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Rabbi Joey's Reflections on 30 Years at Havurah Shalom

Introduction in our July-August 2015 Hakol - Over the next several months I am going to dedicate this column to thinking about the three decades I have spent as Havurah Shalom’s rabbi. A lot has happened, needless to say – some things that are obvious and others that are a bit more subtle. It should not come as any great surprise that I have been ruminating about what all this means, and what changes I have observed in our community. I would love to hear from you too. If what I write brings something to mind, please share it!

Over a year ago, Adela Basayne put up a preliminary Havurah Shalom timeline on the walls of our social hall, as part of an exercise for long-range planning. Like all maps, it marks a tentative list of coordinate points – points of embarkation, shorelines, dangerous shoals, destination points. A map constructs a journey. It also corresponds to the temperaments of the people who have gone along for the ride, up on deck temporarily or seaworthy voyagers for quite some time.

On the occasion we convened to look at the timeline, we compiled a list of scholars-in-residence. That remarkable early list is a good way to begin to talk about Havurah identity and Jewish intellect.

First, I will comment on the scholars who have spent weekends with us at the beginning, prior to my arrival. Of note, there were Lawrence Kushner, Arthur Waskow and Al Axelrad. Since I had the privilege of working with Larry Kushner in Sudbury, Massachusetts, I can guarantee that he was one of my first chutzpadik spiritual models in the pulpit. He did things no one else did with services, put demands on his congregation that required them to pay attention to Shabbat, to silence, to meaningful prayer and study. He even taught people how to eat, as if God was in the food. His literary ouvre is widely regarded as inspiring a spiritual literature that took flight later. In fact, before I arrived in Portland, his book The River of Light got me through a tough time, and I called him to thank him personally. I told him, full of admiration, that “I never realized he could write so compellingly.” He laughed and sarcastically responded that he was insult-ed that I hadn’t realized it before – and then we both cracked up.

The reason that I begin with him is to say that I inherited a havurah that demanded that I too be present spiritually. It wouldn’t suffice for me to go through the motions or for me to be a perfunctory “symbol” of the congregation – a suit and a necktie, a passive representative at communal fundraisers and luncheons. As for Arthur Waskow, his name speaks for itself – a career outspoken advocate for the planet and for peace. His name is synonymous with progressive Jewish action over the last forty-five years (and I will have more to say on this subject in the future). And Al Axelrad. ... Well, Al was my own Hillel rabbi extraordinaire at Brandeis, a counselor to many conscientious objectors to the war in Vietnam, possessing a heart as big as the rest of his body. And he’s the only rabbi I know who was less suited than I am myself to putting up his own sukkah. It’s impossible to think of Al without thinking both in terms of laughter and moral seriousness.

That these thinkers preceded me as scholars-in-residence at Havurah allowed me to think outside the box. After all, I came here as a Conservative rabbi, even if I hardly fit the model being mass-produced at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Back in 1987 and into the early 90s, you inspired me to corral original thinkers and bring them here. So I did so, because there was a restless spirit in Havurah. People were excited, but discontented too. It was as if I were given a set of keys to open a lock and the lock wouldn’t stay in one orientation. Every time I attempted to insert the keys, it went slightly askew. People craved authentic Jewish ideas, but agitatedly insisted on initiating the search for them in different places. To be perfectly honest, I embodied similar tensions within myself – so I was sympathetic with the broad array of positions in the group.

In terms of bringing scholarly guests, I sought to expand that scholarly platform, by inviting Saul Wachs, Adena Berkowitz, Rachel Cowan, Andy (now Avi) Rose, Danny Matt, Ruth Wisse and Arthur Green. When I look at that early list, I am rather astounded by its heterogeneity. We tackled everything from bioethics to liturgy to interfaith relationships to queer culture to mysticism to eastern European Jewish literature to theology. And we did it in a period when we were without a home. That is to say, we rented space and arranged for components of the explorations to go on in Havurah living rooms. The creative energy of Havurah took precedence, one might say, to a cohesive communal focus.

Why am I drawing attention to our early scholars-in-residence? Well, soon after I arrived in Portland, several Havurah members told me that there was a divide between themselves and others, in terms of certain members thinking that they were “intellectual” Jews and others considering themselves to be “spiritual” Jews. For my own part, this was an artificial dichotomy. But I took it seriously that we needed to establish ways for everyone to get excited about learning – that learning is the key to Jewish exploration.

As I ponder this some more, I realize that I too needed an access point, a way to conceive of my own work as a rabbi, as a guide. In fact, until I became the rabbi of Havurah, I felt thwarted in this preeminent aspect of my work. I recall asking myself, what am I doing for Jewish people if I am not teaching them? What’s Torah, if it’s in a cabinet or on a stage?

Getting back to the agitation I observed in Havurah, it had to do with proprietary notions of “ideas” and “being.” People in the group truly wanted to be like cut diamonds, the raw energy of contemporary Jewish expression, but few were willing to make inroads into a territory beyond the spontaneous. To return to the metaphor of a coastline map, the onshore expedition had not yet really taken place. To mine diamonds takes time and patience.

In my own experience, it seems like we attempted gradually to heal the rift between these two “camps” – if they can be called that – that put up high walls around spirituality and the safer, more removed, examination of ideas. Prior to then, if learning had been the property of people who saw themselves as uniquely spiritually adept, it became respectable to insist on the coherency of a “theory” (be it historical or literary or philosophical). And for those who deemed spirituality to be either quaint or archaic, we made sure that the modeling of conduct and mindfulness matched the veneration of ideas. To be truthful, there were some who sought other venues to continue either their pursuit of spirituality or a more clinical observance of Jewish life. I’ll be blunt – in the first case, the quest verged on a narcissistic variant of religious expression I am to this day uncomfortable with; and in the second case, I have seen more than my share of ossified Jews in the pews.

