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Preparing for Our Future

September 15, 2012 | Worship and High Holidays

Preparing for Our Future: A New Model for a New Age

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah, 2012, by Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein

40 years ago in a tent on the grounds of Woodlands Community Temple in Hartsdale, NY, just up the road, I delivered my very first Rosh Hashanah eve sermon as a congregational rabbi.  I slaved over that sermon.  I wanted it to be brilliant and visionary in a kind of folksy,  “let’s-get-to-know-each-other” style.

But, as you know, the world can change in an instant. And in that year, 1972, just three days before Rosh Hashanah eve, eleven Israeli athletes were massacred at the Munich Olympics.

So rather than the sermon which I had meticulously prepared, I delivered this sermon [holds up sermon], written quickly in a fit of anger and passion, and which, I realize now, forty years later, proclaimed the principles that remain at the core of my rabbinic life.  It established guidelines for the decisions I make.

In speaking that evening about the botched German police rescue attempt at Munich, I committed myself to battling anti-Semitism, to supporting Israel’s precarious existence as a vocal and passionate defender of the Jewish people, and to championing Jewish survival.

In ways I could not have predicted, I realize that on that evening forty years ago I fell in love with the rabbinate and with synagogues and congregations.  For forty years now, I have been involved in a love affair with the Jewish people.

As you know I believe our history is uniquely miraculous.  So we are compelled to do everything that furthers the existence of our people.  I believe we matter.  We the Jewish people have both a mission and the imagination to change this world.  Not an insignificant goal.

It all begins in synagogues and, most especially for me, with this congregation.

I arrived here at Central Synagogue in July 1991.  As the result of a hotly-contested internecine battle that could have taken out the heart of this congregation, our membership numbers had faltered.  Our financial and organizational house needed repair, not to mention our buildings.  And we needed to heal ourselves.

But above all, we needed a vision.  We needed to imagine that we could become an extraordinary congregation and we needed to determine how to make that happen.  But there was an immense stumbling block for this congregation, as there often is in our lives: an innate resistance, even antagonism towards change.  We faced a single elemental question: were we willing to do that—were we willing to change?

Change is never an insignificant issue.  Take the matter of worship, which for me is an embodiment of the soul of a synagogue.  For decades, this congregation prided itself in being a stable bastion of classical Reform Judaism, a form of Jewish expression and practice which originated over a century and a half before.  But its time had passed, and some in this congregation were reluctant to acknowledge it.

Only the few people who attended Shabbat services during the first years of my tenure loved and preserved the time-worn expressions of the past: a musical tradition that highlighted high cantorial art.  There was very little Hebrew used at services, almost none of it intended to be read by the congregation.  Talitot were forbidden.  Kippot were barely tolerated.  The Hakafah (carrying the Torah into the congregation) was not even considered.  Few besides the clergy touched the Torah.

There was minimal interchange between the pulpit and the congregation.  Music was limited for the most part to the cantor and the choir situated up above in the choir loft.  The clergy had their place on a pulpit architecturally walled off from the congregation.  And the congregation had its place between the choir loft and the pulpit.  We did little to bridge the gaps.

The world had changed.  There was spiritual and traditional longing outside these walls of our Sanctuary not being met within.  In addition, our own members complained that our religious school was boring, that synagogues were generally provincial, and that many of our programs and structures were outmoded.  They were right.

This congregation needed to make a decision.  The choice was straightforward: keep things the way they were in order to maintain a comfort zone for those who were on the inside, or make space for the future, the next generation; in fact, to invite them into our congregation.

The answer is here.  It is you.

To your credit, the members of this congregation twenty years ago opted for the future.  Members, some at Central for over half a century, were willing to take a chance.  Yes, a few resigned.  But many who were classical, passionate, intelligent, and caring Reform Jews were willing to bet on the future.  You recognized that it was the next generation’s time as it had once been yours.  You wanted your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren to find a comfortable home here.  And we have.

We believed as the psalmist celebrated: (97.11)


“Let the light of Judaism and this synagogue shine forth to bring justice and joy and decency to all who enter.”

I have deep admiration and unfailing respect for you who were part of that transition.

You had courage.  You had vision.

But it is time again for that courage and vision.  For if there is going to be another renaissance of Reform Judaism, as there must be, we now understand that it needs to begin with our congregations.  Our national institutions can’t do it.  The future of Jewish life is in our hands.  And this congregation will lead the way as we have done for at least the last twenty years.

Consider this. Two years ago we agreed that:

1. If intermarriage has dramatically impacted Jewish life as we know it has, then let this synagogue become the place for the exploration of Judaism: a place of serious outreach to all Jews, to those who would consider becoming Jewish and to those who are not considering becoming Jews but choose to learn about us.

Since then, 127 students, almost none of them our members, have either enrolled in or have completed Embracing Judaism classes.  Another twenty will begin in November.  Twenty among them have gone through conversion with another thirty currently in the process of studying to convert.

