Reform Judaism

Remembering Al Vorspan, My Teacher and Hero

My teacher, friend, and hero Al Vorspan has died. I suppose I knew this day would come—it was 10 years ago when I first heard him say, “I’m so old that I don’t even buy green bananas anymore”—but it’s hard to believe we live in a world that Al no longer inhabits.

By the way, if that seems irreverent, I feel okay using that line about the bananas, because Al was one of the funniest people on the planet. He was also one of the most righteous, and humor + righteousness is a powerful combination. (Consider the alternatives: Humor without righteousness can be terribly cruel. Righteousness without humor can be stultifyingly pretentious.)

Others will eulogize him more fully than I, but the arc of his career includes essentially being the preeminent voice of Judaism and social justice throughout the second half of the 20th century. He was a committed Zionist and a passionate fighter against antisemitism. He was director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, a builder of the Religious Action Center in DC, a leader in the civil rights and nuclear freeze movements, and zealous fighter for human rights. He sat in a jail cell in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 with sixteen rabbis, brought south to protest segregation at the behest of Martin Luther King. He taught rabbinical students at HUC the history of the Jewish involvement in the Great Causes of the century, in a class that basically consisted of Al and Rabbi Jerry Davidson telling their stories from the trenches. (I fear I still owe them a paper.) He authored textbooks, sourcebooks on Jewish social justice, and at least four collections of humor. He also was a hysterically failed candidate for Congress, the wellspring of some of his best stories.  

His name should be thundered from the mountaintops as one of the Great Jews of Our Time.

In 2007, I was at the Consultation on Conscience, the Reform movement’s bi-annual political action conference in Washington, and grabbing 30 minutes alone with Al was always one of the reasons I attended. We decided to sit together for the next session, to be addressed by a certain ex-Governor who was running as a Republican candidate for President. (I remember exactly who it was, but that weasel doesn’t deserve to have his name in the same essay where I’m remembering a tzaddik like Al.)

This guy—a not terribly sophisticated conservative, unprepared by his aides, addressing a progressive Jewish organization—gave a speech that was a comedy of errors. I remember when he told us his qualifications to be President:  I served many years as Governor, before going into business and making some money… which is something I understand you people know a little something about. (Paging Ilhan Omar!!!)  Al turned to me, and his jaw was on the floor.

Al’s face was getting redder and redder as this guy lumbered through his policy initiatives, including clearing his state’s welfare rolls, shackling labor unions, etc. But then he got to Jewish issues, and he wanted this group to know that he was a supporter in the fight against antisemitism. He was a longtime friend of the ADL. Except that he didn’t say “ADL.” He kept saying, over and over, “…JDL… JDL…JDL.”  The first time might be excused as a slip; the third showed this guy didn’t have a clue about Jewish organizations. (The JDL was the radical, violent organization run by the late and unlamented Meir Kahane. The ADL, of course, is quite different; it’s one of the premier civil rights and interfaith bridge-building organizations in our system.)

Well, Al Vorspan, the voice of Jewish social justice, just about had steam blowing out of his earholes. After the speech, one of the governor’s flacks came to the podium and informed us that the governor didn’t mean any of the things that he had just spent twenty minutes telling us. It was a comedy—and I was so glad to share this moment with Al. We laughed and groaned about it for years afterwards.

A few years back, I invited Al to speak in my community on the 40th yartzeit of Martin Luther King. He agreed readily, and said, “What do you want me to accomplish?” I told him: “Al, I think that too many people simply don’t know the stories from the era. Tell them the stories.” Which he did, brilliantly.

The other thing that I think people forget is why we’re supposed to do the work of social justice. Al would send us back to the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and he wrote at least two textbooks on their messages. At a time when the “prophetic voice” has been emptied of all but its hoariest clichés, it would be a good idea to launch a study of the Prophets in Al’s honor. (I was distressed to hear that some Reform synagogues are getting rid of the Shabbat Haftarah reading, because their bar mitzvah kids just couldn’t “connect” to the words. What a relinquishing of one of the most crucial Jewish literary gifts to the world!)

Around three thousand years ago, a religious phenomenon—prophecy—arose in the Ancient Near East. Prophets had a direct line to G-d, and delivered the divine message to an audience that often didn’t want to receive it. The prophets gave equilibrium to a religious world of priestly worship and legal adherence. Together, the interaction of law, ritual, and prophecy shaped ancient Israel.

My teachers warned us that there wasn’t one singular prophetic message—they had a lot of truths to speak to lots of powerful figureheads. But one common feature was: the prophets insisted that a religious life of legal conformity emptied of human and divine concerns was worse than hollow; it was hypocrisy.  So a crucial part of the message of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos, etc., is to behave according to the spirit as well as the letter of G-d’s law. If you believe that G-d has one Divine Image in the world—namely, other human beings—you had better act accordingly, by protecting the rights and integrity and inherent dignity of other people.

In our tradition, prophecy came to an end around 2300 years ago. And understandably so: it was a messy institution. But since then, we have wrestled to bring the message of these figures—who would hold our feet to the fire and make sure we lived according to the values we purported to hold—to fruition.  Al Vorspan was the great exemplar of this voice for our time. His name should be remembered, and told to the next generation. In that way, it will remain a blessing.

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Writing Roundup: A Few Recent Books with Writings of Mine

November was a prolific month. I have articles in three recent books which you may be interested in:

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First, THE FRAGILE DIALOGUE: NEW VOICES OF LIBERAL ZIONISM, edited by Stanley Davids and Larry Englander, is a collection of essays about Reform Zionism in America, Israel, and elsewhere. I contributed a transatlantic dialogue with Rabbi Charley Baginsky comparing the history and nature of Zionism in the liberal Jewish movements of America and the U.K.