What began to change about Havurah Shalom was a sense of community that surpassed the initial stage excitement about converging spontaneously. We began to chart a path that incorporated both respect for multiple pathways to learning and celebration, at the same time that I myself began to feel in a personal way that I was doing the work of teaching Torah – requiring staying power, respect for long-term conversations, the integration of ideas, quandaries, life-time inquiries, righteous behavior and honesty.

We would have to work these things out, of course, what they meant for us individually and in terms of identifying with a community. But we had begun to lay out a path. And I began to feel most fortunate to be on that path with you.

I’ll end this chapter in my observations here, by noting that the “raw material” of Jews searching for authentic Jewish ideas, discourses, conversations, has built itself upon stages over the past thirty years in Havurah Shalom. To this day, I think we take Jewish identity seriously. It counts for us, in terms of positing a counterpoint to larger theories and speculations about postmodernity that we absorb through social media. I believe that our staying power as a community will guide us, as we grow older and see our kids take flight – and our regard for Jewish study, the Torah of spiritual and political imagination, will serve as a light-beam in a world that often looks like a dark tunnel. I often say that I chase your good ideas – the Torah you initiate has inspired my own life-time commitment to deep study.

Observing Shabbat, Sept. 2015 Hakol

Talk to Jews in the know anywhere, they will describe to you that what makes Jewish identity and practice coherent is Shabbat. And I’m not talking about private observance. True, setting a table and preparing a meal at home is something, but it pales when compared to stepping out and bringing yourself to a place to daven with other Jews. Whether it’s on a Friday night or, much better, on a Saturday morning, the "showing up" is what qualifies as surpassing this culture's adulation of the Self. Honestly, until I personally realized I wanted to reflect this commitment in terms of my own experience of time – proactively – I didn't yet understand how liberating it could be to embody a communal philosophy – in terms of simply being there for others.

When I came to Havurah back in 1987, most of the Shabbat activity took place on Friday nights. Thinking about it today, I cannot overstate how thrilled I was to join the commotion already going on in the MJCC lobby. Of course, the first thing I noticed was the group’s musical leaders. Margie Rosenthal and Ilene Safyan were mainstays from the very beginning, bringing gorgeous renditions of prayerful tunes. They warmed the group to Friday night liturgy. Who wouldn’t want to sing along? And hardly anyone remained outside the music – it was infectious.

Barbara Slader deserves special mention. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that she routinely searched for new music and powerful ideas, mining the evolving new repertoire of experimental composition and vanguard thinking about contemporary prayer. Barbara was and still is fantastic at opening a door for returning Jews and especially those who have never had any experience at all with spirituality in a Jewish context. I recall the week-to-week meetings with people who would lead a Friday night service. Nothing was taken for granted and everything was pondered intentionally.

That’s what stays with me – the fact that people who had written off a spiritual definition of themselves (or had been cut off by a prior generation's arrested development) were excited about getting out in front, giving a drash, raising questions, telling stories. When you came to Havurah's Friday night service, you knew you would hear some great music that was uniquely characteristic of the group, and at some point it was likely that you would be asked to stretch your imagination too. Laughter was mandatory!

On one occasion early on, I got a call from a member of the group who knew a great deal about astrology who would be leading services that week. She inquired about the convergence of various ancient events and it forced me to look hard at the midrash for that particular moment on the calendar. Together, we plotted a Shabbat service that would reflect the vernal equinox and the alignment of moments in the Torah with the stars. On another occasion, I distinctly remember we decided to move from the MJCC lobby to a racquetball court in the basement – in order to capitalize on the rich harmonies that would collide with one another in a virtual echo chamber! Ducking to enter that confined space, I can still picture "older" members of Havurah (soon to be forty) who went along with the plan. The raucous spirit spread like a wildfire during this period.

It was only a few weeks ago, that I realized something about who we were back then. In terms of organizational development and planning, we have often observed, in retrospect, that we were smaller then – and that spontaneity came along with our size. In that context, people knew one another in a way that is impossible for close to 400 households to do today. We recognize that synagogue bodies hit significant plateaus, different nexuses in which they operate differently from one another.

But I got thinking about another aspect of that long-ago time that doesn’t get enough play in our discussions. ... Not only were we smaller, and not only were we still in the initial stages of Havurah's development, but we should consider the average age in the group in 1987. For the most part, I figure that the people who showed up consistently and energetically were between 29 and 35!

Think about it. All those people with little kids or no kids at all and many who were uncoupled. I can recall that celebrating b'nai mitzvah was a big deal, because the families that did so were really old! If you consider the energy that abounds within that same age cohort today of people in their young 30s, and you adjust it for an expanded period of adolescence more characteristic of this socio-economic generation, it’s no wonder Havurah members were full of themselves, creative, irreverent. Wishing we could be like that again is tantamount to saying we can all once again be 30 years old. Or, alternatively, it's like claiming we should operate the way people do who are just establishing themselves in the work world, a couple of steps removed from college, equivocal about establishing roots.

It’s not just that we were "new," but we were KIDS – or, at least, very young. (Look at the photos if you don’t believe it!) Yet, however much we still cherish the audacity and lack of fear of failure that fuel great ideas, there is something to be said for adopting a different model today, if we are to think of what we do as being sustainable.

Back then, I knew something else about our Shabbat observance. While Friday nights were spirited, there was only a tentative Saturday morning commitment to communal practice. Sure, for the few who met at the West Hills Unitarian Fellowship, where the windows looked out on the trees, we convened with gravitas (maybe too much of it) – and yet, there was barely a minyan and often only five or so people present. I recall Meryl Weiss-Pearlman, of blessed memory, whose kavannah and quest for deep religious experience was nothing to trifle with. And Mimi Epstein embraced this desire to figure out what Torah had to say that was consistent with science and ethical challenges of a new age. Together, we read the portion of the week and asked questions about the nature of prayer and whether our own beliefs about The Holy One matched ancient ideas, and we thought about what kind of God could put up with a world like our own.

