An Unusual Holocaust Film

— by Ronit Treatman

The life of a Jewish dwarf who miraculously survived the Holocaust is the inspiration for a new motion picture project.

The Lilliput will illustrate how Abraham Kerber was able to defeat the odds of surviving the war by using his weaknesses as strengths. This dark fairy tale, which is being shot in Gabin and Lodz, Poland, promises to be one of the most moving new films being produced about the Holocaust.

American stage, television, and movie actor Mark Povinelli will star as “Umchik,” as Abraham was affectionately called. Povinelli was one of the seven dwarves in Mirror, Mirror, and a regular on the television show Are You There, Chelsea?  

More after the jump.
The film will take us back to Poland in 1938. Umchik survived the war by hiding in tiny places that the Nazis did not think to search. He concealed himself in garbage cans in the rail yards and underground in the sewers.

Umchik was a photographer and an ardent Zionist. His best friend was Esther, a Jewish woman who converted to Christianity to marry a gentile. Her family and community disowned her for making this choice, and Abraham remained her only friend. As the war progressed, Umchik and Esther supported and understood each other as no one else could.

When the war was over, Umchik moved to Israel. He settled in Kiryat Tivon, and worked as a journalist and photographer. He died on April 19, 1978, and was buried in Kiryat Tivon. The names of his relatives who perished in the Holocaust were etched on his tombstone. The final inscription reads, “G-d will avenge their blood.”

The script was written by filmmaker, screenwriter and producer Minna Packer. She is a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, the Pratt Institute, and a Fullbright scholar at the Lodz Film School. She previously directed and produced the documentary Back to Gombin.

For more information, a preview of the movie, and an opportunity to contribute to this project, go to the film’s website.

My Republican Haggadah: An oldie but goodie

Editor’s Note: This “Republican Haggadah” first appeared in the Huffington Post in 2012. However, except for the references to the 2012 Presidential election the humor is timeless. Enjoy!

— by Steve Sheffey

Jewish history is littered with sects, groups of people kind of like Jews who celebrate the same holidays and have many of the same customs, yet are somehow different.

Today’s sect is known as “Jewish Republicans,” few in number but very loud. Like most Jews, they celebrate Pesach, but they’ve got their own Haggadah. The differences between their Haggadah and ours are instructive.

After drinking the first cup of wine, most Jews wash their hands, but the Republicans stay seated and wait for the water to trickle down.

Most Jews then eat a green vegetable, but the Republican Haggadah follows the ruling of Rabbi Reagan that ketchup qualifies as a vegetable. Ketchup is not green, but green is the last thing any Republican would want to be. (Reagan does have this in common with Moses: Neither ever set foot in the land of Israel.)

More after the jump.
Next we break the middle of the three matzot. Most Jews break the middle matzah into two roughly equal pieces, replacing the smaller piece on the Seder plate and hiding the larger piece as the afikoman. The Republican Haggadah asks the leader (or in Republican parlance, the Seder CEO) to keep 99 percent of the matzah for himself and let the other participants share the remaining 1 percent.

The Torah speaks of four sons, but the Republican Haggadah speaks of four candidates: The simple candidate (Santorum), the wicked candidate (Paul), the candidate who does not know how to answer (Romney), and the simple candidate who thinks he’s the wise candidate (Gingrich). They have no wise candidates.

The highlight of the Republican Haggadah is its version of “Dayenu” — “it would have been enough.” The Republican motto when it comes to President Obama is “nothing is enough” — no matter how much President Obama does for Israel, it’s never enough for some of our Republican friends:

President Obama has called for the removal of Syrian President Assad.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama ordered the successful assassination of Osama bin Laden.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama has done more than any other president to stop Iran’s illicit nuclear program.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama restored Israel’s qualitative military edge after years of erosion under the Bush administration.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama increased security assistance to Israel to record levels.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama boycotted Durban II and Durban III.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama has taken U.S.-Israel military and intelligence cooperation to unprecedented levels.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama cast his only veto in the U.N. against the one-sided anti-Israel Security Council resolution.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama opposed the Goldstone Report.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama stood with Israel against the Gaza flotilla
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama organized a successful diplomatic crusade against the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama immediately intervened to rescue Israelis trapped in the Egyptian embassy.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama gave orders to give Israel “whatever it needs” to put out the Carmel fire.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama maintained the U.S. policy of ambiguity on Israel’s nuclear weapons.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama has repeatedly condemned Palestinian incitement against Israel and attempts to delegitimize Israel.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

President Obama pulled out of joint exercises with Turkey after Turkey excluded Israel.
But that’s not enough for our Republican friends.

