Archive for December, 2011

The Reform Biennial: The Good, the Bad and the Plenary

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

 by Sam Glaser

 I am writing this newsletter on the road during my 2011 Chanukah tour. It is as varied an itinerary as can be imagined in the Jewish world; a whirlwind of performing for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, religious and day schools and a retirement home. This is my eighteenth Chanukah on the road, a time that is often difficult since I am gone for weeks rather than my typical every-other-weekend schedule, but is also the period when I relish in the joy of having so much time to interact with out-of-town friends old and new and reflect on the year gone by.

I began this adventure at the new Gaylord National Convention Center, a mega hotel complex just south of Washington DC that easily housed the 6000 delegates of the Reform Biennial. I have performed at several of these events but this one felt special. It ran like a well-oiled machine with a record number of participants and myriad opportunities for study, conducting the business of the movement and power-schmoozing. An impressive list of my musical peers was on hand to add a creative touch to the proceedings and a well stocked exhibit hall of Judaica from around the world was a shopper’s delight. I couldn’t walk more than a few feet without being embraced by the membership and clergy of synagogues where I have performed over the years.

 There were two highlights of the conference for me. One was the climax of Craig Taubman’s standing-room-only concert when he invited me to the stage to sing a spiritual version Maoz Tzur. It takes a big man to open up a very tight set list to let another artist share the spotlight. For me, it was a moment of redemption. My own concert earlier that day was scheduled during a plethora of breakout sessions and so the numbers in the audience were limited. I have a suspicion that those individuals that program the concert slots aren’t quite sure what to make of their frum, tzitzit-wearing friend Sam, in spite of the fact that most of my shows on my annual 50 city tours are in non-Orthodox synagogues. That day happened to be my birthday, and I was questioning the wisdom of accepting the invitation to attend in the first place rather than celebrating with my family. Having the chance to share in the intense spirit of a packed house for a show unopposed by other programming gave me and hopefully the audience a powerful high. I’m grateful to Craig for this gift.

 The other highlight was a pair of late night jams. I had just finished a midnight hour and a half kumzitz where I led a continuous medley of all tunes Jewish, Beatles and Broadway. With little strength left after such a long day I wandered through the lobby on the way back to my room. There I saw a group of the new wave of immensely talented young Jewish musicians who had just been kicked out of the lobby bar after last call. We started singing and were asked to find somewhere else to make noise. I dragged them back to the stage where the other kumzitz had just ended and we began another few hours of going around the circle sharing new musical creations with one another. Every musician had either a keyboard, guitar or percussion in hand and lent their voices to one another’s songs. The collaboration was organic and the support and love for one another was palpable. I must say I have renewed hope that in spite of the economics of downloads, loss of our distributors and financially ravaged synagogues, there is a HUGE future in Jewish music.

Plenary sessions can be inspiring or a grind. Imagine attending two three-hour banquets per day but you don’t even get the tepid chicken dinner. These were the programs where Obama, Eric Cantor, Ehud Barak and Natan Sharansky held court. I’ve been to enough Biennials and GA conferences to predict the exact script of each of these speeches. The politicians impress the audience with teleprompter readings of exactly what the constituent population wants to hear, pausing at preset moments for applause and standing ovations, posing for the photo with the movement leaders and then running to the waiting helicopter. Yes, it’s exciting to be in the room with the political giants of our day. But the succession of humorless soundbites leaves one wishing for a left turn, a bit of levity, a novel idea. The rest of the plenary sessions were chock full of congratulations for incoming or outgoing movement executives, showcasing programming and waiting for videos that usually didn’t work. No one was forcing me to be there. I attended the plenaries because I deeply want to see innovations, to be inspired, to feel hopeful for this largest movement on the American Jewish scene.

 A few things really got my goat. Over the days of the conference I heard many times references to the Reform’s iconic principle of “informed choice.” Informed choice requires that the chooser have all the possibilities at his or her disposal. It also requires a Jewishly educated laity. Real pluralism tolerates and engages all aspects of the spectrum of the Jewish people. Instead, I found many speakers to be defensive, taking a stand against tradition and using the word Reform to excess. In other words, rather than just say, I’m a Jew, the phrase continuously repeated was, “since I’m a Reform Jew,” “as Reform Jews we…” or, “I am proud to be a Reform Jew.” Jewish pride is great, but in many cases the speakers missed the chance to bring the conference a feeling of belonging to the greater whole of our glorious people.

 This idea of pluralism also must take into account the presence of Reform Jews with right wing leanings. I heard closet conservatives whispering amongst themselves in fear of political backlash. The AIPAC meet and greet was nearly empty in spite of the free cocktails. Applause for Republican Congressman Eric Cantor was guarded. Discouraging words are seldom heard in the interest of political correctness. Where is the famous Reform openness and tolerance here?

