Sermon: Vayachel: No Big Deal and the Brickner Fellowship

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 8 March 2014

Last Shabbat, at the Synagogue where I was attending the morning service, a seventy something woman named Miriam came up to the Bimah to open the ark.  This is not a big deal.  Today here at Alyth a woman read Torah, a woman led the Torah service and a woman was the warden.

Also in the congregation where I was for Shabbat, Adat Shalom in Bethesda Maryland, it was no big deal that Miriam came up to open the ark.  Except that for me it was a huge deal once I realised who she was.


This Miriam was Miriam Eisenstein.  Miriam’s father Ira was the founding Rabbi of the Synagogue.  Her grandfather, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan was the founding Rabbi of the Reconstructionist Jewish movement in the USA, which has had a great influence on Reform and Liberal Judaism in the UK.    But it is for neither of these two collosi of American Judaism that I was so moved to see Miriam Eisentstein open the Ark.  It was because of her mother, Judith.


Judith Kaplan-Eistestein was a distinguished teacher of Jewish music at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College in New York.  But in May 1922, Miriam’s mother Judith made history at the age of 12.    Under her father’s tutelage Judith Kaplan was the first woman in the history of the world to become Bat Mitzvah at a Synagogue.  She did not do it quite how we now do here at Alyth.  In 1922, at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism Synagogue in New York, Judith read a Torah portion from a Chumash. The portion which she read was not the portion of the week but rather was an excerpt from the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 – but she was on the Bimah and the event was called Bat Mitzvah.  It took a long time for what Judith did to catch on – the first Bat Mitzvah in a Reform Synagogue took place in the USA in 1931 and it took a little longer still for the Bat Mitzvah to transplant to the UK.  What Judith did though made history.


But here in snowy Bethesda on a Shabbat morning in 2014 her daughter Miriam just got up, as she must have done a hundred times before and opened the ark during a service which had been led by the woman cantor of the Synagogue.  All of which would have been unthinkable both there and here without her mother’s pioneering Bat Mitzvah.


I was in Bethesda, a suburb of Washington DC because of something rather unplanned.  Two Sunday’s ago I flew to Washington in order to commence my studies on the Brickner Fellowship programme of the Union for Reform Judaism.  I’ll tell you more about that in a moment.  After the study seminar ended on Thursday I was meant to go on to Boston to see two innovative Synagogues and a community mikvah there but unfortunately it snowed so deeply in Washington and Boston that the airports were closed and such travel was impossible.  So I stayed in Washington, went to a Reform congregation for a lovely Shabbat evening experience led by Dan Nichols, a prominent Jewish songwriter whose music we use here at Alyth, and Adat Shalom Reconstructionist for Shabbat morning.


The meat of my trip though was previous in the week.   The Brickner Fellowship programme is named for Rabbi Balfour Brickner.  Rabbi Brickner, who died in 2005 was Rabbi of the Stephen S Wise Synagogue in Manhattan but best known as a Rabbinic political activist who was involved in the American civil rights struggle, arrested with Marin Luther King in 1964 at a protest.  He was a leader of the Vietnam antiwar movement (traveling to Paris with an interfaith peace group to meet with Viet Cong leaders) and efforts supporting a woman’s right to choose abortion.


The Religious Action Center which runs the programme has ensured for more than 50 years that Reform Judaism in America brings Jewish values and ideas to the national political debate in America.  It is a campaigning part of Judaism and also one that ensures American Synagogues care about the communities in which they are located, locally, nationally and internationally.  Their Brickner fellowship aims to train thirty Rabbis a year, of which I am the first from outside the USA, to be much more effective in their social justice work within and outside of their congregations.


As well as last week’s seminar there will be regular distance learning and then the three day Consultation on Conscience back in Washington next April where congregations across America come together to train lay leaders and to work out the social issues upon which Reform Judaism should vocal and active.  I hope to bring an Alyth delegation to this consultation to bring, for the first time a British perspective.


