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Broad Expanses: The Future of American Judaism

Rabbi Allison Berry

Rosh Hashanah, 5783

Please click here to Rabbi Berry's sermon from Rosh Hashanah.

Last year, Micah got the homework assignment to interview an older relative…You know the one. Get the family history and report back. So naturally, I assumed he’d be asking my dad the same Ellis Island questions I asked my great grandmother. But boy was I wrong. It wasn’t that kind of interview at all…Micah's assignment was to ask my dad about a value that our family has passed down through the generations. Ellis Island never entered the picture. 

Pa didn’t skip a beat and he shared a story I had never heard before. He told Micah: “I grew up in Worcester on the same street as my 9 first cousins.  All boys. Our parents were first generation Americans. We didn’t have much. But we did have Bubbe. 

Every year on Hanukkah my grandmother would stand in the hot kitchen frying up latkes for hours and hours - it felt like she made hundreds and we gobbled them down. But we always found it curious that Bubbe never ate any. We figured she just didn’t like them and shrugged it off - older people are strange. 

It was only years later I understood there were never hundreds of latkes - there were just enough to feed her 10 boys. Bubbe didn’t eat because there was no money to buy the ingredients to make more.” My dad explained to Micah, “I will never forget her generosity - I think of her every time I make latkes for you.” As my dad so beautifully pointed out - one of the values our family has passed down from generation to generation is generosity. 

It was so meaningful for me to hear this story - well - to eavesdrop and hear it. Months later, I continue to think about the fact that Micah will never have a grandparent like Bubbe who can share a first-hand account of what it was like to come to America. It’s the values she imparted that will continue to enrich our lives generations later. 

What Micah learns about his Jewish history will be different from what I learned about mine. Yes, the stories will be interwoven, I’m his mom, but some things will be left behind as he grows up and other things will replace them. The choices Micah and his friends make about how to celebrate and carry on Jewish tradition will be unique to their generation, and the world they create. 

I celebrate our kids and what they will contribute to the Jewish community, and I know as they grow into their own, they will have plenty of help.

In 1990 the number of Jews in America was 5 million. Today it’s 7.5 million.1  Amazing right? You didn’t know that, did you? 

70% of children with at least one Jewish parent are raised Jewish, raised partly Jewish by religion, or find meaning in Judaism through culture and family history.2

We are becoming more and more racially diverse - as many as 28% of Jews under age 30 identify as non-Ashkenazi and/or as Jewish People of Color.3

And finally - what an incredible blessing - about 17% of Jews in America are Jews by Choice.4

The doors to Jewish life in America have burst wide open - and inside is a kaleidoscope of brightness and celebration and color. 

Today as I look out at all of you– and wave to those on livestream - our community reflects all of this and more. 

Just three weeks ago Rabbis Joshua Stanton and Benjamin Spratt from two Reform synagogues in New York published a book called, Awakenings about their vision for the future of American Judaism.5 In their words, “The definition of what it means to be Jewish is changing before our eyes...If other eras relied on…ethnic identity, genetics, geography or economics, rising generations now call for new modes of connectivity.…Rather than fearing that this great diversification will be “a path away from Judaism, [instead this moment can be] a springboard for welcoming [so] many who seek to forever entwine their lives with the Jewish people.”6 

Spratt and Stanton are optimistic about the future of American Judaism. So am I. We are not disappearing. We are growing. But the way we define “Jewishness” is changing, and along with that, how each of us finds our way within an increasingly broad definition of Jewish life. 

This shift impacts all of our Jewish institutions, particularly synagogues like ours. The way American congregations operate was developed over 100 years ago - and as the Jewish community diversifies, we too need to grow and expand our definition of what a spiritual community is and what it does. 

The good news is that synagogues will remain a central access point for those who seek Jewish connection and meaning. We will continue to honor the many parents and grandparents who looked to the future - to the children; and remember how they were good ancestors. 

Today, we build upon their achievement - the best example: our founders were ever present in our hearts and minds cheering us on as just a few years ago we reimagined this sacred space. 

And now we must look to the future again. Are we doing the best job we can to serve our community or is there a mismatch between what people need and the way we operate? 

When we hear this question it’s hard to know what to do or where to turn first. Change at any level can make us feel uncertain. We may also feel a sense of loss. Why let go of practices that may have worked for us in the past? 

But this isn’t the first time the Jewish community has had to reinvent itself. Our ancestors also had to respond to pivotal moments in our history and they did it with strength and courage. 

