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Not your grandfather’s Reform Judaism

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Rabbi Daniel FreelanderThe power of sharing

Rabbi Daniel Freelander is a man with a mission to convince Reform Judaism to prepare for the coming, major changes in the movement. Reform Judaism today, he says, bears little resemblance to the Reform Judaism of 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago.

The change, he insists, keeps barreling forward. If Reform Judaism is to survive, it must be ready for the inevitable changes ahead.

Rabbi Freelander, the senior vice president of the Union of Reform Judaism, has been in a leadership position with the movement for 35 years. He is kind of a one-man think tank for Reform Judaism.

Rabbi Freelander has had “virtually every job in the house.”

He started as director of NFTY. Then he was a regional director of Reform synagogues on the “West Bank” — west of the Hudson. For 10 years he was the program director of URJ. He organized its national biennial conventions. He supervised camps and Israel programs and music programs.

“Now I’m coordinating our congregational networks — to help congregations learn from one another, to network, to overcome the instinct of synagogues to be islands, to help them see that other congregations are struggling with the issues they’re struggling with.

“We see the power of sharing.”

‘Born in Palestine, 1928’

Rabbi Freelander is anything but singleminded. He manages to weave into the purpose of his visit to Denver in January his family history in Palestine and an anecdote that illustrates the motivation behind Denver Jewry’s founding of the General Maurice Rose Memorial Hospital (now Rose Medical Center).

Maybe Reform Judaism needs discipline to focus on its future, but not so much discipline that a few excursions into some colorful family history need be put aside.

And so, before we get down to business, Rabbi Freelander tells me that his grandfather was sent from Pinsk to Tel Aviv (i.e., Jaffo) in 1914 to attend the gymnasium in Herzlia, founded in 1911.

This was the first Hebrew-speaking high school in Palestine.

His parents, who remained in Pinsk, were Hebraicists, Zionists whose angle on Zionism was the Hebrew language (as opposed to socialism). They were killed in the Holocaust.

His grandfather, Moshe Yaakovson, graduated and became a founder of the Palestine Electric Co. and a leader in building the Naharaim Power Plant on the junction of the Yarmok and Jordan Rivers — on the Jordanian Side.

He needed permission from Jordan’s King Abdullah, which he received.

This project, which occupied him from 1922 to 1927, was the first hydro-electric power plant in the Middle East.

Rabbi Freelander himself did not have a handle on his illustrious roots in the upbuilding of Palestine. He had a picture of his grandfather with Abdullah, but didn’t know what it meant. Somehow, on a family trip to Israel, he came in contact with the archivist of Israel’s Electric Company and learned the story.

He also found his mother’s birth certificate, which had her “born in Palestine, 1928” under the aegis of the “government of Palestine.”

The birth certificate listed his parents’ address in 1928. Rabbi Freelander, who had brought his three adult children with him on his family trip to Israel, managed to locate all the places where his mother and grandparents had lived. For example, still standing is a small, three-story apartment building.

The “government of Palestine” was the British Mandate. “I never knew this before I saw it, and saw my mother’s nationality listed as Palestinian.”

Dr. Jack Frishman, the father of Rabbi Freelander’s wife, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, was born and educated in Denver. He could not get a job as a physician here — the motivating factor behind Denver Jewry’s effort to found Gen. Rose Hospital.

The 21st century ?synagogue

Rabbi Freelander came to Denver because every year he goes skiing for a week with a group of rabbis. A “study-ski program”; this year, in Vail.

“So I surrounded it on both sides with visits to congregations,” such as Temple Sinai and Temple Emanuel.

“My work is with the largest Reform congregations because we find that there is a real difference between how large and small congregations operate. The questions are different, particular to the size of the institution.

“One size doesn't fit all.

“I’m learning how these large congregations respond to changes in the community and changes in America.

“Mostly I’m on a listening tour.