There’s probably nothing President Obama can do to convince some Republicans that he’s pro-Israel. If President Obama split the Sea of Reeds and walked through it dry-shod, they’d accuse him of not being able to swim. They made their mind up before he was elected that he could not be trusted and they ignore everything that contradicts their biases.

The ultimate message of the real Haggadah is hope (sound familiar?). Let’s hope that just as the vast majority of American Jews voted for Barack Obama in 2008, the vast majority of us will remember who we are and what we value and vote to re-elect President Obama in 2012.

Perelman Jewish Day School Bars Teachers Union

— by Lynne Fox, Chairperson, Philadelphia Jewish Labor Committee

The Perelman Jewish Day School board has unilaterally withdrawn its recognition of the union which has represented their teachers without interruption since 1976 and refuses to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.

Philadelphia Jewish Labor Committee stands firmly with the teachers, their union and the parents and community leaders who have reached out to us as the board violates the rights of the school’s teachers to bargain collectively.

Although the school claims a religious exception to the relevant labor laws, it is the teachers’ concerns which are in alignment with tenets of Conservative Judaism. By dismantling the union and denying employees the power of collective bargaining, the Perelman Jewish Day School is acting in opposition both to major halakhic authorities and to the official position of the Conservative Movement. In 2008, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards passed a teshuvah (legal position) which obliges institutions affiliated with the movement to comply with a series of Jewish labor laws. Among these, employers must pay a living wage and “may not interfere in any way with organizing drives.”

More after the jump.
This teshuvah draws upon a consistent line of rabbinic authority dating back to the Talmud. The third century Mishnah and Tosefta instructs employers to meet or exceed local custom in terms of wages and benefits, and the Babylonian Talmud gives town residents the right to intervene between a local employer and a worker to insure that wages are fair.

In 1945, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, a leading Israeli Ashkanzi scholar and posek (authoritative adjudicator of questions related to Jewish law), recognized the right of workers to organize and to have their regulations and rules seen as binding. He also recognized, in certain conditions, their right to strike.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), a Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi, scholar and posek, concurred in a series of Responsa that extended Rabbi Waldenberg’s holding to include the right of workers to prevent scabs from doing their jobs and to include the rights of religious school teachers to bargain collectively, even though community funds and the religious obligation to teach Torah were at stake.

The Perelman Jewish Day School has based its identity on a fidelity to halakhah (Jewish law) and derekh eretz (Jewish ethics). We call upon the school’s administration to bring this same dedication to its obligations as an employer of teachers who work hard every day to make the institution a center of Torah.

Jewish tradition has been clear and consistent — the treatment of workers and their right to organize are among the basic underpinnings of a just society. We therefore call upon the Perelman Jewish Day School to reverse their decision and begin to bargain with the teachers union over the terms of the next collective bargaining agreement.  

JSPAN Holds Two Programs Dissecting Economic Inequality

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

For the last 70 years our economy has grown almost steadily. Until 1970, this increase in productivity was shared between growth in wages for labor and profit growth for business. Since then, virtually all the growth in productivity has gone to increase corporate profits, while wages have not even fully kept pace with inflation.

Beginning with the film “Inequality for All” starring Professor Robert Reich, and continuing with a panel discussion a week later, JSPAN has initiated its year of focus on the problems of economic inequality. The programs, held on March 9 and 16 (after a one-week snow delay), drew substantial audiences at the host site, Germantown Jewish Centre.

More after the jump.
Inequality for All is Prof. Reich’s grand statement on film of the sources, attributes and problems of economic inequality in our society. With pictures and charts, and in his own personal electric presentation, he documents an immense change in American society, particularly since 1970.

The issue, according to Reich, is not just the discouragement of workers or the toll on people and families of declining expectations and a static or sliding quality of life. The sustainability of democracy, here and in other countries, depends heavily on the existence and growth of a middle-class.

Economic inequality in this nation, while accumulating immense wealth in the hands of a few, has expanded poverty and shrunk the middle class. The expectation that life will be better in each generation has been reversed.

