My first inkling that I wanted to be a rabbi did not occur sitting in services singing beautiful prayers.
It did not occur around a campfire at a Reform summer camp.
It didn’t even occur on my bike charging up a mountain—though these are all soul-stirring ways to connect to the divine.
Kol Nidre 5771
For me, it was on an Orthodox trip to Israel. I felt, on this trip, the meaning that these Jews brought to everything they did. The connection that they had to Torah, to ritual, to Shabbat, to their community.
I had never experienced a setting where Judaism permeated every aspect of one’s life. Where everything you did was an opportunity to connect with the divine.
It was intoxicating, and magnetic.
Like many of us, I did not grow up a learned Jew.
I forgot most of my Hebrew after my bat-mitzvah.
I didn’t know the beauty and wholeness that 25 hours of Shabbat could offer.
I wasn’t familiar with the enthralling mystical teachings woven into our tradition.
But something stirred within me on that trip, and I knew I wanted more.
* * * *
As a Reform Jew, I have deep pride for the openness, creativity, and liberal values of our movement. They are our hallmark, and they are crucial.
But one aspect of Jewish life, that I believe needs vast improvement, is our lack of Jewish knowledge.
If one is born into the Orthodox word, they learn to read and write Hebrew and engage with texts. They know the liturgy inside out and know what they’re saying when they pray.
Most of us do not have that. As Reform Jews, we have a wonderful commitment to egalitarianism and exceptional engagement with social justice, but we need to make a vow to take our Jewish learning to the next level.
Most of us are illiterate Jewishly. And when we are illiterate, we are disenfranchised.
Being a Reform Jew is not simply picking from a religious smorgasbord
based on a minimal understanding.
Reform Judaism is not an excuse to simply abandon the unknown or difficult,
to choose from Jewish observances that feel familiar or easy.
If we desert Jewish learning, we are no longer making Jewish choices.
As students of Torah, we have a right and responsibility to take part in the conversation. Are Jews today insufficiently devoted to Jewish learning?
Have many have lost their sense of reverence for historic Jewish traditions
because they do not know them?
If this is a pitfall of our Reform approach, let us face it squarely.
Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, former URJ President and a voice of Reform Judaism, admonished, “we must recapture the sense of totality in Judaism,
the life built upon the performance of mitzvot, without surrendering the notion of personal autonomy that is our Reform hallmark.”
* * * *
This year I am making a personal vow to commit myself and our temple to Jewish learning.
And now, I’d like to take this idea of vows and turn to our Yom Kippur liturgy.
Kol Nidre, which we just sang, and Unetane Tokef, which we will recite tomorrow, center around a release of vows.
This should raise an eyebrow. We are supposed to be released from our vows?
Isn’t Yom Kippur about being true to our word, not about getting out of our commitments?
Kol Nidre and Unetane Tokef arose during an era of medieval persecution.
Jews had a choice.
They could leave town, get slaughtered, or convert. [Play out those three instances].
Those that converted, made vows to the Christian church:
“I will not worship my God, I will not celebrate Shabbat, I will not study Torah, I will not engage with Judaism.
This is all understandable, they wanted to survive.
But later, they needed a way to make rectify their vows to the Church. And that is how Kol Nidre and Unetane Tokef emerged.
These prayers beseech, “Don’t hold me to my past vows, God, I am loyal to you.”
And in our contemporary society, we interpret these prayers as saying, “Eternal, there are times this past year that I prioritized the wrong values, I want to annul them.
Please nullify all the times my priorities were misguided.”
Kol Nidre and Unetane Tokef were a declaration of loyalty.
“Eternal, I am still loyal to You. To Judaism. To Jewish learning, despite the vows I made this year.”
The difference is that our ancestors were Jewishly literate; they knew what they were being loyal to. Unlike us, they were not assimilated. In the shetel, their entire existence was about Jewish living.
They could read and write Hebrew. They studied Jewish law, and Midrash (stories explaining the Torah).
But many of us today don’t know enough about our Judaism to make educated choices.
I believe that Judaism today, across the denominational spectrum,
suffers from a crisis of authenticity: a lack of meaning and engagement.
Most contemporary Jews are dependent on others to translate Judaism for them.
They cannot do it themselves.
Judaism has become undersold and watered down. In the words of Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, founder of Machon Hadar, an egalitarian institute for prayer and Jewish study,
today’s Jews “have been sold a world in which Judaism is a bunch of platitudes,
at best matching their existing modern liberal values,
and at worst completely irrelevant to the struggles they experience day to day.
Who can blame these Jews for disengaging from Judaism?”
How do we address this disengagement? This lack of authenticity?
