Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, June 21, 2019 / 18 Sivan 5779
A SPECIAL INVITATION: This Saturday evening, June 22nd, there will be a special gathering at Rabbi Kosak’s home from 7 pm. Here you will have an opportunity to meet Rabbi Sacks up close and personal. Rabbi Sacks will speak in a wide-ranging discussion and will also field your questions.
Rabbi Andrew Sacks has been at the forefront of human rights issues in Israel for decades, working to ensure social and political equality for all irrespective of ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation. An expert in laws related to conversion and religious rights, Rabbi Sacks is the long-time Director of the Masorti Rabbinical Assembly, the largest consortium of non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel, Director of the Masorti Bureau for Religious Affairs, which provides religious services outside the framework of the state-sanctioned Rabbinate, and for the past two decades has served as Israel’s only non-Orthodox mohel.
Because of limited space at Rabbi Kosak’s home, and so that there will be sufficient light snacks, RSVP’s are necessary. Please click here to reserve your slot for this very special event.
Summary: Last night was our congregational Annual Meeting. While the meeting itself is a requirement of our bylaws, it is also an opportunity to hear from our lay leaders, executive director and clergy team. For those unable to attend, Rabbi Kosak includes here his speech in lieu of an Oasis Songs column this week. The gist is to provide his thoughts on what our Jewish future will look like, and who we will need to become to get there.
Friends, I am in the enviable position of speaking to you after you have had the opportunity to hear from our treasurer Mark Kalenscher, our Executive Director, Fred Rothstein, from Rabbi Eve Posen and Cantor Eyal Bitton.
I say enviable, because by now you have had the opportunity to learn about much of the remarkable work that has occurred in our building over the last year. At heart, all of these efforts—all of the passion that you have heard—is designed to strengthen Am Yisrael in general, and Neveh Shalom in particular. Our efforts are all geared to raising and supporting mensches and to creating spaces and moments for kedushah—for transcendental and interpersonal holiness.
Before continuing my remarks, I want to pause and offer my deepest appreciation to our amazing office and facilities team. In no particular order, Marg and Dar, Brian and Lisa, Tori, Michelle, JoAnn, Dena and Angie keep this community whole, along with Kurt and his staff, Patricia, Carolyn and our newest hire, Marcellus. And let’s not forget our capable librarian Kaiya or Itai, who opens and locks our campus, nor Century Catering, including Allen, Carmen and Warren.
So many of their efforts occur out of sight. Yet we should not for a moment take any of their contributions for granted. They are the real engine, consistently ensuring that our community functions day in and day out. It does so because each person on our professional staff pour themselves into their tasks. They go the extra mile—they put in the effort, day in and day out, week after week, month after month.
We are also a fiscally responsible community, and both Jason and Fred’s remarks are aimed to help you best understand where we are, and where we still need to go to secure the future, just as the generations before us secured our past and present.
We are certainly a community with a strong focus on the next generation, and the work of Rabbi Eve, Leah Conley and Mel Berwin—along with the consistent efforts of all the teachers of Foundation School and Aliyah/Tichon—too many to name here— give witness to their tireless work.
We are becoming a community infused with and enlivened by a culture of music, as the cantor has outlined. I have traveled and prayed in many different Jewish communities around the nation. There are so many different ways to approach tefillah—and there is not a correct or incorrect way to pray, nor music that is right or wrong. What is essential is that a community finds its own voice that best represents our many individual voices and needs. From Shir Shabbat, Living Room Shabbat, or First Fridays with Ilene Safyan, we are headed in a positive musical direction that is both modern AND traditional.
This is not to say we won’t have our challenges. Many studies argue that the non-profit of the future will need to draw a quarter of its operating budget from endowment investments. We must successfully conclude our 150th Funding our Future Campaign. It is a necessity.
At this point in our history, it is nonetheless reasonable to say that we are one of Portland’s enduring anchor institutions. We are going to be here for the foreseeable future.
What I’d like to focus on with the reminder of my remarks, therefore, is not where we have been and what we have accomplished over the past year. Instead, I want to look forward and imagine with you what the Jewish community of the future will look like, and more importantly, what tasks I believe that future will demand of us.
It seems clear to me that in one regard, the future will look like the present, but more so. What I mean by this is that part of our destiny will be to become even more inclusive than we are now.
We just celebrated Pride Shabbat, and I personally found both Friday night and marching in the parade to be very powerful. Looking out onto a sea of loving faces, I was reminded that when we are open and loving, that is returned to us. For a group often rejected by religions, these efforts of including our LGBTQ+ individuals are tremendously healing.