The second program was a panel discussion featuring Rabbi Mordechai Liebling and Benjamin Peck. Liebling heads the Social Justice Organizing program of instruction for rabbis at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. Peck is the Federal Affairs Manager for Demos, lobbying for progressive policies in Washington DC. Ilene Wasserman, Board member of JSPAN, moderated the discussion.  

The program began with Torah study of selected texts, directed by Rabbi Liebling. He urged that we must recognize that all wealth comes from the Lord.

Biblical justice for the Jewish community included Shmita, the forgiveness of debt every seven years, as well as the limit of seven years on slavery, and the restoration of land ownership every fifty years (“the Jubilee”). These institutions tended to level wealth within the community and to prevent the accumulation of immense wealth in a few people.

Drawing on statistics compiled by the Economic Policy Institute, Mr. Peck documented the extent to which wealth has become concentrated in a few hands in America.

With the accumulation of this great wealth has come political influence and control of the political system. The government has favored wealthy corporations and individuals by such steps as the bailouts in the 2008 crisis, the provision that Medicare cannot negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices, tax policies, and other examples.

Peck urges the wisdom of Warren Buffett, that his income tax rate should not be lower than that of his secretary.

Three Philadelphians Star in “Megillas Lester” Musical Comedy DVD

Akiba Hebrew Academy graduates Michael Bihovsky, Adam Levinthal and Andrew Davies star in the newly-released, full-length musical animated comedy DVD Megillas Lester, presented by EMES Productions, produced by Kolrom Animation Studios, and distributed by ArtScroll.

Bihovsky, who directed and starred in One Grain More and Fresh! now voices Doniel “Lester” Lesterovitch, an average boy in a Jewish elementary school. While directing his school’s Purim play, Lester gets a knock on the head from a fallen box of puffy paint and falls unconscious. Suddenly, Lester finds himself in the middle of the feast of King Achashverosh, and through a case of mistaken identity, it is Lester who is asked to go summon Queen Vashti to the party.

More after the jump.

Vashti decides to go, which prevents the story of Megillas Esther: Vashti is not killed, a search for a new queen is not required, and thus Esther never comes to the palace. That leaves nobody to save the Jews from the plot of Haman (voiced by Levinthal). Amid a sub-plot involving Bigsan (voiced by Davies) and Seresh’s murder schemes, Lester runs all over Shushan, trying to stay out of Haman’s way and set the Purim story back on track.


The Actors

Get to know the real live actors that are the voices of Lester, Bigsan, Achashverosh, Haman and more!

Ukrainian Government Must Ensure Rights, Safety of Minorities


Protests in Kiev, last week.

— by Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean, Simon Wiesenthal Center

Like millions of concerned people around the world, we hope that the emerging leadership in Ukraine will steer a course based on democratic values and inclusion, including guaranteeing rights and safety for its large Jewish communities and their communal institutions.

As the late Simon Wiesenthal said, “Where democracy is strong, it is good for Jews and where it is weak, it is bad for Jews.” Nothing will better guarantee a future for Ukrainian Jewry than the end of violent confrontations and the restoration of true democratic rule.

World Jewry’s concerns have been heightened with word of a firebomb attack on a synagogue southeast of the capital of Kiev Sunday night.

Kosher Food for Prisoners: A Question of Money?


Fewer than 1% of inmates request kosher meals. (San Quentin Prison, California)

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

Last week, an Orthodox Jewish prison inmate ended his four-year-old lawsuit seeking a kosher diet, thanks to a recent court ruling requiring Florida to provide all Jewish prison inmates with a kosher diet.

This case is one of several that prison inmates and the U.S. Department of Justice have brought in the last few years, where state prisons have withheld the option of kosher meals for Jewish inmates.  

The cases are brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (commonly referred to as RLUIPA) — the federal law that seeks to protect the right of inmates and other institutionalized persons to free exercise of religious practices. However, some state prison systems are slow to learn.

Providing kosher food for inmates is reported to about double the cost of the usual prison diet: an increase of between $4 and $5 per day for each inmate, according to the prisons. However, very few inmates (typically fewer than 1%) request kosher meals, according to the experience reported in the court decisions.

The courts therefore reject claims by the prisons that the cost of providing kosher food is burdensome. But the details of the cases suggest that there is more than cost at issue.

