On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Yitro: Courageous Leadership

In this episode of On the Other Hand, Rabbi Jacobs talks with Rabbi Judy Schindler.  They discuss Parashat Yitro, expanding the tent of Jewish life, the legacy passed down by her father, social justice activism, and Rabbi Schindler's book Recharging Judaism.  Rabbi Schindler is the Sklut Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte and Rabbi Emerita at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. This is a special week. While most weeks, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares his opinions about the Torah portion and sometimes he is joined by a guest, this week he and his guest, Rabbi Judy Schindler, held a live podcast taping at the Reform Movement’s Biennial conference in late 2017. They spoke about Parashat Yitro. What does true leadership look like? How do you open up the tent and let more leaders in? And Rabbi Schindler is certainly a leader in her own right. She is the Sklut Professor of Jewish Studies and the director of the Dan Greenspan Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte. She's also the rabbi emerita of Temple Bethel in Charlotte. We hope you enjoy their conversation. We're pretty sure you will.

[Rabbi Rick:] We're going to do Parashat Yitro this morning because it's exactly the third anniversary of the start of the podcast. So we're going to build off and I'm going to just, with great delight, invite my colleague Rabbi Judy Schindler to come join me at the podcast table. And by the way, if something, you know, causes you to laugh or to express yourself, don't say oh my god I'm going to ruin the podcast! Just be yourself. If something you know naturally comes that you want to express yourself – not a talk back per se -- but we don't need silence. We just need a sense that this is a room that is attentive. I know it is, but it's just a privilege to do this altogether.

This week we focus our attention on Parashat Yitro from the Book of Exodus, and it's actually a moment for shehechiyanu, because it is on this parashah three years ago that we began this podcast “On the Other Hand,” and it is a privilege every week to share Torah thoughts and some wonderful conversation with some of the leading thinkers and activists and rabbis in our community. I'm joined today by Rabbi Judy Schindler, who is one of exceptional leaders in our movement. She has been the rabbi at Bethel in Charlotte, North Carolina where she is now the Emerita Rabbi. She is currently the Sklut Professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Greenspan Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University in Charlotte.

It is a privilege, Judy Schindler, to have you here on the podcast today.

[Rabbi Judy:] And it is an honor to be here.

[Rabbi Rick:] So can I just start with Yitro? Yitro is a Midianite priest, he is obviously not Jewish. Turns out to be one of the most brilliant teachers to all of us. Can we just remember out loud your father, of blessed memory, who inspired us to know that Yitro is not “the other.” Yitro, actually, in this day and age is part of our family, and the gift that he brought to expand the tent of Jewish life to include those who are not formally Jewish, but are part of our Jewish community. Can we just reflect that Yitro is a leaders’ leader, a teacher of leaders, and exemplifies some of the best of Rabbi Alexander Schindler's teachings? Would you just reflect for a moment, ‘cause you actually carry that last name around every day. And I know I know how much pride he had in the leader that you are. But would you reflect on that part of your dad's legacy?

[Rabbi Judy:] And before I do that, as I was sitting here and we were closing our eyes, and I was offering a prayer, I prayed that my dad's spirit would be with us. When I got out of rabbinical school and got some job offers, my father said “You have to go to Scarsdale to work with Rabbi Rick Jacobs. There is no better mentor to rabbis than Rabbi Rick Jacobs.” And when I think about Moses passing on the leadership to Joshua, I think my father would have been so grateful to place his hands upon you and bless you and pass on the leadership to you. I think about all the memories that are wrapped up in this biennial and in these biennials and in the leadership of our movement. But my dad was courageous as a leader, he had moral courage to say this is the right move for right now -- and it can be scary to take those steps and to speak those words.

But he did, and he said we need to change our approach, we need to open our doors, like Abraham and Sarah had their doors open on their tent, their tent doors, their tent flaps open on all four sides to welcome in any passer-by -- and we have been enriched as a movement by opening up our congregational doors and our movement doors to the non-Jew in our midst. Those non- Jews are our leaders. They are teachers. They are so gracious. They do the work of justice with passion. And so, I think that. And they raise Jewish children. Said each and every bar-mitzvah when I have a non-Jewish parent, when we sign the bar mitzvah certificate and we put the tallit on the child beforehand, I take that time to thank that non-Jewish parent who has made that sacrifice to raise a Jewish child. So they are great parents of Jews, they are great leaders in our community. The non-Jew[s] in our midst are an inspiration to all of us.

