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Conversation with…Dr. Ron Wolfson

Dr. Ron Wolfson

Dr. Ron Wolfson

By Laura Porter

WORCESTER – From November 7-9, noted educator and author Dr. Ron Wolfson will be in Central Massachusetts to present “Relational Judaism: A Shabbat Weekend Experience.”
The program is sponsored by the Harold N. Cotton Leadership Center of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts in conjunction with Congregation B’nai Shalom and Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Westborough and Temple Emanuel Sinai and Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester. He will also deliver the keynote address at Torathon 2014: The Search for Meaning and Purpose at Beth Israel on Nov. 8.
Wolfson is a visionary Jewish educator whose enthusiasm for bringing Judaism alive in homes and Jewish institutions has shaped his work in the community. He is the author most recently of Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community, The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven: Reviewing and Renewing Your Life on Earth, The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation Into a Sacred Community, God’s To-Do List: 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth, and Be Like God: God’s To-Do List for Kids (all Jewish Lights Publishing). A pioneer in the field of Jewish family education, he has authored The Art of Jewish Living series of books (Jewish Lights Publishing): Three of the titles (Shabbat, Passover, Hanukkah) are designed to enrich the celebration of Jewish holidays, and one (A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort) provides a guide to Jewish bereavement and comfort.
Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) in Los Angeles, where he has been a member of the faculty since 1975. He has also served as Dean of the Fingerhut School of Education, Vice President and Founding Director of the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future and the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life. The book, First Fruit: A Whizin Anthology of Jewish Family Education, which he co-edited with Adrianne Bank, won the 1999 Jewish Book Award. He was also a co-founder of Synagogue 2000/Synagogue 3000, a twenty-year project to catalyze excellence in synagogue life.
In addition to his teaching and writing, Wolfson serves as president of the Kripke Institute, which sponsors the Center for Relational Judaism, Shevet: The Jewish Family Education Exchange, the National Jewish Book Award in memory of Dorothy K. Kripke, and funds the PJ Library in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Over the years, he has visited hundreds of Jewish institutions across North America and around the world as a consultant, teacher and scholar-in-residence widely recognized for his passionate, insightful and often humorous presentations. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Susie, and – by his own admission – eats frozen yogurt just about every day.
In advance of his arrival, the Jewish Ledger spoke with him about his ideas and hopes for the Jewish community.

Q: Your emphasis on the importance of relationships – across generations, affiliation, denomination – has become the groundswell of organized Judaism since Relational Judaism appeared in 2013. Relational Judaism now has its own Facebook page as well as its own center under the aegis of the Kripke Center, which you run. Why do you think your ideas have struck such a resounding chord with today’s Jews?
A: There is a lingering sense among Jewish communal leaders that the twentieth-century approach to engaging our people with the Jewish experience is not working as well as it once did. We spend so much time developing programs – good programs – that people come to, enjoy, and then they go home…and so what? Judaism is a religion and civilization based on relationships and, deep down, we understand that this is the key to our success. I believe Relational Judaism has resonated broadly through the organized Jewish community because it offers language to express what our “value offer” should be to those we want to engage, a clear statement of the purpose of Jewish institutional affiliation, six case studies of organizations that are already employing a relational approach, and twelve principles of relational engagement that can guide our work to recruit, engage and retain the affiliated, the under-affiliated, and the non-affiliated.

Q: How would you describe your own Jewish journey, both internally and through the course of your experience with the structured Jewish community and its institutions?
A: Well, one of the joys of writing the book was describing some of my Jewish journey story. I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, in a warm, extended Jewish family. My parents thought it important that I be a “shul kid” so I spent a good deal of time in the synagogue. Like many kids, I dropped out after my bar mitzvah, but was drawn back in by the teenage youth group. During college, I taught in an innovative experiment to keep kids involved in Jewish education post-bar/bat mitzvah that turned out to be extraordinarily successful. After earning a Ph.D. in Education at Washington University in St. Louis, I moved to Los Angeles to continue my Jewish studies and was offered a position as a professor at the then University of Judaism, now the American Jewish University. Through a 40-year career there, I have been privileged to work with Jewish educators, clergy, executive directors, communal workers, summer camps, day schools, Hillels, lay leaders in nearly all the organizations in the Jewish community, both as a consultant and scholar-in-residence.

