Hundreds of Reform Rabbis traveled to New Orleans… sounds like the start of a joke, yes? This past week marked the 122nd Annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis - the CCAR - and, yes, this year's convention was held in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Though we did chuckle from time to time about the somewhat strange opportunity to visit Bourbon Street with our rabbinical colleagues (and we also wondered how our Rabbinical Assembly counterparts were enjoying their convention in Las Vegas - though I suppose that we won't get to hear much about it because what happens in Vegas…well, you know), we were all moved by the fact that our presence demonstrated support and care for our New Orleans brothers and sisters.
I can hardly begin to express my gratitude for having been a part of this superb experience. We had many "tracks" and options from which to choose (Beit Midrash [learning], Professional Development, Community Engagement), all led by our most distinguished and learned colleagues, thus allowing each participant to pursue his/her own interests. I happen to enjoy taking at least one workshop in each category; I can take home something practical, I can learn some new Torah Lishmah (Torah learning for its own sake), and I can feel enriched and reinvigorated rabbinically.
I haven't always felt this positively toward the conventions.
Following my ordination in 2004, during my first few conventions, it was hard to find a place for myself there. Most of my colleagues were much older, male, and well established in their careers. As you might imagine, I felt like a little girl - I suppose all I was missing were the pigtails. What in the world was I doing there? Was I ever going to feel comfortable among them? I knew only a few dozen of the hundreds of rabbis present, and though I come off as extroverted most of the time, I can also be quite shy.
It was hard to meet new colleagues those first few years, and there certainly weren't any organized opportunities to do so. The workshops, while excellent, didn't really speak to me, my generation, nor to my own passions. With apologies to those of my colleagues who planned the conventions during that time, I personally perceived most of the workshops over those years to be frontal and dry - I craved something more collaborative, interactive, and dynamic.
Well, I have to wish a kol hakavod - a big congratulations - to those who planned this year's convention. They accomplished something new - and I can only speak personally in this regard. For the first time, as a younger, single, woman rabbi, I felt that I truly had a place at the table. Under the primary theme of "Prophetic Voice in the 21st Century," the following topics were most meaningful to me:
* Social Justice: There were a number of trips in and around New Orleans so that we could learn about New Orleans pre- and post-Katrina. We had the honor of learning from Dr. Scott Cowen, President of Tulane University, who likened the rebirth of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to the type of creative rebirth that the Reform Movement can undertake in upcoming years.
* The Role of Technology: An active minority of today's rabbis are heavily involved in using social media as an extension of our rabbinates and our communities. A group of tech-savvy rabbis gathered to launch a Community of Practice for all those interested in using Twitter (www.twitter.com), Facebook, blogs, and all the other technological inventions yet to come. We discussed the use of live-streaming worship services, ethical considerations in our online work, and halachic bases for our social media choices.
* Visioning for the 21st Century: The Reform Movement has to strive to remain relevant, forward-thinking, and meaningful to all those who choose to join our congregational families. As the global community changes at an ever-increasing rate, we must be sure to stay on top of the expectations and needs of each new generation.
* Engaging Generation X: As a member of this generation, I am overjoyed to see this endeavor front and center on the movement's radar screen. This generation does not feel the same commitment to the synagogue, nor does it feel that affiliation is a "given." These younger Jews seek spirituality, meaning, and relationships, and they don't necessarily believe that they have to be in a synagogue building to find them. There are organizations doing important work in this area, such as Synagogue 3000's Next Dor Initiative, which are hoping to help synagogues keep up with the evolving demands of young Jews in their 20's and 30's .
Perhaps it's because I knew so many more people this year, or because my cohort of rabbis is in more of the leadership roles, or because I am now in a solo pulpit of my own, but the program was renewing and exciting on so many levels.
Over chicory coffee with old friends, Cajun cuisine with new friends, bread pudding with my colleagues from the Women's Rabbinic Network, and beignets with mentors, I laughed, learned, and felt nurtured as a rabbi. I can promise you that there are very exciting things to come as the Reform movement continues reforming, as this one rabbi continues developing, and as we all continue further into the 21st century.
Yes, my friends, I do believe that Reform Rabbis are ready for the 21st century, and I can't wait to see where we all go in this emerging chapter of the Jewish story.
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as rabbi of Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. A graduate of Brandeis University, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004