[Rabbi Rick:] What a beautiful remembrance. And that courage that you describe your father having in spades, you have in spades as well. Can we reflect on sort of the changing nature of leadership in today's Jewish community?

You are a brilliant congregational rabbi who extended all the ways we engage millennials, the way we engage all different members who might be previously thought of [as] on the periphery – [for example] transgender people. Can you just think about the nature -- and you have this wonderful new book, “Recharging Judaism,” about giving congregations a new sense of tools to matter and to lead in this moment? And you are a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina. Last night we heard from Reverend William Barber from North Carolina and some of the challenges that are in front of our community are particularly, particularly challenging in North Carolina. So could you reflect on the nature of being a courageous leader, the questions of justice, the questions of building interfaith alliances and coalitions, and how does that work for today?

[Rabbi Judy:] So I think to be a leader in the Jewish community today, you can't just open up the doors of your congregation, or open up your tent flaps, and expect people to come on in. You really need to go out and be in the community because that's where the majority of Jews are. And so, there is this concept of a minyan on the move. We need to bring our Judaism to where people are. And I think that's part of leadership is getting out of the congregation, and there are so many beautiful ways you can do that. We did that at Moral Monday movement at the rallies in Raleigh -- and it took a lot of courage. And I wrote my board, I wrote my board president said, you know, I've been asked to speak at this rally. And we care about education as a congregation, and can I speak in the name of the congregation? And my leaders were brave enough to say yes, knowing that there could be (and was) some negative feedback as a result. And the leaders in my congregation, they said, “Rabbi Judy, take congregants with you.” And so I did.

Everywhere I go, whether it's legalizing weddings in Washington when they were not legal in our state, or in our country as a whole, whether it was going to Raleigh, whether it's going to Israel for the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall, I've always taken congregants with me on the journey.

And the second lesson in a new book I have is not only taking congregants with you but taking them with you digitally. Explaining why you're doing what you're doing and what you're seeing and what you're hearing and how you are moved by your work. So, I think we need to bring community to where people are, build community. But most of all, I think we need to create congregations that not only worship and study and do acts of loving kindness, that do the work of service, but we need to have a fourth pillar of our congregational work -- and that is the work of justice. We see in the 2013 Pew Study that the work of justice is the most relevant to the majority of Jews today, right? The top three expressions of being Jewish in that Pew Study reflect Justice. Remembering the Holocaust, and make sure that we speak out against hatred the minute we see it -- as the governor of Massachusetts said last night -- it means two people working for justice and acting ethically. So that is the most meaningful expression of Judaism, and we would be wise as congregations to add that pillar to our work.

Now not everybody wants to do this work of justice, and that is OK. There is a ladder of civic engagement. We engage in this work through relationship-building and service through education, through philanthropy, through advocacy, through organizing, through joining a movement -- and people can be on whatever rung they want to be and find fulfillment through their faith in whatever way they want to. But we would be very wise as congregations to not only open our doors, but to go out, and when we do, when we stand up for the LGBT community, when we march at marches -- we had protests in Charlotte -- when we are out there working on racial justice, we find that the other makes their way into our congregation, because the truth is -- there is no other.

They are us. And when we work for the diversity in our communities, we draw in the diverse Jews that make the fabric of our congregations so rich and beautiful.

[Rabbi Rick:] So thank you. I would also just say you modeled for us what I know you have done and continue to do is to figure out how to do this work and have it also hold us together in our diversity. We have all kinds of diversity, and there are many who say we want to have less diversity, [we] want to [just] organize around little small groups -- but we know that our diversity is a source of our strength, including our political diversity, that we don't all vote the same way, but can we at the same time have deep, honest, and serious debates and discussions in our congregations, in our classrooms now that you're a professor, and in our movement? Can we actually have the courage be with the people who [don’t] already agree with us? How does that work happen in a way that doesn't -- first of all, keep us from raising a voice, we never can raise a unanimous voice, because I know I'm not even unanimous in my own heart about what I believe -- but how do we do that?

