Three special needs children celebrated their Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony at various Masorti synagogues in Israel this past Thursday. The parents of these children had previously resigned themselves to the fact that this significant ceremony would not take place since no other venue was accessible for this event. The reason that these ceremonies were held at Masorti synagogues is due to the fact that, for more than 20 years, the Masorti Movement has placed a high priority on Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies for those with disabilities.

This example demonstrates that Israel needs visionaries, people who will help steer the country to better places. Israel has grown and flourished – it is an economic and military paragon, and there are many other accomplishments of which it can be proud. Nevertheless, many spheres in Israeli society require social action – and training an open and pluralistic religious leadership is one solution.

After three years of meaningful rabbinical work at Kfar Vradim, I now serve as dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, which trains men and women to serve as rabbis and leaders in the realm of Jewish renewal, thereby providing hope for a better future.

Fear, hatred and a lack of interaction among different groups of people represent some of the major challenges for Israeli society in general for and the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in particular. Many Israelis fear members of various unfamiliar and unknown groups such as Arabs, migrant workers, Jews who are ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopian, immigrants from the FSU, Oriental, Ashkenazic,  Kibbutzniks, Messianic Jews, LGBT, etc. In some cases, this fear is based on a fragmentary view of reality or on a political outlook; in others it is derived from a religious stance.

Masorti leaders must bring a new Jewish voice to the forefront. This voice must be based upon the traditional Jewish view regarding the obligation to do justice to the stranger/foreigner. Sensitive community leaders should develop their group’s Jewish identity while acknowledging and supporting members of other groups. For example, a Masorti kehillah (community) could assist those with special needs living nearby by inviting them to participate in prayer services and by developing a partnership with them.  Likewise, the kehillah should develop a dialogue with neighboring communities who hold different religious views or who are of different nationalities.

Yet these initiatives represent only one tool for dealing with fear and ignorance. Another is to create a space for contemplative thinking, a goal which can be accomplished by by using the traditional format of a  Beit Midrash – Literally, a house of hermeneutics. When learning in a Beit Midrash framework, one’s own feelings are confronted with those of past generations. The distancing from the present actually enables us to employ a complex process of thinking in order to deal with current problems, a process which is widely divergent from modern-day modes of abbreviated communication, such as the 140-charachter MASSAGE. This learning process can help us understand why, on the one hand, one is commanded to love the stranger while on the other, it is forbidden to intermarry. Indeed, the Beit Midrash is the best place to clarify this thin line between love and hate.

The intensity of contemporary life represents another challenge. Most of us experience the world via a computer screen and events via a camera lens. We exist in one place and are simultaneously connected to many other places. While preparing dinner for the family, we visit our workplace by reading emails; while reading a book we glance at Facebook. This intensity increases the need for structured opportunities to stop, to experience a spiritually uplifting moment. Such moments should be offered not only in the synagogue but also on the beach, in the park or in the community center. Rituals and prayers represent only one way of putting aside the present and joining the eternal. Such moments can be the source of vitality for our existence.

Individualism represents another challenge for modern Jewish society. We are privileged to live in a culture in which people make their own decisions. Yet this freedom of choice may undermine being part of a larger group, which, during moments of crisis and loneliness, can offer support and assistance. Such support involves the connection to Jewish tradition and the connection to the community. Masorti rabbis strive to be the agents who will connect people to their heritage and to their neighboring community.

The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary strives to respond to these challenges by developing a leadership that will lead centers of learning, prayer, and life-cycle events; initiate social and communal projects; introduce Torah study which balances tradition, criticism and innovation; and foremost, train rabbis who will provide a response to the societal needs of the 21st century yet have a deep knowledge of Jewish tradition.

This week I witnessed how one of my rabbinical students accompanied and assisted a kehillah that had lost one of its young members in an accident. This student supported the family and kehillah members during their time of mourning; she provided hope in the midst of tragedy. This episode reminded me of my former role as a kehillah rabbi, and like many other instances in which my students carried out their rabbinical tasks with distinction, helped me realize yet again how crucial the role of a community rabbi can be in 21st century Israel.