Parasha Lech Lecha

We Are All ImmigrantsOne of the great pleasures of being a rabbi in Chicagoland is the opportunity to hear scholars from all parts of the world who come to our area to speak. That pleasure is only surpassed by sharing what I have learned with you, my congregation. This past Thursday I had the privilege of attending a rabbinic institute featuring the new President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Aaron Panken. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America’s first Jewish seminary and is responsible for teaching and ordaining all of the Reform rabbis in the United States. Rabbi Panken is a true “Renaissance man”. In addition to his Rabbinic Ordination and Doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies, he has a Bachelors of Science in Electrical Engineering from Johns Hopkins and is a certified commercial pilot and sailor. How a person who is 50 years old has the time and energy to accomplish all of that and be married with two children is truly a remarkable accomplishment. Rabbi Panken’s talk was based on the first two verses of this week’s Torah portion. “G-d said to Avram, ‘Go forth from your land, from your birth place, and from the home of your father to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great people, and I will bless you, and I will magnify your name, and you will be a blessing.’” Rabbi Panken asked us to consider, “What was it like for Abraham to go into the future, and not know what it looks like?” He then asked us to consider this question from the perspective of an American Jewish community that metaphorically is moving into a new place, an unknown future where things will be very different from what we have known.  We are all immigrants to a new land, he said. What does it feel like to move to a new place? First, one experiences a sense of loss. One misses the comfort of being in a place where one is familiar. There is an initial sense of disorientation. Then there is the anxiety. Where are we going? G-d tells Abraham that he is going “to a place that I will show you.” It is not a place of Abraham’s own choosing. It is to a place with an uncertain future, of unknown challenges. This is also the situation of the American Jewish community, says Rabbi Panken. We are heading somewhere that will be very different from where we are today. That place is certainly not one of our own choosing! G-d promises Abraham many blessings. These blessings are good, and big, but they are not specific. The future is promising, but Abraham has no idea what it will look like. This is true of the American Jewish community as well. We too can look forward to many blessings. What will they be? How do we work toward them? We know things are changing in the country as a whole. We know that these changes will affect the Jewish community in profound ways. And, we know that the Jewish community is changing as well. Our own community reflects the changes happening in society as a whole.  On Tuesday I attended a meeting of the Naperville Interfaith Leadership Association. We met with Dan Bridges, Superintendent of District 203 and Dr. Karen Sullivan, Superintendent of District 204. The presented some interesting statistics. Since 2000, the student population of each District has decreased by five percent. Experts forecast that over the next several years it will continue to decrease slightly, before it levels out. District 204 will become a majority minority school district within two years. In other words, District 204’s racial and ethnic minorities will make up over half of the student population. By 2043 it is projected that the United States will be a majority minority country, with over half the population composed of ethnic and racial minorities. Given the overall decrease in student population in our community, it is not surprising that Congregation Beth Shalom’s student population is lower than it was a number of years ago. Our youth numbers are tracking the numbers of the overall population of our area. The community in general is aging. Add to this an American Jewish birth rate that is below replacement level, and we can begin to see some of the challenges our community, and the American Jewish community as a whole, faces in the not too distant future. Like Abraham, we have some idea where we are going, but we know exactly how it will look when we get there.  What will Israel-Diaspora relations look like in the future? How will declining Jewish birthrate and declining rates of affiliation affect synagogue membership?  Will the Jewish community need to organize itself differently?  How will Jews maintain a sense of community and cohesiveness as we cease to live in specifically Jewish neighborhoods and spread out across metropolitan areas and across the country? Rabbi Panken laid out some of the challenges of the future for us. How do we educate our children in the future? Are after school religious schools, the model we have been following since the 1920’s, capable of educating the youth of the twenty first century?  The demands on children and families are so different now from when I was growing up, yet the model of Jewish education has remained essentially the same. How far can synagogues stretch in order to attract and keep members?  Is a membership model of affiliation the way that communities should be organized?  How does the role of rabbi need to change in the American Jewish community of the future? Change is inevitable, and we will need to work together to meet its challenges. It will take innovation and experimentation to address the needs of the American Jewish community of the future. As a cautionary note about change, Rabbi Panken taught us the following passage from the Talmud:  The Rabbis decreed that ten cups of wine should be consumed at a house of mourning : Three before the meal to increase the appetite; three during the meal to aid digestion; one each for the four blessings of the grace after meals. To these ten, later rabbis added four more: one to honor those who did the burial, one to honor those who helped pay for the burial, one in honor of the Temple, and one in honor of Rabban Gamliel. They began to observe that they were drinking and becoming intoxicated. So, they returned to their prior practice of drinking only ten cups of wine. The moral of the story is that sometimes innovations can have unintended consequences. Along with innovation should come assessment. We should never be afraid to admit we made a mistake. After all, when you are an immigrant in a new land, you are bound to take a wrong turn or two!  Shabbat Shalom.