Why our Jewish Moment Calls for Listening

“Listening. I feel like the theme of this conference has been listening,” one synagogue president remarked to me after attending a session I taught at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism biennial in Chicago last week. “Listening to interfaith families,” she said, “Listening to children. Listening to the future as refracted through strategic planning.”

I have been a USCJ skeptic. The USCJ, to me, felt like an organization that did a lot of talking, and very little listening. Here are our youth programs, it said. Here is our vision for your community, it said. Here is an outreach program, it said.

But last week, at the USCJ “Shape the Center” conference, I heard a different USCJ. I heard an organization that was interested, as this synagogue president described, in listening. Not just hearing – not just hearing data or clichés or just-so stories – but engaging in active listening to the diversity of experience that makes up a Jew today.

The USCJ, at this conference, was bigger than the Conservative movement. The USCJ that I heard at this conference felt like an organization that expressed the great diversity of people who come to Conservative-affiliated synagogues – people who want to davven with Joey Weisenberg of Hadar and Karina Zilberman of Shababa, people who want gender-neutral restrooms and who want to stretch to open our communities to interfaith families, people who want a vibrant youth group and a culture of bikur holim, visiting the sick. The richness of Conservative identity – what JTS Chancellor Arnie Eisen calls the “vital center” – was plain to all.

We are living and expressing a Judaism that is both fully engaged with the world, and fully committed to a Jewish future in it. It’s a Judaism that is dripping with Torah, like dew in the morning, and is also insistent that the Word of God must make us vessels of life-giving dew and kindness and never its opposite. A Judaism that is awake to the catastrophes of our world and that provides a critical perspective for approaching them.

In short, this “vital center” is, simply, Judaism. It is an unfolding of the beautiful project of Torah we see throughout our world – at the URJ and at Yeshivat Maharat and at YCT and at Hadar and at Ziegler and at JTS and at Yeshivat Talpiot and at Bina. It is a Judaism where institutions are our tools, and good ones at that, for building a world of chesed.

What was so wonderful about the USCJ conference, for me and I think for many others, was that I experienced an institution that listened to the world that is forming just under the radar of large Jewish institutions. I saw the USCJ listening, without responding in any insecure top-down Jewsplaining sense, to a world that is quickly sprouting up around it.

The richness of the emerging Jewish world is before us. It’s a religious awakening that parallels its twisted double, the violent religious awakening we see in the larger world around us. The USCJ is ready to build a world of chesed, not of hatred. To build a world of life, not of death. To build a world of listening, not of closing our ears.

About the Author
Eric Woodward was named by the Forward this year as one of America's most inspiring rabbis. He is assistant rabbi at Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio, and an alum of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshivat Hadar.