Shalom and welcome to the world of Jewish Universalism, a new and inclusive movement within Judaism, pioneered under the visionary leadership of Rabbi Steven Blane and his founding synagogue, Sim Shalom. Jewish Universalism is a transformative approach within the Jewish faith, embodying a philosophy of openness and acceptance, encapsulated in its core platform, the Union of Jewish Universalist Communities (UJUC.org).
Essence of Jewish Universalism: Jewish Universalism (JU) is distinguished by its embracement of all Jewish denominations without judgment, conditions, or requirements. It asserts a profound truth: all paths to the divine are equally sacred. This movement is trans-denominational, meaning it transcends traditional Jewish sects to unite followers under a broader, more inclusive banner.
Core Principles of Jewish Universalism:
- Inclusivity and Diversity: JU was conceived to meet the needs of unaffiliated Jews and the interfaith community, embracing Jewish interfaith families unconditionally.
- Full Participation: Uniquely, Jewish Universalists welcome everyone to fully participate in Jewish worship and rituals, fostering a sense of community and belonging.
- No Pressure to Convert: Within JU, individuals are never pressured to convert. The conversion process, if chosen, is spiritual and meaningful, encompassing online study, rabbinical guidance, Mikvah (ritual immersion), and Bet Din (rabbinical court). Traditional physical rites like circumcision are not mandated.
- A New Vision of Judaism: Rabbi Blane likens Jewish Universalism to a jazz song, where individuals are free to express their spirituality based on personal emotions and beliefs.
- Seven Key Doctrines: These include honoring Jewish rituals and texts, viewing the Torah as divinely inspired, recognizing all divine paths as equal, and celebrating interfaith families.
Rabbi Blane’s Personal Journey and the Genesis of Jewish Universalism: Rabbi Blane’s journey to founding Jewish Universalism was marked by introspection and a critical reassessment of his experiences within Conservative Judaism. His time in various leadership roles across Jewish denominations highlighted for him the inconsistencies and challenges within the traditional frameworks. This period of reflection and his own diverse background led him to envision a more inclusive, unrestrictive form of Judaism.
Jewish Universalism in Response to Contemporary Jewish Challenges: Rabbi Blane’s open letter delves into the current state of progressive Judaism and its struggles, addressing issues like the role of interfaith families, the relevance of Conservative Judaism, and the broader Jewish community’s relationship with Israel and Zionism. Jewish Universalism emerges as a response to these challenges, offering a non-judgmental, all-embracing, and kind approach to Jewish faith and practice.
The Vision and Mantra of Jewish Universalism: Jewish Universalism stands out for its apolitical stance and focus on spiritual unity, encapsulated in its mantra: “Hear oh Israel, Hear oh Humankind, the Lord is G-d and G-d is one!” This approach emphasizes respect and harmony for all, regardless of their faith or lack thereof.
UJUC – A Community of Service and Inclusion: The formation of the UJUC, with eighteen Jewish Universalist Rabbis, symbolizes a commitment to serving the community without the constraints of traditional Jewish dogma. This aligns with the modern Jew’s needs, offering a vision of oneness and respect for all.
In conclusion, Jewish Universalism under Rabbi Blane’s guidance offers a refreshing, inclusive, and harmonious approach to Judaism. It stands as a beacon for those seeking a spiritual home that respects diversity, encourages full participation, and upholds the sanctity of all paths to the divine.
An Open Letter from Rabbi Blane – The Origins of Jewish Universalism and Why it Matters
What is Jewish Universalism? Why does it matter? To answer these questions, I need to revisit a bit of personal history.
When I first conceived of Jewish Universalism, it was during a transitional period when I declined my synagogue’s offer of a contract renewal in January, and had to remain in my position until July.
For Rabbis and Cantors, those months are a time of soul searching- and job searching. We tend to just “walk through the motions” and show up and perform our duties devoid of much spirit or “Neshama” (soul). Many nights I couldn’t sleep and I awoke at 3am to stare at the ceiling and wonder what would I do to provide for my family and my soul.
Over the course of three years as Rabbi of that Conservative synagogue (and fifteen years prior to that as Cantor and Spiritual Leader of several other synagogues), I came to reject Conservative theology. It simply did not feel like home.