“This is what I am hearing: The notion of commitment to an institution, be it a synagogue or a membership organization, is changing rapidly all over North America.

“Jewish commitment is not equated with affiliation.

“This presents a unique challenges to organizations — I would think to federations as well — to any Jewish membership-based organization.

“There is a dichotomy between the generations. The current generation is very comfortable in its Jewish skin, but there’s not a direct line between that and joining an organization, or engaging in philanthropy or charitable giving.

“That’s the biggest thing I’m discovering. It’s a huge challenge to our organizations.

“What will be the organizing principles — the financial basis — for the rest of the 21st century?

“I’m very conscious that we’re a young Jewish community. American synagogues are very different from European synagogues and how they fund and structure themselves.

“The synagogue will look as different by the mid-21st century as the 19th-century synagogue flowed into the 20th century.”

Six huge changes

“Look at Temple Emanuel. It was founded in 1874. When I contrast the Reform congregation at the end of the 19th century with the end of the 20th century — they’re almost unrecognizable.

“My thesis is that in six to seven areas of synagogue life, the American synagogue has continually reinvented itself, but the transitions take place over so many years that this is not obvious to us.

“These are the areas: worship style, constituency, educational structure, governance, staff, camping.

“The worship styles of Reform congregations have changed dramatically from the late 1800s.

“The constituency, the membership, used to be purely German, but now its a polyglot of born and intermarried Jews.

“Look at education. It used to be a volunteer-run Sunday school in the 19th century, then it became a two-day-a-week Hebrew school in the 20th century — and now, it’s very different.

“Look at governance. A small group of parnassim ran everything. Now the Reform synagogue is run by a broadly democratic board and committee structure. Most telling of all: How many years did a temple president serve? Ten to 15 years; then the president’s son would show up as president. At end of 20th century, the term was two to four years.

“Look at the staffing patterns: Even large congregations at the beginning of the 20th century had only a rabbi and a secretary. They didn’t have educators or executive directors, youth directors, or early childhood education directors.

“Synagogues weren’t social centers yet. Staff grew enormously during the 20th century. Temple Emanuel also has a camp director. Now, one out of every four Reform congregations has its own camp.

“We believe that the immersive experience — the camp — is pretty transformative, even more than the educational experience, so we are opening our 14th summer camp — our goal is to increase the number of Reform of Jewish kids who attend Reform movement camps each summer from 10,000 to 15,000 per summer in the next 10 years.”

Dues-paying no longer works

“My hunch is that in all those areas that changed so radically, they’ll change again. We just don’t what it’s going to look like next.

“I’m a deep believer that these institutions will be around, but will slowly evolve into the next iteration. American Judaism 3.0.”

What are the issues in Denver?

• “The evolution from dues paying to a culture of philanthropy as a core income source is a challenge that all congregations are facing.

• “How do we capitalize on the positive Jewish feelings of the young adult Jewish population that does not translate into formal affiliation?

• “We have a campaign for youth engagement. One size does not fit all.

“It’s our hunch that personalizing the post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience by meeting individually with kids and laying out all the Jewish options in Denver will help that person into one of a variety of programs that may or may not be within the synagogue —our hunch is that will help us with Jewish engagement through high school.

“Temple Emanuel has a great youth group, but if I am not a social kid, if I am an academic kid, there may be other Jewish options in Denver.

“Or someone might want to go to a Jewish music camp or a Hebrew speaking camp and have no interest in being part of the youth group.

“In personalizing the post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience, I’d make Israel a big part of that. IST is a huge success for Denver, but what do we offer the kids who don’t go on that program?

“How do we guarantee a universal Israel engagement or exposure?”

Beyond Reform’s ?boundaries

“The Reform movement is looking outside the boundaries of the Reform movement. Our mission is the perpetuation and growth of Judaism, not just Reform Judaism.

“Success is the success of our Jewish engagement of our families.

“There are multiple paths to G-d, multiple paths to Jewish engagement.

