbi David as he taught us how “Torat Yisrael” and “Eretz Yisrael” intertwine into an intensive and uniquely Jerusalem experience.connections-tour

After the tour, there was a lively Havdallah service held on the rooftop, led by Netzer participants from around the world. Lots of music, singing, dancing and of course, more food.

Sunday morning’s wonderfully inspiring Keynote was delivered by Professor Irwin Cotler, Member of Parliament (Canada), Queen’s Privy Councillor, and Member of the Order of Canada, who mentioned some important milestones in the history of human rights, and focused on “Being the Difference” through our responsibility to prevent, act, protect and stay true to these values of Tikkun Olam. Professor Cotler was also awarded the WUPJ International Humanitarian Award (IHA).

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Irwin Cotler is a Member of the Canadian Parliament, Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University, and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He is Vice-Chair of both the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights and the Subcommittee on International Human Rights, and is Justice and Human Rights Critic for the Liberal Party. A constitutional and comparative law scholar, Prof. Cotler has extensively litigated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – including landmark cases in the areas of free speech, freedom of religion, women’s rights, minority rights, and war crimes justice. He is the recipient of numerous awards for his work in peace and human rights, including the Order of Canada, for his pioneering work in peace law and human rights advocacy. He is Co-Founder and Honorary Chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism and previously led the Canadian Delegation to the Stockholm International Forum on the Prevention of Genocide.

…what impressed me about Irwin Cotler is how Torah, “Yiddishkeit”, all his Jewish education and family upbringing, has been the main influence in his life to pursue “Tzedek” as a professional career. He spoke of how we all need to challenge “state sanctioned ideologies of hate, indifference, complicity, racism and abuses of human rights”. We are obliged to initiate action, not necessarily to complete all actions we undertake, but to get the wheels of justice rolling. Truly inspiring, I strongly recommend everyone hearing Prof Irwin Cotlers’ Keynote address (the full address is on YouTube).

The last Beit Midrash session I attended was Tikkun Atzmi, what I would translate as “self improvement” – an appropriate progression having attended sessions on Tikkun Chevra & Tikkun Olam. The caliber of teachers, and people Chairing each session, was fantastic. For “example” the Chair of this session was Ron Cohen (USA), who lives in Rye, New York where he and his wife Joan are members of Community Synagogue, where he served as President. Ron was Chair of the World Union’s North American Council from 2004 to 2007 and is currently co-chair of the World Union’s Human Rights Committee and also serves on the Finance Committee. In addition to the World Union, Ron is on the Board of the URJ and ARZA, and is a member of the Board of JNF and the American Zionist Movement… a true “example” of a leader in our wider community.

The Teacher for this session was Rabbi Yehoram Mazor (Israel) who told us that he had served as an “Av Beit Din” regarding conversion approvals and editor of Avodah sh’baLev and Kavanah sh’baLev litugies. As well he was a teacher at HUC and also one of Rabbi Adi’s teachers.

We had a small, and very interactive group, as there was one other participant at our session (I imagine people needed some “time out” by now). This was Dr Linda Thal, director of the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction and its Morei Derekh training programme. She wrote the two-year Vetaher Libeynu curriculum for fostering adult spiritual development and is currently finishing a curriculum on wise ageing for the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. Linda serves on the faculty of MAKOM, the Center for Jewish Mindfulness at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. Linda is a world-leader in Jewish Spiritual Direction, and, as it happens, was also one of JoEllen’s teachers.

…I choose to mention all this as I found my learning was not necessarily hierarchical but also student to student – there is that Hasidic saying, “Who is wise? He who learns from all (men)”. I have the worksheets from many of the classes I attended. If you are interested in reviewing any of these session worksheets with me, I would be happy to do that with you.

On Monday, the last day of the Conference, I chose to visit the pluralistic Leo Baeck Education Centre in Haifa. Founded in 1938 for children of the Holocaust, rooted in the humanistic values of Progressive Judaism and committed to the founders’ vision that the State of Israel be a force for good in the world, the Leo Baeck Education Centre is one of Israel’s finest institutions of values-based academic excellence, community outreach and social action.

Today the Center has 2,285 pre-school to 14th grade mainstream and autistic spectrum (PDD) students enrolled in its schools, an on-site Learning Center for Research and Support of students with learning difficulties, a Community and Sports Center serving some 35,000 Haifa households through its on-site and 10 satellite social outreach centers, and Congregation “Ohel Avraham”, the spiritual heart of the Centre.

The seminar we attended was very interesting and the students who were presented to us were confident and capable. I enjoyed meeting their Rabbi, Gabby Dagan, who spoke to us about the activity at Ohel Avraham. I have a small resource pack from there is anyone is interested in more information – it probably exists online as well. The lasting impression I have from visiting the Leo Baeck Education Centre is the sense of hope for the future of Israeli society. Though many challenges still exist there are also many advances in the secular and religious institutions throughout the country, and the Leo Baeck Education Centre is another fine example to extoll.

The WUPJ Connections 2013 – “Being the Difference” celebratory closing event took place in Blaustein Hall at Beit Shmuel.

Internationally acclaimed author David Grossman spoke of his vision for the future of all who live in Israel in a simple, yet articulate, way. David also received the WUPJ Maggid Award for being a modern-day Maggid in his adherence to a just and fair society, the value of human rights, and his fight for peace. A delicious and beautifully served meal was enhanced by singer Achinoam (Noa) Nini’s lovely performance. Achinoam was also awarded the Maggid award for weaving rhythm and lyrics together. Much as the Maggid of ancient times would weave stories to take the listener on a value based journey. She has reached out to many, and used her international standing to promote values of peace and equality, human rights and dignity, raising awareness and support for children who live in areas of conflict.

The evening ended with the installation of the new Executive Board, blessed by WUPJ’s honorary life president, Rabbi Richard Hirsch, and in Rabbi Hirsch’s own words, “Tam ve’lo Nishlam” – it is over but not finished………

As it is written (at the Conference web site), “Connections 2013 – Being the Difference really was a different convention in many ways. New faces were introduced, new ideas were shared, and new connections were made. It is now up to each and every participant to take home not only the papers and brochures, but also the ideas and relationships that were formed, using them to promote the core values and commitment that we all share.”

…Congregations, like conferences, are made up of people; there are as many ways to be Jewish as there are also many ways to live a “progressive” Jewish life. I have come away from the conference wanting to embrace a more pluralistic approach to life.

I hope the Board will appreciate the value of having supported my attendance at this conference and will encourage and support others to attend WUPJ’s 37th biennial convention scheduled to take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in May 2015. I believe this is the best investment we can make to ensure a bright future for Temple Sinai, and Progressive Judaism, in Wellington and New Zealand.