In June, 1984, I became the rabbi of Temple Rodeph Torah. At the time we were meeting in the “cafetorium” of the Asher Holmes School in Morganville, Bar and Bat Mitzvah services were held wherever we could find a place, and 66 families made up the entire TRT community. Temple leaders, unable to figure out how to budget for a rabbi’s salary, put out a request for a rabbi to work “two-thirds time.”
At my first interview I shared my suspicion that “two-thirds time” probably meant full-time work at two-thirds pay – unless they thought it would be a good idea for me to work part-time at Pathmark on the side (remember Pathmark?). Sheepishly, they admitted I was right. And I took the offer.
Now, as I finish my 30th year as your rabbi, it would be fun to look back and reminisce, but I’ll save that for some time when we’re just sitting around and schmoozing. Right now, I want to look forward.
I’ll be honest with you: I have no idea what the temple – not just Rodeph Torah, but any temple – will look like in 10 years. Times are changing, society is changing, and temples will either change or wither away. I don’t know what will change, but I do know how we are going to find out: by experimenting, by thinking outside the box and outside our comfort zones, and by listening to the responses. We need to figure out what to change, what to preserve, what to leave behind and what to take with us, and none of us can make these decisions by ourselves.
For our congregational meeting this spring I made a list of the innovations we introduced in just the past year. The list is impressive – and exciting. But just as important as trying new things is knowing that each time we tried something new we encouraged people to share their feelings about what we did, and we
made sure to take the comments – especially the critiques – to heart. Just one example: many people absolutely loved Rock Hashanah, our experiment in creative High Holiday prayer, and we are bringing it back again this fall. But we heard from people who said they felt the spiritual need for our more traditional service, and this helped us decide that we would always present the traditional option alongside the innovations. I am proud of what we created, and equally proud of how well we listened. We need to do more of both in the years ahead.
By itself, this is a challenging task. But a lot more is at stake here than just the future of TRT. If our congregations fail, then their support for the institutions of Reform Judaism will fail, too, and the world will be spiritually poorer as a result. Think about it: Reform congregations are the ones who focus on Social Action programs that touch everyone, not just other Jews. We are the ones who do food drives all year long, who support MAZON, and who even have an office in Washington – the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism – to speak out for those who do not have a voice in our government. I want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren learning that, in the words of former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, “You don’t help people because they are Jewish; you help people because you are Jewish.” That is the legacy of Reform Judaism, and I want it to thrive.
Equally important to me is the question of where tomorrow’s Jewish leaders will come from. Part of your temple dues goes to support the schools that train Reform rabbis, cantors and educators, and I want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to hear their voices, too. I want the girls in my future family to know that God cherishes them and their prayers as much as men and men’s prayers. I want my descendants to know that there is a place for them in the Jewish community if they marry someone who is not Jewish. I want them to feel free to express their Judaism in their own terms, not just on the rabbi’s terms. I want them to understand that God loves them if they are gay or lesbian. I want them to hear voices of moderation, not extremism, coming from Jewish mouths. And I want them to feel the same passion and joy as I feel from living my life as a committed, involved Reform Jew. Without Reform Jewish leaders and Reform Jewish congregations, none of this can happen.
While I would love to spend time telling stories about the past 30 years, right now there is so much more to be done. I don’t know what the next 10 years will hold, but I will guarantee they will be different from the last ten, and certainly from the last 30. And the thought of exploring and experimenting and sharing all of that with you fills me with more excitement than I ever could have imagined possible when I came here.
There is only one Temple Rodeph Torah in the world (go ahead, check it out), and it is my honor to be the rabbi of this innovative, exciting, risk-taking, holy, passionate, joyful Reform Jewish community. I am looking forward, with God’s help, to working with you to create the Jewish future.