“Our success has been finding a path that’s been comfortable for those who couldn’t live with other Jewish paths.

“We look outside — we will collaborate with almost anyone. We can no longer be an organization that does everything itself.

“I have a great deal of respect for the various outreach organizations doing work in America.

“I met with Rose Community Foundation to learn about these efforts.

“We partner with Foundation for Jewish Camp to learn about best practices in camping.

“Or, we collaborate with the Jewish Federations of North America.

“We have a coalition with [the Conservative movement’s] United Synagogue to work with smallest congregations in isolated communities.”

Cautionary ?Conservative tale?

I ask whether the Reform movement looks at the Conservative movement, whose membership has dropped drastically, as a cautionary tale.

“I feel bad for Steve Wernick [executive head of the Conservative synagogue movement]. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is correct that it needs to refocus its efforts. This has required it to eliminate certain programs and staff positions. They have to do it legally and pay appropriate severance and unemployment.

“The Reform has gone through a similar struggle.

“The [financial resource] pie is smaller. What congregations are willing to give to any national movement is smaller now. USCJ is making a valiant effort to redefine itself as a 21st-century organization.

“The revenue stream of the Conservative and Reform movements has been dues from congregations, and as congregations struggle with their own finances, they struggle whether they should continue supporting the national institutions.

“The Reform movement is healthier than the Conservative, but we also have to change our fiscal model and lower our dependence on dues from congregations — just like an individual congregation has to change its model.

“We are in an anticipatory mode. We are trying hard to be proactive, not reactive. The challenge is that we’re playing our hunches, some of which will prove not to have been true.

“We have to move forward. We know the status quo is not sustainable. I think I’m pretty mainstream, not a lone voice crying in the wilderness.

“Three foci are coming out over and over: Catalyze change. Encourage congregations to challenge their assumptions (expand outside our borders; serve Jews who are not dues paying members). Engage the next generation.”

Temple Emanuel, ?Temple Sinai

Is this happening at Temple Emanuel and Temple Sinai?

“In slow increments, absolutely.

“Temple Sinai is rethinking its physical plant; the importance of early childhood education; the centrality of its youth program; the downsizing of the religious school’s physical plant in favor of more multi-use facilities. They recognize that their world is changing, and are building for the next iteration.

“The rabbinic transition at Temple Emanuel is symbolic. There’s a different feel in worship, which will evolve.

“I learned about its Rosh Hashanah unplugged service. Two different styles of worship significantly changed attendance patterns.

“I learned of a two-to-three month experiment with four different worship experiences at the same time, starting with a joint Kabbalat Shabbat, then coming together for Shabbat dinner.

“You didn’t see this 10 to 15 years ago.

“There’s a whole new generation of Reform rabbis coming through.

“Rabbi [Richard] Rheins has a gut instinct of where the movement is going.

“There is much more variety within Reform. It’s not a monolithic religious community. Take a look at the Reform movement’s new siddur, Mishkan Tefilla. My wife edited it. It’s now in use in about 700 congregations. It’s not that much different in content; it’s a very traditional siddur. But every word of Hebrew is transliterated. Every word is translated. Then there are two alternative readings to each prayer, all on the same page.

“You choose how you want to pray ha-ma’ariv aravim. A literal piece or an interpretive piece. We’re saying they’re all valid approaches — that’s what makes it Reform.

“There’s no longer a rejection of tradition in Reform.

“Look at the old Union Prayer Book. It represented the first iteration of Reform Judaism. Contrast that with Mishkan Tefilla. Two different planets.”

I ask whether Reform, while coming toward tradition, is also moving away from tradition, citing the example of Temple Emanuel’s late Rabbi Earl Stone, who advised and arranged for a get, a halachic divorce. Are Reform rabbis doing that today?

“We are a different religious movement than in 1929 or 1949. That’s what makes it Reform.”

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Last Updated ( Friday, 21 June 2013 10:04 )  

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