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2003 Biennial Address from Outgoing Chairman Russell Silverman

During the last four years, it has been my honor to serve as the chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Union. My wife, Debbie, and I have had the rare and wonderful opportunity to visit more than fifty congregations of this Movement. I have had the unique privilege of working with Boards of Trustees as well as speaking during Shabbat services. In the course of my trips, I have come to understand the lingo, the language, and the nuances of phrases that are often used at temple meetings. I consulted with no greater authority than Al Vorspan, who formerly served as the senior vice president of the Union and made many similar trips. It seems that the same comments I heard are found in his book Start Worrying: Details to Follow. Considering that most of you are leaders who attend those same meetings, I can think of no better group to share Al's and my newfound knowledge with than you.

The following are the top seven phrases I have heard in all my trips: 

Number 7: Let's set up a pilot project. Meaning: Let's kill it for a year. 

Number 6: Mind you, I have no objection to the principle of this project, but I simply think we should carefully examine all of its implications. Meaning: I'm against it. 

Number 5: The previous speaker has already said much of what I had in mind, but it bears repeating. Meaning: He stole the only idea I had. 

Number 4: Our committee has proceeded slowly and cautiously. Meaning: We haven't had a meeting yet. 

Number 3: I must say that you have asked a very searching and challenging question. Meaning: I wish I knew the answer.

Number 2: Our decision to pool our efforts with those of all the other synagogues in the community in developing a joint community-wide program reflects our deep commitment to K'lal Yisrael, the peoplehood of Israel. Meaning: This way we can split the costs. And 

Number 1: I think there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Meaning: Yeah, but it's probably an oncoming locomotive!

Humor aside, during these trips I have met many extraordinary and wonderful people far too numerous to mention, given the available time. But in addition, there are some people who deserve special recognition because of the support that they have given me. With your indulgence, permit me to focus on two of these people. Not only have they given me unqualified support, they have exemplified the dedication and commitment of so many of you by their work within their congregation, within this Movement, and for our greater Jewish community.

In these last four years, Debbie and I have traveled to thirteen of the fourteen regions for their biennials, to numerous congregations, and twice to Israel. Debbie has done so much for the Movement, and her work usually occurred behind the scenes. She has served as a member of the Joint Commission on Synagogue Music since 1991, first representing the Union and now Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She has served on the Board of Overseers of HUC-JIR's New York campus since 1993 and as a member of the Board of Governors of the College-Institute since 1997, all before I became chairman. At the same time, she served on the Board of our synagogue and as one of its officers. Presently she is a member of the Biennial Programming Committee and a member of the RJ Magazine Editorial Board. She is also the chair of the School of Sacred Music Advisory Council for HUC-JIR and in that capacity serves as a member of the Joint Cantorial Placement Commission. Twice in the last three years she has undergone major surgery for breast cancer. Yet she refused to stay home and recuperate when there was a congregation to visit or a critical meeting that required my attendance. Aside from being the love of my life and my wife for more than thirty-five years, Debbie has demonstrated by her quiet, dedicated service to the Reform Movement for both the Union and the College-Institute a remarkable level of volunteer commitment . She is symbolic of so many of you who devote countless hours to make synagogue life so meaningful for so many of our congregational members. 

David Magidson has been a close friend of mine for more than twenty years. He is a past president of my congregation and served as the treasurer during the two years I served as its president in the early 1980s. In August 2005, David will become the Commander of the Jewish War Vets, the organization's top national volunteer post, which is comparable to the position of chairman of the Union. Four years ago in Orlando, David and others from South Florida opposed a resolution that called for an end to the United States embargo of Cuba. Two years ago and again this year, David accepted my invitation to serve on the Biennial Resolutions Committee, and he has actively participated on that committee for both Biennials. But that is not the end of the story. David's deep and abiding commitment to the principles of social justice and human rights led him to reexamine this Movement's position on the human rights of those who have been detained by the government of Cuba and in some instances have been severely punished or even executed. Later today you will consider the resolution that David created. His dedication to the principles of g'milut chasadim, human rights, and social justice is an example to us all that our Jewish principles and teachings should not reside on the proverbial shelf, to be taken down and reviewed only when it is convenient for us to do so, but should permeate our Jewish lives, individually and institutionally. David serves as an example of so many of you who work in our soup kitchens, our homeless shelters, during our Mitzvah days, and who provide needed food during our food drives, especially during Yom Kippur. Yet the commitment and dedication of you and thousands like you who feed the hungry and provide shelter and clothes to those in need is still far too rare in our congregations.