That will make fifty new Jews in the past two years.  Eighteen of the couples who were enrolled have asked to be married by the clergy of our congregation, and many of these students and their families have now applied for membership in our synagogue.

If Reform synagogues want to change the world, let us all throw open our doors to those who want to find their religious life as Jews.

Two years ago, we also made a decision to welcome many interpretations of Jewish life.  We agreed:

2. If there is no one way to be Jewish, then let this synagogue be a place of community: a place where we share stories, a place where we are taken seriously and join together to explore the critical questions of our era and our lives.  Questions like “How do I decide what is ultimately most important in my life?  How am I Jewish?  What do I believe?”

Over the past year, more than 730 congregants gathered in our members’ homes, initiating a congregation-wide conversation about Jewish identity.

There is no Jewish subject that is out of bounds here: not matters of God, or faith, or disbelief, or doubt about God.  Let wrestling with faith and identity happen here.  Let it happen in every synagogue of our movement.

At the same time, we became more and more aware that support of Israel is waning:

3. So we have made engagement with Israel a priority. We may not guarantee that you’ll love Israel, but we can make certain that your opinions about Israel are honed with experiences that are up close and personal in Israel.

Towards that end, we sent three groups to Israel in the last two years.  We have three more missions traveling to Israel this year.  We’ve had numerous notable speakers on significant matters concerning Israel.  We have created innovative partnerships with two Reform synagogues in Israel: one in the new city of Tel Aviv and one in the ancient city of Modi’in.

The State of Israel deserves our engagement and, I would hope, our support, no matter our view of Israeli policy.

Our commitment extends not only to Israel, but also closer to home:

4. Two years ago I reported that during a cross-country trip, Kerry and I stopped in on struggling congregations in small towns with decreasing Jewish populations in the heartland of this nation.  We were struck and touched by how these communities managed to survive without rabbis, or cantors, or other professionals or resources except themselves and a small number of Jews who have made these small towns their homes.  It bothered me that they were left abandoned by our movement.  I believe that no matter what their size or condition, they should not be alone.

Our congregation vowed to reach out to the “underserved.”  Through the Institute for Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) based in Jackson, Mississippi, we are sending our clergy on monthly visits to the smallest of congregations in the South.  So far, we’ve met with eleven congregations.  In August, I visited Natchez and Meridian, Mississippi, and Selma, Alabama.  It was a heart-wrenching and inspiring voyage.

The average membership of those three communities is ten—not ten families, ten people.  In Selma, where they count their non-Jewish spouses—and need to—as members, the synagogue membership is eleven individuals.  The tenacity of Jews in these communities is unimaginable.  Their dedication is remarkable.  Their efforts are inspiring.

We cannot take care of only ourselves.  We cannot indulge ourselves on a diet of excellence and not share our nourishment with congregations and Jews who are without what they need.

Now, there is one more challenge needing serious attention.  The Jewish world is changing again.  This time, what is in the balance is our future, the next generations of American Jews, our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

While as a congregation we have consistently tried to respond to social and generational changes, I am befuddled by the next generations.  They are members of Gen-X and Gen-Y, also called by some Millennial or Emergent Jews.

According to the experts, we can assume these characteristics of millennial Jews:

  1. Accepting that some of the children of this congregation have grown up and remain seamlessly and lovingly connected to us, they are part of a generation that at best is indifferent to, and might even abhor, Jewish institutional life, certainly at least in the forms in which they were raised.  They perceive institutions as conservative, cultish, segregating, and even stifling.  They see synagogues as bland and alien and generally don’t like them.  As my own not-quite-forty-year-old son said, his generation sees synagogues as for their parents and grandparents. It’s not for them.
  2. They generally do not care about denominations in the Jewish community.  The New York City Jewish Population Study of 2011 reports that the Reform and Conservative movements have declined in population by forty thousand each in the last decade.  Over a third of this city’s Jewish population declare themselves as nondenominational or “just Jewish,” a figure that’s doubled in twenty years, and most of these changes can be traced to young people not wanting to be labeled or be part of a denomination.
  3. They custom-build their Jewish identity typically with no ties to what we would consider appropriate, necessary, or traditional.  Some of them will proudly announce their identity with tattoos of the Star or David.  They don’t need to, but many want to engage as Jews.  Ari Wallach, a social entrepreneur and consultant, specifies that Millennial Jews don’t believe that focusing on Jewish issues defines them.
  4. They are not compelled by the call for Jewish peoplehood, so they do not donate out of commitment to the Jewish community.  They will donate out of “individual virtue.”  They would prefer to support individuals rather than help organizations.  As a result, our national communal organizations cannot depend on them financially.
  5. Spiritual pursuit is more compelling to them than cultural or tribal ethnic connections, which are the glue for many of us.
  6. Half of them will intermarry.  Only a quarter of those who intermarry will raise their children as Jews.
  7. Their relationship with Israel is complicated.  They do not want to be involved with a synagogue or institution that takes what they perceive as the “party line” in support of Israeli policy.
  8. They are internet and media-savvy in ways most of us don’t access or understand.  They watch G-DCast, weekly cartoon webisodes; they listen to punk-rock musician Patrick Aleph and the alternative rock singer Matisyahu on the JDub label; they read the hipster quarterly Heeb magazine and Zeek, the online journal about the Jewish future.
  9. And, the greatest surprise to me, Jewish survival is not paramount for them.  The editor of the monthly First Things David Goldman indicates that they relate to the line in the movie Defiance, in which the leader of a partisan band in war-torn Belarus intones,  “We have no more tears.  We have run out of blood.  Choose another people…. [God], take back the gift of our holiness.”
  10. The next generations want to know what mission our survival serves.  They want to know why as a Jewish people we need to survive, why we matter.

