50 Years of Progressive Leadership

50 Years of Progressive Leadership

Rabbinical conference to honor Rabbi Stanley Davids

By Michael Jacobs | mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

Temple Emanu-El Rabbi Emeritus Stanley Davids and his wife, Resa, now live in Santa Monica, Calif.

After half a century as a rabbi, Stanley Davids is not about to stop working for Israel, the Reform movement and other causes.

“We who were once the future and then were the present are not ready to lay down our burdens. Not yet. Not now. We have too much to do. We are needed,” Rabbi Davids said in a speech in January to the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis (read the whole speech at here: LINK).

Rabbi Davids, who was ordained in May 1965, is being honored for his 50 years in the rabbinate at the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention, which begins March 15 in Philadelphia. He said in an interview from his home in California that he remembers seeing colleagues being similarly honored when he was a young rabbi, and he couldn’t imagine being “an old geezer waiting to be honored.”

“I’m really a little bit surprised to have made it,” he said. He noted that he went through serious health problems in the 1990s, being told every six months that he had only three months to live. “I never thought I would reach 40 years in the rabbinate, let alone 50. I’m grateful to my family, physicians, God, whatever forces are involved so that Resa and I are able to celebrate this milestone.”

Rabbi Davids served as the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El from 1992 to 2004.

“I loved the privilege of living in Atlanta” and building a Jewish community, he said. “There’s a part of me that will always be there because of the friends we made and what we experienced. We had a wonderful life there.” He said the community will always be in his and wife Resa’s hearts, and they come back to visit at least once a year, most recently in December.

When he retired to emeritus status at Emanu-El in 2004, he and Resa made aliyah.

“Resa and I dreamed of making aliyah practically from the time we were married. It was a shared dream,” the rabbi said, explaining that they wanted to be a part of bringing Jewish values to life and shaping Israeli society.

“We loved the privilege of freely moving about a country that for thousands of years our people only dreamed about,” he said.

In Israel, Rabbi Davids and his wife played a part in strengthening progressive Judaism, which expanded from 33 functioning Reform congregations when they arrived to 51 when they left in August. Resa Davids established 27 liberal women’s groups across Israel and helped bring about a fundamental shift in how Jewish women function in the whole world, the rabbi said. Meanwhile, he serves on the Jewish Agency’s board of governors.

He cited a number of positive changes in Israel during his 11 years there. The Israeli government pays for Reform rabbis and provides some support to build Reform synagogues. Israeli buses carry signs to remind women that no one has the right to tell them to move to the back. And grass-roots organizations have formed coalitions that have made Israel a better place.

“The progress of progressive Judaism is strong, solid, substantive but not linear. There is a huge amount of pushback,” he said. “Nothing is carved in stone. Everything is evolving.”

He said the Israeli elections March 17 pose a risk to progressive Judaism because any coalition involving Haredi parties could try to roll back the advances. Another battleground is the World Zionist Congress elections, in which Rabbi Davids is part of the Association of Reform Zionists of America slate in a bid to keep his WZC seat. He said the WZC is “one of the few places where diaspora Jews can go head to head with the political forces in Israel and make a difference. I hope that message can get through to the Jewish community.”

He said Israel and the diaspora are interdependent because the Jewish world is an ellipse with two focal points, Israel and the United States. “If Israel fails to be a democratic Jewish state, the American Jewish community will not be able to sustain itself. In the same way, if we can’t create a strong, engaged Jewish community here, the Jewish state in Israel will have problems surviving. We need both.”

Rabbi Davids said the battle to define Israel as equally Jewish and democratic is a battle for the soul of the Jewish people and must be won. He cited the example of his own neighborhood in Jerusalem, where people struggled over the coexistence of strictly observant and secular Jews.

He said Israel must overcome a tendency to set aside the battle for justice, democracy and pluralism in the face of external threats. “I don’t believe the success of Zionism will ever be measured by strong borders and an oppressive internal society,” he said. “Israel came into being to be a light to the nations — not just a refuge, but an exemplar.”

He said he considers himself more a pragmatist than an optimist, but he’s also a prisoner of hope when it comes to Israel. “For the past few thousand years, we’ve overcome those challenges. I expect that we will again.”

Rabbi Davids and his wife moved back to the United States in August, settling in Santa Monica, to be near two adult children and five grandchildren in the Los Angeles area. He said the separation from relatives was the hardest part of living in Israel, but the sudden decision to move back was driven by serious health issues that could best be addressed near family.

He said he’s feeling fine. “I’m quite optimistic as to how things will work out.”

The rabbi said he has many friends in addition to the family in the area, but he still has found it difficult to get established in the Los Angeles Jewish community because activities are confined to silos. “I found the Atlanta Jewish community to be more generally warm and open and welcoming.”

Still, Rabbi Davids is determined to keep teaching and trying to make a difference in people’s lives. He sees his 50th anniversary in the rabbinate as a steppingstone to more activities. “It’s been an absolutely wonderful opportunity to serve the Jewish people.”

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