More after the jump.
Various prison systems have put up different bars to deter inmates from securing kosher meals:

  • One prison requires the inmate to pass a test of knowledge of the rules of kashrut;
  • another prison admits an inmate to the kosher food program, but removes him if he eats any “non-kosher” food (although the prison management does not appear to have enough knowledge to judge that question);
  • yet another prison’s management examines the inmate’s historic practices and reaches its own determination of the “sincerity” of the inmate’s beliefs;
  • and some prisons offer inmates the ability to purchase kosher food at their own expense.

In recent cases, the Justice Department and Jewish prisoners have prevailed over the state prison officials as to all of these arguments and stratagems. Yet, questions will continue to arise under RLUIPA, and the earlier-related Religious Freedom Restoration Act (familiarly known as RFRA).  

These statutes legislate religious accommodation — specifically, relief from some legal requirement of general application, where that relief is practical. Simple? Not at all.

The range of circumstances that give rise to RFRA and RLUIPA claims is great and still growing (most recently in the form of dozens of challenges to the Affordable Care Act). The questions of what constitutes a sincere religious belief, and more importantly, what is a substantial burden on religious practice, draw the courts into an unfamiliar territory.  

Each accommodation ordered by a court, and looked at differently, is a small establishment of one religion over all others. So the courts assiduously avoid “entanglement” by becoming involved in deciding religious issues, except for practice mandated under these two statutes.

The author is a member of the Church-State Committee of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, an organization which frequently participates in religious liberty cases as amicus curiae (“friend of the court”), and a director of the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

Book Review: Jewish Men at the Crossroads

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Jewish Men at the Crossroads takes a dip into the section of the gender pool some now call “masculism,” or “masculinism.”

A publication of the Conservative Movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, the volume is a collection of essays by Jewish men offering intimate sharing from issues of their current lives. The intent is to stimulate men into returning to synagogue life through participation in male support groups.

The book has its problems, such as the absence of talk about the range of masculinities within gender, as in GBTQIA and a stunning absence of essays relating to maleness and social justice.

That said, many essays do reflect a poignant honesty about these Jewish mens’ encounters with life’s inevitable challenges.

More after the jump.
Those among who have been caregivers will surely empathize with the following story, for example:

The last five years of Freyda’s life… the last five years of our marriage were difficult, to say the least.

I loved caring for Freyda. It was a burden of love.

However, our life dramatically changed. Our travel was limited. We could no longer do many of the activities we had grown to love together. Our intimacy was limited to hugging, holding hands, snuggling in bed… but I loved it, I truly loved it….

The situation at times was intolerable. I was often fatigued, but I could not sleep. I was frequently depressed. I was often angry and would get upset… yelling at Freyda… an innocent being, my love/my soul mate… this was most disturbing to me… — Arnold Miller

In another essay, a man with autism brings us into his Jewish life, in a way that clearly illustrates the need for heightened understanding of diversity in our population, and strategies for changing the social climate of congregations:

I had been praying for God to cure my autism and wondering why God didn’t answer my prayer. I realized at that point that I had been praying for the wrong reason.

I started to pray for the strength to accept autism and live with joy, laughter and connection. My prayers were answered more richly than I ever imagined. Sometimes I still hate autism, but now I love life more than I hate autism…

After ten years, we finally left our synagogue and joined a new one where people smile at me even if I am sometimes too loud or excited and no one stares at me like I am a piece of trash….

My favorite Jewish holiday is Passover because it is the story of our people’s journey from degradation to liberation… — Jacob Artson

The reality of intermarriage is frankly acknowledged. Strong feelings and approaches uncharacteristic of the Conservative movement’s platforms and positions are included:

I am distraught that many synagogues still will not let the non-Jewish parent participate on the bimah for a baby naming or a bris. — Joshua Kohn

Mazel tov… is he Jewish?…

I do understand that for some people, if their child dates a non-Jew, it is a “big deal.” But , for me, is that paramount to my daughter’s happiness? Or even my happiness? Doesn’t a father give up some of his happiness for his children?…

Yes, my children — I consider Josh my son — [they] were married by a rabbi and a minister.

No, my granddaughter is not having a naming, though her parents just recently had a ceremony in my home to give her a Hebrew name. And, yes, they are going to be doing a similar type of ceremony in his church.

