Monthly Archives: June 2016

More on Item Six

Shalom.  Last time I reported on item four on my retirement list of things to do, which is tending to my little shul in Warrenton. This time it’s a project alluded to in item six, the creation of the Jewish Millennial Engagement Project. I only alluded to it because it didn’t have a name or much else at the time of that column.

I hang around with Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal of Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg, who coincidentally grew up in Beth El. We brainstorm about little things, like the Jewish future. He is very creative. If you were looking for a path to help rebuild the American Jewish community, where would you look? We think it’s through strengthening the middle – look how much trouble we are in as we struggle to find common ground here in the United States and look at Great Britain after Brexit. Our Conservative movement is that middle. We thought that if we could engage young people and young families, the grass roots, in dynamic ways, with our “brand” of Judaism, we could do some good and maybe inspire other communities to follow suit.

Our first creation was the Ramah Day Camp, aimed at young families. With help from local Ramah families and leadership from the mother ship, Camp Ramah of New England, we launched a pilot program in the summer of 2014. One week, forty kids, at Ohr Kodesh. Last summer a four week program with 100 kids at a great retreat facility in Germantown. This summer (beginning Monday) a six week program with more than 160 kids registered, on the same site, which we are rapidly outgrowing. This is only the fourth Ramah day camp in the whole country, and like the others it offers a unique combination of camping and Conservative Jewish learning and living to young families in the area. One building block, about which more will be said in future columns.

Creation number two is the millennial engagement project. You may have heard that millennials present many challenges for organized religion (not just ours but that is our focus.) The millennial generation—young professionals between graduating college and starting a family—has thrived on the boundlessness that our technological revolution provides. Untethered to particular spaces and traditional affiliations, millennial Jews are increasingly opting out of things like synagogue membership. But when they have families will they join up with the community in the ways we are used to seeing? There is much concern about that. We know that they do seek substantive Jewish engagement that reminds them of their time spent in youth groups, camps, college Hillels, and other informal Jewish settings. Does that guarantee communal participation down the road? What to do with them now? One idea is to engage them now in non traditional ways and hope to build on that.

As Jacob and I were pondering all this, we met Rami Schwartzer, who directed the day camp last summer and was finishing rabbinic school with a special emphasis on an entrepreneurial rabbinate. He too had been thinking about millennials, is one himself, and wanted to try his hand at engaging them. And he is extraordinarily talented. So…we convinced Rami to follow his ordination by moving to our community and directing the camp as well as launching an effort to reach millennials living in lower Montgomery County. (Two half-time positions for now, with seasonable work load adjustments.) There are extensive millennial outreach efforts in the District – think Sixth & I, and Adas Israel, not much else. We looked at the growth of apartment and condo living in Bethesda Rockville and Silver Spring and saw fertile territory. Once camp is done in early August, Rami will begin to focus much of his time on engagement. His efforts will partly mirror those of Chabad, as he and his wife Adina ( a social worker and great person also) will have a welcoming home where millennials are invited for Shabbat and holiday dinners and study sessions and cultural events. Different from Chabad, Rami will also be “out there” in coffee shops and apartment buildings and public spaces, meeting millennials and building community and leadership cadres from the one to one contacts. This is not a quick fix for Jewish life in America – it’s much more about planting seeds. Rami has the skills and personality to make it work.

I will spare you all the efforts needed to create JMEP – first fundraising that includes twelve conservative shuls, Ramah, the Jewish Federation, United Synagogue and The Rabbinical Assembly as well as a number of philanthropists. We created a Maryland corporation, have a Board and By Laws and an EIN and bank accounts, and have about completed the paperwork to achieve 501(c)(3) status. I personally have been stretched in many new ways to help make this happen, and it’s been both fun and rewarding.

You will hear more as the project gets off the ground, and do feel free to ask me for more information about it or how you can support it. The millennial project, and the camp, represent an important effort to rebuild our movement and give new vitality at the center grass roots of American Jewry. I feel fortunate to do my little share to help make it happen. And there you have item six of how I am spending my (?well earned?) retirement.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph


More on Item Four

I don’t know about you, but I need a break from all the news that’s fit to make sleep difficult – the latest being the Orlando massacre and the alligator baby. So let me beg your indulgence and share a little more upbeat reporting, this time about my first year as head rabbi of the Fauquier Jewish Congregation. You may recall that my very first It Used to be Wednesday included brief notes about what I am doing in my retirement. Here was item four of seven:

“Monthly visits to Warrenton VA.  In my search for a high holiday pulpit so I would be busy then and out of the hair of the current clergy, I found more than I was looking for. It’s a monthly gig in a small non denominational shul smack in the middle of the cities  you hear on traffic and snow closing reports – Manassas, Culpepper, Gainesville. Those are my people now also. I will share more.”

