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How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Rabbi Steve Morgen reflects on the three weeks he spent studying at Hartman this summer as a member of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative
The Rabbinic Leadership Initiative began its fourth cohort of North American rabbis in Summer 2010. Members of the group will be in the program for three years. Click here for details n the program. The rabbinic fellows are listed below. Joshua Aaronson Temple Har Shalom Park City, UT Ken Chasen Leo Baeck Temple Los Angeles, CA David Cohen Congregation Sinai Bayside, WI Yonatan Cohen Congregation Beth Israel Berkeley, CA Denise Eger Congregation Kol Ami W. Hollywood,


So, an Orthodox rabbi, a Conservative rabbi, a Reform rabbi and a Reconstructionist rabbi meet in a bar in Jerusalem…

I know it sounds like the opening of a really bad joke, but the truth is that is how I have been spending my summer vacations for the past three years. Well, we might have met in a bar once or twice, anyway. But there were actually 28 of us – rabbis of these different denominations or movements in Judaism – and we met for about 25 full days of seminars and study during the month of July in the Holy City. We also had a few day trips, as well as some social time together either watching an Israeli movie, or going to an Israeli night club to hear a musical performance, or to the Jewish market (Mahane Yehudah) to experience the cultural and arts programming offered there during the summer.

But mostly we met to read and study together ancient or modern Jewish texts and sources dealing with what it means to be Jewish, and what it means for us to have a Jewish State for the first time in 2000 years. Pretty exciting, yes?! OK. How many of you here would just love to spend your summer vacation taking a three week seminar? Well, it really was stimulating, and spiritually enriching.

The program I have been participating in is called the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative. It is organized by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The Hartman Institute is one of several Jewish think tanks that have gathered Jewish scholars from a variety of disciplines to study the Jewish past in order to make sense out of our present and to envision the kind of Jewish world we would like to see in the future. It was founded in 1976 by a modern Orthodox rabbi named David Hartman who had made aliyah from Montreal only a few years earlier. The Shalom Hartman Institute was named after Rabbi Hartman’s father.

My very first trip to Israel I learned a little about Rabbi Hartman. It was 1979, and I was studying Hebrew, Judaism and Zionism in a program for college graduates called The WUJS Institute (World Union of Jewish Students), which was located in Arad. While I was there, a couple of students from the United States who were doing their Junior Year Abroad at Hebrew University came to visit and I made arrangements to visit them in Jerusalem a few weeks later.

While I was visiting, I went to a couple of the classes they were taking, and there was Rabbi David Hartman teaching American students about Judaism. I still remember the topic of his talk. It was about the Sabbath, and the commandment to work six days of the week, and to be creative, to be productive, and to improve the lives of others and ourselves. Rabbi Hartman taught me something I have never forgotten: that working six days a week is every bit a part of the commandment to observe the Sabbath day as is the obligation to rest on the seventh day. Rabbi Hartman was a dynamic and engaging speaker. He was creative, inspiring, and most of all thought-provoking.

But that was not my only connection to Rabbi Hartman that year in Israel. After six months in Arad, the WUJS program required each of us to find something else to do in Israel for another six months. Some folks found jobs or internships in the subjects they had specialized in in college. Others went to a kibbutz or some volunteer program. I went to the Pardes Institute, which is a liberal Orthodox yeshiva that is co-ed – men and women learn together. Two of the teachers at Pardes that year were Bernie Steinberg (then the Hillel rabbi at Harvard, now Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America) and Jim Ponet (the Hillel rabbi at Yale) both of whom were on Sabbatical that year. The real purpose for both of them while they were on Sabbatical was to learn at the Hartman Institute, which had just opened only a few years earlier. On the side, they each taught a class at Pardes.

It is 32 years later now. David Hartman is in his 80s and he is suffering from physical pain as well as other issues of getting older. The Institute is now run by one of his sons, Donniel Hartman, and it continues to bring together rabbis of all the movements to study and learn together under its roof with some of the most brilliant and creative scholars of our time. David Hartman made a few visits to the Institute while we were there and was shown the respect and love that he deserves for having founded this wonderful and amazing enterprise.

Our teachers included Yossi Klein Halevi, who wrote the book At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land, and he has written numerous columns for the Jerusalem Post, and the New Republic, among other journals. Many of you may have read some of his columns. But did you know that he is also an Israeli music aficionado? We had two wonderful sessions with him reading and listening to modern Israeli songs. These songs reflect a return to Jewish tradition among a growing segment of “secular Israelis.” Not that they will become Orthodox (although some of the artists have indeed done just that), but there is an acknowledgment that Judaism does have something to say even to “secular Israelis” about the meaning of their lives.

You may not have heard of Dr. Micah Goodman, but he is a popular speaker in Israel today. He was a student at the Hartman high school when he was a teenager. He ended up getting a PhD in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University and now has a weekly television program on Israeli TV and recently published an Israeli bestseller on Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. That is truly an achievement, because, once again, it seems that the Israelis buying his book are not so much the religious Jews, but “secular Israelis” seeking wisdom from traditional Jewish sources.

Prof. Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University. He is also the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His new book, Moynihan’s Moment – America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, will be published shortly. He gave us a preview of this book in a couple of class sessions. I thoroughly enjoyed his classes and I highly recommend both of these books.