But I was seized with a fear about Havurah’s Saturday mornings during that era. Not only were they small and cabal-like, they bore little resemblance to places of prayer where Jews got together on a Saturday morning elsewhere. What would happen, I worried, if our kids grew up and traveled to Buenos Aires or Paris or Jerusalem (or even to New York, God-forbid) and felt ignorant about what was going on in a shul? Or if a guest came to Havurah and wanted to join us, how would I explain that we had substituted an encounter-session for a minyan?

I came in for considerable criticism over the years for this refocusing, but I insisted that we establish a recognizable rhythm that would allow our own members to feel that they were connecting with Jews davenning in other places, even if we did it with a bit more character. What’s more, up to this point, most of the bar and bat mitzvahs we celebrated were held on Friday nights. It bothered me that we thought it was okay to move a Torah service, traditionally on Saturday mornings, to the evening – and I wanted more commitment to learning the path to davenning and chanting with the trope. Some people balked at these sentiments and honestly believed that because I trained as a Conservative rabbi, I had ulterior motives that were traditionalist. The truth is that I was no revanchist! I adored the no-holds-barred, free-form expression that made Havurah unique, but I worried about our lack of awareness of a rich and evolved tradition of dialogue with the sacred text. We were discursive, but I noticed that we were impatient with the disciplines that lend them-selves to even more creativity. I write about this suspicion of a rabbinic plot (with a grin on my face), even though it was also apparent at the same time that people in the group truly venerated the expanse of Torah that we call "midrash" and there was considerable enthusiasm about learning some basic skills like chanting and leading prayer with nusach (the traditional melodies paired with the time of day).

At this point, how could I write any-thing more without saying how grateful we should all be to Emily Simon? Outrageous and at the same time possessing a reverence for tradition, no one exemplifies Havurah’s twin poles of imagination and deep learning more than she does. It goes without saying that her humor opens gateways and her public conversations about Torah demonstrate a love for yiddishkeit and community. Her brand of Jewish feminism is a model for all of us to emulate and learn from. Emily’s divrei Torah are provocations!

It was Emily, and Roger Brewer too, along with Marty Brown and Michele Goldschmidt and Susan Brenner, each of whom has brought a commitment not only to Havurah on Saturday mornings, but to getting after something that we should all admire. In the case of each of these individuals, they have nurtured deeper learning and role modeling, the acquisition of new skills and music-making in the richest sense. They have taught so many others, by virtue of taking all of this stuff seriously. Just pause and consider how many of us have learned to chant Torah with Shabbat morning trope (and even High Holiday trope) over the years. And think about all the bar and bat mitzvahs nowadays at which it’s unexceptional that we have many members of Havurah taking on the chanting. This reflects beautifully, in terms of how we are both progressive and literate in our tradition.

I often speak encouragingly to new, anxious members who worry, upon an initial Saturday morning foray, that they "don’t even know where they are in a service," and who point out, in a self-demeaning way, one or another leader who is proficient in a way they could never imagine being. My standard response is to say, "Oh yes. That person?… she learned to do this last week."

And being present in the crowd of people who attend these simchas is also making a statement about community. In this regard, Dick and Arlene Mastbrook come in for the highest praise, because throughout the years, not only have they been present for communal prayer, they have gently and humbly taken on leadership roles and support roles the way we might all do, if we put aside, if only now and then, our personal needs. Karen Labinger demonstrates her love for Havurah for being present ALWAYS. And Sam Sirkin is modeling a special kind of leadership today, by organizing our schedule for chanters and lead davenners. Maybe even just as important is the “smiling face” he puts on this business of stepping up and advocating for the minyan, unabashedly saying out loud that it is a good thing simply to show up and play a role in the community!

Shabbat observance and attendance at the minyan goes through cycles. At certain times, we have routinely 25-35 people showing up; and at other times, we have fallen well below that. Right now, we are on the upswing, but I would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that sometimes I felt that our community wasn’t doing enough – or I questioned a lack of support for those of us who try to make Shabbat the highest priority. I love it that I could express these worries as your rabbi and get the support that I too needed.

I want to single out two individuals who taught me a good deal about what we could do as a community on Shabbat – one who is no longer with us and the other who has taken her observance and service to another level entirely. My friend from when we were young, Noam Stampfer, may his memory be a blessing, opened a door for me at Havurah. First of all, he always explained why he joined our group, when it would have been so easy for him to stay affiliated elsewhere. He put it in terms of the "elevator test." He asked rhetorically, if he was stuck in an elevator that had broken down between two floors, which group of Jews would he be most pleased to be stuck with? But he did more for me personally, because he knew that I really cared about this motley and imaginative bunch of personalities I have come to identify with Havurah Shalom – and he was enthusiastic about my belief that we could demonstrate our commitment to one another the way that Jews have in the past, namely, by being at a minyan on Shabbat morning. He naturally brought his joy and creativity, and I was grateful that we could be there for one another for several years here in Portland long after we became friends during a year abroad together in Israel. It was a precious thing for me to walk into the minyan, to show up, and see Noam showing up too.

The other person who lent me strength, encouraged me, and later took up teaching herself, was Me’irah Iliinsky. As many of you know, Me’irah, after years of being a beginner and then an avid member of the minyan, took herself off to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and she has been a rabbi for a number of years now. At times, even with her background in the arts and as a therapist, she in fact may have seemed a bit over-the-top about coming to shul. But she was as profoundly committed to teaching skills and text-familiarity to both adults and kids in the Havurah as she was (and is) an inspiring spiritual teacher. She loved this community and rejoiced when people discovered their way in. In moments when I wondered if we could sustain Shabbat observance as a group of renegade agnostic Jews, it was Me’irah who showed me the way and provided ballast. We both thought in terms of this being a wonderful experiment in what has become the reemergence of twenty-first century Jewish practice.

