In Joel Lurie Grishaver’s recent book, Stories We Pray:  Insights into the Inner-Work of Jewish Worship, he presents a brilliant rabbinic teaching that radically reshapes two different Biblical images.  In the context of this week’s parashah, with Jacob’s sons gathered around his deathbed, a particularly innovative midrashist imagined the original incarnation of the Shema.  Instead of being a reflexive call to ourselves, the Shema is transformed into a children’s assurance to their father:  Listen, Israel [Jacob’s alternate name], Adonai is our God, Adonai alone.

As Jacob dies, leaving his children and their descendants in a foreign land – the first diaspora – he is anxious about what we call today Jewish continuity.  He is concerned that, as God’s relationship with individuals morphs and the anchor of the Land of Israel is lost for multiple generations, the tradition that originated with his grandfather Abraham and the special dialogues he had with God will be lost forever.  Speaking in one voice, the oft-bickering (and worse) offspring unite to assure their father:  your God (Adonai) is our God, and there are no other gods.  There will be no assimilation in Egypt.

This fall we have heard much about the dangers of assimilation in the Pew report, premature and ultimately misguided declarations of the demise of Conservative Judaism, and other ongoing saber-rattling and boundary-definition within the Jewish world, from far-right to “just Jewish,” from Israel and the Diaspora.  I reserve my thoughts on theses discussions for another time and, possibly, another place.  Within our contemporary context, and my imagination of the Shema as a consoling salve to Jacob as he breathed his last breath, I had the pleasure earlier this week of celebrating great Jewish leadership and a branch of our Conservative Movement I doubt many have heard of.

On Sunday evening in Highland Park, IL, at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El, Masorti Olami honored three giants of its work:  Cantor Steven Stoehr, Rabbi Jacob Herber, and Alan Silberman.  All three supporters and leaders of the shared broader mission of Conservative Judaism, I have developed deep personal relationships with two of them due to their particularly strong relationships with Ramah: Rabbi Herber of Beth Israel Ner Tamid outside of Milwaukee, and Silberman, past-President of Ramah Wisconsin and the National Ramah Commission, resident sage, and cherished friend and mentor, are huge supporters of our work at Ramah.  It was a great evening and a wonderful kavod (honor) to be able to celebrate their contributions.

Masorti Olami represents, in a way, the ongoing vision of the midrash that places the Shema in the mouths of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, and their brothers.  It dedicates itself to the growing and committed Conservative communities on the geographic fringes of the Jewish world, specifically in South America, Europe, Africa, and Australasia (their term).  In communities where Judaism can be very new (Uganda) or ancient and historically troubled (Kiev, Berlin), Masorti Olami flies the flag of a vibrant, contemporarily relevant Judaism that is finding a growing voice.  Overshadowed by the larger communities in Israel and the United States, Masorti Olami nurtures Conservative Rabbis and is one of the key bright spots of what our brand of Judaism has to offer the entirety of the world’s Jews.

On Alan’s frequent visits to camp – often twice a summer now, with around sixty summers of involvement under his belt – our staff and campers are occasionally regaled with mellifluent recountings of his journeys to Ramah camps in Buenos Aires, the flowering Conservative shuls in London, Berlin, and Budapest, and his involvement and advocacy for our concerns at the highest levels of international Jewish decisio-making, from his seat in the highest echelon of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors.

This Shabbat, as we read the end of the book of Genesis and are forced to endure the painful decline of the first Israelites into slavery, let us applaud the resistance of those slaves over generations, the leadership of towering figures like Alan Silberman and Rabbi Jacob Herber, and the holy and essential work of an organization, Masorti Olami, whose reach and impact are far greater than its name recognition.

Shabbat Shalom.