Yes, my granddaughter is going to be raised in both religions… Would I love him more if he was Jewish? No. He is the son I never had. I love him for who and what he is. Plain and simple. — Dave Julis

Unfortunately, the book also contains unchallenged stereotypes and assumptions:

[G]irls’ learning styles… focus on attentiveness, persistence, orderliness, and sedentary work, while boys thrive when they can be physically active and have time to be rowdy…

Boys… respond to hands-on activity, competition, challenge, and incentives. — David Weiser

If we are to maintain the religious affiliation of American Jewish men, then we have to preach and teach Jewish men to see introspection, empathy, kindness, noble character, humility and gratitude as male ideals. — Ed Feld

The most telling barrier [to engaging me in synagogue life] is that most men are simply uncomfortable praying. — Jack Chomsky

Jewish Men at the Crossroads is about the happenings in the lives and minds of Conservative men. Among the topics addressed are retirement, becoming a caregiver for a declining, beloved spouse, becoming an in-law to someone who is not Jewish, observing yartzeit for one’s child, recognizing that raising children requires role-modeling and a serious investment of time from both parents, age-related loss of libido, health issues, and having a child in the Israeli army, and a good deal more.

Some sapping does rise during essays reflecting on the stereotypes that “manhood is about strength, courage, willpower” and that “traditional… male values [are] honesty, courage, decisiveness, responsibility and resilience,” when, for Jews, “success is measured by being a mensch and helping make this world a better place.”

But where is rebellion against the oppression of the workforce, and the military use of men, and now women, as cannon fodder? Where are strategies for rising up and recalibrating society? These are not to be found as much as several essays that indicate a desire for a better balance of work and family.

Fire in the belly is patently lacking. These are essentially really nice men, coping with life’s dealt hand more than taking up the mantle of justice being called for by our ancient and contemporary prophetic voices.

Also missing in the book is any tipping of the hat to the Jewish men’s movement retreats that have been happening for decades, led by Yosaif August, Shawn Zevit, and colleagues at what is now called the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, in Connecticut. There are many seminal publications these “Hearing Men’s Voices” groups might seek out for discussion:

Also, the developers at Moving Traditions created a substantial developmental program for Jewish boys called The Brotherhood. Their research and development sheds a great deal of light on what it can mean to be a Jewish male in the 21st Century.  

Reflection upon the forces that have influenced many of the contributing authors of the book, is perhaps their own next step. We hear little to nothing about domestic violence, or other violence, such as life as WWII vets; or the role of subsequent wars on their masculinity; or the unisex/”free love” of the 1960s; or male or boyhood survival in the wake of the soul-searing emasculation of the Holocaust.

And what of the roles and masculinities of men who bring us glory and/or shame in societies — Madoff? Doctorow? Wiesel? Mamet? Dayan? Spitzer? Gehry? Adelman? Shamgar ben Anat? (See Judges 3:31) And infinitely many more.

Bar Mitzvah essentially goes missing — perhaps a statement of its own about this increasingly problemmatic ritual. The stories within our very tradition, as at least one author points out, point men toward revisiting what they have drawn from their “fathers’ wells” — at home, and in the stories about men and masculinity within Jewish tradition and contemporary culture. Perhaps some of this will emerge in a second volume, as the program advances.

The last sentence of the introduction by Bob Braitman, past president of FJMC asks: “What is a Jewish man?” It is a bit disingenuously stated that the problem seems to be that “men have somehow become less visible in both the leadership in many professions and in the volunteer world.”

Presumably this refers to the arrival of women rabbis, cantors and the preponderance of women who now attend services and serve on boards and committees in the liberal Jewish movements. Though some hold leadership and research positions, the men writing these essays do not appear eager to reclaim an increased position in any of these roles.

In many ways Jewish Men at the Crossroads is about a new wave of Jewish men seeking healing, who are not at the innovative fringe but rather becoming newly receptive to its waves and practices. The work of supportive healing and growing at the level of spirit and awareness is crucial to Jewish and humane development.

Rabbi Simcha Weintraub appears as a contributing author in this volume. The founder of The National Center for Jewish Healing, Weintraub is a great man to have on board for this initiative. For while women are increasingly attaining equal votes and roles, and are being “allowed” to succeed, Jewish men still have the cultural burden of being expected to succeed.

Indeed, Rabbi Weintraub points out metaphorically that “Jewish men may have stopped breathing” from the stress, and the burden of traditional expectations about their potential to accomplish, innovate, earn and be honored. So, let us end by borrowing from the blessing Rabbi Weintraub offers for men:

Enjoy breathing with reflection; community with solitude; work with rest.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon — May this be God’s will; Amen.