Here is some more. Last Shabbat/ Shavuot was my last weekend visit until September. I will be returning, G-d willing, having just agreed to a two year contract. Money not discussed, there isn’t much. Friday nights now include a brief Family Friendly service at 6PM, Shabbat dinner (sometimes catered, sometimes potluck, sometimes pizza) at 6:30, then some more prayers and Torah reading/discussion for those who remain. We had about 30 people this time. Saturday night we did FJC’s first Tikkun Leil Shavuot; 10 people studied with me from 8-11PM. Thirty and ten are not a ton of people, but if you extrapolate from Beth El with almost 20 times the number of member units, it’s not bad. And people seemed happy. So, I guess they decided I wasn’t making things worse and should continue.

How I got the job is the most fun part of the deal. I found out about the opening from our people in New York, well after FJC’s search had begun and three candidates had been interviewed. They sent a representative, a nice nephrologist, to watch me conduct services one Shabbat in May. Just so happened that it was the Bar Mitzvah of a great kid whose family is like little rabbis and it was a spectacular service which I managed not to spoil. The nephrologist and I chatted for a while, and a few days later I got the call to come for an interview. They wanted to see my resume also. Well, I hadn’t applied for a job in decades and didn’t have one. What I did have was the wonderful video that Debbie Brodsky made for my retirement tribute, and it was posted online. I told them just to watch it, that was the best I could do. It was enough. I conducted a Friday night service, enjoyed the first of what would be many nights in the local Holiday Inn, and taught the Shabbat morning Torah study and visited with some people. I came back home. Nothing happened, not a single word up or down for several weeks during which time I was in Israel with our congregational mission and pretty sure nothing would come of it. I came back to town ready to start looking again for a High Holiday pulpit. But a few days later I got a call to come back for a second interview, which went smoothly (you did train me well) and I got the job.

This congregation is so different from Beth El, not just in size but in flavor. People live 50 miles from downtown for reasons, so they generally beat to a different drummer. About 90% of the couples are intermarried. There are lots of civil servants who do the I-66 drive daily and won’t leave their homes once they get there (so we have no weekday programming.) Some doctors, a few lawyers. A religious school with 26 kids. Services and Torah study in the 200 year old Episcopal Church. I give them a lot of credit for what they have created – it would be much easier just to drive into Fairfax and let somebody else make a synagogue. And it’s been a great learning experience for me in so many ways – and here I thought I knew almost everything.

Next time I hope to report on one of my other retirement projects, alluded to in item six of the original list, the creation of the Jewish Millennial Engagement Project, Inc. In the meantime, Shabbat Shalom and Happy Father’s Day. I for one never understood anything important about life until I became a Dad, and I bet the Mom’s know what I mean also. Best, Bill Rudolph

The American Dream: Israel Sequel

Shalom. Last time I shared a Post piece by Michael Gerson called “Who Stole the American Dream?” I won’t repeat the brilliant analysis of the origins of our stagnant economy and the hopelessness/sense of being cheated that it has created and that shows up in support especially for Trump and Sanders. I posited that we don’t need a revolution, just an evolution to educate and equip our citizens for the current realities of the world market. I concluded by saying that next time I will talk about Israel, which mirrors these challenges and needs its own evolution right now.

I love the Max Brenner Chocolate Bar (as in restaurant), and can often be seen on Woodmont Avenue sipping my chocolate hazelnut milkshake as I prepare for Shabbat, just like it says to do in the Talmud. Never once did it occur to me that my life might be in danger there. On Wednesday many lives were snuffed out by terrorists in a Tel Aviv mall, the carnage beginning at Max Brenner’s. The bios of the deceased add to the gloom.

