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“Is this a good and legitimate way to spend my time when the state of the world is what it is? Should I be at the ramparts now instead of thinking about rabbinical school?”
These questions were on the minds of many prospective rabbinical students who gathered last fall at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, according to Elsie Stern, Ph.D., the school’s Vice President for Academic Affairs. The three-day gathering got underway Nov. 9, the day after one of the most stunning elections in American history. The mood at the school on that day was somber. People went about their day in a state of shock.
At first, Stern recalled, she didn’t know what to say to those who were considering making a huge leap and spending five or six years studying to become a rabbi. But soon, she found her message in the Book of Esther.
When Mordechai calls on Esther to do her part to save the Jews, he says: Maybe it is just for a time like this that you have become the Queen.
“Maybe it is just for a time like this that you have arrived where you are,” Stern recalled telling the prospective students. “One can say that Judaism and perhaps all religion comes into being exactly for times like this. What religious traditions do best is help us make meaning when we can’t get to meaning on our own.” Faith and religious tradition also help people find courage and resiliency, she added.
Stern recounted that gathering during her remarks opening “Moving Forward in Changing Times,” a day of learning and study with Reconstructionist rabbis and thinkers that took place on Jan. 29 at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York. The scheduling of the day of learning was timely, as it coincided with widespread protests over major changes in U.S. refugee and immigration policy. Over 120 people from 11 Reconstructionist congregations gathered for serious Jewish learning.
“’Moving forward in changing times’ is a description of Judaism as it has always been: a response to changing times and a tool for us as we try to navigate them,” Stern told attendees.
The day of learning’s sessions included, “Cultivating Moral Courage in Challenging Times,” “Looking Backwards and Looking Forwards: Texts for a Jewish Resistance Movement,” and “Jewish Speech Ethics: A Response to the Politics of Derision and Division.” The gathering offered a range of Jewish approaches to finding spiritual strength as an activist, how to have difficult conversations with those with opposing viewpoints and how to stay sane and grounded in what feels like an avalanche of political change.
Of course, this being Judaism, there were more questions than answers. But the process of discussing how our tradition is relevant to today’s circumstances is a crucial step to moving forward.
Some of the discussion focused on how to repair the fissures in civic discourse. Presenters and attendees examined how individuals can engage in important conversations with those with whom they disagree, in part to better understand, but also to change minds.