Sermon by Amit Handelsman – delivered on 17th December 2016
Amit works in partnership with the Movement of Reform Judaism southern communities on strategic planning, visioning and leadership, looking into new models of communities and the establishment of new communities. He runs workshops and training sessions tailored to the need of each community on change, development, leadership and more.
Relational Judaism. Many of you may have heard about this book by Dr Ron Wolfson, which introduces the theory that Jewish communities should focus on building relationships with their members rather than on programming. In fact, on my very first day at my job I was introduced to this book. Armed with this theory I went to meet Rabbis and lay leaders to ‘show them the light’- ‘I have the answers that they have been waiting for’, I thought to myself. And low and behold the fingers were pointed with satisfaction and pride at the book on their bookshelf as they told me: ‘we got it all sorted’- every Shabbat morning we hand out siddurim and wish the members Shabbat Shalom. We are a very relational community’.
But building a relational community is more complex than that, I thought to myself. It cannot start and end with handing out siddurim and wishing Shabbat shalom. It must be about building meaningful relationship with our members, a value which is at the heart of our Jewish tradition.
In the book of Exodus we learn that the people of Israel lost their patience while waiting for Moses and forced Aaron to build them a golden calf. Ashamed and disappointed at their behaviour, Moses smashed the first tablets.
God was furious and wanted to severely punish the Israelites but Moses pleaded for God’s forgiveness. The story beautifully describes their conversation, at the tabernacle:
‘And God would speak to Moses face-to-face, as one-man-speaks to another’.
The level of intimacy is quite astonishing. In this unlikely scenario Moses tells God – ‘I know I am your favourite and you chose me to be a leader, but you know what? I am quite lonely and cannot do it on my own, if you are not going to lead this with me, let’s not even bother. Your people need to know,’ Moses continued, ‘that they are your favourites too’. God succumbed to Moses’ requests as he acknowledged that indeed Moses was his favourite and subsequently asked Moses to rewrite the tablets.
Then, almost unnoticeably, Moses said –‘Can I please see you?’
And I ask myself why? Why now? Why at all? Hadn’t God and Moses established a good enough relationship that Moses could manage by talking to the pillar of fire or the pillar of cloud?
Obviously something was missing for Moses. He realised that in order for them to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land together, he needed a true and meaningful relationship. And meeting somebody face-to-face is always a good beginning for a meaningful relationship.
In today’s world it is easy to hide behind emails, Twitter and Facebook. People’s friendship circles are too often defined by ‘friends’ on Facebook and Twitter ‘followers’. But these are not deep relationships. Building relationships requires effort, courage and sometimes even conquering fears. Moses sets us an example and teaches us the importance of face-to-face interaction in order to build meaningful relationships.
‘Let’s really get to know each other. Let’s meet face-to-face’ says Moses. This simple moment that has a mixture of real chutzpah and a deep level of intimacy emphasises the relationship between God and Moses. It also distinguishes Moses from any other leader, in fact Moses is the only person that was literally buried by God, as it is says in Deuteronomy: ‘He buried him in the valley, in the land of Moab’ and continues ‘Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom God knew face to face’.
The 20th century Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, explains that a true community arises through the establishment of two sets of relationships. The first arises, through members taking a stand in a mutual relationship with a Living Centre, and the second arises through their being in a mutual relationship with one another; the second has its source in the first. A ‘Living Centre’ – a centre that changes, develops and adapts itself to the ever changing reality and needs of people – in our case Reform Judaism – will be strengthened through members of the community building mutual relationships with one another. Our individual and communal relationships with our Reform Jewish way of life is our obligation, to evolve and to grow, asking questions, challenging and changing if necessary.
When explaining the concept of Relational Judaism, the American Jewish Educator, Dr Wolfson, challenges our synagogues by asking if our level of engagement with our members is simply transactional ie: “I pay you dues, you give me a rabbi on call, a Bar Mitzvah for my kid, High Holy Day seat and so on” or is the level of engagement relational, beyond servicing my immediate needs? For Dr Wolfson, our success shouldn’t be determined by bums on seats or how many programmes we provide. The question we should ask is not, did people enjoy the event but rather, did we engage our members in a significant relationship with Jews and Judaism? Did we deepen their commitment to our values? Did we create new leaders willing to engage peers and others in community?
Like Moses, Dr Wolfson argues that Jewish communities should build face-to-face meaningful relationship with Jews and Judaism in a relational community that offers a path to meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing. Through that, we have a shot at engaging our people in a twenty-first-century Relational Judaism.”
In our mission to strengthen our communities and inspired by the wise words of Moses, Buber and Wolfson, Reform Judaism puts building relationships with its communities, lay leaders and Rabbis as an essential part of our work. By getting to know our communities and listening to their leaders we are creating a true partnership, based on needs, interest and mutual understanding.
As a result, Reform Judaism launched three new initiatives, inspired by what synagogues are telling us.
In our first initiative: Re-imagining leadership– we focus on ‘People before Programming’, that means identifying future leaders through building relationships with members, understanding their self-interest and increase engagement as a result. We are looking to build a new set of habits for congregational renewal across Reform Judaism and are building a group of multi-generational reform leaders to go along with us from communities throughout the UK.
The second is Communities that Care Initiative, focusing on tackling loneliness and isolation – one of the most urgent crises our society faces. We as a force of 42 communities could lead by examples, and have our success replicated nationwide.
The third and final initiative is Empowering Jewish practice – which focuses on ways to bring Judaism and Jewish practice to our everyday lives- encourage a sense of obligation beyond High Holy Days.
Creating those ‘living room moments‘ that empower our members to practice Judaism at home and at their communities.
Building relational communities is at the core of each of those initiatives. Relational communities engage their members in the future of their community, enthuse them about their Jewish journey and give them an opportunity to make a real difference on local and national levels.
I am fortunate and privileged to build relationships and to work with inspiring and dedicated leaders from NWSS. With Jennifer Jankel and her formidable welfare team who are instrumental to the success of Communities that Care initiative and the writers of ‘Sharing Inspiring Practice report’; and with chair Ian Lancaster, the leadership team and your future Rabbi, Kath, who will be implementing the Re-Imagining Leadership Initiative at the community.
When Moses spoke face-to-face with God, that was the moment they truly connected. We are told that Moses wasn’t even aware that his face was physically radiant as a result of the exchange. I’m confident that we will continue to build our relationship, Reform Judaism and NWSS, so that we radiate a light that serves as a beacon and an example of true partnership and strong relationships.