But I digress, and back to the economics. Israel got its start very much as an agriculture based economy. I was part of it even, moving irrigation pipes for a summer on a kibbutz near the Gaza Strip. Soon the kibbutzim entered into low scale manufacturing as well, as they realized that agriculture would no longer serve as the economic engine of the young country. Then, over time, technology became more and more important. You all know the impact Israeli technology has had, not only in Israel but worldwide. If you don’t, think “Start Up Nation.” It was clear that the skills required for the tech world were far different than for agriculture, and slowly but surely the work force began making the transition to a new kind of economy. It wasn’t easy. Still isn’t. Poverty levels are much too high. Latest figures show that Israel maintains a poverty rate of 20.9 percent – nearly twice the OECD average of 11.3%. And Israel is among the countries with the highest income inequality, surpassed only by Chile, Mexico, the US and Turkey. The poverty is partly because the ultra Orthodox men don’t work and their families are poor, but partly because not everyone made the work transition successfully. America faces a similar problem, and it’s not clear that we are actually facing up to it. Rather, as in the campaign, we are denying it. Is our education system training kids to be successful in this century or the last? Though more technology shows up in the classroom, the orientation to find meaningful work in the world of technology doesn’t seem there yet.

Now, Israel needs a second evolution as the U.S. hopefully starts in earnest on the first one. The second is very different, it’s one of vision. Sure Israel lives in a terrible neighborhood, with security threats just about everywhere you might look and long term prospects no better and there is no real partner for peace. It’s logical then to hunker down and try to keep things from getting worse. But that is not an answer. Israel can’t be passive about its future. Israel needs to put out a vision of where it wants to be, in the region, down the road. What borders it can live with, land swaps it is willing to make, economic arrangements, security measures it thinks are needed and what recognition of its right to exist would look like. It is not enough, it is even dangerous, to hope that somebody else will provide the roadmap.

Be assured this is not original thinking. I see it more and more in the Israeli press, though hardly in government thinking. I hope it gathers momentum, just as I hope this country faces up to its need for an economic evolution.

Best to you for a Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach. Bill Rudolph

The American Dream

Shalom. It’s time for a new thread, following many postings about intermarriage officiating. Some op ed pieces get cut out and saved for times like now. One is by Michael Gerson, a Post contributor who wrote a provocative piece called “Who Stole the American Dream?” It was published February 2nd, if you wish to read it in full. I think it speaks well to the rhetoric and reality of this campaign season, and America’s future and maybe Israel’s too.

Gerson notes how Trump and Sanders agree that the American dream is dead, or has become a nightmare, and thinks the concern is actually justified: “A way of life in which increased productivity resulted in higher wages and a realistic shot at economic advancement is fragile or failing. For as many as 40% of Americans, work now means a series of part-time, temporary, on-call and contract jobs. The old benefit package and promotion pathways are largely gone. Life has instability, worry and toxic stress at its core.”

Where it gets interesting is the why. The diagnosis heard most on the campaign trail, from those guys at least, is that the American dream has been stolen. It may have been an inside job – done by Wall Street or wealthy political donors. Or it may have been the work of outsiders – illegal immigrants, the Mexican government or China. Either way, our economic problems are effectively a crime.

The analysis is wrong – see below – but the political consequences are significant. If the dream has indeed been stolen, the main purpose of politics is not to propose policies that ameliorate the problem; it is rather to define, fight and defeat enemies who have stolen the dream. And, as Gerson puts it, “our economic problems then have faces. They may be those of sneering billionaires, or have a more Latino or Asian look. But they certainly don’t look like us. They are the scheming, the exploiters, the guilty, the other.” And this gives rise to politic approaches that are characterized by anger, retribution and enmity. And we are certainly seeing that.

Gerson thinks this is a serious misdiagnosis. The American dream has not been stolen. It has been “undermined by a vast economic transition that has placed U.S. workers in competition with talented workers around the world and replaced whole categories of labor with new technologies. “ This has produced a consistent downward pressure on wages, a demand for higher skills, and for many communities a more or less permanent recession. At the same time working class family structures and community institutions which once provided assistant or substitute parents have weakened. All together, that is a lot of negative to deal with.

This is where effective policy, rather than fear mongering, could come in – policies that help people develop the skills and that provide the support structures and human capital needed to succeed in a modern economy. Government could have an innovative role in this quest, increasing the rewards for work and shoring up respect for the place of family and community. As Gerson puts it, “the actual problems of our economy will not be solved by barbed wire on our southern border or putting Wall Street villains in shackles. “ Rather it will mean calling Americans to take part in an evolution not a revolution – educating and equipping all our citizens for a different and difficult economy.

Good food for thought I think. Next time I will talk about Israel, which contains most of the ingredients of this puzzle and needs its own evolution right now. Best to you and Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph