Jul 2008

Parashat Mattot

William Lipsey is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program (Metrowest NJ). He is President of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, on the board of the Masorti Israel Foundation, and is Managing Principal of Pzena Investment Management.  He can be reached at Lipsey@pzena.com.

Having spent my professional life in the investment business, I always thought that our inspiring and dedicated Wexner teacher, Rabbi Herb Friedman, z”l, had an innate perspective on investing: “big risks, big rewards…little risks, little rewards” he said to us on many occasions when considering leaders and their willingness to embrace the challenges they faced.

For the past two weeks in parshiyot Balak and Pinchas, and then again this week in Mattot, we learn that Pinchas takes dramatic, indeed violent action, in order to prevent the people from straying from God and Judaism. He was the right leader at the right time for this task. He had the level of passion necessary to take bold action. Many would have considered this course of action too risky, but Pinchas knew it would enhance and protect the Jewish nation. I will leave as obvious that no leader today should conclude from the text that vigilantism produces desired results, and focus instead on the incredible “big risk – big reward” modern leadership lessons we can derive from Pinchas.

The challenges we face as Jewish leaders in 2008 and beyond require the same big risk initiatives as they have in every age. Even in the face of the often daunting barriers of turf, egos, and bureaucracy we must strive to impact our future. Birthright Israel, at first opposed by the establishment, is now praised as one of the great successes at connecting young Diaspora Jews to Israel. The Foundation for Jewish Camp was at first met with skepticism and now is broadly considered the model for impacting our youngest children. These examples remind us of the possibilities.

In my own Conservative movement the establishment institutions and status quo are difficult to navigate. Strategies to energize and effect change are met with both subtle and direct messages that we must stay within established bounds.  But that is just not so! This past May, our family visited Israel on our own “family mission” of sorts. Having been there many times, our goal was not touring but connecting and impacting. In particular, we were seeking to engage with Israelis to help enhance access to Masorti Judaism (as the Conservative movement is known in Israel) as an authentic expression of Judaism and a legitimate Israeli alternative to establishment orthodoxy.

Looking back 60 years at Israel as the State was founded, it looked different than it does today in so many ways. One clear distinction is the role and nature of religion. The Haredi community was relatively small. Many of the Jews who came to Israel from Europe, who may have considered themselves secular, came with Jewish ritual and experience from their homes. While they didn’t call it Masorti or Conservative or Reform Judaism, they practiced a form of traditional Judaism we would recognize.

Flash forward 60 years; three generations of Israeli Jews have been born and the Haredi community controls official Jewish practice in the State of Israel. The descendents of many of the “secular” Jews who arrived from Europe have become truly alienated from Jewish tradition and practice. For many modern Israelis, the Torah, the Mishnah, and the Gemara have become history books rather than sacred texts and life guideposts. Religion has become inaccessible and unappealing to a huge swath of the population.

 Rather than limiting the choice to the polarity of either ultra-Orthodox or nothing, Masorti Judaism (and Reform Judaism) has entered seeking to bridge the gap. Masorti Judaism as a movement in Israel is celebrating its 30th year. Today there are approximately 50 Masorti kehillot, 17 with their own buildings and 25 with their own rabbis. In June the Masorti Movement announced the “Wedding Initiative,” offering young Israelis access to a ceremony both grounded in halacha and connected to modern life. The response has been extraordinary as Israelis are jumping at the chance to blend tradition and modernity in Israel.

Our lives become enriched as we embrace the opportunity to perfect the world, to engage in tikkun olam. In my own shul, we have developed powerful bonds of connection and identity through human bridges built with communities throughout Israel. When the Israeli government announced its plan to help subsidize Masorti communities instead of just Orthodox shuls, our kehilla responded. We partnered with the Yedid Nefesh community in Modi’in, providing both the matching funds required by the government and the human bonds that will enhance both worlds. Our family mission included participating in their dedication ceremony, opening our eyes to the critical mission of enabling young sabras to engage in Judaism both halachic and modern, an experience none of us will ever forget. When the Zichron Ya’akov community of V’ahavta needed a Torah, our community provided one that our family was honored to transport to Israel. This Torah will be on loan to V’ahavta for now and ultimately to other Masorti communities throughout Israel.

One of my fellow Wexner Heritage graduates, upon hearing of these experiences, reminded me that there is so much more we can do both to help transform Israeli society and enrich our own lives. “Why not create a program offering a free year of study in a Masorti yeshiva after high school; we’ll catch them a little earlier than Birthright,” he said. He’s right, and just like Pinchas, we too must find pathways to break through the status quo and fulfill our destiny as Jewish leaders.