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Vayeshev 5784     December 9, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

I had the privilege to attend the 2023 Convening of Conservative Judaism this past week. This was the first gathering of our movement since the pandemic three years ago. It was not just a convention of Rabbis, but it convened members of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), The Cantors Assembly, United Synagogue Youth, and the Rabbinical Assembly. There were over eight hundred representatives of our movement in Baltimore, MD who came to study together, to meet together and yes, to eat together, so we could forge anew the bonds of our movement as we face a rapidly changing world. I want to share some highlights of the program because I think it is important we should all know about the discussions that took place this week.

I should mention that the convening was preceded by a Shabbaton, by a Shabbat experience that reflected the varied nature of our movement. I was not there for the Shabbaton, but Michelle was there, and she described some five different types of Shabbat Services that were offered, from yoga davening to four different musical services reflecting the varied spiritual nature of Conservative, or as we now call it, Masorti, Judaism. The afternoon was filled with learning by some of the best teachers of our movement. There were many Hazzanim who sang songs of Shabbat and songs of peace.

I arrived on Sunday for the opening program. The keynote address that afternoon was a discussion with the famous radio personality Krista Tippit. She has interviewed some of the most well-known religious and spiritual figures in the world. At this time of uncertainty, she noted that while the extremists on both sides of every debate may make the news, there is a vast middle where people are looking for answers to the questions and problems that they face. But the answers are not found in the extremes; they may have simple solutions to difficulties, but those are not the answers that will build community or calm our fears. Ms. Tippit insisted that the role of religion in the world is to calm our fears and console our grief. That is why religion is so dangerous to extremists. Extremists have become professionals about stoking our fears, but the feelings we harbor are not new, they have been around for centuries. Religion has always been the place to go to find the ground we can stand on to weather any storm. If we know what we believe, then that is what makes other relationships possible. She told us that we think we know what we need in life but religion, the tradition of our ancestors, speaks to our deeper needs. Conflict, thus, is not a bad thing; she reminded us that it takes friction to make music from an instrument, and the music of life is when we hear each other and learn to live with the tension. The CEO of our movement, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, noted that in the Talmud, sometimes there can be pages of arguments about one aspect of tradition or another and there still cannot be a resolution, so we say “Teiku” We will have to live with that tension until the time of redemption when all problems will be solved.

After the Keynote I attended a class on a new commentary now coming out on the Book of Psalms. We learned that the Psalms are not just poetry, but also Liturgy. The words of the Psalms can have different meanings depending on what is happening in our lives, what stage of life we may be in and where our thoughts may be going at any given moment. That is why these 150 poems were selected to be a part of the Bible, because they can be adapted to so many different situations and still teach us the lessons of faith in our moments of doubt and pain.

In the evening, our program was about Israel; how could it not be? One of the hostages is a lone soldier whose family lives on Long Island and are members of a Conservative synagogue. Their Rabbi spoke of a young man who went to school in a Solomon Schechter school, who played basketball and volleyball, who went to Israel and fell in love with the land and stayed on to become a solider for Israel. We sang prayers for the captives, for the soldiers, for Israel, and sang Hatikvah. Then the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Michael Hertzog, answered questions about the hostages, the war, and Antisemitism. He talked about how inspired Israel was to know that almost 300,000 Jews had gathered in Washington to support Israel. He talked about the unity of the Jewish people in this time of war, unity from a people known for our long history of disagreements. He made a pointed remark that while all hate is terrible and Antisemitism and Islamophobia are often equated, he noted that when three Palestinians were attacked in Vermont a few weeks ago, every Jewish anti-hate organization spoke up against the attack. But when Hamas attacked Jews in Southern Israel, the Arabic organizations were silent. We could hear the pain in his heart over the injustice Israel faces in the world.

He was asked pointed questions by the Chief Movement Strategy Officer of USCJ and the Chief Operations Officer for the Rabbinical Assembly, my colleague and daughter Ashira Konigsburg. I thought I was proud of her in that moment, but you should have seen Michelle’s face!

Monday was the only full day of the Convening. After minyan and breakfast, I attended a session on Leadership in Times of Crisis. It was led by the deans of the Rabbinical Schools in NY and LA. They spoke about how they train new rabbis to help their congregations get through times of crisis like we are in now.

