Former B’nai Amoona rabbi returns for Shabbat talk

Rabbi Irwin Kula

Robert A. Cohen, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Rabbi Irwin Kula, who served for five years as a rabbi under the late Rabbi Bernard Lipnick at Congregation B’nai Amoona in the 1980s, and who is president of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership-training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City, will make his first return visit to B’nai Amoona since he was one of the speakers at Rabbi Lipnick’s funeral.

Rabbi Kula, 52, who became president of Clal in 2000, will be the Special Shabbat Guest at B’nai Amoona, Saturday, Nov. 13, where the theme of his talk will be “Judaism Without Borders: Can Judaism Compete in a Globalized World?” He will speak during services at approximately 10:45 a.m.

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The Jewish Light spoke to Rabbi Kula in his New York City office of Clal before his trip to St. Louis.

What are some of your thoughts and feelings about returning to B’nai Amoona for the first time since Rabbi Lipnick’s passing?

Three words come to mind. One, there is a certain amount of loss and sadness. To me, B’nai Amoona was Rabbi Lipnick in many ways. I don’t think there is a teacher besides my father, who had a more important effect on how I looked at Jewish life, and looked at a career, and looked at how to function as a rabbi. So there is a feeling of great loss. Then there’s immense gratitude. Immense gratitude to B’nai Amoona for the five years that I was there, and really indescribable gratitude to Rabbi Lipnick for having taken me under his wing. A third word is immense responsibility. Rabbi Lipnick taught me is that one has tremendous responsibility to an inheritance of this tradition. He taught me you actually don’t work for a synagogue. He taught me you work for God, Torah and Israel, in a specific place.

How has Clal’s mission evolved since Rabbi Yitz Greenberg established it in 1974 as a way to bring the streams of Judaism together and to work on bringing Torah into non-synagogue Jewish institutions like Jewish Federations and Jewish Community Centers?

From its inception until I took over in the late 1990s, Clal was in many ways the educational arm for the non-synagogue community. Clal did a lot of education for the Federations, it brought Torah back into what we would call the secular organizations of American Jewish life. Clal was inviting people to think about the challenge of power, the challenge of freedom, and the challenge of affluence, which were being met by these organizations, whether it was the United Jewish Appeal or the Federation, or the JCCs, along with a variety of other organizations. They were meeting the challenges of power, freedom and affluence, but they weren’t using Torah. I think the great contribution of Clal in those first 25 years was really fulfilling those goals. There is not a JCC in the country that does not have Jewish education, there is not a Jewish Federation in the country that does not have Jewish leadership education.

How did the focus shift when you assumed leadership at Clal?

When I came in and continued that, in the late 90s, I began to realize that actually, we accomplished that mission. The Federation system and the JCCs all had rabbi-teachers and scholars in residence, Jewish studies programs, things like that.

I began to see that there was a next mission. It was very much in concert with the original mission, but extending Torah beyond actually simply the borders of the organized Jewish community. I began to suggest that what Clal needed to do, was to take Jewish wisdom public. That’s kind of the one-liner of our present mission.

The vast majority of Jews are not part of the organized Jewish community. Altogether, almost 70 percent, according to Gary Tobin (the late Jewish demographer and native St. Louisan) weren’t even members at any one time of the Jewish community – so most Jews were outside of the very community that claimed it was organized. If you actually wanted to reach Jews, you had to actually go into the larger public square. By that I mean, the media, TV, blogs, film, and not just a Jewish sensibility.

How successful has Clal been in advancing this new mission?

This took on tremendous urgency for me, post-9/11, just as I was in the process of becoming full-fledged president of Clal. And also, as the technology was exploding, democratizing the entire nation, the entire world. The Clal leadership decided that the mission of Clal would become to see if Jewish wisdom could compete in the marketplace of ideas in America. Could we contribute to the real issues, public policy issues, and also for the personal meaning-seeking issues that people have? I wrote a book called “Yearnings.” It wasn’t a ‘how to be Jewish’ book. It was designed for anyone who wanted to become a more evolved human being.

What is really new about this approach?

If you go to a Jewish book store, Jewish books for the most part are either Holocaust history, or they are ‘how to be Jewish’ books. They are about how to books for the most part are either Holocaust history, or they are ‘how to be Jewish’ books. They are about how to make Judaism relevant to Jews so that they could feel more Jewish. What I was beginning to see, and now Clal is really behind this, is that Judaism is a ‘technology’ about how to be human. It has nothing to do with how to be Jewish. It’s a technology, a methodology, a tool box that one draws on to become a more highly evolved, more developed human being. How to love more deeply, how to be in relationships that are more ethical, about being more just. It’s not just about being Jewish.

How do you reach this public square?

In a variety of ways. We are on TV, we’re on the ‘Today’ show, we’re on a variety of different stations, we have relationships with producers, we’re on radio, and not just Jewish radio stations, but regular radio stations. We write for The Washington Post. I wrote a piece for The Huffiington Post on the elections of last week, and you can see how Jewish wisdom is used in these media. It is very different from how it is used in a sermon, in a synagogue in which it is all Jews, or different from a D’var Torah at a board meeting. We want to make Torah accessible and usable and those are key words, accessible and usable to anyone. So it’s a very significant shift.

I don’t start with the Torah and say, what Torah do these people need to know so they’ll be good Jews? I start with questions that people are asking, and say, do I have any actual Torah wisdom from a 3,500-year tradition that can contribute to helping people answer those questions?

So it’s a complete psychological shift. I don’t worry about ‘Jewish continuity.’ I worry about whether the wisdom works to help get the job done for people in their lives. I don’t worry about intermarriage, yes or no – I worry about can the Torah wisdom help anybody, no matter who they are to enhance their lives. If it does, all the other problems will dissolve. The problem isn’t Jewish identity. The problem is does Jewish wisdom and practices work for people, and that’s what we have to come clean about.

Rabbi Irwin Kula

WHAT: President of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Rabbi Kula will speak as Special Shabbat Guest on “Judaism Without Borders: Can Judaism Compete in a Globalized World?”

WHEN: approximately 10:45 a.m. Saturday Nov. 13

WHERE: Congregation B’nai Amoona, 324 South Mason Road

MORE INFO: Call 314-576-9990