You've been doing that in a community. You brought, you say, rightfully, congregants with you. You brought people to the thinking and to the activism, even the people who would disagree with something you were saying or doing could be a part of it. How do we do this? Because this is 21st century -- not just organizing, this is 21st century congregation and community. We're not doing it in Washington. We should be. We can be doing this in our congregations. You've been doing that. What's what are some of the takeaways and some of the best principles to do it?

[Rabbi Judy:] The day I was named senior rabbi at Temple Beth-El, I happened to have a scholar in residence with me, and that scholar was Al Vorsepan. And I said, “Al, how do I move this congregation from voluntarism to civic engagement to use their voice?”

And he gave me some advice -- that was, gosh it was, you know, 14 years ago, 15 years ago -- and he said, “Judy you should rename your Social Action Committee the Social Justice and Action Committee. Number two, you should figure out what your congregants care about. And that's the listening campaign. Right, that's the first step to civic engagement -- truly listening to your congregation.”

And the third step he said was, “Pick something non-controversial to address as a first act as a congregation.” And so, the first resolution that came to the board was domestic abuse awareness. Who is going to argue that, right?

The next one was to work on affordable housing, and then the third one the congregants did this: The cachet committee, our gay and lesbian advocacy committee, they brought a resolution to oppose Amendment One, which was banning same sex marriage. And the board -- it was just two weeks before the vote, and the board voted in a roll call vote out loud unanimously to support our work against banning same sex marriage in North Carolina.

So, you need to find agreement. There are times where that passionate voice within the congregation is so loud, and our gay and lesbian community would have been so hurt had the board not supported them, that you say you know, this might not be my opinion. There's a small minority who were opposed to it. But they think they heard the congregation, and they felt for the community. So, when you listen and when you hear the other side, you can be moved. But it is super controversial. There are so many issues on which we can work and raise our voice as a congregation, and if it is going to be divisive and hurt the congregation and tear the congregation apart, I would recommend doing it individually as clergy rather than with the congregation as a whole.

We have three ways of communicating in a large group, we can have a conversation, right? We can have a dialogue, or we can have a debate. And we are so used to debates as a society, where I listen to what you're saying, and I try to react to it and prove my point and prove you wrong. Dialogue is about finding common ground, and if we can find common ground within our congregations on issues, deliberative dialogue, right, you think you reflect, and you say what's the best move for our congregation. If we can do that as congregations and then we join with other congregations in our community, we can model for our legislators how to do that.

[Rabbi Rick:] That's a wisdom that we can take obviously to our conditions, but whatever community, whatever gathering we're a part of, those are really very powerful principles. I want to just maybe conclude with some Yitro-thoughts to think about, for example, the power of relationship building. I mean, Yitro says to Moses, it's not all about you, fella. You know, you've got all these people -- empower them. Give them a role in this work. Not only are you going to kill yourself and not be present for my family – because he’s his father-in-law -- but the work will not be done as well.

So, this idea of listening and relationship building is one of those teachings that comes to us from Yitro. But the final teaching I think it comes to us from Yitro as well, and from you, and also from our teacher Rabbi Alexander Schindler -- which is to be a courageous leader is not always to be the popular leader. And when people reflect back on the innovations, and frankly the transformation that your father brought to Jewish life, to our movement, frankly, to the world. People say, oh, you know, those are the days, when everybody loved everything your father said or did. And I would just reflect [that] that was not the case. There was serious opposition to each and every one of the transformations that he led in Jewish life. Does it mean that you look for those things are going to be controversial? But you look for the things where you need your moral voice, you need to be able to raise that -- and to raise it with love, raise it with humility -- but raise it with strength. And in that way, we don't just exercise leadership, but our leadership leads to the kind of world that we're trying to create.

And I just want to say Rabbi Judy Schindler, you are such a leader. You're doing it in this fabulous new book, “Recharging Judaism.” You're also doing it now as a teacher, as an author, and as a friend to all of us -- and what a pleasure. What a privilege. Let us all lead with your courage. Let's lead with the sense of dialogue. Let's not only have our debates. Let's find a way to build a deeper common ground upon Torah. Upon Yitro, upon the values. And let's go forward and shape that world. Thank you so much Rabbi Judy Schindler.

[Rabbi Judy:] Thank you.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah.” If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week on ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including ritual, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week – l’hitraot!