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Reform Judaism's Enduring Values Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, December 20, 2013

At a big conference, like the recent Union of Reform Judaism’s San Diego biennial, a gathering of 5,000 lay leaders and synagogue professionals, getting time on stage in a plenary session is a sign that what you have to say is thought to be particularly important. That is why I was a little surprised that the launching of the Reform movement’s new summer camp, the 6 points Sci-Tech Academy took place at the Thursday night session shortly before Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the URJ, delivered a major address.

Opening this new camp was a sensible move for Reform Judaism, but was it that significant?

Reflecting on it during the conference, I decided that opening this camp was not only a well thought out strategic move, but was also meaningful as a symbol of what Reform Judaism is about.

The new Science-Technology Academy is part of the Reform movement’s focus on youth engagement and in particular on retaining young people’s involvement in the Jewish community through their teen years. It is also part of a strategy to entice young boys for Jewish camping experiences, along with the young girls who are currently disproportionate among those signing up for Jewish religiously affiliated summer camps.

In addition, it is meant to take advantage of the emphasis Jewish parents place on academics and particularly on achievement in STEM- science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Now Jewish families won’t have to choose between their children getting a significant Jewish experience or participating in an enriching academic experience- they will be able to do the two together.

The new camp which will open this summer in the Boston area, will offer programs for 5th-8th graders in robotics and engineering, video game design, environmental science and digital media production - along with Shabbat and song sessions, programs on Israel and Jewish topics, and the camaraderie that makes Jewish camping so significant in the lives of those who attend. Had it existed a few years ago I think I could have perhaps convinced my daughter Shifrah to attend- she wasn’t a Camp Newman kid. Maybe you have children or grandchildren who would similarly be interested.

The presentation at the plenary session was made by Paul Zaloom who starred in the children's television science program Beakman's World. Like many other things at the conference, it was quite theatrical. But I think choosing to introduce the new camp this way was more than marketing. It was part of a message to the community and to ourselves about what Reform Judaism is about and how we are going about facing the future.

Many of our young people have experienced religion in the public sphere only in negative ways. Religion is a source of dissension, even violence and war. Religion is backward, anti-science, it is preventing progress in areas valued by our young people whether it’s protecting the environment, granting civil rights to all people regardless of their sexual orientation, or allowing reproductive choice.

Opening a science camp is one small way that our movement says, that’s not who we are. We are not wishing to go backwards in history, we are not denying our intelligence in order to be religious, we are not promoting intolerance in order to secure Judaism’s future.

When my daughter got married, her husband’s parents were a bit anxious about their son marrying the daughter of a rabbi. They themselves were secular people who had rebelled against their parents’ conservative Christianity. When we met for the first time, Matt’s father grilled me on all the issues of the day. What did Reform Judaism say about abortion, about evolution, all the social issues that were part of the political campaign going on at that time, and as I talked you could see him relax, perhaps his son wasn’t marrying into such a family of fanatics. Maybe one could be religious and a reasonable person, that is a person with a commitment to reason, to the reality based community. That is where Reform Judaism began in the early 19th century and that is where we still stand. There have been many changes in our movement. We now put on yarmulkes and talleisim, have more Hebrew in our prayers, and some Temples even begin their services with a deep breath, and meditation-- all the changes that have come into our synagogues since the demise of classical Reform. But even as we have moved away from some aspects of Classical Reform, we are still Reform Jews, the movement in Judaism that seeks to unite our minds and our hearts, not to compartmentalize but to bring reason and modernity, the thinking that we do in other areas of our lives, to our religious identity as well.

In his presidential address, Rabbi Jacobs was direct on this point. Speaking about Reform Judaism responding to its more traditional critics, he said:

We believe that our understanding of Judaism is right: that God did not literally hand down sacred laws in the Bible and the Mishnah at Sinai, but rather that from our encounter with the Divine, Jews have written our sacred texts, striving to understand in their own time what God called them to do. That process has continued through the centuries, and it continues today. We are not the way out, but the way in, the way to being fully Jewish and modern, Jewish and inclusive, Jewish and universal, Jewish and compassionate, Jewish and deeply committed also to science, the arts, and the human community in its constant evolutionary spiral toward sustaining the planet and bettering life for everyone who lives upon it.

The Reform movement has gone through many changes in its 200 year history but the recent Biennial confirmed to me that our core commitments as Reform Jews endure.

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