Over the years, I guess I have heard every reason why Jews can’t make it on a Shabbat morning. It’s the same-old chorus: the kids are little and get the heebie-jeebies; it’s the only time we can get out to take a hike or have pancakes together; I’m too exhausted from the workweek. Or one partner in a marriage is enthralled with Jewish practice, but the other hangs back or puts a damper on it. Another common statement has to do with "learning" – I’m making (an intellectual) commitment during the week, so it’s unnecessary or inconvenient to lay this specific level of commitment on the rest of the family on the weekend. There is a sociology of emergent co-identities too, a fluidity of political alignments supported by social media, that suggests that we can do without repetitive observance that requires us to be present in real time. To me, it’s like a wild melody without a baseline – how are we supposed to attest to a world we are supposedly building beyond the private, fickle rhetoric about it?

What I can say is that among friends in other cities who, like the people I adore in Havurah, have a broad span of interests and commitments to politics and the arts, showing up at the Shabbat morning minyan is the key to Jewish life. It’s a way of saying to ourselves and to the next generation that our engagement with Jewish spiritual identity transcends our individual selves. It’s our way of being there, even when our being there is for others and we’d perhaps more reflexively prefer to stay put at home. It’s our way of demonstrating continuity and attunement to rhythms beyond our own – the test of time. I owe my profound gratitude to the people I have mentioned in this column and to many others, who have lovingly and inspiringly played a role in celebrating Shabbat, the day of rest and exhilaration. I think of those early Friday nights as sparkling with joy, crackling with electricity. I want more of it! But I want to be sure we value the patience and enduring commitment to one another that comes with age.

The above photos are of Rabbi Joey and Rachel Rosenthal, daughter of Margie and Elden Rosenthal, at her bat mitzvah at the MJCC, Mimi Epstein, and Layton and Gene Borkan participating in an interactive play with Rabbi Me’irah Iliinsky.

Evolving Jewish Identity, Adolescence & the Havurah High School Experience, Oct. 2015 Hakol 

Much has been written over the years about Jewish continuity. Rabbis have railed from the pulpit about parents failing to give their children a good Jewish education, generations of Hebrew school educators revised their curricula to meet the challenges of assimilation, camp directors championed the informal atmospherics of a summer experience.

In the last couple of decades there has arisen a philanthropic smorgasbord of Star Trek-inspired beam-me-up voyages to Israel. In each case, the cultural mavens offered a prescription. Take this drug and your offspring will save the Jewish planet. (You didn’t know there was one?) Swallow this prophylactic pill and it’s like hydroponic tomatoes – a slow drip of Rashi and Ibn Ezra in a desert of illiteracy. We have been urged to make Jewish life flower.

As I have written, when I arrived in Havurah in 1987, we were raising the roof. There was a commitment to raucous Torah discussions, and a lively lay leadership that insisted that no surrogate clergy leaders would deprive them of their thinking power. There was the collaborative spirit of put-it-up and then take-it-down. This meant perpetually moving chairs around and bringing up carpeting from basements. We had to figure out whose basements first – institutional memory didn’t yet exist!

The High Holidays were a feast that still goes on today, open to all and capitalizing on multiple spiritual voices. The vitality of the organization (I used to refer to it as an "organism") was like none other, but I worried openly about one gaping hole in our planning. When kids reached the ripe old age of 14 or 15, after having traversed a Shabbat School passage together with parents working out the quandaries of Jewish identity, everything was left up in the air.

True, there was a makeshift youth group. However, these wonderful young people, upon entering high school, were really very much on their own. There was no articulate set of objectives – no program besides getting together every so often. I can still remember them at 15 – they are now 40 years old. A number of years ago, in a private moment, one of Havurah’s founding members confided that he feared that the formation of Havurah Shalom was an experiment that had failed. He pondered the lack of involvement of his offspring. Even with all the tumult and creativity, who were we kidding, he chortled, self-disgustedly.

So I am thinking about what I have learned about those young people just starting out on their own path. My own mid-twentieth century experience dictated that adolescent Jews who passaged out of Hebrew School and bar and bat (there weren’t many of these back then) years rocketed as far away as possible. It seemed that just about everything they lashed out against was a reaction to bad experiences growing up Jewish.

In my own cohort, when I am on the east coast and I sit down with old friends from the neighborhood, they welcome the opportunity to lambast what they perceived as a cruel joke – growing up in a Jewish educational context that limped along, at best. At worst, it was comical and even painfully unsuited to the dilemmas of American Jewry arriving in the middle class. It’s the Coen Brothers and "A Serious Man."

However, when I’ve had the occasion to sit down with these now grownup Havurah kids, they have actually welcomed the opportunity to build on top of a bottom floor. If my own generation proclaimed, "Don’t tell me why to be Jewish – I’m sick of it!," these people who were once teenagers in Havurah ask "Please tell me why." They welcome the conversation. I think they saw this adult community back in the day in a largely positive light, even if they have now chosen divergent paths. They recall parents invested in figuring out what Jewish wisdom and ethics demanded from them – how to respond to a nuclear arms race, what kind of music to produce, whether or not to take in a Cambodian refugee family, how to encourage a conversation about the meaning of a difficult passage of Torah. This was far more than our own parents modeled for us – and, of course, it didn’t hurt that Havurah parents had to teach their own kids in Shabbat School, when they were young.

That being said, we have learned a lot over several decades about inculcating Jewish excitement and the value of ongoing Jewish learning. It seems like yesterday, that I recall sitting in the Boston office of a leading Jewish educator and telling him that if I ever reached the pinnacle of Jewish com-munal authority (little did I know), then I would abolish He-brew school. I was maybe 14 years old. I had done my time and was ready to walk away a free person ... Or so I let it be known, even if I may have cared a good deal more about the soul of the project, a legacy of Torah that was in danger of escaping me.

