Board of Rabbis Looks Toward Future

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From left: Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Rabbi Deborah Waxman and Rabbi Steven Wernick led a discussion about the state of Jewish life at the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia meeting. | Photo provided

The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia meets annually, converging to vote on its executive committee, trade ideas and evaluate the state of Jewish life.

This year’s June 5 meeting at Adath Israel featured a special session, though. The board welcomed national leaders from the Reconstructionist (Rabbi Deborah Waxman), Reform (Rabbi Rick Jacobs) and Conservative (Rabbi Steven Wernick) movements, who sat from atop an enclosed dais, fielding questions and engaging in dialogue with the rabbis in attendance.  

“It’s pretty significant that we brought together three national figures,” said Rabbi Joshua Waxman, president of the Board of Rabbis. “To be able to bring them face-to-face with rabbis in the Philadelphia area, to ask them our questions and to have those addressed; I’m not sure I’ve heard of another time recently where we’ve had leaders of the three non-Orthodox movements together.”


Perhaps the most pressing issue discussed during the meeting was the conundrum regarding young Jewish people’s connection to the faith. Membership to synagogues is no longer a badge of honor for young people, Joshua Waxman said.

Instead, young Jews tend to find meaning outside of the temple. That this generation even has the ability to break away from denominations, Joshua Waxman said, is a positive.

“Thankfully it’s not that time anymore, when American Jews felt like they needed to have a place where can fully belong,” Joshua Waxman said, “because American Jews do really belong in American life.

“The trends we’re seeing about how younger Jews are [not] affiliating with existing Jewish institutions mirror and reflect the broader trends of what Americans are feeling in most aspects of their lives. Not just synagogues, not just churches. In a lot of different facets of life, young people are less interested in becoming [associated] with existent organizations,” Joshua Waxman said.

With Deborah Waxman, Jacobs and Wernick leading the discussion, some rabbis agreed it could be useful to redirect money from Jewish synagogues and facilities to outreach programs and other ways to build community.

Wernick noted that several synagogues in Bethesda, Md., are working with Rabbi Rami Schwartzer to spearhead outreach efforts. Schwartzer also serves as the director at Ramah Day Camp of Greater Washington. Temples in Northern Virginia are also considering hiring a rabbi for outreach, Wernick said, but the strategy might preclude synagogues with fewer resources.

Deborah Waxman said the Reconstructionist movement has turned some attention to summer camps. Both Camp Havaya in South Sterling and Havaya Arts in Pasadena, Calif., focus on working with campers to help them become more engaged, value-driven, empathetic human beings, Deborah Waxman said.

“Camp is one place in liberal Jewish life, in North America, where there can be a 24/7 immersion of what it means to live in Jewish civilization,” she said.

The camps are completely screenless, with activities based around communication and building authentic relationships. It’s a philosophy Deborah Waxman believes will help harness interest among the next generation of Jews.

The Reconstructionist movement also ran its first Birthright trip recently.

“And it was very much created with Reconstructionist sensibility, with a lot of questions about Jewish space and the challenges we face,” Deborah Waxman said. “Most of the young adults from the Birthright trip wouldn’t have gone on any other Birthright trip. They wanted one with a Reconstructionist perspective, balanced with questions and a love of Israel.”

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the future, Wernick warned against excessive apprehension. The Jewish people have overcome far worse, he said.

“If we can recreate the state of Israel,” he said, “we can do anything.” 

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