Shalom Hartman Institute of North America President Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, the son of former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, taught a fantastic interpretation of a mystical passage of the Talmud dealing with four rabbis who engaged in mystical studies. (This is a well-known passage of Talmud in Jewish study circles.) Three of them came to an unfortunate end (one went insane, one died immediately, and the third became an apostate). The fourth rabbi was Rabbi Akiba who emerged apparently unscathed. However, we examined this peculiar passage of Talmud from the perspective of trying to understand what made one rabbi leave the Jewish tradition and what was the text trying to teach us about Rabbi Akiba. (Perhaps I’ll teach a class on this story some time …)

Rabbi Eddie Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles led several discussions about the future of the synagogue in American Jewish life. All across the country synagogues are experiencing problems with maintaining memberships. The American Jewish community is an aging population. That’s because Jews are marrying later than we used to, and are having fewer kids. And 40 percent of the Jewish population marries non-Jews, with only one-quarter to one-third of the children raised in these mixed marriage families being raised as Jews. In addition, many younger Jews do not see the need to join a synagogue. They may identify as Jews ethnically or religiously, but don’t want to be part of “organized religion.” The priority for joining a synagogue and paying a membership is not as high as it once was.

And even among long-time synagogue members the current economic environment poses difficulties for some to be able to maintain their memberships. For others, the synagogue has become viewed not so much as a community of worshippers seeking meaning in their lives through Jewish ritual and study, and more like a commodity, a product that constantly needs to prove its market value in specific terms in order to justify its existence. The question might be crudely put as: “Should I buy a new Porsche or pay my synagogue dues. Which means more to me?”

Can synagogues survive in this Brave New World? This is a national issue for synagogues of all movements, and I am sure it will be a subject of future sermons. But, the survival of Jewish life in America – in my opinion at least – is inextricably dependent upon the survival – or we might even say ¬– the flourishing of synagogues. Can you imagine what the Jewish community in Houston would be like without Beth Yeshurun, or Beth Israel, or Emanu El, or UOS (United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston)?

We also had classes with Dr. Tal Becker, an Israeli who has been a member of the peace negotiation team for years. He is an expert in International Law and has represented Israel in many venues. He knows all of the details of the maps, the settlements, the borders, as well as the various Palestinian leaders. It is not a particularly hopeful time right now for a “peace process” but it is always a benefit to have the facts, and to have the expertise of a negotiator – a person who has been in the room when the ideas are being discussed. Interestingly, I think the most important message Tal Becker gave us (although he was very informative on so many of the issues) was not to obsess entirely on when or how we will achieve a peaceful resolution with the Arab populations.

Particularly since peace is going to take longer than we would like, the much more important issue for us as Jews is what do we envision for the Jewish State? What kind of country do we want Israel to be? How should it deal with social and economic issues of its citizens? (This is perhaps the most pressing issue in Israel for the average Israeli right now.) How should Israel reflect Jewish values in dealing with minorities? How should it deal with Jewish identity issues: conversion, marriage, divorce? How should the Jewish State conduct itself in the West Bank, an area over which it has military control of a large population that does not want us there. Granted the problem is (in my opinion) largely the fault of the leadership of the Palestinians. But Israeli leaders have often not been helpful, and we should ask ourselves whether we are living up to our own ideals of how to treat the stranger in our midst. (Even while we must recognize, of course, that we need to protect ourselves and there are very real threats on Israel’s borders that cannot be ignored.) 

In all of these various issues that confront the modern Jewish communities here and in Israel, the Hartman Institute is providing an opportunity for Jewish leaders to meet and discuss the issues from the perspective of traditional and modern Jewish sources.

So how did I spend my summer vacation? It wasn’t exactly restful. But it was stimulating, engaging, and thought-provoking. I hope to be able to share many of the things I learned over these past three years with you and with the Jewish community here in Houston. The Jewish world has changed dramatically in the last 100 years. Arguably it has changed more dramatically than at any other time in our history. We are still emotionally, spiritually, and even physically recovering from the Holocaust. On the other hand, we have a Jewish State that is in many ways thriving, prospering and showering us with Jewish intellectual creativity like we may never have experienced before.

The Jewish community in America is not threatened by anti-Semitism. We are embraced here in ways we never could have imagined in all our wanderings for the past 2000 years. But we are threatened, perhaps, by an equally formidable foe: apathy – and its progeny, assimilation. Moreover, the American ethos is very much consumer oriented, and ego-centered. American culture emphasizes the self. My rights. My needs. My comfort. Judaism, by contrast, emphasizes the needs of the community, the obligations and responsibilities we have toward God, toward our fellow Jews, and toward humanity.

Our two communities – the Jews in Israel and the Jews here in America – can learn a lot from each other. We each have important – even crucial – contributions to make toward the future flowering of Jewish religion, culture, and identity. We can best do that by studying our past and mining it for the best ideas that we can adapt to the needs of our future. I am very happy that I have had the privilege of participating in the program at the Hartman Institute and I look forward to engaging in discussions that will help fashion a more exciting and enriching future for all of us.

Rabbi Steve Morgen is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston Texas. He a member of the fourth cohort of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative. This article was adapted by a sermon he gave to his congregation.

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