As America continues to splinter into ever smaller identity groups, the very notion of robust community—let alone religious community— will become ever more counter-cultural. If we want to provide a home for all the different ways people will live Jewishly, we will need to transform ourselves to be radically accepting, even as we deepen our Jewish commitments.
Republican and Democrat, cisgender and gender-fluid, rich and poor, black or white, families with two—or even three—Jewish parents (yes, such a family reached out to us over this past year) or families with only one Jewish parent. People who live very religiously, and those who have no background, or worse, feel abandoned by the Jewish communities of the past—WE WILL NEED TO CHANGE TO BECOME A HOME FOR ALL.
We will be making changes to our by laws over this coming year, and bringing them to you for your consideration, so that the rules which guide us match our deepest vision of the good. We want our guidelines to welcome all Jewish families, regardless of how they are composed, or what they look like.
And let me add that while we are doing well on some of these measures, we also fail.
Over my four years here, we occasionally learn about a congregant who leaves the community because they haven’t felt welcomed. Sometimes it’s an unkind or thoughtless word. Sometimes they are demeaned. Sometimes, they feel that some aspect of one of their identities is being rejected. These are rare occurrences, and we all make comments that are not well-considered. Still, I believe that we can do better.
Should we be less welcoming than Chabad? Should our hospitality of welcoming be less sincere? Was not Abraham and Sarah’s tent open on all sides?
Simultaneously, the Jewish community of the future is going to need to be more Jewish than we are today. What I mean by that is there is a secret to Jewish culture that both the world at large and we Jews all are desperately in need of.
If we look at the outcomes of Jewish culture, what do we find? We are about a 0.25% of the world population, yet we garner 18% of the world’s Nobel prizes. We continue to give more tzedekah—more charity per capita, than any other group in America. We have vast numbers of people working in helping professions—as teachers and medical professions and mental health workers. We are consistently involved in the most noble of human endeavors.
It’s not because we are smarter. Those tests were run, and we really aren’t. It’s not because we are wealthier, as that has also been debunked. It’s not because we are more ethical. The Harvey Weinsteins and Michael Cohens of the world are proof of that.
The only thing that distinguishes us is that we possess a unique culture that equally emphasizes family, education, and personal and collective responsibility. We have a culture that embraces robust and nuanced debate, which in turn limits fundamentalist impulses. We have a culture, that like Abraham’s tent, looks out to the world so that we can be of service. We have a culture that reminds us that God left us an unfinished world precisely because the Holy One believes in our capacity to change the world for the better.
As American Jews become more assimilated, that culture is itself at risk. We can’t assume that what we have accomplished in the past will be replicated in the future, because those are not intrinsic qualities, but outcomes of a carefully preserved culture—a culture that is being vitiated by the forces of modernity.
And so we at Neveh Shalom have a two pronged mission in front of us. On the one hand, we need to deepen and strengthen our culture of community and connection. Rituals will matter. Jewish learning will matter. Privileging our responsibilities over our entitlements will matter. We will need to be more Jewish, not less, if we are to thrive in the coming century. More than ever, we need the benefits that wrap-around Judaism creates. The good news is that a new generation of Jews and the Jew-adjacent are equally hungry for our tradition’s wisdom. Our task will be to figure out how to deliver all of those goods to all of our congregants.
On the other hand, we will need to share the very special, warm and loving Judaism of Neveh Shalom with Jews and non-Jews alike. We need to export our culture of commitment, responsibility, a love of learning and of ritual to a world that is unmoored. We are not a proselytizing religion. Nonetheless, we have something of tremendous value that the world is in desperate need of. Tikkun Olam in the future must not be limited to feeding and housing the hungry, or working on equitable legislation. It must also occur by sharing with others the social and cultural skills that account for Jewish success.
That twin challenge will be upsetting for some of us. Some of us buttress our own sense of Jewish identity by excluding others for a host of reasons, when we would do better by deepening the content of our Jewish connections and learning.
But if there is one thing that I believe about the spiritual DNA of this congregation, it is that we have a deep legacy of changing with the times even as we hold on to all that makes us special.
As long as we hold fast to our tree of life—our Torah and the culture it creates—then I feel certain that our future will be marked with as many beautiful accomplishments as you heard throughout the evening.
God bless you, and may God bless our kehilla with another 150 years.
Shabbat Table Talk
- What song changed your life? Is it connected to an important moment in your life?
- Can we be impoverished by a loss we don’t know about? Or must we feel the loss to suffer it?
- Can you think of a song that at first you weren’t into, but that grew on you as you heard it repeated? What about songs you liked which grew flat after too many repetitions?
- What is your first musical memory?
- Do you regularly sing Shabbat zemirot at the Sabbath table? Why or why not?
If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.