Tidewater Together Scholar packs a one, two, three punch of experience, wisdom, and passion

by | Jan 22, 2016 | Featured

Thursday, Feb. 4–Sunday, Feb. 7

For more than four decades, Rabbi Eric Yoffie has embraced his role as teacher, leader, thought-provoker, and change-maker.

He’s spoken in front of small congregations and large. He’s met with presidents, prime ministers and leaders of other faith groups. He’s addressed conferences of Reform Jews, evangelical Christians, and Muslims, among others.

But speaking to and teaching an audience of hundreds of Jews, of different affiliations, backgrounds and practices— over four days this February? A new experience, says Yoffie, yet one he’s looking forward to, complete with its built-in challenges (“We can be contentious”), and its promises of inspiration and growth.

Yoffie will lead the Milton “Mickey” Kramer Scholar-in-Residence Fund’s 3rd Annual Tidewater Together next month. The free event will be held at six area locations and is open to all in the community.

Presented by the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater and the Tidewater Synagogue Leadership Council, Tidewater Together is designed to stimulate conversations, spark an interest in Jewish learning and living, and strengthen the community.

Yoffie is an internationally respected educator, speaker, author, and social activist. His leadership roles in North American Jewry, and outreach into the global Jewish community, began early with his involvement in synagogue youth groups. He was ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1974, and led several congregations before he began working in Jewish communal organizations.

In 1996, Yoffie assumed the presidency of the Union for Reform Judaism. He served as the head of that group, with its 900 synagogues and 1.5 million members, until his retirement in 2012. Today, he continues as URJ’s president emeritus.

A pioneer in interfaith relations, Yoffie is considered an expert on modern Israel, and is a frequent contributor to publications such as the Huffington Post and Ha’aretz. He is in-demand as a scholar- in-residence throughout North America, and continues to devote himself to creating positive change through the sharing and teaching of Torah, Talmud, and Jewish values.

Yoffie recently discussed his choice of topics for Tidewater Together, and expressed enthusiasm about his upcoming scholar-in-residency.

Jewish News: How familiar are you with the South?
I was in Durham for four years as a rabbi, my father was born in North Carolina, my daughter was born in North Carolina, my son went to Duke. I have Southern ties of which I am very proud.

JN: Have you ever led a weekend of Jewish learning such as this, where you’ve had to consider embracing all of our similarities and all of our differences?
Jewishly, I’ve spoken to every imaginable kind of audience. Having said that, this kind of program is very unique and virtually unprecedented in the North American community. I’ve spoken to many University audiences, and, of course, Reform audiences my whole career, and from time to time to a variety of communal settings and Conservative and Orthodox congregations, as well. Nonetheless, putting them all together in this way is really a wonderful thing and I’m very excited by it.

JN: How do you plan to build that Jewish “tent” that welcomes us all?
On the one hand, reaching out to the broader American community and the broader religious community, in particular, is something that has been a major focus of my rabbinate.

I was the first major Jewish leader to speak to ISNM [Islamic Society of North America], which is the largest mainstream Muslim organization in North America. I was the first rabbi to address a convocation at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, which is an evangelical university. I was also the first rabbi to address the convocation of the Evangelical Lutherans of North America, which despite the name is a mainstream Lutheran group. I’ve done a great deal of that, and that’s been important to me.

Of course, here [Tidewater Together] we’re talking about a different kind of phenomenon, one where we’re talking to Jews.

We’re contentious, we’re pluralistic, we have our differences, and at the same time, we’re wise enough to come together in those areas where it’s important. So this event, I think is a perfect example of how that works out.

What will be reflected here is the diversity of the community, the beliefs I have—that some people will agree with and others won’t—and the emphasis of those overall themes that need to unite us as Jews. It’s a great way to give expression to this balance that we’re always striking in the Jewish community.

JN: Do people need to have a certain level of education, or comprehension or understanding of Judaism to understand what you’ll be teaching?
I make a point of giving different kinds of talks—some text oriented, some less text oriented, some on broader community theme, some dealing with more political matters—not partisan political, but the political positioning of the Jewish community,

Every lecture is geared toward a general audience, while at the same time; those who bring political sophistication or textual sophistication or sociological sophistication will have an advantage that will enrich their experience.