I am deeply troubled by what I see as a "sea change" in our attitude toward issues of social justice. It doesn't play the same role as a defining characteristic of our Movement as it did in prior generations of Reform Jews. One measure is the shifting emphasis we place during these biennials on particular issues of social justice. Our pattern is to create a series of resolutions over a decade or more of Biennials that focus on a particular social justice issue, and then rely on our institutions, the CCAR and the Union through the Joint Commission on Social Action for the Reform Movement, and the Religious Action Center to translate those policy resolutions into action, both for our congregations to implement and for the RAC itself on behalf of the Reform Movement when it represents our positions before Congress and the Administration. An examination of Biennial resolutions adopted over the past thirty years shows that we have spoken out directly on health care concerns five different times, on issues of gay-lesbian rights and relationships five different times, and on the environment three different times. All of these are important and critical issues and require even more of our attention. But we have spoken out directly on issues of racial discrimination only once, issues of hunger only once, issues of homelessness only once, and issues of poverty only once, although these issues are intertwined. We have been content to introduce broadly worded resolutions that mention the issues of racial inequality, poverty, hunger, and homelessness in passing, while focusing directly on other matters. We have relied on the multiple resolutions we adopted during the decade of the 1960's and early 1970's to serve as our policies in these matters.

Do the names James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner mean anything to you? To those born after 1960, it is doubtful that these names are familiar at all. To those of us who remember Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, these names are only too familiar. Those three young men gave their lives in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality. But how long has it been since this General Assembly has recognized that there remains much to do in the area of civil rights and racial equality? The great philosopher Pogo once said, "We have found the enemy and they are us!" Perhaps that is exactly what has happened. The recently released National Jewish Population Survey has disclosed the following statistics about our United States Jewish population:

We are the best-educated Jewish population in history. Eighty percent of Reform Jews have received a college degree, compared to 29 percent of the total population. More than 25 percent of us have received a graduate degree, compared to only 6 percent of the total population.

We are the wealthiest Jewish community in history. More than one-third of our households earn in excess of $75,000 annually, twice the national percentage. Our median income is $54,000, nearly 30 percent higher than the United States median income.

Our educational achievements have had the unfortunate effect of separating us from those most affected by racial inequality, poverty, hunger, and homelessness. We may understand the issues intellectually, but we do not feel the issues in our kishkes. Our financial success has widened the gap even farther. We understand that people are poor and hungry and homeless, but we don't live or work where we are likely to see and feel the problem except for the hungry who visit our soup kitchens, the hungry and homeless who panhandle on our street corners, and those who sleep on the sidewalks of our cities as we drive by.

With apologies to those of you from Canada, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and the Virgin Islands, I ask you to consider the following demographic statistics:


  • Thirty years ago, there were almost 23 million Americans, or 11.1 percent of the total population, living below the poverty income level. In 2001, there were almost 33 million Americans-11.7 percent of the population-living below the poverty income level. To put these numbers in perspective, the number of Americans living below the poverty income level in 2001 was equal to the total number of people living in all six of the New England states plus the state of New York.



  • Thirty years ago, there were more than 9.6 million children below the age of 18, or 14.4 percent living in households with an income below the poverty income level. During the last twenty-eight years, the problems have only gotten worse. In 2001, there were nearly 12 million children below the age of 18, or 16.3 percent living in households with an income below the poverty level. In other words, the number of children living in households with incomes below the poverty level was almost equal to the combined population of North and South Carolina. This means that almost one child in every six in the United States was living in a household whose income was below the poverty level. Over 5 million of these children lived in households that were severely poor, defined as a family income of less than 50 percent of the poverty income level. What do all these percentages mean in people terms?



