Alliance to offer virtual relational Judaism learning series

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What is the relationship between Warren Buffet, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rhode Island Jews?

Decades ago, Rabbi Myer S. Kripke and business tycoon Warren Buffet became friends and bridge partners, after meeting through their wives. At his wife’s urging, Rabbi Kripke invested a modest inheritance with Buffet, and it eventually grew into the millions of dollars that was used to found the Dorothy K. and Myer S. Kripke Institute.

American Jewry scholar Ron Wolfson, Kripke’s friend and fellow Omahan, is president of the institute, which publishes his books. In the preface to one of Wolfson’s books, Rabbi Ed Feinstein quotes Heschel: “ ‘The modern temple suffers from a severe cold!’ declared Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1953. But as with most prophetic words, no one listened.”

But Wolfson did listen, and came up with a cure for that “cold” – a transformational change based on relationships. This transformation will serve as the basis for an upcoming virtual learning series for synagogue and agency professionals and lay leaders throughout Rhode Island.

As Rabbi Rick Jacobs writes in the forward to one of Wolfson’s books, “Relational Judaism is arguably at the core of Jewish religious life from its very beginning.” However, Jacobs believes we are now living with “ossified religious bureaucracies.”

Wolfson lays out a mission that is not based on programs and structures. He believes the ultimate mission of our institutions is “to strengthen each individual’s relationship with Judaism, its religion, values, culture, and peoplehood. Goal: connecting with the Jewish experience” and “building a sacred community of relationships.”

He advocates that the central focus of any Jewish institution should be building relationships “with Judaism, between leadership and the community, amongst peers.” Programs and institutions have no real value unless they build these relationships, Wolfson maintains.

The Rabbi William G. Braude Memorial Fund of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island is generously subsidizing a three-part, lunch-hour series aimed at helping professionals and lay leaders plan and implement collective strategies that affect transformational change. Best practices will be discussed and case studies will be presented by Wolfson and Rabbis Nicole Auerbach and Lydia Medwin.

Wolfson has been at the center of synagogue-transformation initiatives for decades, and has worked with Jewish Community Centers, Hillels and other organizations across the country as well. One board member of a Rhode Island synagogue, noting the institutional affiliations of the presenters, asked if these experts have “specific experience with suburban/low density Jewish communities.” Wolfson responded by saying that he has vast experience with such communities.

“We believe that one of the key best principles of a relational engagement campaign is to ‘learn the passions, talents, interests’ of each congregant ... to ‘hear their stories.’ This is often done in a ‘one-on-one’ conversation or in a small group ... even on Zoom. Someone from a small suburban congregation might think: ‘Oh, everybody knows everyone else.’ Not true. In fact, we will do an exercise with the group to illustrate this.”

The three-part series takes place on Tuesday, May 25, June 8 and Aug. 24, from noon to 1:15 p.m. If you are a local professional or lay leader in the community and think your organization would benefit from this virtual learning opportunity, please contact Jennifer Zwirn (jzwirn@jewishallianceri.org) or Larry Katz (lkatz@jewishallianceri.org) at the Jewish Alliance for registration information.

LARRY KATZ is the director of Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.

JENNIFER ZWIRN is the director of community investment at the Alliance.