408 Rabbi Irwin Kula: Retraining clergy for challenges outside congregations

“YOU’RE ONTO SOMETHING really, really important with ReadTheSpirit. … What you’re working on is a new way to connect people. The ways Americans connect are going to change in the next two or three years and you’ve got a chance to help shape that new way we talk to each other about faith and culture and values.”
    Rabbi Irwin Kula, President of the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership (CLAL)

You’ve probably seen Rabbi Irwin Kula on “The Today Show,” where he is a regular guest. He’s called upon to talk for a few minutes on the show—from time to time—about all sorts of ways that Judaism is important to contemporary life. In one appearance, he might offer tips about helping kids with conflicting holiday seasons in a diverse neighborhood. Or, most recently, he was on the popular NBC show talking parent-to-parent about the spiritual treasures involved in blessing our children.
    Network television is a venue open to precious few American clergy, so the way Kula uses his few minutes is important. Of course, not everyone sees this as a healthy challenge. Many shy away from the connective power of media.
    So, just before Passover started, Kula and I talked about this emerging challenge. And, let me clarify the challenge as both of us see it: We’re talking about reaching people to make a positive difference in their lives. The goal is to help people make spiritual connections and build healthy, diverse communities. This is the glue that holds ReadTheSpirit together—and it’s the passion behind CLAL as well.

    Right now, Kula is excited about one particular CLAL program he calls Rabbis Without Borders—an effort to build a trained corps of hundreds of clergy who are attuned to the new opportunities in reaching people through media—and in speaking and teaching in public venues.
    Neither one of us is pushing conversion. Nor are we trying to build empires.
    We are talking about reaching people to encourage spiritual reflection, compassion and civility. We are talking about the same theme that Dutch Minister Frans Timmermans talked about Monday here at ReadTheSpirit—the importance of “sharing our stories” with others.
    For clergy, we’re talking about an awareness that, as John Wesley put it centuries ago, “the world is … our congregation.” (Wesley actually said “our parish,” but “our congregation” makes the point in a more inclusive way.)

    Through his new program, Kula hopes to train 200-300 rabbis in ten years. CLAL is looking for rabbis, in CLAL’s words, “who are already primed to make Judaism meaningful in the public sphere—a group that will represent Rabbis Without Borders at its best. This pioneer group will serve as role models and teachers both inside and outside of the Jewish community.”
    The challenge isn’t only that clergy are shy about media, Kula argues. The other challenge is that most clergy are trained to focus foremost on congregants—not on the larger world surrounding the congregation.
    “In the past, we thought our goal in preparing rabbis was exclusively to make Jews more Jewish,” Kula said as we talked.
    While that remains an important calling within congregations around the world, “the new challenge is whether Jewish wisdom can be made accessible to anyone who is seeking meaning, purpose and social development.
    “Right now, the assumption in almost all Jewish education is that the people coming into our buildings to see a rabbi are Jews who want to be more Jewish. What I’m talking about is something different. I’m talking about looking at our ancient wisdom tradition as a way to help the larger community with social and moral and spiritual development. That’s a major shift.”

    Kula is the first to point out that he’s not alone in promoting such an initiative. What he’s talking about is a contemporary twist on a tradition that extends back to the great Maimonides and even earlier than that. (Click here to read our earlier interview with a Maimonides biographer.) In the past century, a broad array of best-selling Jewish authors spread their spiritual wisdom, as well. Many men and women have tried to make this connection.
    What Kula wants to see now, especially, are fully trained rabbis who bring authentic Jewish wisdom and tradition with them into the public square. Ironically, as new media flattens the global landscape to welcome, at last count, 200 million people to host their own Facebook Web pages, for example—trusted authority, real expertise and compassionate authenticity are becoming more valuable than ever.
    People are seeking it out in spiritual realms. That’s the headline in the newest report on religious affiliation in America, Kula pointed out.
    “The report says the fastest growing religious group in America are those people who say their religious identification is—none,” Kula said. “That group is going to continue to increase so the next phase for people committed to their own religious traditions is: How do we talk to people in public in a noncoercive way? What kinds of serious conversations can we have?
    “We want those people who are toggling together their own approach to spirituality to have access to authentic wisdom—and not what we used to call New Age. Everyone faces big questions like: How do I deal with grief? How do I react to envy and jealousy?”
    Kula said, “We need to be looking at everything from speaking through the media to teaching Jewish law in law schools. We need to ask: Where can we add value to people’s individual life decisions as well as our public policy?”
    Sometimes, the challenge is as basic as talking parent-to-parent about faith within our families. Kula said his “Today Show” segment on blessing your children is a valuable lesson, even if it was delivered in just a few minutes across the TV network.
    “This is as basic as learning to put your hands on your children’s heads once a week and saying a blessing,” he said. “At first, it will feel awkward but over time, it will change your family.”

    At ReadTheSpirit, we think such spiritual connections can change our world, as well.
    But what do you think?


    OVERVIEW OF CLAL: From CLAL’s own Web site, here’s a summary of its mission.
    RABBI KULA BIO: CLAL provides this overiew of Rabbi Irwin Kula’s work.
    RABBIS WITHOUT BORDERS: Here’s an overview of the program.
    INTELLIGENT TALK RADIO: Rabbi Irwin Kula practices what he preaches and one good place to explore his outreach is “Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio,” one of many programs he has developed over the years. (The photo at right shows Kula with his friend and co-host, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield.)
    READ HIS BOOK YEARNINGS: We recommended Rabbi Kula’s book in an earlier review we published by Jewish writer Gail Katz.


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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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