Dear Friends,

In  the  Torah  portion  “Vayetze,”  Yakov  encounters  a  “certain  place”  in  his  flight from his brother Esav’s anger. In a sense, he is a refugee from potential violence, but in  the  midst   of  his  journey  he  encounters  a  place  where  the  Holy  One  is  truly present,  and  it  changes  his  entire  perspective.  He  sleeps,  he  dreams  a  visionary dream, and when he awakes the Torah says “V’hiney Adonai nitzav alav.” Suddenly he awakes to find the weight of Adonai “standing upon him.” It is a heavy sense of awesome  and  new  responsibility.  Like  Yakov,  we
too  can  awake  from  a  state  of somnolence  to  an  awe-inspired  understanding  of  new  responsibilities  as  we  move forward in spiritual community.

The whole Torah itself is in a sense a refugee story that began with G-d’s instructions to Abraham: “Go to a land that I will show you.” Perhaps because of this, few commands in the Torah exceed the number of times we are told to welcome the stranger among us. I want to ask you, dear Beth Israel congregant, who exactly is “the  stranger  among  us”  according  to  your  view,  and  who  is  the  resident  alien  we  are  supposed  to  be welcoming?  Are we really awake to our responsibilities?

Our spiritual community is and always has been  a big tent, with diverse experience and different ways of thinking  and  understanding  the  world.  We  have  and  always  will  be  welcoming  people  whose  unique personhood, skills and abilities often exceed our own judgments and projections, and we will always strive to welcome and incorporate diversity into our ongoing and new vision of who we are as a spiritual community.

Sometimes we will be welcoming fellow Jews; at other times we will provide communities of caring for the “ger toshav,” persons of other faith preferences who for whatever reason have found our Jewish community a place  of  learning  and  of  spiritual  connection  and  comfort.  We  will  be welcoming  people  whose  spiritual journeys may have taken the “more-travelled” pathways, others whose journeys have been expeditionary, or jagged and nonlinear. Like Yakov, my vision is that everyone experiences Beth Israel as a place of refuge where they can see and feel and know that Adonai is truly present.

In particular, our community already is composed of many inter-faith families. As  your spiritual leader,  I have heard that we can do more to reach out and welcome interfaith families to join our kehillah and/or to feel  welcome.  Whenever  an  interfaith  family commits  itself  to  raising Jewish  children  and/or  to  values  of Torah, I would like to see us working hard to be more welcoming regardless of our past understandings of Jewish  identity  and  privileged  status.  Some of  our  past  (and  current)  beliefs  and  practices  are  rooted  in conservative halakha (Jewish Law), but some are not. Our Board of Directors has issued a clear mandate that we see ourselves as a fully egalitarian and contemporary halakhic Jewish community. Contemporary Jewish law  issued  from  the  Committee  on  Jewish  Law  and  Standards  of  the  Conservative  Movement  is  in  some cases more expansive than we have yet allowed ourselves as a community to implement.

In the coming months, we will be working together to review our policies and procedures, beginning with issues of egalitarianism and inclusion. What does the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards recommend, and  how  do  we  measure  up  at  Beth  Israel?  How  can  we  renew  our  vision  and   awaken  anew  to  our responsibilities?  Our  Ritual  and  Membership  committees  have  begun  already  to  consider  some  of  these questions, and I welcome your ideas and suggestions as well. We have such a strong history of caring and religious tradition to build upon. Excitement is in the air. We are growing, and not just in number. It is an honor to be travelling with you on this sacred journey.

Rabbi Jama Purser