Parashat Vayishlach 5780
Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Earlier this week I was in Boston, along with our president, Shirley Davidoff, and our Chief Operating Officer, Kim West, for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly’s joint “20/20 Judaism” conference, a conference for the lay and rabbinic arms of the Conservative Movement. As an aside, when I found out that the Reform Movement’s conference this week was being held in Chicago, I couldn’t help but wonder: note to conference organizers, would it be too much trouble for you to plan winter conferences in WARMER PLACES? I’m just sayin’…
In any case, heavy jackets aside, the convention was bustling and lively, with about 1400 people in attendance, including some staff, volunteers, and exhibitors. I’m not sure if it’s the largest convention USCJ and the RA have ever had, but it certainly was the largest in some time, and there was a great deal of energy in the building from convention-goers. As you might expect, we had a series of large group, full-convention plenaries, including the opening session on the topic of “Why Are We Dreaming Together?” featuring a keynote address by NY Times columnist Bari Weiss; a session on “Why Be a Conservative Movement” featuring a dialogue with the leaders of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical Assembly, USCJ, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies; and a session on “Will We Serve the Jews of Today and Tomorrow?”, looking at research regarding Jewish youth today and where they’re at. In addition to thought-provoking presentations to the entire convention body that fed our minds, we also gathered together to listen to, and sing along with, the engaging and inviting styles of contemporary liturgical singers like Joey Weisenberg from Machon Hadar and Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, feeding our Jewish souls with the uplifting ruach, spirit, of these moving encounters. We also had ample opportunities over meals and coffees to network, idea share, and brainstorm, with colleagues and friends from all over the Conservative Movement—keep in mind the Movement spans not just the U.S., but also Canada, Latin America, Israel, and Western and Central Europe, not to mention in places as far away as Melbourne, Australia! And of course, there were a number of slots in the convention schedule for breakout sessions where we could select topics that were of most interest and relevance to individual convention-goers.
In one such session I attended, entitled “Who are Today’s Conservative Jews?”, we were presented with combined data from surveys conducted of the Jewish communities in Boston, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC, in 2015, 2017, and 2017, respectively. That data was also compared at various points in the session to findings from the 2013 Pew Research Center study of the American Jewish community and framed to offer us some potential takeaways from the available data. Here are a few interesting stats: when asked in these surveys what denomination Jews identified with, the Pew Study had 35% identify Reform, 18% Conservative, 10% Orthodox, 6% Other, and 30% No Denomination; and the merged data of the other three studies came up with 32% Reform, 19% Conservative, 6% Orthodox, 2% Other, and 41% None (which included Secular/Cultural and “Just Jewish”). Another stat: for those who, when asked, identify denominationally as Conservative Jews, 57% of them are members of synagogues, with 32% belonging to Conservative synagogues specifically and 25% belonging to other types of synagogues; whereas 85% of those who identified Orthodox are members of any synagogue, and 41% of those who identified Reform are members of any synagogue. When it comes to age groups, one might be surprised to find out that the percentage of those who identify denominationally as Conservative barely varies whether the person asked is 18 or over 80 or anywhere in between—the percentages hold steady in a very narrow band at 18-21% throughout that timeline. Unsurprisingly, where the numbers vary more are in the synagogue affiliation rate itself, with only 25% affiliation between ages 18-34, moving up to 36% affiliation from ages 35-49, peaking at 41% between ages 50-64 and then trending slightly downward to 37% from ages 65-79 as well as age 80+. A few other stats about behaviors and attitudes in these 3 Jewish communities that were surveyed: of those who identify Conservative--
Among the takeaways presented from this data, our session leader, a researcher at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, noted that the data complicates our understanding of the label “Conservative” in that there are Conservative Jews who are not synagogue members and there are also members of Conservative synagogues who don’t actually identify as Conservative Jews denominationally. It certainly raises important questions about who we’re currently serving, and who we might yet serve. The fact that Millennials and the Gen Z generation are still affiliating at lower rates than Gen X and Baby Boomers is one that has been consistently noted in recent survey data and challenges us as modern Jewish institutions to continue to create more entry points and lower bars to participation into synagogue life and Jewish life in general. I was pleased to learn that, in the communities studied, 57% of Jews who identify as Conservative Jews are members of at least one synagogue, whether the synagogue itself is Conservative or an independent minyan or affiliated with another movement—that number seemed higher than I would have expected. And I was likewise encouraged to see some of the behavioral and attitudinal data that I shared with you a couple of minutes ago, which suggests, as the Pew Study data suggested as well, that Jews who are identifying as Conservative on balance are relatively engaged Jewishly, both in ritual practices as well as in supporting Jewish community here and in Israel.