As I reoriented my own study path, in college and eventually at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I befriended some of that era’s most imaginative pedagogues. Together, we turned over the soil and forced ourselves to think through the assignment: what were these texts, laconic and black-and-white on the page, requiring of us? Weren’t we ourselves texts on a page? Who would respond to our lettering, our minimalist lyrics? What behaviors invited human beings-as-midrash-in-the-making to produce a coherent commentary? Was there music in the teaching? Was it balletic?

In each case, the inquiries of my generation beckoned to today’s. We were learning to be models, whereas our parents had been cut off from the whole process (thanks to immigration’s cruelties, a consumer culture’s rising assault on personhood) of transmitting spiritual integrity. I used to think that the only solution to the problem of providing a holistic and informed Jewish identity was day school.

But this approach, while it offered certain advantages, deferred yet another set of difficulties. The obvious difficulties had to do with roping off a cohort of Jewish kids, depriving them of exposure to children of other ethnicities and social and economic groupings. If you had any commitment at all to American pluralism, sending kids to a day school meant undermining that commitment in a significant way. The not so obvious difficulties had to do with a feature of the Jewish identity issue that gets lost on most people. While it may be comforting to see Jewish kinder romping in a Jewish environment, complete with language skills and singing and dancing and a natural proficiency with texts (nested within American history and mathematics), the real work of Jewish learning begins at adolescence. It is then, when youths are asked to sculpt an identity – hormonal, sexual, political, spiritual.

Back to Havurah in 1987. The question arose for me early on, what are we doing for our young people post-bar/t mitzvah? The answer, I knew, was TBD. So when just a few years later the Oregon Board of Rabbis brokered a smart deal with our illustrious Jewish Federation to subsidize trips to Israel for kids who committed to four year synagogue high school programs, I realized that we needed to use this opportunity to establish a program of our own. Ironically, although a number of our kids did, in fact, go on these subsidized programs for two or three months during their high school years, the Israel scholarship served as an inducement to our Havurah kids to take learning past bar mitzvah. In the other synagogues, kids joined a high school program to go to Israel. In our case, it worked in the reverse. Over the years, we have been blessed with some amazing teachers – Emily Simon, Ben Anderson-Nathe, Leeza Negelev and Nili Yosha are the crème de la crème. Each one has brought a uniquely inspiring understanding of the issues and devotion to the craft of working with young, evolving personalities. Together, working with Deborah Eisenbach-Budner, they have lifted up an extraordinary forum for creative thinking and the interaction of Jewish ideas and contemporary culture. They themselves are beloved by our young adults.

Before they arrived on the scene, I took on the task of being Havurah High’s original teacher. At the time, this piece of the work I did for Havurah drew me away from other rabbinic tasks, but I knew how important this focus was. I based my work on the premise that it’s fine and good to assemble young Jews in a youth group, but it’s utterly uninspiring and unoriginal be-yond the fact that Jewish adults are some-how cheered to see Jewish kids in one place. As far as the content was con-cerned, they might as well have been a Mormon group or a 4-H gathering or even a Chess Club, if they weren’t going to be committed to Jewish learning in an imagi-native way. So I established a rotational approach – one in which each of every four years (of high school) I would teach a different period: biblical, rabbinic, Middle Ages, and contemporary Judaism and then begin again. For a period during the class, I would lecture them and introduce them to the radical texts and ideas of that period, and then I’d turn it over to some kind of interactive, smaller group experience. I was serious about the teaching component, but I knew that it was a springboard for deeper conversation – and that was what I was after with our adolescents.

I will close this column by commenting on what came out of the experience. I discovered that the anywhere from 25-50 kids that participated week-to-week (and they came from other congregations too) wanted to be there. They chafed, when their parents insisted that they had too much assigned to them by their regular high schools or for other reasons had to miss a session. Their parents reported to me repeatedly that the kids clawed their way to be together with their Havurah cohort, at 15, 16, 17 and even 18 years old, because they treasured the special bond between them. The subject matter was the sine qua non, but the love and sweetness that flowed between them may have been the greatest surprise, a gift of a lifetime. And it came at a stage of life that can be hard on just about everyone.

Not each of them has gone on to build a Jewish identity as an adult. For one thing, the period in which identity formation now takes place often culminates when people are in their mid- and late-thirties, so we’ll wait on the results. But their connections with Jewish communal experience are powerful and vital, and it’s special for me when I get a call out of nowhere to get together with any of them. I love to hear about what they are doing, about where they are figuring out the next stages of their lives. In some cases, they have become active members of synagogue communities elsewhere. In other cases, they are partnered with others, building their own Jewish lives, raising Jewish kids, emulating their own positive experiences and wanting more. This is what Jewish continuity is all about – raising a generation that can take the toolbox and use it skillfully and joyously, to figure out the complex universe around them and to design a world that is more compassionate and morally present. What’s more, they embrace the fullness of being Jewish well into the 21st century.

The photos above are of two of Rabbi Joey’s high school students at Havurah: Arielle Rosenberg, daughter of Ilene Safyan and Mark Rosenberg, now a rabbinical student at Hebrew College and on staff as an intern at B’nai Jeshurun on the upper Westside of Manhattan, and Ben Brewer, son of Miryam and Roger Brewer, who served in the Israeli Army.

Tikkun Olam - Repair Over Time, Dec. 2015 Hakol

For the past few months, I have written about different aspects of Havurah’s programs over the past thirty years. First, I considered the evolution of Havurah’s Shabbat celebrations – on Friday nights and Saturday morn-ings. Next, I looked at how we conceived a program for our high school age kids beyond Shabbat School years. In this article, I want to address the place of Tikkun Olam. In many ways, the identification with progressive action has become our brand – but it wasn’t an even or explicit series of decisions that got us where we are today. Nevertheless, the continuum that exists between Jewish sources of wisdom and moral action is an undeniable motivator and a reason that people join with us. This focus – on repairing the world – has become more pronounced, as we have worked at becoming more coherent during the years. Like everything else in Havurah (and at times, even more so), it’s a process.

