More than 50 Rabbinic Leaders Gather to Deepen Commitment to Human Rights
New York, NY; December 24, 2009 — More than 50 rabbis and rabbinical students, all of whom have traveled to the developing world with AJWS, concluded a three-day leadership training institute yesterday at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Reisterstown, Maryland. The leaders participated in the Rabbinical Students’ Delegation program (RSD), which sends two multi-denominational groups of rabbinical students and one group of ordained rabbis per year to the developing world, where they live and work alongside AJWS grassroots project partners for 10 to 14 days.
While in the field, participants grapple with Jewish texts and theology in order to make sense of the struggles for social justice and human rights. Upon return, they work to bring a sophisticated understanding of global citizenship to their communities.
Under the leadership of Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek, rabbi in residence at AJWS and Adina Mermelstein Konikoff, program officer, the RSD Alumni Network consists of more than 160 rabbis and rabbinical students from across the spectrum of denominations. The Institute serves as the cornerstone of the Alumni Network and is designed to provide a forum for developing strategies, deepening knowledge and building a cohesive leadership body. AJWS believes that through efforts like these, RSD alumni will be increasingly well-equipped to lead a robust Jewish effort at advancing human rights and social justice around the world.
The introduction of Alumni Network programming—such as the Institute—as well as the recent addition of a second RSD trip each year, has been made possible through the generosity of the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust. Other Alumni Network programming now includes Kol Tzedek: Voices of Justice, a year-round speaking fellowship, and a series of regional meetings with leading scholars such as Moshe Halbertal and Aryeh Cohen.
“Our goal is to marshal the energy of the rabbinate in order to deepen the ways the Jewish community thinks and acts about human rights for all people,” said Rabbi Spodek. “We believe that this network will become the channel though which the leadership of the American Jewish community develops the resources to make justice a priority, and the RSD Alumni Institute will play a key role in maintaining momentum.”
This year’s Institute featured a roster of leading speakers. AJWS president Ruth Messinger and Rabbi Roly Matalon of B’nai Jeshurun in New York City spoke about the growth of the Jewish justice movement; AJWS grantee Leonie Hermantin of the Lambi Fund in Haiti provided an overview on global food security; Rabbi Elyse Frishman of the Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, NJ spoke about the future of synagogues and the role of global justice programming; and Rabbi Gordon Tucker of Temple Israel Center of White Plains, NY, delivered a talk on Heavenly Torah, his definitive translation of a major Hebrew work by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In addition to the featured presentations, daily break-out sessions included a text study about global hunger; public speaking training; dialogues about social justice and philanthropy; sparking activism on campus and community organizing; and a workshop about teaching justice through celebrations.
“There was a lot of humility at this institute and a collective understanding that we need each other to create power and help each other clarify our goals,” said Ezra Weinberg, a Reconstructionist rabbi, who is serving as a Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City. “Nobody can be a one-person social justice machine. We are each part of a growing Jewish social justice movement and RSD gives us an opportunity to support each other. Social justice is an essential part of my identity, so RSD really affirmed for me that I’m not alone.”
Steven Exler, an Orthodox rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, said, “AJWS and RSD continue to be critical points of engagement with social justice and the developing world that I return to for inspiration and guidance in my rabbinate. The RSD community is also a model of pluralism and community that I rely on and draw sustenance from.
“The Alumni Institute was incredible—the prayer was great, the conversations were great, the faculty was inspiring, and the community was sustaining. It reawakened many of those connections and strengthened my resolve to work with our amazing cohort of rabbinical students and rabbis, and with our communities, to actualize our visions of justice.”
Added Beth Kalisch, a Reform rabbi at the Steven Wise Synagogue of New York City: “Being part of a rabbinical chevra of colleagues, some of whom I’ve been in touch with at my seminary and in El Salvador, was really meaningful and inspiring for me. I value having a community of people who are passionate about so many of the same issues I care about and who can challenge and stimulate me intellectually.”
“It’s important for us to have a space to share the challenges we’re facing in our own careers and discuss how to integrate social justice work effectively into our work in the rabbinate. There’s a whole generation of people doing this work and I’m both proud and excited to be part of it.”
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