Covenant Award Acceptance Speech

Philadelphia, PA
November 21, 2002

I need to start with something of a heresy for a Reconstructionist rabbi. With every passing year, I am increasingly aware of the hand of God in my life. The latest evidence was this morning, as I attended a morning experience with Storahtelling, a new dramatic performance group that brings the Torah to life through interactive presentation. Not yet being Friday, I had not even focused on the week’s Torah portion when the leader of Storahtelling invited for an aliyah to the Torah all those who had collected battle scars, inner or outer, in their attempts to bring about something they desperately wanted to achieve on their life journey. I immediately identified. In coming to the Torah, we would be linked to our ancestor, Jacob, who, in the reading, wrestled with a divine being, became Israel (one who wrestled with God), and was left with a lifelong limp as a result.

So here I am standing at the Torah, which was being read by, of all people, an alumnus of our Panim el Panim program who is currently studying to be a Jewish educator. She is reading the weekly portion of Vayishlach on the day that would later feature my receipt of the coveted Covenant Award for my contributions to the field of Jewish education, primarily through the vehicle of the organization I founded, PANIM. And the first verse reads: “Jacob called that place Peniel, for it was in that place that he encountered God, panim el panim (face to face), and survived”!

My life is indeed blessed.

* * *

We read in the Talmud, tractate Ketubot, priat baal chov mitzvah, “the acknowledgment and settling of debt is a mitzvah, a religious obligation.”

Standing here today, I am keenly aware of how large my ledger of debt is. Noone who has enjoyed the success that has come my way does so without help. So, allow me to chalk up a mitzvah this afternoon (I can use all that I can get) by acknowledging some debts, to many people who fill this room:

  • to my parents, who gave me both a strong Jewish education and identity and then let me find my own path;
  • to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Reconstructionist movement which gave a refugee from an Orthodox yeshiva a new perspective on how Judaism could be made relevant to the American Jewish community;
  • to members of both congregations I had the privilege to serve, Beth Israel of Media, PA and Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation of Bethesda, MD. We proved that Judaism could be joyful, soulful and powerful, all at the same time.
  • to members of my staff, past and present, at PANIM who tolerate my maniacal passion to try to undertake way too many projects in way too little time, and then help me do it;
  • to members of my PANIM board who believed in me and who have been my partners in creating a significant new organization in American Jewish life, starting from nothing;
  • to Jon Woocher and the JESNA staff who gave so much support to our programs early on, providing important endorsement and credibility;
  • to Shulamith Elster, a treasure to the field of Jewish education and a mentor I am lucky to have down the hall from my office;
  • to the Covenant Foundation, which first invested in PANIM in 1996 with a grant to launch the Jewish Civics Initiative, now the largest Jewish community service program in the country, and which now honors my work and achievements. Truth be told, I see my work as sacred, as a calling. Every day I feel privileged to be engaged in the work of Jewish education, tikkun olam and strengthening the fabric of the Jewish people and the Jewish community. The recognition bestowed on me by the Covenant Foundation today, is just a bonus.
  • last, but certainly not least, to my wife, Sandy and my children, Danny, Joel and Jennifer. The kind of work that so many of us in this room do, cannot be sustained without love. My wife and family are a never ending source of support and love without which none of my work would make sense, nor be possible.

I want to take advantage of this distinguished and accomplished audience for a few minutes to share three lessons that I have learned in the course of my work in the community. I share it because I believe and hope that it might be instructive for how we, as a community of faith and of fate, might conduct ourselves in the future. The three lessons are:

  1. It shouldn’t be so hard
  2. It shouldn’t be so easy
  3. It isn’t just about Jewish education

1. It shouldn’t be so hard

When I set out to launch, what has become, PANIM in the late 1980’s, I had a fair amount of professional experience, a good reputation and a solid business plan. Yet years went by until I could find philanthropists and foundations to invest in me and in the idea. There is truth to the saying that success is a product of 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, but someone should re-do the math because it also takes 20% worth of good luck as well. I shudder to think how many good ideas our community has lost out on because we have not been open to entrepreneurial creativity. Thank goodness for new projects like JESNA’s Bikkurim program and the Joshua Venture, which now serve as incubators for such creativity. We need to do more to support social entrepreneurship in the Jewish community. The Jewish community’s greatest asset is that there are a lot of smart Jews out there. We need to find better ways to channel their smarts to benefit our community.

2. It shouldn’t be so easy

Jewish education today can be characterized as small islands of success in a sea of failure. The reality is that it doesn’t take all that much to connect with Jewish teens. We need to spend more time trying to enter their world and less time trying to shoehorn them into ours. I once read a story about a magic coat. It would fit any person of any size perfectly once they put it on. Jewish tradition is like that magic coat. It is a treasure of wisdom and insight if only we try to put it on. We live in a world in which people spend a lifetime and small fortunes to find wisdom and insight. If educators took a bit more time to listen to their charges, they would be astounded by how many young people would be willing to try on the magic coat of the Jewish tradition. … And the coat would be worn for generations to come.

3. It isn’t just about Jewish education

We need to rethink what we mean by “Jewish education”. Let us remember that Jewish education is a means, not an end in itself. Two percent of the Jewish people care about Jewish education. Ninety-plus percent of the Jewish people care about making some contribution to making the world a better place. Our job as Jewish educators is to provide Jews with the language to understand what is Jewish about caring for the stanger (ahavat ger); helping the most vulnerable members of our society (hakem takim imo); speaking truth to power (hocheach tocheach); wiping out intolerance, bigotry and prejudice because we understand that within every person is a spark of God (tzelem elohim). These values reveal the purpose of our tradition. When Jews start to see that the purpose of Jewish education is to make these values manifest in the world, we won’t have to go running in search of a vanishing Jewish population. Jews will, instead, be running after us for we hold the key to making their lives filled with meaning and purpose.

Friends, the purpose of Jewish education is not to make more Jews, more Jewish. It is, in the words of the mishna, to create a world of din, emet and shalom , a world of justice, truth and peace. Ironically, when we focus on that as the goal, we will have more success at making more Jews more Jewish than we ever dreamed possible.