JTS Is Doing Remarkable Things

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In this week’s blog I want to share a message about the work being done by JTS- The Jewish Theological Seminary- to deepen Jewish learning and create and strengthen the next generation of Jewish leaders.  JTS is my Alma Mater- I was ordained by the Seminary in 1985 and then immediately began my career as a Rabbi.  Under the leadership of Chancellor Arnold Eisen, a brilliant scholar and visionary, JTS is growing and deepening its impact on the modern Jewish world.  What follows is a message sent this week by Marc Gary, Executive Vice-chancellor and Chief Operating Officer of JTS, to alumni.  This message explains the great successes and tremendous reach of JTS.  If you care about meaningful Jewish learning, if you care about nurturing the next generation of Rabbis, Cantors and Jewish educators, then supporting JTS will help achieve those aspirations.

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An emphasis on social action.  JTS is teaching students to be changes agents who help enact the Jewish values they study. 

  • Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, associate dean of The Rabbinical School, is using her deep background in social justice to infuse this learning throughout the school and all of JTS.
  • JustCity, JTS’s summer program, brings teens to JTS to learn the fundamentals of change leadership through a Jewish lens.
  • Ruth Messinger, former president of the American Jewish World Service, recently joined JTS as the inaugural Finkelstein Institute Social Justice Fellow.

Read about a recent project.

Teaching and modeling the spiritual arts.  Through the Block/Kolker Center for the Spiritual Arts, JTS is developing students’ skills in the art of prayer.

  • JTS is modeling meaningful and innovative tefillah to the entire community through holiday and Shabbat services.
  • Rabbinical and Cantorial students have a new curriculum on the art of creating and leading inspiring prayer.

Read about the Block/Kolker Center for the Spiritual Arts, headed by Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, a deeply gifted teacher who has presented at Oheb Shalom several times in recent years.

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A renewed focus on Israel.  JTS is preparing students to be deeply knowledgeable leaders of the Israel dialogue.

  • Dr. Hillel Gruenberg is JTS’s new director of Israel Engagement.
  • JTS has revamped the Israel Year for rabbinical students, which is now headquartered at JTS’s own historic building, the Schocken Institute, in the heart of Jerusalem.
  • The Davidson School has launched a new Experiential Educators Program in Israel, an MA degree in partnership with the Pardes Institute.

Read about the Rabbinic Year in Israel

Growing Demand for Beit Midrash Learning.  Nishma, JTS’s summer Beit Midrash program, continues to grow.

  • The number of Nishma students has risen from 11 three years ago to 33 last summer. This year JTS expects a record number of students.
  • 20 Nishma students have gone on to The Rabbinical School of JTS.
  • JTS is bringing its Beit Midrash style of learning to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.

Read about the Nisma Program.

Expanded Learning Community.  JTS is expanding opportunities for Jewish learning for learners across the country and around the world.

  • The number of adults joining JTS for in-person courses throughout North America has more than doubled, to 3,000 a year.
  • 400 rabbis annually are served by JTS’s continuing education programs, both in-person and online.
  • Last year JTS began live streaming its public lectures, allowing communities to build educational programs around our public events.
  • This year JTS launched its first turnkey educational program for synagogues and other organizations, entitled “The Ethical Life,” which is already being implemented to great acclaim by 50 congregations.
  • JTS Torah Online offers an ever-growing collection of contemporary Jewish content.

Explore JTS Community Learning

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Greater Access to Library Treasurers.  Through technology and an expanded loan program, JTS is bringing its library treasures to the world.

  • In addition to library material on view at major museums across North America and overseas, several pieces were featured recently in the New York Metropolitan Museum’s acclaimed exhibit “Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven.”
  • JTS has begun offering virtual tours of library artifacts on our web site. The first virtual tour focused on its unparralelled collection of Haggadot, including the oldest extant Haggadah in the world. Next up: a virtual tour of “Luxury (18th Century) Manuscripts for Court Jews.”

See where the library treasures are on exhibit.

 

 

You Shall Not Steal…But What?

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, we read the story of God’s revelation to the People of Israel at the foot of Mt. Sinai.  Tradition has infused this moment with great significance.  It is revered by the Talmudic sages, and is seen as evidence that God wishes to enter into a personal relationship with His people as a community and with each individual.  The “Revelation,” as it is called, is also the moment when God communicates the essence of a proper life to the People of Israel through the Ten Commandments.  While the Torah contains many laws and teachings, the Ten Commandments are offered by the Torah as the foundation of an ethical and moral life.  According to tradition, it is only after the Revelation and the presentation of the Ten Commandments that Moses ascends the mountain to commune with God and receive the Torah that he will present to the People of Israel.