  • Nearly 33 million people do not know where their next meals are coming from. It is estimated that every day, nine million people, one-third of whom are children, go hungry. During 2001, more than 23 million Americans sought emergency food assistance from food banks, church and synagogue pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. More than 3.5 million Americans are homeless, and almost 1.4 million of them are children. Nearly 33 million people do not know where their next meals are coming from. It is estimated that every day, 9 million people, one-third of whom are children, go hungry. During 2001, more than 23 million Americans sought emergency food assistance from food banks, church and synagogue pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. More than 3.5 million Americans are homeless, and almost 1.4 million of them are children.


To put a face on the issues of poverty, I ask you to consider what happened to Ellen Spearman of Morrill, Nebraska, as described in an article by Trudy Liberman. Ellen Spearman lives in a trailer at the edge of Morrill, Nebraska, a tiny, dusty town near the Wyoming state line. A few years ago she was a member of the working poor, earning $9.10 an hour…. Then she got sick and had four surgeries for what turned out to be a benign facial tumor…. For a while she worked without benefits until the company eliminated her position. So the 49-year-old single mother of five, with two teenage boys still at home, now lives on $21,300 a year from Social Security disability, child support, and payments from the company's long-term disability policy….That's about $6,000 above the federal poverty level, and too high to qualify for food stamps. But it is not enough to feed her family…With the need to pay for gasoline, car insurance, trailer rent, clothes, medicine, and utilities and to make payments on a car loan and $10,000 in medical bills, Spearman says three meals a day "take a back seat." She says she and her family eat a lot of rice with biscuits and gravy. Their diet is more interesting only when a local supermarket sells eight pieces of chicken for $3.99 or chuck roast for $1.49 a pound. (The Nation, August 18, 2003)

We are the best educated and the wealthiest Jewish community in our long and storied history. Despite the efforts of our congregations to feed the hungry and provide shelter for the homeless, unintentionally, we have not seen the forest from the trees. We have not recognized, as we should have, that new efforts and approaches must be created as these problems have not abated and have, in fact, significantly worsened, and that was true even before the severe economic downturn of the last three years. Later today you will consider a resolution titled "Proposed Resolution on Confronting and Combating Poverty in the United States." If we treat this resolution as a feel-good resolution, one designed to reiterate where we stand, and then go home and pat ourselves on the back and do nothing more than what we have been doing for the last thirty years, we might as well not adopt the resolution for all the good it will do, or actually all the good it will not do because of our inaction. It will be yet another "Mom and Apple Pie" resolution, a comfort resolution. But if we are serious about combating poverty, hunger, and homelessness, then this resolution must serve as only the beginning of a new social justice effort on the part of the entire Reform Movement. Both the Joint Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism and the Board of Trustees of the Union must make finding the solution to the problems of poverty, hunger, and homelessness a priority issue for the Movement and not just an issue that appears in Biennial resolutions. However, all such efforts will be for naught if we don't convert our commitment into actions by our congregations. Our synagogues must become centers of activism and centers of passion for those social justice issues that demand our attention.

I end as I began, by quoting Al Vorspan, this time from another of his books, Tough Choices, co-authored with Rabbi David Saperstein. There is no specific Jewish "right" answer to most of these dilemmas. But there is a Jewish mandate to care, to study the issues, to be engaged in the work of the community, and to undertake the social action that will help to heal this battered and weary world. There is a recognition that it is a sin-not less than that-to do nothing when moral decisions must be made. Long ago, we stood at the foot of Sinai. From our encounter with the Divine, we brought forth a message of justice and hope that transformed human history. From that time on, the need for such a transforming vision has never been more urgent than it is now. Today. This afternoon, let us send a clear message that we are beginning that transformation by reaffirming our commitment to our religious and Reform Movement principles of g'milut chasadim and social justice.

Kein y'hi ratzon.