Reform Movement Sets Sails for Fundamental Change

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram



A new Reform Judaism is rapidly emerging: inspiring, courageous, inclusive, radically hospitable, spiritual, and relevant.

In light of “doomsday statistics” about diminishing Jewish identification and affiliation, as given in the recent, much-publicized Pew study, how is this possible?

One should keep in mind that such studies only document what had been, and typically miss the exciting new approaches across the flow of Jewish history, that percolate in every age, and sometimes catch on big time.

One watershed moment was the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial, held in San Diego last month.

As announced in the Biennial, URJ membership is no longer required for attendance at its conferences, camps and youth groups. Many of the best innovations and innovators of our times, from within Reform, Jewish Renewal, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism, were in evidence.

Each attempted fusion worked elegantly and authentically, maintaining the heart and structure of Jewish prayer while riveting the 5,000 participants even during lengthy Shabbat services. Choreographer Liz Lerman led prayer through authentic movement, for example, and virtually everyone participated (see video).

More after the jump.
The URJ is going head to head with the orthodox movement, Chabad, in terms of embracing the core Jewish spiritual practices, the mitzvot, as the URJ president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, explained:



I met recently with Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a cherished member of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s inner circle, who now has the responsibility of overseeing Chabad’s worldwide activities.

Shortly after we sat down in his office at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, Rabbi Krinsky leaned forward and asked, “Rabbi Jacobs, can we be frank?”

I said “Yes,” not sure where he was going.

“Why are you so busy trying to get more people into your Reform Movement? After all, you don’t care about kashrut, you don’t care about Shabbat, and you don’t care about mitzvot, so what are you so busy doing?”

I responded, “Rabbi Krinsky, we care about kashrut. We care about Shabbat. We care about mitzvot. We just care differently.”

“My job,” I told him, “is exactly the same as yours: to try and bring more and more people close to the sacred core of Jewish life.”

I believe with the very fiber of my being that young Jews are hungry, but not for a Judaism frozen in a distant time, no matter how loving and warm the purveyors — including Chabad, in particular — might be.

Rabbi Jacobs himself, along with the music director for the conference — the soulful, deeply God-connected Josh Nelson — set a contemplative tone of meaningful rather than formulaic prayer.

This shift one of affect, away from services styled after the music of Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, that was often accompanied by rabbinic intoning of prayers.

It turns out that some of the senior URJ leadership has studied or been featured with Rabbi Rachel Cowan and her team at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS).


The Korean-born rabbi, Angela Buchdahl, has become a symbol of Reform inclusiveness.

The Importance of Inclusion

Another service co-leader was the new head rabbi at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, Angela Buchdahl, who is also listed as part of the non-denominational Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

Korean-born Rabbi Buchdahl has lived in the U.S. since the age of 4, and Rabbi Jacobs used her presence as a focal point to advocate for attention though kindness and inclusiveness throughout the movement, noting that people would often love her services when he and she shared a pulpit, and then ask him quietly, “Is she really Jewish?”

He later gave a shout-out to Congregation Or Ami in Clabasas, California which

 “identifies itself by saying: ‘We are also ‘Mosaic’ in that we connect back to Moses, a Hebrew child, raised by Egyptians, who married a non-Jewish woman of color and became the leader of his people.'”

Jacobs spoke further about every possible category of difference and the importance of inclusion:

When we open our doors — and more, our hearts and minds — and say, “Come in, we need you,” we will have new talent and energy beyond our wildest dreams.

Al tistakel b’kankan, warned our sages, “don’t look at the bottle,” ela b’mah sheyesh bo, “but at what is inside it.”

Inside those people whom we exclude is another great gift, another opportunity of a lifetime just waiting for us. As we learn from Abraham, we cannot wait for the seekers.

The Union plans outreach to every kind of public venue. Both year-round family camping and a fourteenth camp for “Jews who love science” will open this year.

Regarding intermarriage, Jacobs advocates doors open wide:

It is not just sociology that demands that we be serious about welcoming interfaith families. It is theology as well.

We have a sacred obligation to open our doors, to add to our ranks, and to make sure that Progressive Judaism has a growing, not a shrinking, voice in proclaiming what Torah must mean for our time and for our world.

