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Six Rabbis Look Back At Themselves 25 Years Later

Six Rabbis Look Back At Themselves 25 Years Later

Twenty-five years ago, I interviewed six rabbinic students at the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion "to find out what's on the minds of our future spiritual leaders." Recently, the Union for Reform Judaism's chairman, Stephen Sacks, proposed that we catch up with the six to find out where they are now, both in terms of their careers and how their thinking may have changed on some of the critical issues facing the rabbinate and congregational life.

Rabbi Douglas Sagal, Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, N.J.

1990: "The synagogue in the future, instead of being the sole focus of Jewish life in the community, has to be the place from which Jewish life radiates out, the source from which families can draw strength and inspiration, the place from which people can learn to live as Jews."

2015: "While I still believe that the synagogue should not be the sole focus, I have come to value it even more. Reason one: in a society that places all its emphasis on individual needs and wants, the synagogue is the counter-cultural reminder that we also have responsibilities to a community. Reason two: the synagogue, at its best, is the only institution in our increasingly segmented society that strives to be completely blind to status, wealth, education, and power. When a person is in need, we serve the person with a whole heart, without thought to what he or she can do for us."

Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, Temple Rodef Shalom, Falls Church, VA

1990: "In the past, Judaism radiated out from the family. But the family is in such dire straits now that the synagogue has to play a different role if it is to remain a vital institution. We are thrown so far afield in this world that we need a place that can hold us together."

2015: "I did not foresee the direction and extent of change needed, and is still needed, for congregations and Judaism to remain central, compelling, and relevant to our community. Today's progressive Jewish family is a different entity than the family of the nineties. It is more diverse, inclusive, and likely to be comprised of individuals from other religious backgrounds or with no religious upbringing at all. As our younger families are looking for new models of affiliation, we have to reimagine what it means to 'belong' to a religious community."

Rabbi Matthew Cutler, Congregation Gates of Heaven, Schenectady, NY

1990: "It is not true that the rabbi is the only one who can be a spiritual leader - the only person who can bring comfort to a family in mourning. At times, congregants can fulfill these roles just as well as we can."

2015: "Back then, I didn't know that the process of getting people to own their Jewish identities comes from the experiences and relationships forged over time. There is no template that can be easily emulated. It starts with a rabbi/cantor/educator/executive director/youth professional taking people by the hand and offering to share with them the richness of Jewish heritage. It is through such personal bonds that people feel the confidence that comes with Jewish empowerment and the relevance that comes from Jewish engagement."

Rabbi Nancy Kasten has held a number of rabbinic posts in Dallas, TX

1990: "Women tend to make more diverse choices within the rabbinate than men. More women work part time and outside the congregational rabbinate. I hope this will open men's eyes to the options of alternative kinds of rabbinic service."

2015: "The exponential growth in the number of women in the rabbinate has catalyzed an era of unsurpassed creativity and transformation for the Jewish people. I am currently preparing for the next phase of my rabbinate by completing a Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training program through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and an American Jewish World Service Fellowship."

Rabbi Eric Polokoff, B'nai Israel, Southbury, CT

1990: "[Our] society has become increasingly secularized, but my sense is that in the future there will be an increased need for a place where people can show reverence to ideals and ideas which they need to [spiritually] sustain themselves."

2015: "I expected the pendulum to start its swing back towards faith and community - not an acceleration further away from affiliation. Yet I remain convinced that given the nature of human wonderment and the potential of Torah to deepen and strengthen lives, over the long arc of history we will do well to bet on (rather than against) organized religion."

Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, Congregation Kolot Chayeinu, Brooklyn, NY

1990: "We need to make people of diverse lifestyles feel that they are welcomed. Many still feel that the rabbi and community are paths to God. If they are shut off from that community, their personal connection to God is blocked."

2015: "The mission of our congregation is inclusivity and community-building, within and without. Our 'tent' is open on all sides, so that while early on we focused on the needs of LGBTQ folks, recently we have learned about the needs and desires of transgender Jews and Jews of color -- both groups feeling deeply the need for an open door, an open hand, and an open smile."

It is clear from their responses, that all six of these rabbis identified key issues and interests early in their careers and have since dedicated themselves in their own ways to audacious hospitality, strengthening the synagogue, and tikkun olam, repairing the world.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

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