02 May 2012

Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship

I participated this year in a unique opportunity for rabbis produced by Clal - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.  Called Rabbis Without Borders (RWB), the fellowship consisted of meeting four times in New York City at Clal's offices in midtown Manhattan for two days apiece (thank God, during the week and not on shabbat).  One thing that immediately stands out for any rabbi or, for that matter, anybody in the Jewish non-profit world is that the fellowship pays entirely for the fellows' travel and hotel stay (and not a hotel half-way across the city; the hotel is located less than a block away from their office), which sends a message before one even participates that they are serious about what they are trying to accomplish.  
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (Clal Co-President), Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu (Rabbis Without Borders Director), and Rabbi Irwin Kula (Clal Co-President)
               In my cohort, there were twenty-three participants, hailing from all across the country (plus two out-of-country fellows (one in Vancouver, BC and the other in Kingston, Jamaica)), all in different rabbinic positions, with most holding pulpit positions.  The age demographics were interesting, as I was one of three of the youngest at 30 (okay, I was the youngest, but the other two were close), with most of the participants in their 50s and 60s.  This year was the third such RWB cohort, with plans for future years of the program, including an alumni retreat with other RWBers.  
             Each of the four sessions centered around a particular topic: the first was on Sociology of Religion in America, the second on Technology & Communication, the third on Politics & Religion, and the last one on Happiness.  Each of the sessions featured guest speakers: the first featured Professor Gustav Niebuhr, the second featured Daniel Sieradski and Rabbi Owen Gottlieb, the third featured Steven Waldman, and the fourth featured Emiliya Zhivotovskaya.
Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard dropping serious knowledge
             Although the featured guest speakers were great, the most important pieces that I got out of the program were from the Clal rabbinic staff.  Rabbi Irwin Kula and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield were tremendously instrumental in pushing ideas.  Although he was only there for one session, Rabbi Dr. Tsvi Blanchard, who is one of this country's most insightful rabbis, ran a text study that was mind-blowing to everyone in the room.
             The most significant (although there were many throughout all four sessions) take-away for me came from Rabbi Kula, who said that, "Judaism is a technology that helps humanity to flourish."  This and other following insights all came from this tremendously significant discussion (that I can't recommend highly enough - download it now (heck, I'm downloading it now, even though I was in the room at the time and took copious notes)) (another good download from that session is Rabbi Hirschfield's reflections on sociology of religion in America and its relevance for American Jewish life, which is available here (and is in response to Professor Niebuhr's talk on five significant issues for religions in America, available here)).  Typically, we think of rabbis as teaching Jewish wisdom to Jews so that they can do Jewishly and stay Jewish and be Jewish, etc.  What Rabbi Kula was pushing was to consider rabbis as more than just for Jews, but more broadly considering them as American wisdom teachers.  Rabbis possess wisdom and practice to help human beings to be better and this technology is Torah.  And not just teaching Jews in order to protect American Jewish life (worries about security and survival is what is at the core of organized Jewish life in America), but to teach Torah to anybody who is interested in improving their lives through Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield leading a discussion
            There's more, of course, but the central piece was thinking more broadly about the Torah and Jewish wisdom that rabbis in America can impart to the society at large.  Their hopes are to not only continue adding to their alumni lists of rabbis who've been pushed in and considered this way of thinking, but to impact and shape the American rabbinate (who they see as important pieces of Jewish life) and, more broadly, the American Jewish landscape.  Time will tell if Clal will be able to achieve these effects, but they are certainly doing well in their efforts and I am glad I had this excellent experience.


Christine Sublett said...

I am thrilled to see a program like Clal, but am disappointed that most, if not all of the participants are pulpit rabbis. There are so many rabbis in non-traditional, non-pulpit roles who are pushing the envelope and should be participating. Does Clal have any intention to encourage their participation, or are they focused only on those with congregations? I hope not, since I think much of the innovation to come in Judaism should come from sources other than those.

Drew Kaplan said...

Christine - Clal is not focusing only on pulpit rabbis. As one of the non-pulpit rabbis in my cohort, there were several others who were not serving in pulpits. I think it just happens to be that most of the rabbis there were serving in pulpits.