Proud to be (also) Reform. Notes from a Kindergarten Graduation in Jerusalem.

This week I both denied and then embraced being part of the reform movement.

On Tuesday I was giving a lecture in Tel Aviv and introduced  to the audience (500 or so mostly secular Israelis) as a “Reform Rabbi”. When taking the podium, about to talk about Ezra the Scribe and his 2,500 year old religion  revolution, I joked about that term ‘reform’ being generic for ‘non-orthodox’ and corrected – I am being ordained at a Conservative Institute because I strongly believe in the philosophy and historical-positive approach, consider myself non-denominational or Polydox, and am leading an ‘everybody friendly’ congregation that is still figuring it out. The nuance went over most heads of those present. But anyway. 



Today I was proud to be associated with and part of Reform Judaism.
Ezra, 5 years old, graduated Kindergarten in Jerusalem’s Beit Shmuel, the Reform Movement’s Campus. It’s a great gan. For the past six months I’ve dropped him off and picked him up, chatting with the teachers and some parents and followed up with him on lessons learned and songs he liked to repeat. He made good friends who are Israeli natives or came here from Ethiopia, Argentina, USA. His Hebrew skills improved a lot.
The graduation lasted as long as university ceremonies do and I was in tears through most of it. Not just because here was this amazing kid growing under my eyes, and not just because my mother, his savta Joan, sat next to me, while his Mommy and Ima were there beaming and taking lots of pictures and videos – surrounded by so many thrilled  parents, grandparents and siblings.
Mostly because the entire focus of the celebration was about diversity, tolerance and pluralism. The kids marched in with flags of the whole world, singing a
Naomi Shemer song about the different blessings and countries – a song I knew as a kid and can now share with Ezra. The other songs were about ‘the other’, a dance explicitly focused on ‘black and white and other colors’ called out racism in a real way. Ezra and his dance partner, Ethiopian born Hadassah, gave each other big hugs at the end of the number.
(BTW: When the ceremony was over, one of the teachers said to me – ‘just before it started, Ezra turned to Hadassah and said to her, in Hebrew – now we have to be serious, this is FOR REAL.” A stage hound! and yes, the re-emergence of Hadassah in surprising ways did not escape my mythic imagination either, dear readers with historical context..)
One of the skits that the kids put together was about black sheep and pink sheep in the herd – and how they started off suspicious of ‘other’ but then got around to celebrating differences.
They ended with a prayer, many hand gestures and amens, to a playback recording ( a common feature, whatever happened to live musicians?) , that had us all standing and praying along – for patience, for love, schmaltzy and beautiful.
OK. I’m a gushing abba, but I’m a proud pluralistic Jew – seeing, hands on, educational values walked and talked in compelling ways that don’t highlight a triumphalist, separatist, nationalistic Jewishness that shuns out the other. It wasn’t about God, and it wasn’t about individual kids being coddled either – it was about the power of We. the greater all inclusive We.
I wish there more ‘others’ for him to play and dance with – not just other Jews. But that, too, will happen with time – in NYC and back here.
At the end of the day, for me, labels don’t matter. There are wonderful schools and teachers and truths across denominations and multiple affiliations these days run the gamut. But this week I AM proud to be associated with Reform Judaism – If only as a doting abba and a fan of a good school system when I see one.
 Unlike my dear friend Neshama Carlebach I’m not coming out with a press statement, but like her, and like so many of my teachers and peers, including a revered mentor, teacher and role model Rabbi Rick Jacobs – I am honored to stand along Reform leaders, teachers, parents and children who bring out the best in a Judaism that honors all voices, genders, choices and expressions with an equal measure of seriousness and silly joy.
Mazal Tov Ezra!  Thank you Beit-Shmuel and your fantastic teachers.
Stay tuned for parental observations from Camp Ramah.
Shabbat Shalom.

Dynastic Dilemma & my Cousin David, The New Chief Rabbi: Word #42

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A new prince was born this week, and two new chief rabbis elected
One of them my cousin. 

The common denominator for all three? Dynasty.

Born into the right-tight club, these very different individuals are serving some ancient human code of pedigree and privilege in which some people are worth more than others and assume symbolic roles that do or don’t matter any more, but mean something, still, to many. 

In London, the Windsors secured another heir, who will smile and wave, cut ribbons and make sure the tourist industry continues fueling the long gone empire. 