Sarah Krinsky points out: “think of the great imaginers in our collective history - the enslaved Israelite women who birthed children in Egypt. The prophets living under authoritarian regimes. The concentration camp prisoners who held Pesach seders.  These are our ancestors: people who…imagined something different….People who dreamed the blessings of our world into existence.”7 

“Build, sow and reap,”8 the Prophet Jeremiah teaches us. This is what it means to be a Jew. It’s about hope. That’s what our ancestors reached for - they began with hope and holy imagination. And only then could they begin to build again. 

And as they did, what they created was different than what Judaism had been in the past - but it was an equally remarkable achievement; because the Judaism of the new generation responded to the needs of the current moment. 

At the same time, what was always unchanging was how our ancestors were guided by Judaism’s most ancient teachings, especially important ones about Rosh Hashanah. 

Time and again, the Rabbis of the Talmud teach about the holiday’s most iconic symbol - the shofar - the instrument we will hear in a few minutes. 

Every year before we listen to its’ call, we read this verse from Psalm 118: 

 9 מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ עָנָ֖נִי בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב יָֽה                                                                                                                                                     

Min-ha-Mei-tzar (mitzrayim) - from my narrow place, Karati ya ah-nah-ni, I called out to God and God answered me. Va’Mer’chav yah - and set me in a broad expanse. 

The verse reminds us of those times we find ourselves in tough places - as narrow as the mouthpiece of the shofar.

It can even feel that way right now - for ourselves personally and for those of us envisioning the future of the Jewish community. It could be that we are stuck, unable to forget the past. We struggle to move forward, to go beyond, because the future feels so uncertain. 

Then Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of the State of Israel, one of our great Jewish builders - explains: …”the shofar, with its gradually widening shape, [can be] a metaphor for [an] ever-expanding circle of teshuvah: repentance and spiritual progress.”10 

For it’s only when our breath reaches the widest end of the shofar that the sound becomes loud enough to wake us up. And each pitch reminds us that we can move from places that often feel unyielding to something better and brighter. 

Rabbi Sharon Brous adds, “the jarring blasts of the shofar…[testify] to the spiritual promise of the holidays: everything is possible. Things don’t have to be how they are. This moral awakening is the essential first step in the process of transformation.”11 

And once we are awake - it’s teshuvah - our turning, the act of releasing ourselves from the past that allows us to see the broad expanse that stretches before us. 

Today, as I think about the Jewish community, there are so many possibilities. Knowing this, I want to show you what the broad expanse of our future could look like. To begin, I have to go back about twenty years - to the year I spent in Israel. 

My first day there, I hailed a taxi to take me to HUC - Hebrew Union College - the Reform movement’s seminary. The driver announced, “That’s the place those crazy Americans go to become fake rabbis, nu? They even admit women.” I saw his knit kippah marking him as an Orthodox Jew and decided not to tell him that I was one of those women. During my year in Israel that kind of thing happened a lot. At the time, except for the occasional taxi driver - very few Israelis had ever heard of Reform. 

Fast-forward to this past winter. I met someone at the gym and they asked me why I was visiting Tel Aviv. I said I was an American Reform Rabbi on sabbatical. Instantly their face broke out in a huge smile; they were almost giddy. “I’m a member of Kehillat HaLev - the Reform synagogue a block away. Do you know Rabbi Rodrigo?” And of course I did. 

Today, the movement is still small enough that many of us know each other - but in twenty years there has been a dramatic change in how many Israelis view Reform Judaism. 

20 years ago the Reform movement wasn’t really growing and there was little public awareness about what they had to offer. Marriages performed by Reform rabbis were not recognized by the state, and if you wanted to convert to Judaism and be recognized under Israeli law, you had to go to America. 

Movement leaders were in a tough place, but they decided their message was too important - there were so many Israelis struggling to find relevance in our religious tradition. Reform offered them a way to observe a Judaism that aligned with their values.

So Reform leaders started by creating a knowledge campaign that advanced the idea that Reform Judaism was progressive and egalitarian. 

Next they reinvented the model and welcomed people to synagogue without expectation of American-style membership. That opened the door to not only hundreds, but thousands of Israeli families who now bring their children to become BMitzvah each year. 

And there’s more…the broad expanse became even wider - finally after years of fighting - they were relentless - last year Israel’s supreme court ruled that Reform conversions were indeed legitimate and must be recognized by the State. 

As a result, this winter while on Sabbatical, I had the honor of tutoring people from all over the world who could at last become Jewish. A recent study found that there are now more than 800,000 Jews in Israel who identify as Reform. That’s a 50% increase from 1999.12 These numbers are astonishing and we can learn a lot from our Israeli friends. 

