One of the most important things that religion offers is a sense of being part of something larger than oneself. When we are part of the synagogue, as an example, we have the opportunity to bind ourselves to a community, and this can make life less isolating. We may feel uplifted and inspired by the words, presence, and actions of others. We have the sense, most of all, that we need not go it alone.
The same is true for us as a synagogue. Our predecessors at Peninsula Temple Sholom decided to be part of a larger movement, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and that meant we were part of the liberal Reform Movement of Judaism. Now called the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the parent organization of our Reform synagogues has undergone many changes since its founding but still provides a way for us to feel connected to the larger Jewish world.
In November, leaders of the URJ came to PTS for an afternoon of learning with lay and clergy leaders from our area – which included participants like members of our own Board of Trustees as well as rabbis from as far away as Las Vegas. We learned about what it is that the URJ brings to us as a movement and the resources it provides to individual congregations.
As a rabbi, I’ve been inspired and aided by the URJ over the last 20 plus years. Sometimes, the national movement has inspired me to push my congregation in a certain direction. For instance, it was Rabbi Rick Jacobs — president of the URJ — who introduced all of us to the idea of audacious hospitality, making every person who walks through the doors of our synagogues feel welcome. At PTS we took that idea and made it our own — with service greeters and by having our High Holy Day tickets be name badges that make it easier to greet each other warmly, by name, as we come together on the holiest days of the year.
Another way the URJ supports what we do is by helping us feel that with our own homegrown initiatives we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. An example of this is our Caring Community, which grew out of our own Kolot Initiative. It’s not a new idea for congregations to develop robust Caring Communities and the leader of our PTS initiative, Linda Korth, drew heavily upon URJ resources to learn what other congregations have done and accomplished in this realm.
Another way the URJ supports our work is through the Religious Action Center, a great resource for social justice and social action work. I recently gave a talk on gun violence here at PTS and was happy to point congregants who are interested in the topic toward the resources available through the RAC. Another great RAC program we have been a part of is the L’Taken social justice seminar for teens at the RAC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. I have taken PTS teens to the program in the past, and will do so again this winter. It’s a wonderful way to introduce the next generation to the notion that as Jews we have a responsibility to care for each other and our world. It also provides the tools to empower our youth to find their voices and make a difference.
Lay leaders of our congregation have also found the URJ to be a place to share ideas and experiences. In particular, our five most recent past presidents, as well as our current president Lauren Schlezinger, have attended the URJ Scheidt Seminar for synagogue presidents and presidents-elect. All have found the connections made there with other synagogue presidents to be invaluable. They also networked with URJ leaders, participated in discussions about everyday synagogue problems, thought about lessons our Torah teaches about governance, honed leadership skills, and increased their Jewish knowledge.
Yet another way we here at PTS are directly touched by the URJ is through Camp Newman, which is part of our Reform movement’s nationwide network of summer camps. We are one of the top congregations in our area in terms of the number of children we send to Camp Newman every year — to summer as well as school-year programs. Having had a Jewish camp experience is still one of the best predictors of a young person’s lifelong commitment to leading a Jewish life, so the importance of these camps in our Jewish world cannot be overstated.
I encourage all of you to visit the websites of the URJ (reformjudaism.org) and the Religious Action Center (rac.org) to see for yourself resources that are available and to learn about the national conversations going on throughout our movement. We are a part of building not just our own house of worship but a national tent under which all Reform Jews can find connection and comfort. Let us continue our work together to strengthen our tent, to make sure it’s always open to all who seek shelter there, and to continue to work together to heal our world.