So where does all of this leave us? At the outset of today’s parasha, when Jacob is anticipating his reunion with Esau, knowing Esau is coming his way with a large company of men and not knowing Esau’s intentions for him, the text says “va-yira Ya’akov m’od”, Jacob was greatly frightened. Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic legends on the Torah from close to 2000 years ago, teaches us (76:1) that “two people received God’s assurances, yet they were afraid; the chosen one of the Patriarchs—Jacob—and the chosen one of the Prophets—Moses—despite the teaching from Proverbs (3.5) to “trust in God with all your heart”. Thus, according to the Midrash, the Jewish people in other precarious moments in our history—like in the days of Haman and the Purim story, for example--could justify their own fear by saying, “If our ancestor Jacob, who had received God’s assurance of protection, was nevertheless afraid for his survival, how much the more so are we justified in feeling afraid?” Jacob’s example illustrates that fear, or anxiety, is actually fully compatible with deep faith.
A number of scholars and sociologists have, in the last 10-20 years, sounded the alarm bell for Conservative Judaism, warning that the Conservative Movement is rapidly heading for extinction. So, should we be afraid of what they’re saying? Should we be feeling hopeless for the future, or perhaps even fearing for our survival as a Movement? Friends, I think we should take a page out of our ancestor Jacob’s book. Namely, on the one hand we should embrace the healthy anxiety that some of the statistics may cause us, because it is out of this anxiety and concern and even fear that a meaningful way of Jewish life is being lost, that we are forced to rise to the challenge. We must continue to do more outreach, embrace innovation, and passionately and energetically model Jewish engagement and practice that is both traditional and adaptive, and thought-provoking for our minds and inspiring for our hearts and souls. And on the other hand, we should not just embrace our anxieties on this issue, but we should also have faith:
To mark the year anniversary of The Ladder Project our first participant, David Corn, joined us for Rosh Hashanah services, which he greatly enjoyed.
David has reached many milestones this year. He moved out of The Bridge homeless shelter to his own studio apartment, which our congregation furnished, outfitted and subsidized for several months. He got a job at Studio Movie Grill, thanks to congregant Joe Harberg. He's now certified as a tactical team leader, overseeing theater prep operations and training new employees. Since April, he's been totally financially self-sufficient—paying all his bills, including food, phone, DART passes, rent, renter's insurance, and utilities. (The recent tornado hit David's apartment complex, and the Ladder Project paid for David to go to a motel near his job for several nights until power could be restored; we also replaced the food that was spoiled in David's refrigerator and freezer.) David also became noticeably more handsome this year—thanks to Dr. Rowan Buskin, who volunteered his labor to give David dentures (the Ladder Project paid the out-of-pocket expenses). David is also extremely fortunate to have CSI congregant, Dr. Lawrie Friedman, serving as his pro bono general practitioner.
"I don't have words to express how grateful I am for all of the support," David said recently. "I'm growing up again in a way—by rebuilding my life, reconnecting with family, and gaining new family. It's my honor to know you all. Thank you. I couldn't have done it without your support. We continue with the journey."
As David's self-esteem and self-confidence grew this year, he reached out to his 35-year-old son, who he hadn't communicated with in years. He also went to Houston for a poignant reunion with his sister, who he'd been estranged from during his homeless years.
David reunited with his sister, Patricia Gonzalez.
We are now ready to help David get to a new level of independence. Although David enjoys his job, he only makes $12 an hour, the top of the pay scale. David struggles to cover his bills. When emergencies happen—like the tornado—David can't make ends meet without help. And, unfortunately when the theater is slow, David is sometimes let off work early, without pay. AND a significant portion of David's wages are deducted by the state for court-ordered child support for a 20-year-old son, who was raised by his grandmother.
We are actively looking for a job for David that pays at least $15 per hour. Our rabbis made this appeal to the congregation on Yom Kippur Day, but we have yet to be contacted by anyone with a job offer. However, one congregant, who wishes to remain anonymous, has agreed to pay David the difference between his current wage and his dream wage (a difference of $3 per hour) until he finds a new job. David will use this money for emergencies, and will also put it aside for future expenses, particularly car insurance, gas and repairs.
Used Car so David can get to a better paying job
Which brings us to the second ask the rabbis made on Yom Kippur: we are looking for a used car for David so that he can stop relying solely on public transportation. The flexibility that comes with a car will create more opportunities for a better job. David turned down one good job last year that would have required a 2-hour trip on three different DART buses. David just signed a new, year lease at his apartment, which is owned by congregant Michael Ochstein, who made a $5,000 donation to the Ladder Project. We prefer the car be donated to the synagogue but have some Ladder Project funds that could be allocated for this. thanks in large part to David's personal commitment to his job, and the many in-kind donations of furniture, household items and medical care.
We have been interviewing candidates to be our next participant family, and we will have an update about that in the next issue of The Shofar.
Thank you for all you have done to save a life. David certainly feels we have saved his, and we look forward to celebrating his future successes and enjoying his friendship.