Q: What was the impetus for the creation of Synagogue 2000, which became Synagogue 3000/Next Dor? How did its mission change over the 20 plus years of the organization’s existence?
A: In 1994, I met Rabbi Rachel Cowan, then the director of Jewish projects for the Nathan Cummings Foundation, who knew of my work in helping to create the field of Jewish family education. She asked me: “What’s next?” I always thought the Jewish future would be built on three pillars: the family, the synagogue and the community. So, I said, “Synagogues, we need to transform synagogues.” She introduced me to Dr. Larry Hoffman, professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College in New York, a thought leader in the Reform Jewish community. We agreed that by combining forces, we could create an academic research project to both study synagogue life at the end of the twentieth century, but more importantly, chart out a vision for a more welcoming, spiritually engaging, and intellectually stimulating congregation. In Synagogue 2000, we worked with nearly 100 synagogues from all denominations. After the turn of the century, we renamed the project Synagogue 3000/Next Dor and began to look at how synagogues could engage young Jewish adults. This past summer, we formally concluded our work, although all the research reports, curricula and attendant materials are archived on the www.synagogue3000.org website.

Q: How and why did the Kripke Institute in Omaha become the umbrella organization for so much of the work you do?
A: The rabbi of my youth, Myer S. Kripke, was my mentor for many years. To honor his late wife, Dorothy – a famous Jewish children’s literature author in the 1950s – he funded the Kripke Institute to support Jewish family literacy. Rabbi Kripke z”l recently died at the age of 100, but his and Dorothy’s legacy live on in the many philanthropic causes they supported. The Kripkes were very close friends of Warren Buffett, and perhaps I will have the opportunity to tell that story when I visit your community!

Q: You continue to teach in Los Angeles, write, serve as president of the Kripke Institute, and travel all over the world to lecture, consult and lead workshops. How do you do it all?
A: My wife Susie asks the same question! I’ve been visiting communities since my senior year of high school. I love to meet the people and see the communal institutions. You know, the Talmud says that if you want to know where the religion is going, go see what the people are doing. The American Jewish University has been a wonderful home where I teach undergraduate students and future Jewish educators and rabbis. Luckily, I spend some of my time traveling to communities to see if I can help out in some way.

Q: What is the future of organized Judaism? In the wake of changing demographics and financial crises, can we be hopeful about our synagogues?
A: Absolutely! “Hope” is our middle name. The Jewish national anthem isn’t called “Hatikvah” (hope) for nothin’! I am an optimist that our institutions are ready to embrace a new paradigm of Relational Judaism where we put our people first, where we know each other’s stories, where we care deeply for one another in face-to-face community, and we offer a compelling path to a life of meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing. I look forward to meeting you all in Worcester-Westborough. We’ll certainly have fun and learn a lot together!

Dr. Ron Wolfson’s three-day program in Central Massachusetts will include presentations at area synagogues as well as the keynote address at Torathon 2014 on Saturday evening, Nov. 8. On Friday at 7:30 p.m., he will discuss “Relational Judaism I” during Shabbat services at Temple Emanuel Sinai. At 9:30 a.m., during Shabbat morning services at Beth Israel, he will speak about “Relational Judaism II.” A Sunday Breakfast at B’nai Shalom (9:30 a.m.) will be the forum for the third piece, “Relational Judaism III.” His address at Torathon, to be held at Beth Israel, will focus on “Does Judaism Change Your Life? The Jewish Search for Meaning and Purpose.”
The event, featuring 30 classes, lectures, music, text study, and art led by area clergy and community leaders, runs from 5:20 to 10 p.m. Dr. Wolfson will speak at 6 p.m.

For more information about Torathon 2014 and Dr. Wolfson’s visit to the area, call (508) 756-1543.

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