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A LIFE OF MEANING, edited by Dana Evan Kaplan, discusses Jewish spiritual practices. I wrote an essay on “Creating a Life of Meaning by Caring for Others,” which includes some reflections on the inspiration of my teacher, the Rabbanit Kapach.

 

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Finally, NAVIGATING THE JOURNEY: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO THE JEWISH LIFE CYCLE, edited by Peter Knobel, includes an article of mine about integrating Tzedakah into the practice of daily living.

 

Check ‘em out!

Pluralism in Israel – Our Facts on the Ground

It’s almost Shabbat in Netanya, a coastal town in central Israel, and I’m with Rabbi Edgar Nof, the Energizer-bunny of Mitzvahs and inclusion.

The synagogue where Edgar works—we joke that the founders didn’t try very hard when they named it “Natan-Ya”—is a small boxy building that was once Haganah headquarters in the days before the Independence. Next door is a school that, in those pre-state days, was occupied by the radical Zionist organization Lehi.  Edgar points out the tower from where, in those revolutionary times, they sent signals to the illegal aliyah boats that were shut out from the ports of Haifa and Akko by the British. 

The mainstream Haganah and the extremist Lehi were bitter rivals. Edgar smiles: “Even then, left and right were fighting each other.” 

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Netanya doesn’t seem like the cutting-edge of progressive Judaism. It doesn’t feel like the cutting-edge of anything; it’s more like an Israeli version of a beach town from a Bruce Springsteen song whose glory days are past. Historically it has drawn large numbers of immigrants from Russia and, more recently, France. Natan-Ya—the only liberal shul in the city—feels far from the pulse of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. 

But spend a Shabbat with Edgar and his community and you’ll see precisely what Reform Judaism’s “facts on the ground” look like, and why their growth is such an imperative in Israel.

Friday afternoon commences with two classes that Edgar teaches to various constituencies in his shul—one is a class of conversion students, a richly multiethnic gathering. Plus there’s time for a Tefillin-wrapping ceremony for a boy who will become a Bar Mitzvah in the day ahead. He’s one of two bar mitzvah boys over the next 24 hours.

At Kabbalat Shabbat services, a woman who has been part of the community for years is celebrated: She has finally finished the process of conversion to Judaism, and Edgar immersed her in the Mediterranean earlier in the week. On Shabbat morning, she is called to the Torah for the first time after three decades of life in Israel. The congregation sings to her and embraces her.

On Saturday, there are two bar mitzvah celebrations; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The first—the tefillin-wrapping boy’s—is a family where the father is Sefardi-Moroccan and the mother is Filipino. They exude such genuine joy. They may have thought that they never would have had a moment like this, as a secular family for whom the doors of the Orthodox establishment must have seemed quite shut. But Edgar and the shul make it happen; as parents and grandfather are called to the Torah, the emotion of generations of Jewish history swells in the room.  I ask the bar mitzvah boy’s two younger sisters if they’ll each become bat mitzvah with Rabbi Edgar when they’re old enough; they answer, “Of course!”

The second bar mitzvah boy, in the afternoon, is also a sweet soul. The family is decidedly secular and the boy himself has his sharing of learning issues. Edgar described to me the work it took to get him to this moment. Nonetheless, for Israelis who perhaps have never set foot inside of a shul, there is a sublime moment of joy and connection, as they pass the Torah from generation to generation and then process around the room with it, kissing it as it comes near. Without a doubt, the extended family members in the room had never been in a Reform synagogue before. What did they see? Tradition, inclusion, warmth, song, Shabbat delight, and embracing smiles. 

Edgar Nof, like other Reform rabbis in Israel, does hundreds of these ceremonies per year, often with constituencies that otherwise would be left behind: new immigrants; disabled kids; families with a parent whose status is disputed.

Here’s the scorecard for one 24-hour period in Netanya:  2 Torah classes; spirited Shabbat services; one conversion; one tefillin ceremony; two bar mitzvah families; guests welcomed. 

This is liberal Judaism on the edge: Flinging doors open wide to those who would otherwise be left behind. Providing authentic Jewish experiences for people who otherwise would have opted out; a genuine alternative to closed orthodoxy and sheer secularism. And it’s not Tel Aviv, Haifa, or Jerusalem, but here, away from the throngs of Anglo tourists, where Edgar Nof does his work of kiruv. The community is a great voice of Judaism that is open to all who seek it. 

Look: religious pluralism, like all of Israel’s civic battles, will be fought with “facts on the ground.” The Kotel is important, as are all of our legislative fights for recognition. But it is also our responsibility to invest in the Israel that we want to see emerge—and that means investing in communities like Natan-Ya, to make the case for a thriving non-Orthodox alternative for Israelis. It can't just be about legislative battles: we have to build the Jewish alternative that we want to see.

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It’s all pretty intense, so on Shabbat afternoon I take a break and head down to the beach. Netanya’s sands are enveloped by tall cliffs that remind me of Jurassic Coast of southern England. Surfers are riding the modest Mediterranean waves and you can see all of secular Israel here, in all its ethnic variety and fun. (Also some of the world’s smallest bikinis.)

It all seems so damn normal.

When I’ve had enough Middle Eastern sun, I walk back up King David Street. Suddenly I’m standing in front of the Park Hotel. The hotel has seen better days and its prominent rooftop sign is dilapidated. This was the site of the Passover massacre in 2002, where on the night of the seder a Hamas suicide bomber, disguised as a woman, murdered 28 people and injured 140 others.

It’s not normal, it’s Israel. Where exaltation and horror too often reside next door to each other. And Israel’s enemies don’t discriminate among their victims; they are utterly pluralistic.