Obviously, for the most part, these young people are not showing up in our synagogues.  At best, they are part of neighborhood groups like those in Astoria and Tribeca which we support.

They are attending Shabbat gatherings of the Warehouse Shabbat sort which we also help support.  Gathering in a bar, they blend socializing over drinks with informal worship, setting liturgy to hip music while sitting on couches and on the floor, schmoozing.  They are seekers and hungry for faith, but are not convinced that their hunger will be sated in their synagogues, which lacked spiritual purpose and meaning when they were young.

They are as challenging as any young generation could be.  They are as challenging as every young generation should be.  And they are our legacy.  For this congregation, which has radically changed when necessary, it is time for radical change again.  Our future is in the balance.

What should we do?

  1. We can bring together people from this generation, those who have forayed into experimentation with new Jewish models, and those young Jews who are keeping their distance from everything Jewish just yet.  We need to hear their voices, understand their frustrations, and assimilate their yearnings.
  2. We must learn about these Gen-X and -Y Jews and understand the religious and social forces which have birthed them.  We will bring together thought leaders and researchers, not only from this congregation and not only Jews.  There is a changing religious landscape out there.  It is changing under our feet and we must understand and prepare for it.
  3. And then we need to do what we do best: evolve, change, provide, support, and let these next generations loose to be Jews as they hunger to be Jews…in their way, hopefully as part of this community, which will need to be different for them and us.

We are poised for this.  We’ve acted before and we’ll act again.  We will be the “laboratory.”  Our congregation is strong and ready.  Our amazing lay leadership takes seriously radical mulling, presumptive unattainable goals, and a desire for re-creation.

Twenty years ago, we took risks to change.  Now I believe we serve the mission birthed in our history: to care beyond ourselves when nobody else does, and to care for ourselves when nobody else will.  And that’s why we Jews matter!

We are in service of humanity, knowing no boundaries when our voice is needed, and we are in service of Jewish life when silence means dissolution.  Our mission is to embrace and provide for the generations that follow.  And that’s why this synagogue matters!

This is now their time as it was once our time.  They are my children and yours.  They are my grandchildren and yours.  We cannot let them go.

So again we are true to the vision and incredible tradition of this synagogue: to think forward, to give voice and light to those who will follow, and to prepare the way for them with every fiber of our being, every ounce of our energy, and with the indomitable belief that


The light of Judaism will shine forth from this congregation to bring justice and joy and decency to all who enter…for the love of our Jewish future and for the love of our children.


  1. Ravitz, Jessica. “New Jews’ Stake Claim to Faith, Culture.” CNN., 28 Oct. 2009. Web
  2. Cohen, Steven M., and Jack Wertheimer.  “Whatever Happened to the Jewish People.” Commentary Magazine June 2006: Print 33-37.
  3. Goldberg, J.J. “Study: Young Jews More Spiritual, Yet More Divided?” The Jewish Daily Forward., 08 Apr. 2009. Web
  4. Cohen, Steven M.  “Changes in American Jewish Identities Since 1948: From Norms to Aesthetics.” The Chronicle 2009: 7-12.
  5. Cohen, Steven M., and Ari Y. Kelman. Cultural Events & Jewish Identities: Young Adult Jews in New York. New York: UJA- Federation, 2005. Print p.p. 6, 106, 116, 142-143
  6. Goldman, David P. “Jewish Survival in a Gentile World.” First Things June-July 2009: June-July 2009. Web
  7. Cohen, Steven M. “Changes in American Jewish Identities: From Normative Constructions to Aesthetic Understandings.” Jerusalem Center For Public Affairs., 16 Mar. 2008. Web
  8. Cohen, Steven M. S3K:Report: Members and Motives-Who Joins American Jewish Congregations and Why. Rep., Fall 2006. Web
  9. Ain, Stewart. Sweeping Changes To N.Y. Jewry Seen In First-In-Decade Survey.” The Jewish Week. 11 June 2012.

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