I need to say at the outset that to write about Tikkun Olam means more than listing the “issues.” When I came to Portland back in 1987, the relationship between Havurah’s governance team and people committed to social action was anything but resolved. This was a period in which many of us were actively opposed to the nuclear industry and what it represented. The nuclear freeze, at least to activists across the liberal religious spectrum, was a struggle against a primeval foe, a mythical one – in the sense that civilization was playing with fire. Having invented (or tamed) the chemical capabilities of nature, moral critics shuddered at the distinct possibility that humanity could mete out infinite devastation to the planet. There were corporate aspects of the problem posed by nuclear energy at that time and there were political/strategic implications that were a feature of the Cold War. Not to say that they were, in fact, unrelated to one another, but the forces invested in a “clean” nuclear future (as opposed to coal) justified the expansion of plants on the basis of reasoned arguments to provide low-cost energy at a level of risk they could live with. The argument in favor of nuclear weapons, on the other hand, was the ex post facto inheritance of America’s mutually assured destruction deterrence strategy. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, we were stuck with it, as a means of guaranteeing that neither superpower in a bipolar chess match could afford to take the initiative to blow up the other’s major cities – without fearing a reprisal on the same scale.

What I witnessed in Havurah was a microcosm of liberal and progressive religious communal discussions going on elsewhere. Although we were mostly composed of people to the left of center, there was some resistance to Havurah expressing a monolithic statement on behalf of its members. In fact, I would have to say that leadership wondered about whether Havurah should be a “safe place” for members (to get away from political controversy) – as opposed to a forum in which to make these kinds of decisions.

With chagrin, I can recall visiting with a few personalities who are to this day beloved in Havurah, to find out that they were thinking of going elsewhere. They were morally and spiritually driven, correctly so, I believe. And what they did then was the result of a policy that was of yet unclear – one that failed to articulate the connection between deep learning and action in our nine-year old community. Those who insisted on action formed a committee that was, at that point, totally separate from Havurah and they called it Shalom Chai. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the words in Hebrew were syntactically and grammatically incorrect, but then again so is the name Havurah Shalom. (The former means something like “Peace…He lives.” The latter, to this day, means “Fellowship… Peace,” but this is another story.)

More importantly, a large contingent soon began planning for a large Pesach Seder at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. It involved my own composition of a special Haggada detailing the psychic blunders of the resort to nuclear power, and we recruited the broader participation of Rabbis Yitzhak Husband-Hankin and Aryeh Hirschfield, of blessed memory, folks from Eugene and Ashland, as well as musicians from each of our shuls. It also meant bussing a lot of people to eastern Washington and making elaborate plans for food. The following year, another large group did a repeat performance at the Bremerton, Washington nuclear submarine base.

Back then, Tikkun Olam was conceived as a strident demand in the face of a silent majority. If Havurah wouldn’t underwrite it, those who wanted to express themselves would take it on independently. I had another worry about all of this. While I enthusiastically identified with the substance of the mission, I questioned the tactics. I remember worrying that we were “exhibitionists.” Who would we impact by leading a seder in the middle of nowhere? Who would even notice it? Would the message make a difference beyond our celebration of ourselves? What would it generate?

What I evidently didn’t yet know is the power of embodying politics. There is a stage, I believe, in which people who feel strongly about a restorative political path need to coalesce and “do the dance.” There’s a seeding of powerful action that precedes the stage of mature political strategy. I needed to find this out over time.

This realization took on added significance when in the mid-1990s I recommended that Havurah join the Portland Organizing Project, eventually to become the Metropolitan Alliance for the Common Good (MACG). We have continually been members of this coalition of faith-based and labor-based groups. Truthfully, this decision has given way to some controversy over the years, as a result of its model of incremental organizing. What I have learned is that, in the face of a power structure that is dedicated to guaranteeing the status quo (in terms of its power elites, institutional stake and corporate greed), there is no substitute to people needing to sit down with one another (as we did at Hanford), singing, having one-on-one conversations, telling stories – discovering their own power. Clearly, most of us have little time for this kind of interaction – or, put differently, the nature of our culture militates against spending this kind of focused engagement. Privacy is something we crave because of the consumer-pressure we experience or due to steadily eroding power to pay for the things we need. On the other hand, putting privacy at a premium deprives us of the kind of nurturance and wisdom that societies have always provided for their citizens in the past.

A time-out: how could I write this article without mentioning people who have taught me so much, in terms of their own unwavering insistence on moral action? Michael and Judy Heumann, two gems in Havurah, have consistently blended simplicity and clear focus (Judy) with passion and diligence and careful speech (Michael). Steve Goldberg has been resolute about human rights and Linda Boise has brought a public health perspective to the panoply of issues we have confronted.

And it was sometime after the period in which we went to Hanford that Bob Brown came along – and over the past many years, has single-handedly transformed his retirement years into advocacy (within Havurah and outside it) on behalf of immigrant rights and global poverty reduction policies. More importantly, he has championed these specific issues by building relationships and analyzing the power alignments that get in their way, as well as understanding the alliances that Jews and others have the potential to build that can make change.

Within Havurah, working ceaselessly over the years to build relationships and to think carefully about process, is Layton Borkan. No one has brought more wisdom to bear than she has when it comes to opening lines of communication. She knows that a community “grows” its action plan, its embodied response to what ails the world it is a part of. Layton has brought gentle and compassionate listening power like no one else.

Here, when it comes to Tikkun Olam, I’m talking about listening. But there’s the raising of clear moral voices, without which we would be nowhere.