Despite it’s great scholarship and the fact that it is the best place to learn rituals and liturgy, Conservative Judaism eventually caused me great pain. The hypocrisy was exasperating and exhausting. We were kosher in the synagogue to the extreme, but most of the congregants were un-kosher outside. No food collection for the poor-even canned goods- that were un-kosher were permitted in the synagogue. Our membership was dying in that community, so we discussed selling the building and moving to a nearby town where the pickings might have been better. But that would never happen- the leaders of the shul (a/k/a those few who did everything) would not have it. We fought battles over playing music at Services, over Bat Mitzvah girls covering their heads, about the role a non-Jewish family member at a B’nai Mitzvah, about changing/updating prayer books, and on and on. Everything was a battle.
And any time someone new would show up for a worship service, they would only stay about an hour and then they were gone. Our Shabbat morning Services were often three hours long.
And so, during those last months of that waning contract I had the opportunity to envision what Judaism truly meant, how I believed G-d intended and wanted it to be shared and how I might best transmit it as a teacher to all the people for whom I knew it simply was not resonating.
My background as a Yeshiva student during my formative grammar and High School years gave me broad perspective on living as a traditional Jew- although that was in reality never to be my path. In college and subsequently for years afterward, I drifted away from Judaism. I rarely went to synagogue, ate “treif” (un-kosher) and indulged in a poor artistic lifestyle which consisted mainly of writing music in the days and playing gigs in the evenings. So after a Jewish Yeshiva education and college, there was a span of about ten years, until I was married and my first daughter was born, during which I gave little thought to my Judaism.
And then something awakened.
When marriage and children come along, faith re-enters our sphere of importance. This “life-event” Judaism awakens in many, many Jews. I imagine it happens across all religions. It is a rather common phenomena and of course, for those of us in the position of Rabbi or Cantor, these are the times of greatest opportunity to welcome, teach and bond. And we only have a narrow span of years to reach them, because as we know after a Bar or Bat Mitzvah occurs, synagogue affiliation is simply over.
How sad it is then, when people become ready to re-explore their Jewish heritage, members of the Jewish community often are unwelcoming, display ill-will and are judgmental, speak Lashon Hara (“evil tongue/gossip”) and even openly spar with one another. Even today, Synagogues can be exclusive, expensive and when it comes to the Conservative Movement, typically in severe membership decline and comprised of mainly the elderly.
How many Conservative synagogues even today still don’t even try to adjust to the needs of their communities? Their ritual committees restrict the participation of interfaith couples, refuse to meaningfully adapt their Hebrew School curricula, to shorten the length of Services to make them more resonant and on and on.
All of the current discussion surrounding whether or not Conservative Rabbis should officiate at Interfaith Weddings seems silly and even irrelevant. It’s all way too little and way too late. Conservative rabbis who would officiate at Interfaith ceremonies subject to certain “pre-conditions” are frankly irrelevant to mainstream Jews.
Below, I have links to articles from the past year, which illustrate the sad state of a substantial portion of progressive Judaism and how the Movements struggle. Even their connections to Israel have become more and more challenging.
In April 2016, many Reconstructionist rabbis formed their own association in protest of the Movement accepting Rabbinical candidates who’s partners were not Jewish:
In June 2017, the Rabbis at BJ, the iconic Conservative synagogue in NYC, came out to support officiating at Interfaith Weddings – with certain “conditions.”
Described by a Conservative Rabbi as the “issue of our time,” the BJ decision faces pushback from the rest of the Conservative Movement.
The Jewish Renewal Movement is in disarray as their Board quits and rabbis there is a vacuum and a lack of authority.
Progressive and Liberal Jews reevaluate their relationship to Israel and Zionism and make America their first priority.
The egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall is scrapped, much to the joy of the Ultra Orthodox who claim the wall for the Orthodox only. And of course, the matter of Jewish Conversion, performed by non-orthodox or non-Israeli sanctioned rabbis occupies a rather large part of the debate.
And last but not least a McCarthy-like “list” has been issued comprised of American Rabbis who’s Jewish Conversions are not to be recognized in Israel.
So again what is Jewish Universalism?
JU is a practical, authentic Jewish response to the turmoil described above. A non-judgmental, all-inclusive, kind and loving Judaism. Jewish Universalism is not filled with angst, does not demarcate lines-in-the-sand, or foster restrictions. In JU, you and your partner and family can just be- and be happy and learn. We are pluralistic/multi-denominational (it means you don’t even have to be Jewish to worship with us). We rise above the fractional fray within the mainstream Jewish World, roll up our sleeves and get to work!
As more than 20 Jewish Universalist Rabbis, joined together to form the UJUC – Union of Jewish Universalists Communities, serve the community understand, we are blessed to be called to service without the restriction of a Jewish Movement’s dogma that prevents us from truly meeting the needs of the modern Jew.
And that’s who we are. We welcome you all.