JN: Can you briefly describe the topics you chose?
Thursday night we will begin with the central premise of my religious thinking: that the major institution of Jewish life is the synagogue.

We have all kinds of Jewish institutions— we have Federations, we have advocacy groups, we have communal groups and they’re all important. But the institution that reaches the greatest number, by far, of American Jews, and provides the connection to Torah and to Judaism and to Jewish belief and practices, is the synagogue.

I will begin by looking at the American synagogue, really focusing on the last 150 years. We’ll talk about how the institution of the synagogue has developed and how it’s changed and, without giving away too much, my premise is the synagogue has been successful.

It faces challenges, and I’m going to talk about those challenges very honestly and very openly, but it’s also fast changing, adaptive, and, on balance, a successful institution that has done its job in connecting Jews to Jewish tradition.

In a sense, everything builds on this discussion, because the Jewish community is built on the synagogue.

On Friday afternoon, we’ll look at the importance of leadership. In Judaism, we talk about leadership endlessly, sometimes falling into the trap of using the language of organization consultants or organizational behavior.

My premise is the text of Torah has a great deal to say about leadership, that’s both very practically-oriented and at the same time with a clear spiritual dimension. I’m going to take one or two texts—a Talmud text and a Torah text—and we’ll do a very careful reading to see what we learn from them about what it means to be a leader, what it means to be a Jewish leader, and how this applies to the real life world we find ourselves in as Jews.

Friday night, I’ll talk about Reform Judaism. Can we say, with some measure of specificity, what it is that Reform Jews believe, defining their worldview and how it differs from other religious Jews, or non-religious Jews for that matter?

Yes, there are some distinctive things that characterize Reform Judaism, and I’m going to answer it personally and rather specifically—talking about those aspects of belief and practice that are involved in being a Reform Jew.

On Shabbat morning—I’ll reflect on the Torah reading and some of the integral themes of the portion, which is Mishpatim. I’m going to do some comparative analysis with how those themes are dealt with elsewhere in the Torah, and then I’m going to throw out their implications for Jews today.

We’ll focus on ethical matters and talk about how it relates to our Jewish experiences in today’s world.

On Saturday night—I will tell some personal stories, as somebody who has been in leadership positions in the American Jewish community for a long time.

I will share some stories that I feel to be of interest, and then deal with the broader question of what application might these stories have for the American Jewish community as a whole. What are we learning from these experiences? This discussion will be more informal.

Finally, on Sunday morning, we will discuss what young Jews on campus are struggling with. What are those questions they hear repeatedly, and how can we contend with those who are asking them?

I speak quite often on campuses now, and know this is an important topic, and a major concern.

JN: If we could only come to one of your discussions, which would you say is the not-to-be-missed choice?
They are all going to be very different, and I think, very interesting.

The central thesis gets laid out on Thursday night when we look at the question: How do we create vibrant synagogues? Because, on that, everything else rests; I see that as central.

JN: Why is it important that our community and others have conversations like this?
I’m someone who believes that the passionate pluralism of our community is a source of strength, and that it’s important that we have all kinds of differences of opinion.

At the same time, there are moments when we need to come together, and in which we have to act together. On balance, my deal is that we’re stronger because of it.

It sometimes seems like we’ve forgotten how to have civil conversations in the Jewish world. There are a lot of important issues and we feel strongly about things, but we can share both common beliefs and our differences and talk about them and act on them in a civil way.

There are some communities who can do this, and some communities who can’t. I feel it’s very important to strengthen those that can, and, for others, provide models of how it can be done so they can learn from it.

I see Tidewater Together as a way to show them how it can be done, very successfully.

Registration is encouraged for Tidewater Together discussions. Visit www.TidewaterTogether.org, or email apomerantz@ujft.org for more information, details about the individual discussions and to register.

by Laine Mednick Rutherford