I would be remiss, in this regard, if I didn’t refer way back to the work of Emily Simon, who was and continues to be pivotal in what was then gay rights – and today is the continual work of adjusting the legal protections of our civil society to include the LGBTQ community. It was way back in 1992 that the Oregon Citizens Alliance sought to portray gays and lesbians as pedophiles, sadists and masochists. As a Jewish community, Havurah fought against Measure 9 and again in 2000 against a similar measure. It was during these attacks on members of our own community that many of us spoke out, but Emily not only taught us how to be articulate – she raised her innate comedic nature to new levels. I’ll say for myself that I discovered then how thorough-going the learning is when it comes to gender awareness, and that particular struggle has taught me that there is so much more we need to do in order to understand love and desire and the nature of service to one another. And I think that Havurah began to get a handle during that period on the critically important element of a total communal buy-in, the paramount fundamental necessity to speak out for what is right as a community.

The other powerhouse, unparalleled in terms of my own education in political action at Havurah, who is no longer with us, was Stew Albert. Mister Sixties, as his friends jokingly referred to his wistful mythologizing of the past, would lecture me for hours. Life Magazine once did a lead article (don’t ask me why!) during the First Gulf War on how Jews on the left were arguing with one another over the elder Bush’s invasion of Iraq after Saddam Hussein had attacked Kuwait. Stew and I took different positions, and he took me on like a wrestler and we nearly came to blows – with a photographer taking multiple shots of us going at it in the Japanese Garden. [Although we spent hours with a national reporter, the article never went to print, because the war was called off just in time.] And later on, when I infamously supported George W.’s fatally flawed incursion into Iraq, Stew told me he’d need to think seriously if we could continue to be friends. But he was a compelling adviser on every political issue under the sky, especially when it came to Israel, antisemitism, dealing with the Palestinians, and his beloved struggle with the police state that he viewed with suspicion from his time spent at Berkeley. I loved him, miss him dearly. He thought carefully about being Jewish – and Havurah meant the world to him, I know – as long as he saw the connection between midrash and politics. He really enjoyed thinking about Torah, robust rabbinic commentary, and action.

Getting back to Israel and Palestine, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, I can recall the members of New Jewish Agenda, also Havurahniks, who worked hard toward recognizing the other side’s narrative and in our meetings laid the basis (nationally) for support for a two-state solution. This became fundamental to my own work over the next twenty years in support of a peace process and repairing the egregious harm done to my own education about the Middle East by narrow Zionist propaganda growing up. There were nascent relationships with members of the Arab community in town that I treasure, and which would come into play later on in the pre- and post-9/11 period. Mostly, the work that I would get involved with and would become a part of Havurah’s mission had to do with fostering knowledge about the Palestinian narrative and promoting awareness about affronts to Palestinian human rights by Israel. Over the years, I have been on three Havurah trips to Israel. I never wanted to be the kind of rabbi who routinely took people to a place for sentimental reasons alone – especially if, as Jews, I believed that we needed to make things right there that were being sugarcoated. So each of these trips represented a burgeoning opportunity to learn more, dig in deep, meet people who were doing powerful work for change.

Jews are mistaken if they think that Tikkun Olam in some strange ways relieves them of the kind of repair that they should be working on with regard to their own cultural narrative of statehood and redemption. Havurah has a long history of a pendulum swinging between avoidance of Israel issues (“It’s too controversial!” or “I’m not involved with Israel”) to grappling openly and raising the tough questions that seldom are addressed in the Jewish community.

This, of course, is where Lee Gordon figures prominently. How can we talk about our relationship with Israel in Havurah without mentioning him? That he had the perspicaity to co-found Hand-in-Hand, his schools for bicultural learning in which Israeli Jews and Arabs learn side by side and (perhaps just as importantly) parents encounter one another in a way that puts them in touch with each other’s context, has nourished our deepening connection with Israel. My own involvement with Americans for Peace Now and with Rabbis for Human Rights (whose national board I sat on) also fostered the conviction that work for change in Israel was essential to being Jewish. All along, we have managed to plug in with people and organizations that do radical dedicated work over there – whose ideals speak to our own.

Lately, I confess that I no longer believe that a two-state solution is in the cards (I say this with grief and plenty of anxiety about the future), but I still think that our young people need to be convinced to travel there, to learn about the place, to hear the rich stories of family and friends who came there from elsewhere – and to cross to the other side and find out about the Naqba and Palestinian quests for freedom of movement and connection to the very same land. It’s impossible to be politically active as Jews without knowing about Israel, understanding how it was important in so many ways to establish a state – and, at the same time, to think critically. It’s also important to support our young people’s capacity for enriching what is now an impoverished capacity for dialogue within the Jewish community, on what Israel means for Jews.

 I tip my hat to those who work for J Street, as I do for others who reach out across the barriers to coexistence and ending the Occupation. And I listen avidly to people like Nancy Becker, who inspire me because they know what it means to stay in the trenches and not only represent difficult principled positions, but display a keen appreciation for building the relationships that can make all the difference.

I am proud that even before the extraordinarily difficult events of 9/11, I was a co-founder of the local Muslim/Arab/Jewish dialogue (some Arab members were Christians). During that period, Havurah was known widely in the Muslim community as the Jewish place to go to build rapport. In the aftermath of the attacks on the Twin Towers in Manhattan, members of the Dialogue mobilized lawyers across Portland, to come to the defense of Muslim members of the community whose civil liberties were constantly being violated by the FBI and local police. What’s more, we convened a broad spectrum of Jewish community members (politically spanning from center to very left) to sit and encounter an equally broad spectrum of Arab leaders. These meetings often went for close to three hours at a time – and we discovered not only that we had much in common (in terms of history and religion and food), but that we agreed (with considerable risk, in some cases to our standing in our respective communities) on principles involved with ending a stalemate between Israel and Palestine. Of no small note, I will always remember that Havurah and members of the Muslim community had a picnic at Rooster Rock State Park in the Gorge, during which we played musical chairs. We were comfortable enough with each other to battle, at one point, over one remaining chair – and there was plenty of cathartic laughter. I remember our beloved Emily Gottfried, who was a mastermind of dialogue, an orchestrator of communal relationships behind the scenes. She was always a part of this laughter.