I would like to present three ways outlined by Rabbi Kaunfer.
First, expand immersive educational experiences for adults.
Countless studies demonstrate the ways immersive environments profoundly impact people.
Jewish camping, one of the darling causes and successes of the past decade,
is effective because of its immersive environment. We know immersion works.
How can we expand it for those over age 18? What is possible?
Second, accept that the biggest barrier to Jewish literacy is knowledge of Hebrew.
Our literacy efforts cannot only focus on children.
Adult Jewish education is too often a superficial tour of Jewish concepts,
without any deep engagement with Hebrew texts and tradition.
We must promote and offer opportunities for Hebrew competency,
so that Jews will be empowered to unlock Judaism for themselves.
Third, and the key to this all, create adult peer engagement —hosted meals,
study classes and pairings, grass-roots communities and learning circles.
The chance for authentic engagement requires an empowered, educated laity. Reform Jews can live rich Jewish lives and personally connect others to that experience.
Kaunfer aptly points out that the Jewish community is obsessed with the “next big idea,” a competitive one-upmanship.
However, our crisis is not one of theory.
Instead of focusing on new ideas, our community would be better served
by connecting to Judaism’s original “big ideas:” Torah, avodah and gemilut hasadim: our sacred stories and values, rituals, and acts of loving kindness. →
Meaning will emerge and it will not be platitudes.
Imagine a world where synagogues were hothouses of learning
for people who have the determination
and make the time to invest in their Jewish heritage.
Imagine if all our post-college students spent six months or a year immersing themselves in Jewish texts and traditions,
gaining the skills to become empowered Jewish individuals.
A community where every Jew has the potential and opportunity to affirm his and her Jewish heritage will be vital.
* * * *
I would like to start right here at our synagogue. Our congregants deserve it.
In the coming year, I will offer a monthly Learner’s Service
with an opportunity to focus on one aspect of the service liturgy
by discussing the historical background and meaning behind our prayers.
I want us to be able to understand the words we pray,
to know the historical polemics behind the Hebrew,
and to consider how to make peace with problematic prayer themes.
I will also offer a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service.
Kabbalat Shabbat is the welcoming of Shabbat, consisting of 7 psalms (representing each day of the week).
I want us to understand the background of these psalms, the Kabbalat Shabbat traditions, and the beautiful melodies that accompany them.
Adult education will continue, focusing this year on Reform authenticity—meaning and direct engagement.
But learning cannot only be rabbinically generated. It must come from each of us.
I sympathize with feeling like an outsider at times. It’s ok.
But now is the time to take it up a notch.
* * * *
There is a Chasidic teaching about a man, we’ll call him Shmulik.
He was not learned Jewishly. He knew virtually nothing.
In fact, all he knew were the letters aleph and bet. That’s all. Just the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Then one day he met another man, Yossi. And Yossi knew even less. All he knew was aleph. That’s it, just the first letter.
They went to the Rebbe bemoaning their lack of knowledge. “How will we ever learn all that Judaism teaches?” they wailed.
And do you know what the Rebbe said? He didn’t chastise them. He didn’t say, “It’s an embarrassment that all you know are two Hebrew letters.”
He said, “It’s ok. In fact, this is perfect. Shmulik, you will teach Yossi all you know. (and then maybe you’ll come to my weekly torah study class and learn even more).”
Now is the time. To teach each other, to learn together, and to open ourselves to the beauty of our tradition.
* * * *
I had an encounter with the Divine 10 years ago on my trip to Israel. A moment of “Yes!” this is what it is all about. This is what I want my life to be: a deep connection to my Judaism so that every act is an opportunity to connect with God.
And we have 3000 yrs. of wisdom written about how to do that and what it means.
We have stories and laws and liturgy that offer insight into the human soul and the nature of the Eternal.
Jewish texts teach us how to live. They offer philosophy, psychology, and mysticism. They take hashamayim, that which is in the heavens, and bring it down to ha’aretz, to us here on earth.
Our culture has changed over the past 3,000 years, but we as humans have not. We still yearn to connect to that which is transcendent, to ourselves, and to each other. And Judaism is waiting for us to unlock it.
In this season of teshuva, returning,
we not only think about how we have missed the mark, we resolve to change.
Let us find ways to address our Jewish goals.
How can we be resources for each other?
How can we provide ongoing learning opportunities?
Judaism has such richness to offer each of us.
Let us find ways to experience it, so it can continue to nourish our souls.
In this New Year 5771, let us retain the past as a source of inspiration and create a future for learning.
May we each be renewed and rejuvenated, and inscribed in the Book of Life for blessing, now and always. Shana Tova Tikateivu.
 “The Real Crisis In American Judaism.”