A few weeks ago, I found myself in an unlikely place: The Bavarian city of Bamberg, in the medieval cathedral of that German town which avoided significant damage during World War II. The cathedral guide proclaimed that among the treasures of the church is a famous sculpture depicting the primacy of Christianity over Judaism. It does so by representing the church as a beautiful woman, holding a sturdy staff, the light of her eyes gazing toward the future, while Judaism is presented as a woman with her eyes blinded by a scarf, unable to see, leaning on a shattered staff.
This perception of Judaism as being an inconveniently persistent relic of the past was of course not just limited to medieval Christianity. Arnold Toynbee and Karl Marx also posited that our time had come and gone, while the Nazis tried to ensure that such was the case.
And yet there I was, in that place, to participate in a ritual that would show that despite the best efforts of those who would deny us a future, we persist as a vibrant people, with ideas and values we share with the surrounding civilizations and not just in the confines of our own intellectual and spiritual ghettos. In this age, we as a Jewish people have become whole again. Our staff was perhaps never broken, but by strengthening the renewal of Jewish community in various parts of the world, we are better able to part the seas of complacency. Today our eyes cast the light of the Jewish spirit, love of learning, and belief that all people, created in God’s image, can partner with holiness to bring healing into a world so clearly in need of it.
The ritual was the fourth ordination of rabbis from the new progressive German rabbinic seminary, the Geiger School located near Berlin. I was in attendance because a student from Seattle, Paul Strasko, who has an amazing personal story, was about to become a rabbi. He had invited me, as his former rabbi, to participate.
The Geiger School does something that at the beginning of my rabbinic career I would never have thought possible. They train men and women for the rabbinate for the express purpose of serving the needs of the European Jewish community — especially in the German-speaking world and the former Soviet Union. I used to believe that in our time Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe was indeed a relic of the past; that Hitler and Stalin had for the most part succeeded in making Europe a place where the staff of Judaism was broken and where we Jews should not live.
But in Germany and Eastern Europe, Jews have chosen to make Jewish life a continuing presence and have started to recreate significant Jewish community. Chabad, God bless them, recognized this reality a while ago, but so did the principals of the Geiger school, two charismatic Jewish leaders — one German, Walter Homolka, and one American, Walter Jacob — rabbis who understood that liberal Judaism would play a necessary role in this revival of European Jewry. This year’s graduates will all serve European communities, with my student Paul, who converted to Judaism here at Beth Am, working with Francophone Jewry in Geneva, Switzerland in a growing congregation.
I hope Seattle Jewry will be inspired by the example of those Jews who had the vision to create and support this new European rabbinical school as we realize the pivotal role we can take in shaping the Jewish future. We are no longer an outlying community, looking to New York or Los Angeles for direction. We have visionary leaders, from those in our Jewish Federation who are developing a new way for all the community to come together and support each other to rabbis and teachers — and scholars — in our universities and thriving synagogues.
This Jewish community is poised to become a significant center of Jewish life. What we still need, however, are business visionaries and philanthropists to step forward and take their place as communal leaders to help to inspire the dynamic renewal of Jewish life both locally and nationally. We are blessed to have the wealthiest Jews in Jewish history living in this town — captains of industry who have transformed how we communicate, how we make third places over a hot beverage, leaders in the distribution of goods. It is a situation not unlike what Isaac Meyer Wise, the founder of American Reform Judaism, found in Cincinnati in the 1800s, then the Seattle of its day. He was able to convince Jewish leaders in the business community to support his vision of creating a transformative, progressive Judaism for America. Now we desperately need that kind of visionary commitment to step forward and fund a Jewish Gates Foundation in Seattle that could help us create the foundation of the New Jewish future, to support our synagogues and the work we are doing, to fund the rabbinical schools — Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist — that serve all of our communities, to create centers of Jewish music and creativity, including a Center for Jewish Heritage here in this beautiful city. In our own ways all of us in the synagogue and non-profit Jewish communities strive to do this, but on a paltry budget, because our funding is limited. Just think what we could do to bring on the real Golden Age of this generation if we nurtured historic philanthropic leadership in this community that is so capable of producing it.
I have been here for 17 years and have yet to meet those who would help us reach that next level — but I am inspired by what I experienced in Germany. There I was reminded that the staff on the statue of Jewish life is beginning to become whole again and it is our privilege in this great Jewish city to be able to continue to strengthen it!