One of the most remarkable parts of the story is that it was not only rabbis and cantors, and Jewish professionals who stepped up to meet the moment. It was everyone who was part of this small community. 

All of this tells me that if we are to bring about the kind of transformation we need in America at this unique moment in Jewish history, your attention and your presence are also essential, now more than ever. 

Each of us has a role to play in what has the potential to be the next Jewish American awakening.13 

On this Rosh Hashanah - I believe in us. 

To our Jewish institutions - how can we support the voices of Jews of Color, Jews by Choice and others of hyphenated identities as they lead us forward? 

To our dedicated Reform leaders: What if you allowed yourselves to dream bigger than your budgets? Money is critical, but more than equal is your vision and creativity. 

To those who have yet to find their place - what if you could decide what is authentic Jewish expression? In doing so you could become our teachers, spiritual guides, Torah carriers and thought leaders. Eventually I might be out of a job - but Judaism would be all the better for it.14 

And to our children, how can those of us who are older empower you so you can build your Jewish life? And then, what if we funded it? No strings attached. (My Bubbe would be proud). 

So much good lies ahead. And as always, there will be challenges. 

But as Kerry Olitzky and Rachel Sabath remind us: we can’t only dwell in the narrow places, “because the world is a different place each moment I’m alive, there is unlimited potential for change.” And when we hear the call of the shofar and turn towards teshuvah, we will find that broad expanse ready for us to build and plant and reap once again.

And just there - in the center of that expanse - running ahead, I see my precious Micah and Zachary.  And I imagine a conversation they might have with the Bubbe they will never meet. I think she would say to them, “be generous,” and if you are, then I have taught you well. And with all the love in my heart, I trust you, I trust us, to write our next chapter.”16,17

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1.  Data derives from, “1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS),” Berman Jewish Data Bank, and Pew Research Center, Jewish Americans in 2020 (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, May 11, 2021). All demographic information inspired by Stanton & Spratt (see citation below).
2.  Pew Research Center, “Marriage, Families, and Children,” Jewish Americans in 2020 (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, May 11, 2021).
3.  Pew Research Center, “Race, Ethnicity, Heritage, and Immigration among U.S. Jews,” chapter 9 in Jewish Americans in 2020 (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, May 11, 2021). And Ari Feldman, “Jews of Color Have Been Consistently Undercounted by the American Jewish Establishment. Until Now,” Forward, May 30, 2019.
4.  Drew Himmelstein, “1 in 6 American Jews Are Converts and 9 Other Findings in Pew Study,” J.: The Jewish News of Northern California, March 15, 2015. Informally Spratt and Stanton have found corroboration for this possibility. 
5.  Joshua Stanton and Benjamin Spratt, Awakenings: American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership, and Belonging. Berhman House Press, New Jersey, 2022. 
6.  Citations come from a few different places in Spratt and Stanton’s book, Awakenings. Notably: p. 49, p. xx, p. 99.
7.  Rabbi Sarah Krinsky of Adas Israel Congregation (Washington DC) for Rosh Hashanah 2020/5781. Sermon entitled “Holy Imagination.”
8.   Inspired by Rabbi Elaine Zecher in her sermon, “A Giant Future,” delivered on Yom Kippur 5781 at Temple Israel in Boston. 
9.  Psalm 118:5, this  an also be translated as “liberation” which deepens the meaning of the verse even more. Traditionally, Psalm 118 is chanted as part of Hallel, a series of psalms recited on Jewish celebratory holy days. It suggests that we were enslaved and now we are free. But it’s not uncommon for this verse to also find its way into prayer when we are still in crisis — the moments that cry out for answers, for finding our way out to the other side. 
10.  Rav Abraham Isaac Kook and Chanan Morrison. Silver from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Mo'adei HaRe’iyah, p. 60.).
11.  Sermon by Rabbi Sharon Brous, “The Still Small Voice,” Rosh Hashanah 5782. 
12.  The Jewish People Policy Institute Special Report: Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel: By the Numbers. 
13.  The word/concept of “Awakening” is inspired by Stanton and Spratt
14.  Thank you to Rabbis Stanton and Spratt for suggesting part of this idea, p. 17 in Awakenings.
15.  Kerry Olitzky and Rachel Sabath. Preparing Your Heart for the High Holidays. Jewish Publication Society, June 1, 1996. 
16.  Thank you to my incredible coach, Michele Lowe for being with me every step of the way as this sermon unfolded. You pushed me to think in new ways and to literally see the broad horizon of the future.
17.  Thank you to Caroline Dorn for helping with some phrasing, diplomacy and for your thought leadership.

 

 

Wed, December 7 2022 13 Kislev 5783