Not least of our Tikkun Olam work was a trip under the auspices of the American Jewish World Service to eastern Uganda. For the eleven of us who went, I think it’s safe to say that it clarified how important it is to think of ourselves as “Jewish in the world.” The trip took place in 2008, but it stays with me. Just as important as the minimal physical work of building latrines or putting up a kitchen structure adjacent to a school was the daily protracted struggle of lefty Jews with one another – the guilt-laden amazement, the discovery of new friends, the humble coming to terms with our own ridiculous good fortune. We also had the fortune of mulling over Jewish sources, looking squarely at rabbinic commands inveighing not just generosity, but instructing us on how to give, in what circumstances, and towards what common vision. Many of us became more learned about extreme poverty.

Again, think about it – eleven Havurah Jews in a tiny village in Uganda. There were arguments, heart-felt annoyance, grief over what we saw and what we were concluding about our own lives. Some became life-long advocates and we looked for ways to connect Havurah with the ubiquitous poverty right in front of our faces here in Portland, with homelessness, with the plight of the undocumented. Proud to say that Bob Brown heads up IMirJ (Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice). He walks the talk.

And Jay Moskovitz and Gloria Halper are dynamos, in terms of their engagement with what they witnessed. Their own personal through-and-through insistence to stay in the trenches on behalf of the world’s dispossessed has taken them on numerous occasions to Africa and to Central America. Together, they have poured their energy into Habitat for Humanity, and Jay has been involved with the local non-profit Green Empowerment and one of the movers (along with Michael Heumann and Linda Boise and Karen Erde) when Havurah raised $40,000 to put in a green water delivery system in a Nicaraguan village. There were local elders we needed to recognize in Africa, heads of their communities, and there would be senior leaders in communities elsewhere – whose leadership was vital.

We had our own elder Nathan Cogan (not all that much, in reality, more senior than us), who became immersed in efforts to make a difference through his focused philanthropy. I personally will never forget the trip to Uganda that spawned deep introspection for me. It was as much a spiritual practice going over there with my friends as it was a political awakening for me. It reminds me that my prayers must bring me into the world – as a servant to do holy work. Otherwise, they amount to little more than private conversations.

This article is too long, and it still doesn’t do justice to many other aspects of Tikkun Olam, such as Fran Berg’s often unheralded work at Transition Projects with our Shabbat School kids and recent efforts, especially by Gloria Halper, at Goose Hollow Shelter, to connect us with homeless families. Or I could speak with pride about Elden Rosenthal who put White Aryan Nation out of business 25 years ago and who later on defended the local Muslim lawyer Brandon Mayfield, when the FBI erroneously linked him to the Madrid train bombings. He has always made it a point to say that his work was the natural outgrowth of a Jewish ethical tradition. And I could say how proud I am of David Sugerman, who has taken KBR to court, for knowingly poisoning National Guard soldiers with cancer-causing chemicals during the Iraq War. And there’s our own Steve Rudman who recently retired from HomeForward, our resident expert on housing policy – and I should mention Rachael Duke, recently hired as the Executive Director at Community Partners for Affordable Housing, and Janet Byrd, long-time Executive Director at Neighborhood Partnerships. I so admire the work that John Duke does, as Clinic Director at Outside In.

There is Beverly Stein, a model of political service and strategic thinking from whom we can all learn to be dignified and smart, when it comes to governance and working with stake-holders in the public square. The list goes on and on of people in and around social change organizations – which is Tikkun Olam work, after all. There are many more – David Rosenfeld at OSPIRG, Sue Doroff at Western Rivers Conservancy, Aliza Kaplan at the Oregon Innocence Project, Jonah Edelman at Stand for Children, Rachel Shimshak at Renewable Northwest. . . And there is Steven Eisenbach-Budner, who founded TIVNU right here in our midst. There are so many more, whom I have no intention of slighting – who do the work as cogs in the wheel of making social change.

We are together a powerful witness for Tikkun Olam in Havurah. What this means is that progressive thinkers end up with us. They understand our mission as being inherently forward-thinking, and yet there is still no one solid way in which to formulate it. Perhaps it’s best to say that we know that change is a good thing, and yet we are still inadequate at formulating precisely how we need to do the work together. Some will stay beneath the radar, volunteer their (and their children’s) time and efforts quickly but repeatedly – bringing items that people need and sadly go without to shelters. Others will tutor refugees or kids who need help in schools. Still others will do quiet environmental work or raise up the urgent work of saving the planet in the face of humanly induced climate change. And still, some dedicated few will spend the time determining how to get the message out to the larger Havurah, how to focus the conversation.

I’ll end this piece by recognizing the shattering feeling I experienced personally upon listening to the reporting about the Paris massacres. I had been studying the obscure passage about Isaac in Genesis – one often overlooked – about digging wells that had been all stopped up. These were wells dug up originally in an earlier, more hopeful period, when his father Abraham lived. The word in Torah for “stopping up” is the same word (the root S-T-M) as the word for unnoticed and anonymous.

We do our work, often in isolation, and yet we are looking for sweet water to flow from it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could bring it to the surface – in the name of some common, well-articulated goals? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if we, all of us twenty-first century Jews, could recognize that our tradition says it’s a good thing to do the hard labor of digging deep and clearing the cisterns? For we all know that the conversation about Tikkun Olam brings action that we recognize springs from our core. It’s what Havurah is all about. Conversation and discovery and – action.

The photos above are of Havurah second graders serving dinner at Transition Projects; Havurah member Jonah Edelman, co-founder and CEO of Stand for Children; Havurah members Steve Birkel, Debbi Nadell, and Jake Birkel in Israel with Maia Gordon, Miriam Reshotko, and Lee Gordon at Hand In Hand, which Lee co-founded.


Thu, September 28 2023 13 Tishrei 5784