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Making the Old, New

I spent last weekend with 800 of our fellow Reform Jews in Washington D.C. I was there to take part in celebrating 150 years of the Union for Reform Judaism, originally the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. In attendance were the leaders of our movement, prominent speakers, authors and teachers. The weekend allowed us to reflect on the past 150 years of Reform life in America, the many ways it has changed and evolved, as we considered where the movement must go from here. It was good to be together. It was good to feel the love and support of community, especially now.

150 years is a long time. Our world was a drastically different place when Reform Judaism came to this country. Everything we experience today was different then: technology, medicine, transportation, government, art, music and the list goes on. To be a rabbi or cantor 150 years ago was a drastically different experience than it is today. To be a kid, to be a Confirmand, to be a parent, to be a Reform Jew was vastly different then.

The beauty of the Reform movement is that it has had the courage to change as the world around us has changed. The great rabbi and teacher, Lawrence Hoffman, noted this weekend that the prayerbook is less a book and more a script that is written and re-written given the events of the day. It changed following the Holocaust. It changed when Israel was born. It changed as we acknowledged people across gender and sexuality, race and religion. Even recently, in the harrowing days since October 7, our Friday night services have grown to include extensive prayers and reflections on our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land.

So much of the weekend was devoted to nostalgia, the music and melodies that many of us grew up singing. We heard echoes of camp and NFTY, readings and prayers from The Union Prayer Book and Gates of Prayer. There is of course comfort in looking back. We are brought back to times that were seemingly much simpler. Our lives were perhaps less complex and less daunting than today. We see in our mind’s eye people who brought us solace and were with us in times of uncertainty. We think back to the places and the memories that made us who we are.

It is indeed profoundly Jewish act to look back and raise up what was and who was. Our Alienu prayer ends: ‘Renew our days as of old.’ We Jews look back again and again: to remember, to learn, to honor, to heal, for encouragement, for guidance, for perspective.

As we approach these final days of December, there is a natural inclination to look back on the year that was. It was – to be sure – a long and often difficult year. What happened in Israel has rocked our very existence. While Israel fights for Her survival, we fight against a rising tide of vitriol and antisemitism in our own lives. In Congress, at the U.N., online, on TV, from our neighbors and school boards we see much narrowmindedness and ignorance. It was thus a year that peeled away layers of safety that we believed were there, protections and alliances we wanted to believe were real.

But let’s also say this: It was a year that brought our community together, united by our faith, our values, a Torah that urges us toward compassion and profound empathy no matter the circumstances.

My weekend in D.C. was not only about looking backward, however; it was also about looking ahead. Where must the Reform movement go now? How must Reform Judaism continue to evolve? How will we embrace technology, lean further into our social justice work, continue to support and love an imperfect Israel, bring in the marginalized, fight hard against antisemitism near and far? How will we inspire the next generation of Reform Jews? These are the questions that keep me going. These are the questions that the KI leadership is thinking about all the time. I imagine you are thinking about them as well.

In our own lives, how can we, to echo both the Alienu and the theme for our year, ‘make the old, new?’ How can we bring our age-old values forward to a new year? Can we hold onto our faith and our heritage and our Torah even when the world seeks to denigrate us? Can we stand up as proud Jews even when the world would aim to knock us down? Can we continue to come from a place of love in spite of it all? Can we say out loud, ‘hineni,’ I am here, I am a Jew, I am proud to be part of this people, as so many of our ancestors proclaimed in their own day? Can we dare to walk into 2024 with hope and with optimism? For me, the answer is ‘yes.’ Yes, hineni. It’s the only answer we know.