Rabbi Aaron Alexander, from Washington, DC, gave a presentation on Halacha in the Conservative movement, an issue that comes up all the time in Jewish circles. Orthodox Jews are quick to accuse us of not following Halacha in spite of the fact that we look seriously at Halachic issues. Sometimes our rabbis take a more liberal approach to Halacha than those in the Orthodox movement. Orthodoxy sees this liberal approach as a failure to observe Halacha at all. Rabbi Alexander noted that observance of Halacha is not a binary choice. There are many ways to follow Jewish Law, as many ways as there are Jews. Halacha is not a law but a path to follow. Anytime anyone Jewish makes a personal decision based on how they understand their commitment to Judaism, they are acting in a Halachic manner. When we act with our tradition in mind then we are weighing Jewish Law and how we will apply it in our life. Real life means that there are many ways that our tradition can be applied to our decisions. He had others speak about how tradition can be applied to the lives of LGBTQ Jews, in the daily life of Seniors and in the lives of those who don’t have a deep understanding of what the tradition says. Each of us is true to Jewish Law if we have considered the law in the decisions we make every day. It was an important reminder that the things that we think divide us are not always a simple choice between two points of view. There is a center between two extremes, and it is in the center where truth can always be found.

Later that afternoon, I attended sessions by a group that helps people of all ages make end of life decisions, to plan for the inevitable day of our death even when we are young and healthy. We must not be afraid of death but must prepare ourselves for it and we must prepare our families for that day as well. That will be a whole sermon in itself sometime soon.

The next session was by Rabbi Jeffery Meyers, the Rabbi at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. He did not talk about the tragedy that took place in his shul five years ago, rather he spoke of the many good things that happened after the shock of the shooting passed by. He spoke of his connections to those who survived past mass shootings like those in Charleston, Parkland, and Newtown. He talked about connections to other clergy in Pittsburgh, Christian, Moslem, and others who stood with him. In the years since the shooting, he has had one of the Black Clergy in his town be a part of his Purim Speil that he holds in the church where they still hold services since his own building is still closed. He told us that he was given the role of Moses in the Christmas pageant the church does every year. They are going to rebuild his synagogue not only as a place of worship, but also as a home for a Holocaust Center to draw attention to the results of prejudice. Rabbi Meyers told us he could not use the “H Word” talking about antisemitism as the beginning of all kinds of racial and religious prejudice. His words were riveting and important and though he ran way overtime, nobody got up to leave.

There were times of entertainment that took place at the convention. There was a taping of the podcast “Unorthodox” that we participated in. There were concerts by cantors and other singers, as well as sessions where new melodies were shared, and new liturgy was tested. There were two different minyans each morning, one traditional and one using meditation and spiritual exercises. This Convening showed clearly the wide tent that makes up our movement.

On a personal note, I also met with some of the two dozen Rabbis I will join with on Dec. 17 for a three-day trip to Israel to hear the voices of those who have suffered the loss of loved ones, of homes, and of their security. It is a trip that will go to help heal some of the trauma that those in Israel still endure. It was mentioned that Israel took note of our gathering in Washington last month. They expected 50,000 Jews to show up to support Israel. They were amazed and honored when over 290,0000 Jews made the effort to show our support.

On Tuesday Morning I attended a seminar by my friend and teacher, Rabbi Gordon Tucker on what the words, “Religious Obligation” mean in the Jewish world today. He took a survey of Rabbinic texts to see that Jewish law is not just a list of what we are “obligated” to do but something we do as part of a covenant with God and with other people. We choose to do mitzvot, commandments, and give up a part of our autonomy for the sake of others who need our help, and to show our love and concern for God.

The final plenary was a survey of Social Justice programs being done in synagogues in outreach to other communities in their city. These projects go beyond working for the benefit of others as they also build relationships with the entire community, creating bonds of friendship and working together for a more just society. There were examples of voting rights, housing equality, and working to help the homeless. It was a very uplifting way to end the convening.

In Parshat Vayeshv, Joseph has dreams that point to a great future for the annoying little brother that defines him at the beginning of the parsha. But at the end of the Parsha he is interpreting the dreams of others, having lived a hard life; he has learned the difficult lessons of living. There is a dream of what Conservative/Masorti Judaism can be in the world. Today we live in a world of binary opposites. Each side insists that their way is the only way. In our movement, we have a dream where such binary choices give way to the large area in between where real choices can be decided and we can respect the messiness that is life as we struggle to make meaning and bring hope to our own lives and those of others. Conservative/Masorti Judaism is the place where we can see different points of view and work cooperatively to do what is right and best for our world. In our current climate, this may be just a dream but there will come a time when others see the leadership role that our vision of Judaism can bring to the world. In these dark days of winter, we remain the steady candle that brings light into our world.

May God help us do the work to untangle the messiness of this world and help us to bring order out of the chaos as we say, …. Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784