Each and every year, at precisely this time of year, I find myself struggling with the question of who owns Jewish history.
It sounds like an odd question, I know. In a sense, it is. But what I mean is that there are some chapters of our history that are so imprinted on the broader consciousness of western civilization that it often feels as if we have handed over our historical experience to the rest of the world, to use as it pleases.
On Sunday through Thursday of this week, hundreds of my colleagues in the Rabbinical Assembly and I gathered at our international convention, held this year in Las Vegas. The Rabbinical Assembly is the professional organization of Conservative rabbis around the world. In addition to my work as the rabbi of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, I currently serve as the RA's Vice-President, and am slated to assume the Presidency in another year.
Jewish holiday celebrations have fixed dates. That is to say, while they are associated- particularly the pilgrimage festivals- with specific seasons of the year, they nonetheless have fixed dates on which they begin and end. So when we observe them is not a matter of choice, but rather prescribed by our tradition.
After one or two probing and thoughtful questions from my Hebrew High School students this week about the unfolding disaster in Japan, I decided to shelve my lesson plan and just talk with them about what they were feeling. They were, like we all are, horrified by the images they were seeing, and struggling to frame this great tragedy in some way that was manageable for them.
Last Friday evening, the Kabbalat Shabbat service in The Forest Hills Jewish Center took place in our newly refurbished “Little Synagogue,” the small sanctuary where our daily minyan meets. In addition to new carpeting, wallpaper and lighting fixtures, we also moved the cantor’s amud off the bima, turned it around to face the Ark, and placed it in the middle of the congregation, with chairs on either side of it and behind it. In both style and substance, it was a major change.
Barely two days after returning from leading a congregational mission to Israel, I was privileged this past Tuesday to attend a special session in the White House, with President Obama and some of his closest advisors. The topic was recent developments in the Middle East, their impact on American foreign policy, and more particularly on the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The session was organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. As Vice-President of the Rabbinical Assembly, I was representing the rabbis of the Conservative movement.
In just a few hours, I’ll be leaving for ten days in Israel, bringing with me fifty members of my congregation, as well as my wife and the Educational Director of our synagogue’s Religious School. I can no longer remember how many of these trips I’ve led during the past thirty years, and that is a very good thing indeed. One of the things I’m proudest of in my rabbinate is having introduced many members of my community to Israel for the first time. There is a special joy in that for me, and the feeling never grows old.
There is a great deal of talk swirling around about my movement- the Conservative movement- and its state of being. The lead article in this week’s print edition of The Jewish Week reports on a new strategic plan for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and the changes that it is intending to make in both its organizational structure and sphere of operations. The article implies- not too subtly- that the proposed changes reflect an organization, and a movement, in crisis.
Shortly after my vacation this past summer in California, I wrote a piece for this column about California and its charms. Having slowly and lovingly driven the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I lamented how coming back to New York City- which I admittedly love- was not so easy. Concrete jungle and all that….