What did we learn in this seminar?  What will stand out for me, alongside the value of new working relationships with 29 passionate and driven Rabbis, is the approach to teaching Jewish classical texts that we were taught.   Three key issues in American legislation were the keynote of the seminar – the campaign for gun control in a country where mass shootings are a regular occurrence and over 10,000 people per year kill themselves with a gun they own, the campaign to end discrimination against gay people in the American workplace – it is currently legal in many US states to deny a person a job or even goods or service simply because they are gay or lesbian or transgender and the campaign for comprehensive immigration reform in a country where 12 million people currently live without documentation or rights given the slow and inefficient working of the US immigration system.   These are all American issues but they have their UK counterparts – the issue of knife violence among young people in the UK, the campaign now won for marriage equality in the UK and the complexities around immigration here too, which we address in our local way with the Alyth Refugee Drop In and Homelessness Shelter, whose final winter week of operation was this week.


What we were taught was how to work with Jewish texts to bring an authentic Jewish voice to these issues.  The danger, our teachers reminded us is that we cherry pick Jewish texts to back up our prejudices and chuck them at the issue on which we are commenting.  So for example suppose we were looking at the issue of immigration – this is an issue of to whom do we extend the rights and protection of the home born.  Perhaps in teaching or preaching about this we might quote a text from Talmud Gittin 59-61 that we sustain the poor, visit the sick and bury the dead of the stranger alongside those of our own mipnei darchei ha shalom , for the sake of the ways of peace.


Now this well known text conforms nicely with my probably Jewishly inspired feeling that loving the stranger is one of the key qualities of Judaism which can absolutely be applied to how we should treat new immigrants to this country whatever circumstances brought them here in the first place.  Our teachers Rabi Tzvi Blanchard and Rabbi Michael Nemeth taught us that rather than cherry picking that text we should look back at the whole flow of texts on mipnei darchei ha shalom , for the sake of the ways of peace.


What we find is that these texts talk about how fruit is fairly harvested, what you should do if you discover an animal trapped in a snare set by another person, how do deal with watercourses in disputed land even that Coahanim and Levites are called up first to  Torah.  Now imagine working with all of these texts with an interested group from the congregation.  We could then extract the principles that underlie them and know better the direction that our tranditon is guiding us in – which in this case is much more about the avoidance of potential for conflict, a search for inclusion and the protection of eveyone’s rights, the strong as well as the weak as some simple lets be nice to each other message.  We will then have a more genuine Jewish voice on the issue.


We will in Rabbi Blanchard’s words be finding what Jewish tradition asks us on an issue, the eternal questions of how to organise a Godly society, rather than blustering on thinking we know what our tradition tells us on an issue.


We studied texts like these for many hours each day around topics connected with the three legislative issues that were the headlines of the seminar – and I feel that I came away with a new insight on how to teach about Judaism and social justice.  We also learned in practical sessions such as how to write an effective “op-ed” for a newspaper or website, how to use todays social media for effective social action, how to work with our congregations to communicate our social justice work.


The message of the Brickner Seminar, and of the Religious Action Center’s work as a whole is absolutely in line with Hillel’s dictum – If am only for myself what am I?  It is that Judaism has a voice on the world around us that should not be restricted to our own narrow Jewish community interests. We have to learn and train how to use this voice effectively.


Our Torah portion tells us today that effective Jewish action is built out of energising the skills of all of our congregations.  In the passage from Vayakhel which Jan read for us we heard that the women of Israel and the men of Israel, the rulers of Israel as well as the regular folk, the skilled technocrats and artists as well as the schleppers – all came together to build the mischan – a place for God’s presence.  So too we Rabbis must work with our whole Jewish people to bring the Jewish voice to the problems and challenges of our society.


A year from now I hope that Alyth will bring a British Jewish voice to our issues here in London but also to join American Jews to be more effective in getting the world around us that little bit closer to a place where God’s presence can be felt in peace.