Two Jobs Are Better Than One

by Steven Portnoy

The mission of the Men of Reform Judaism’s (MRJ) Reform on Campus (ROC) committee is “to assist students in creating meaningful Reform Jewish experiences on campus that will lead them to being active and involved Reform Jews for life.” Because I have been an involved member of this committee for eight years, the last five of which I have served as chair, I am intimately familiar with the committee and its work.

Once upon a time, in fact, I compiled some fun facts and figures about Reform on Campus:

  • Since its founding in 1995, Reform on Campus has awarded close to $600,000 to Reform groups on campuses across North America, and numerous foreign countries, including, naturally, Israel.
  • In a typical year, Reform on Campus funds 30 programs, which means that we’ve funded approximately 540 programs to date.
  • Although it’s a bit more difficult to calculate the total number of attendees at Reform on Campus programs during the last 17 years, I would guesstimate that between our guest speaker events (which garner 200 or more attendees apiece) and our Havdalah service and dinner events, 16,000 lives have been touched by ROC initiatives in about a dozen countries across the planet.

Programming, too, is as varied as you might imagine. Dessert Shabbatons in the Negev? Yes. Mitzvah days? Yes, many of them. Holiday celebrations from Passover and Sukkot to Rosh HaShana and Hanukkah? Yes, we fund the programs and the food that goes with them. After all, what’s a Jewish gathering without food? We support out-of-the-box programming, too, including disaster relief in New Orleans and, more recently, in Neponsit following Superstorm Sandy.

Job #1 has been a good job.

Soon enough, Job #2 will join its ranks.

At a recent MRJ Executive Council meeting, I was nominated to be a vice president and the next Chancellor of the Jewish Chautauqua Society. I’m running unopposed, which means I’ll officially take office—adding to my portfolio—at the MRJ Biennial in June. I am, of course, honored by the nomination, but feel the weight of a 120-year-old organization on my shoulders. Interestingly, one of my rabbis took the opportunity for a teachable moment, pointing out that the Hebrew kofvetdalet root is the same for kavod (honor) as it is for kaveid (weight).

Will it too be a good, honorable job? Yes, I’m sure it will be. Will it be a weighty job? Yes, in some regards it will be, in part because I would surmise that most readers of this blog have never heard of the Jewish Chautauqua Society (JCS) and have little, if any, idea of what it does. And so, one of my primary responsibilities will be to raise awareness.

With that in mind, here’s a brief tutorial about JCS, which was founded in 1893 by Rabbi Henry Berkowitz of Philadelphia, and seeks to:

  • Provide knowledge and education about Jews and Judaism;
  • Promote an appreciation of the Jewish people, their history, religion, and culture; and
  • Build bridges of understanding between peoples of all faiths and cultures.

Originally designed to teach Jews about Judaism, today JCS focuses on promoting interfaith dialogue and education. JCS’s current Chancellor, Thomas E. Wiener, has this to say about JCS and its newest initiative, the MRJ Congregational Interfaith Mini-Grant Program:

“There is clearly a need to bring greater interfaith understanding not only to students in formal educational institutions, but to promote it within thousands of local communities. With this in mind, in 2011 MRJ initiated the MRJ Congregational Interfaith Mini-Grant Program, whereby congregations can obtain financial support to engage in one or more interfaith programs within their own local community.  We urge and encourage congregations throughout the Reform Movement to take advantage of this special opportunity.”

Although it won’t be easy, I am looking forward to the task, hopeful that with your help, when JCS turns 220, the incoming Chancellor will not have to ask if you have heard of us.

Steven Portnoy, in addition to his leadership role with Men of Reform Judaism, is a member of Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York, NY.