In Jerusalem 150 people (12 of whom women) and mostly (only orthodox) rabbis voted on the next round of two chief rabbis. And though in theory its about merit and election – this time it was also about bloodlines – and a lot about bloody politics and ugly deals that have done little to celebrate the sacred role of religion or rabbis in the public arena. 

The new Asheknazi chief, Rabbi David Lau, better known to me as  Dudi, is the son of my uncle, the former chief rabbi Israel Lau. Rabbi Isaac Yosef is the new Sefardic leader -son of Ovadia Yosef, the leader of Shas and former chief rabbi as well. 

This has been the most down and dirty race for rabbinic rule in recent history if not ever, exposing this post for what it has become – a political slot, catering to few, with spiritual leadership that cares for the entire people long forgotten, living only in hollow words and gestures that few if any still believe. 

It’s about power – and about dynastic claims. And money.  The call to split up religion and state just got louder. 

I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with dynastic rule – one generation handing the baton to another with the survival of the fittest gene working overtime. 
There is something to say for the genes.  And my cousin is an eloquent speaker and a fine man, just like his father. 
As a fringe member of the Lau clan, with rabbis in our blood going back more than 30 generations, I am open to the idea that somehow qualities are transmitted and leadership is continued, skipped around and maintained, regardless of nepotism. 

But not at all costs – and not just because you happen to be born into this or that entitled tribe and satisfy the whims of politicians.  

A rabbi, not to mention the Chief Rabbi of a country or a nation- needs to be someone who truly stands for, respects, and represents the greater majority  if not all of the people served. And that isn’t happening right now, with all due respect to my cousin and his worthy colleagues. They sure don’t represent me or most of the Jews on the planet. 

I may be pleasantly surprised, and I think he’s smart and gets what ahead – even though the political machine is a complex beast with rough agendas.  I plan to reach out to him and hope for a heartfelt dialogue. I mean, we played basketball together as kids and slept in the same room..

And meanwhile: It’s time to seriously rethink and challenge this formula of rabbinic rule in Israel, and look careful at this dynastic model. And we have alternative role models to work with. 

Historically, at least in theory, Jews were led by two parallel types of spiritual leadership – one based on blood line and one based on qualifications. 
Moses, the first rabbi, hands over the reigns to Joshua – leader elect, and so on for generations of rabbis and leaders chosen based on merit and skills. Aaron, the first High Priest  hands it over to his son, and so on, Cohen and sons. 

In this week’s Torah text, Ekev, this first transfer of power is recalled: 

“..Aaron died, and there he was buried; and Eleazar his son officiated in the priest’s office in his stead. 

The priestly tradition died, and while Cohens still get some respect they are not the ones to lead us. In the Hasidic world, heirs matter. But when it comes to rabbis, we should stick to the Moses model, and carefully avoid dynastic deals. That’s not what it is about. 

We need real rabbis who will touch our souls, inspire us and teach us how to take good care of our tradition for the next 3,000 years – with all required tweaks and changes. Not just those who will keep on holding to what we know works already. Rabbis need to take risks. 

Earlier this week I was reminded of one such great religious leader, who came from the line of great rabbis but forged his own unique rabbinic voice in ways that broke with where he came from, broke many hearts but mended countless others.

I was invited to attend a preview of ‘Soul Doctor’ the musical about Reb Shlomo Carlebach – the singing rabbi, now on Broadway. 
My dear friend and soul-sister Neshama invited me and sat next to me as the story of her father’s life unfolded on the stage. I cried from the first moment and all through (the super long!) first act. 
Why? Because the music is magical, the story hypnotic and the memories flooded me: some of my earliest ones include listening to Reb Shlomo play, and some of the more formative ones of my spiritual evolution have him featured as well. He opened my heart to spirit and to singing in ways that are with me still today. 
Reb Shlomo was a complex figure with a mixed bag of legacy and some regrets. 
But nobody can take away what he had given us – access to the highest high and the deepest deep. He took risks, rose to the challenge of transmitting the sacred story and paid a high price for his relentless truth. 
I hope the play is successful and many more people get to see this vibrant version of what a rabbi is, and should be about. 

To my esteemed cousin, a heartfelt blessing for success and courage and the good will to be God’s messenger for peace in the land and in the hearts of all people. You got a big job ahead. (Happy to help..)

to Diana’s grandson – may your life be dedicated, like hers, to bringing more love and dignity and style to the world. 

And to the rest of us simple folks – here’s to a sabbath of peace. Or as Reb Shlomo used to sing: good shabbes, good shabess..

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.