The Ten Commandments have become a cornerstone of the Judeo-Christian heritage and have been embraced and studied for as long as Jews and Christians have walked the earth.  Rabbinic teaching has found meaning and insight in the story of the Revelation, as well as in each of the commandments.  One of the commandments, “You shall not steal,” is a good example.  While its meaning may seem straightforward, the sages debated what it actually means.

Rashi (1040-1105, France) taught that the eighth commandment, presented simply as two Hebrew words in the Torah (“Lo Tignov”) can refer to stealing money, material items, or even kidnapping people.

Rabbi Shabbatai ben Meir ha-Kohen, known as the “Shakh,” (Lithuania and Poland, 1621-1662) taught that since the eighth commandment doesn’t specify what should not be stolen, it therefore can be understood to apply not only to stealing someone’s money and possessions, but also to lying and deceit.

From this teaching and others like it, Jewish law developed a prohibition against a particular type of theft:  Geneivat Da’at, or “theft of the mind,” by which they intended to prohibit various forms of misrepresentation and deception.  While it is permissible to avoid the truth to preserve someone’s dignity and avoid embarrassment or ridicule, it is not permissible to knowingly deceive someone in order to secure an advantage, especially in business.  It is forbidden by Jewish law to offer goods for sale that are not of the quality that is advertised.  Similarly, it is not permissible for a merchant to offer goods for sale based on a false premise, such as an announcement that someone is going out of business, for that would create the false impression that there is a limited time to make a discounted purchase.

Geneivat Da’at also applies to persuading someone to do something or donate money on a false premise, such as asking for charitable funds when the need is not real.  Geneivat Da’at  forbids shielding assets based on a false premise, such as transferring funds to another party such as a dependent child in order to qualify for federal assistance like Medicaid.  Similarly, one is forbidden from creating an impression of accomplishment or importance when the circumstances do warrant such for personal gain, whether in a tangible form or in the form of prestige.

There are numerous applications of Geneivat Da’at to the realm of ethics and business, as well as interpersonal relationships, the fruit of interpretation of two simple Hebrew words- Lo Tignov.  Such a treasure chest of ideas and meaning reinforces my belief that the Torah is truly an infinite reservoir of understanding and teaching that can guide our lives in the times in which we live.

There is no Messiah

I don’t believe in the coming of the Messiah.  Despite the moving and inspirational affirmations of generations of Jews across the centuries who expressed their faith in the Mashiach (Hebrew for Messiah), I cannot bring myself to believe in a personal Messiah who will deliver us from catastrophe and usher in an era of peace, serenity and faith.  What I do believe in is the possibility of a Messianic era which, in my mind, is nothing less than all of humanity creating an existence marked by tolerance, co-existence, acceptance of the other and peace.  We’re clearly not there yet, nor do I necessarily believe that humankind will reach that state of being in my lifetime.  But I am convinced that we have the potential to get there and that religion, at its best, can inspire its adherents to work for such an existence.  The task of reaching that existence is squarely in our hands, and we shouldn’t expect Divine intervention to make it happen for us.

The Torah teaches this same idea.  In this week’s parasha, Beshalach, we read the final chapter in the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the rescue of the Israelites at the shore of the sea as they were being pursued by the Egyptian army.  As the story goes, Moses responds to his people’s cries of despair by telling them to “stand by and witness the deliverance the Lord will work for you today.”  But in the next verse, God rebuts Moses’ assertion that the people need only stand by to achieve redemption:  “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.”   To paraphrase God’s rebuke, He says to Moses something like: “You think that they can just sit by and have no skin in this game?  You think they just have to stand by and I’ll solve their problems?  Think again!”

Responding to the idea that Moses advised the Israelites to simply stand by and wait for God to save them, a Chasidic master (whose name has been lost to history but whose teaching has endured) taught the following:

“The Kotzker rebbe greeted his teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Leib: ‘I love you deeply, but why is it that you cry out to the Holy One each day to send the Messiah?  Why don’t you cry out to our brethren, the people Israel, to repent their evil ways?  Then the messiah will actually come! This is the meaning of ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites.'”

Judaism has never supported the idea that we need only rely on God to make our world and our lives whole.  That’s our job.  Indeed, we already have quite an arsenal of Divine gifts to make it happen—wisdom, compassion, scientific knowledge and skill, and love.  In the words of a well-known proverbial saying that originated in ancient Greece and found its way into the Bible (both Jewish and Christian), “God helps those who help themselves.”  We are expected to solve our own problems, using the resources and gifts at our disposal.

That is a message that should resonate in the times in which we are living.  Whatever problems and challenges we are facing in our country and in the world, don’t wait for someone else (especially God) to solve them.

Each of us must become an activist.  Pick your cause.  Pick your strategy.

As God said to Moses and the Israelites, “Don’t cry out to me…go forward!”