 While I’m venting, the basic food groups of the Jewish menu such as tefillin, respect for the laws of Shabbat or kashrut were absent. I asked if there were any provisions for kosher meals and the few provided had been sold out in advance. No kosher deli booth among the multitude of dining options, nothing with a hechsher for the many exhibitors, visitors and attendees who might appreciate such a concession. I lived on store bought bagels and salad for the duration of the conference. Attendees had to reach into their wallets over the course of Shabbat and cell phones were plentiful. I heard lots of calls for outreach…what would it hurt to have some outreach towards those on the traditional end of the spectrum?

 I know some of my readers are thinking: “you idiot! If you don’t like it, go to the Chabad convention next time.” But that’s missing the point.   I have seen in my short career the “running for the exit” of my generation. The URJ youth director informed me that 80% of Reform kids leave Judaism after Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Gone. For good. Only 15% of those that identify as Reform Jews report any involvement at all in Jewish organizational life. More than half say they have not attended a synagogue within the past year and cannot read Hebrew. Ours is a generation that needs the power of a living Torah and the skeletal support system of mitzvot on which to hang the flesh of our spiritual lives. If it works for Orthodoxy throughout the millennia, there must be something to it. A strong Reform Judaism that has a grasp of these crucial fundamentals and includes them in the wealth of Jewish choices offered will be a movement that will attract American youth.   My friends, this isn’t Reform vs. Conservative vs. Orthodox. Any failure of the Reform movement is the failure of Judaism.

 I was brought up in the Reform/Conservative realm and can attest to the fact that there is a way to ensure vibrant Judaism in the present and continuity in the future. Reform Jews are amongst the most dynamic, forward thinking, innovative and challenging of our people. They have the civic passion of Avraham while Orthodox Jews have the stringency of Yitzchak. Now is the time to come together in balance like Yaakov, with vibrant education, great music, and a love rather than fear of tradition. I know personally the power of Reform camping, prayer, social justice. I sang into the night with the new generation of teens and twenty-something leaders, educators and musicians. What’s done is done…but let’s get this new generation hip to mitzvot, giving them tools to have a full Shabbat every week, rejoice in the power of the holidays, to see that tefillin are cool and that opting for “pork sliders” and shrimp sushi is opting out.

 The departing leader of the movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, gave a fascinating presidential sermon on Shabbat. His daughter has become a Modern Orthodox Jew. He said the following:

 ”When I look at Adina, I see someone who has put God and Torah at the center of her life. In her high school days, she would often challenge me. Judaism is of transcendent importance or it is not, she would say. And if you don’t believe in your gut that Judaism matters to an existing God, why bother?…Do I regret her religious choices? Absolutely not. She has chosen a path that I would not choose, but it is a worthy path. We continue our discussions, which are both vigorous and loving. And every time we do so, I think about the need to respect religious approaches other than my own. This is a subject on which I need reminding, from time to time. I am a combative person; I see myself as a defender of Reform Judaism; I am quick to offer a fierce defense of my liberal principles. But sitting across from my daughter and knowing the thoughtfulness of her convictions, it is respect that I feel and express; and I remind myself to stress the authenticity of my beliefs rather than what I may see as the shortcomings of hers. This above all is what I have learned from my daughter: that if we hope to engage our children, we will need to provide those answers – answers that are religiously compelling and intellectually engaging, as well as authentically Reform…this means making it clear that as Reform Jews, there are things that God expects of us. This means saying that ritual opens us to the sacred and gives structure to the holy. This means affirming our belief that if ritual dies, Judaism dies; it is only a matter of time. This means proclaiming that Shabbat is a God-given duty, even as we know that there are many, many ways for a Jew to fulfill that duty.”

 May Rabbi Yoffie’s wisdom permeate liberal Judaism. Let us give our kids real “informed choice” and let the chips fall where they may. Let us open the gates of tolerance to all branches of Judaism and not just to LGBT’s and the intermarried. If any movement in Judaism is going to make radical changes it will be Reform. They have done so as they have shifted to a Zionist platform and evolved from Classical Reform to a movement that was able to adopt the latest batch of Ten Principles and davens with the beautiful Mishkan T’fila siddur. I’d like to be first in line to work with the Reform movement on a task force to create true pluralism, informed choice and full spectrum Jewish education. It may be too late for the millions that have chosen to disregard the chosen people. But for those incredible young folks who were singing with me at Biennial into the wee hours of the night of their love for God, let’s give them a fighting chance at having Jewish grandchildren. Is it fair that only Rabbi Yoffie be assured of such a luxury?