Ladder Project Executive Committee: Chair Laura Miller; Mindy Fagin, Glenn Geller, Jeff Hoppenstein, Larry Krasner, Marsha Lev, Andrea Solka, Sally Wolfish
A sermon by Rabbi Adam Roffman
Among the tales in the Roffman family lore is a story about my brother who, when he was very young, before I was born, went out to eat one night with my parents. It was February and the restaurant had been releasing, a week at a time, commemorative plates featuring the faces of the great American presidents. That week, they honored our 16th president, drawn, as usual, in his impressively tall top hat.
“Do you know who that is?” my parents asked my brother.
“Yes!” he answered. “That’s Abraham Lincoln! He freed the slabes!”
No, that’s not a typo. S-l-a-b-e-s. Slabes.
And then he said: “And that’s why we celebrate Thanksgiving!”
I think of that story often this time of year, as I reflect on the meaning of a holiday that holds great significance for American Jews. After all, we have a lot to be thankful for, living in the greatest diaspora community in the history of our people, afforded the rights and privileges denied to us for so many years.
And yet, because we are taught that expressing our gratitude through prayer and ritual is one of the fundamental tasks of daily Jewish life, it seems a little odd that we should celebrate that gratitude on any one day of the year. Is there something more to the nature of this holiday that might help us understand why this day of thanks is, as we say, different from all other days of thanksgiving? And is that “something” also reflected in our tradition?
Turns out—the answer is yes.
One of the most famous symbols of Thanksgiving is the cornucopia, or horn of plenty. We’ve all seen pictures, no doubt, of the basket with a narrow opening that leads to a widening passage filled with the fruits of the season, gourds and grains that are so abundant they spill out of the end of the horn.
As I reread the account of the story of the first Thanksgiving, I realized why both ends of the horn have something to teach us about why those Pilgrims and Puritans were so grateful in 1621.
In his account of those difficult first few years off of Massachusetts Bay, Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford writes:
“The Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving… By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine now God gave them plenty … for which they blessed God.”
The Englishmen who arrived on these shores were expecting something very different from what they found—a land of plenty, with ample resources to build and sustain a growing colony that would generate wealth and prosperity. Instead, they encountered harsh winters, disease, and famine. It wasn’t until the Native-American Squanto taught them how to grow corn that the land delivered on its promise and devastating hunger was replaced overwhelming gratitude at the abundance that now adorned their very full tables.
Like the horn of plenty, those who experienced that first Thanksgiving had known both a narrow, difficult beginning, and a seemingly infinite and expansive present and future now that the vastness and potential of the American landscape was revealed to them. This potential led them and their descendants to spread out as far as their ambition, hard work, and sacrifice could take them, filling their bellies and their pocketbooks with the rewards of the richness of this country.
And yet, we know that the widening of their enterprise came at a great cost for those who had lived for generations on that same land. Eventually, when you spread out as far as you can go, either you will run out of room or you will have to dispossess others of what they own in order to satisfy your own appetite.
We Jews also know a great deal about the challenges of moving from scarcity to abundance, from the narrowness of the meitzar (the root of the Hebrew word for Egypt), to the blessings of a land filled with milk and honey.
In last week’s parasha, Toldot, our patriarch Isaac also runs into some trouble when he tries to expand his territory. In the unfriendly confines of the territory of the Philistines, the wells which were rightly his, an inheritance from Isaac’s father who dug them, were stopped up. Isaac successfully reopens them, but when he finds new source of mayim hayim, living waters, the locals challenge his right to this most precious resource in the arid land of Canaan.
Eventually, Isaac manages to wrestle away a well of his very own—one he names, appropriately, with gratitude to God, Rehovot, the wide-open spaces.
Still, if our sense of gratitude is dependent on our ability to constantly expand outward, to possess more and more, what happens when that isn’t possible or isn’t ethical? If we are only able to say “thank you” when we have more, how will we maintain our gratitude to God when we, inevitably, have less?
One of the rabbinic teachings frequently mentioned this time of year comes from Pirkei Avot: “Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his portion.” Rabbi Jonah Gerundi explains further:
“Anyone who is not happy with his lot and is not satisfied with what God, may He be blessed, gave him is a poor person; as it is explained in the verse (Proverbs 15:15), "All the days of a poor man are bad, but one with a good heart has a constant feast." This teaches that all the days of a 'poor man,’ one who desires only money are bad, for ‘a lover of money never has his fill of money': but all the days of the one with a good heart, who is happy with his lot, are good [as the one] one who makes a constant feast.”
Gerundi ingeniously understands the terms “rich” and “poor” to be not indicative of the balance of one’s bank account, or the size of one’s home, or the breadth of one’s holdings, but of the condition of one’s spirit.
If all we desire is to “widen” what we already have, if that is the only thing that gives us satisfaction, then we do not understand the meaning of the word gratitude. If, on the other hand, we can learn to temper our desire to constantly expand, or use that desire to do good for others, those whose lot is still narrow, then we will truly be able to share in a Thanksgiving that is both authentically American and unmistakably Jewish.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share