It is a veritable gift of God to have the opportunity of a millennium: more non-Jews who want “in” than Jews who want “out.”

That has never happened before. We dare not squander this gift out of fear of what new voices may say and where new opinions may lead.

Heavily “strummed” services were mostly moved to smaller breakout service times, performance sessions and variegated welcomes (see video to the right).

Best of all the many abundant approaches to helping people feel welcomed was embodied by the phrase used by Rabbi Jacobs, “audacious hospitality.”

Heightened Spirituality Broadly Evident

Shifts toward soulful approaches in both music and liturgy were abundant. The movement’s new Mishkan T’Filah prayerbook worked beautifully in the mix.

In perhaps a related development, Neshama Carlebach, daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, announced at her late-night standing-room-only conference concert with Josh Nelson that her soul is “making aliyah to the Reform movement,” an announcement for which she received resounding applause.

And in an article published immediately after the conference ended, Carlebach termed the URJ Biennial “the largest spirituality-oriented gathering of Jews in North America”:

Reform synagogues have always been “the shuls I didn’t attend.” Simply put, I had no idea how extraordinary Reform Judaism was.

The tikkun olam (social justice) mandate is so strongly bound up with the movement, and in the most joyous of ways. I was overwhelmed by the music, by the davening (prayer) and yes, my Orthodox friends, by the ever-present light of Torah.

Some of the Biennial’s Influences:

The Underlying Forces

Rabbi Jacobs description of this new approach echoes almost the identical wording of the literature of Jewish Renewal.

The founder of Jewish Renewal, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (widely known as “Reb Zalman”), once told the author of this article, “It’s really we (the Renewal movement) who have accomplished what the Rebbe set out to do.”

It must have been a nachas (pleasure) for Reb Zalman to hear what took place at the Biennial, and to know that many Jewish Renewal teachers, students and principles were strong influences in the mix. (See sidebar)

As explained by the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Saperstein
, in a recent tribute to a Renewal social activist, Rabbi Arthur Waskow:

The Renewal movement has not only grown into a significant presence in its own right, but has had a profound impact on the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements.

It is time that this be acknowledged. The merging of aesthetics of new liturgies and rituals, the synergy of mystical prayer and meditation, passion for social justice rolled into an expression of Judaism has brought new light into so many Jewish lives.

These two tents within progressive Judaism — Reform and Renewal — have a great deal of synergy in place already.

The Reform Movement has the numbers and the strength to reach out to the majority of Jews whom Rabbi Jacobs termed “nones” — those having some Jewish interest, but no affiliations.

Jewish Renewal, in the words of a Renewal rabbi who attended the Biennial, Rabbi Diane Elliot “is well-positioned to provide ‘midwives'”: spiritual teachers specializing in one or more modalities (chant, movement, hiddur mitzvah, etc.), who are equipped to go out into Reform communities, and those of other denominations, to help implement this emerging, Renewal-infused agenda:

Midwives are patient. They understand the global trajectory of the birthing journey, and at the same time they know how to meet the birthing mother where she is (“ba-asher hu/hi sham,” Genesis 21:17), helping her to stay present and in contact with what is happening right now, opening bit by bit, not pushing too soon, but when they time comes, pushing hard.

Midwives are coaches. In the wake of the Biennial, I saw that Jewish Renewal clergy are well suited for the role of spiritual coaching among other denominations.

While I see us continuing to serve and create new enclaves of Jewish Renewal, it seems to me that the most effective way to spread the “good news” of what we offer is not to pour energy into trying to aggressively market ourselves as a movement, thus throwing ourselves into competition with other larger and much better funded streams of Jewish life, but rather to consciously offer ourselves in service of k’lal Yisra’el, “all Jews.”

True to the role modeling of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Rabbi Elliot proposes that Jewish Renewal continue “doing what we do best — opening hearts, minds and bodies to deeper and more comprehensive practice and experience, thoroughly grounded in Jewish textual, historical, and mystical traditions.”

To my mind, this kind of research and development can feel risky and even earth-shattering for some folks, given Jews’ communal trauma history, passed on unconsciously, cellularly, from generation to generation, through body language, thought patterns, and child-rearing practices, as well as through story, fiction, poetry, theater, visual art, and contemporary midrash.

So the deep work, integrating new modalities, is best done in small groups on retreat and in more intimate community settings, where trust can be built and healing manifest — for individual participants, for communities, and for Judaism itself.