Q&A with Rabbi Steve Burnstein

Rabbi Steve Burnstein, director of the Anita Saltz Centre, engages in a Q&A session with UPJ Program Coordinator Jocelyn Robuck.


Q: You have worked in the field of Jewish education for more than 30 years. What was your own early Jewish education like?

A: My family was actively involved in our synagogue when I was young. I attended the supplementary school that met three times each week. We also attended services pretty regularly. Holidays meals (including Friday night Shabbat dinner) were major events celebrated with our extended family. I was also very active in youth group and Jewish summer camp in addition to an eight-week Israel experience during high school. I identified strongly as Jewish and felt I had a special place in the Jewish community. The sense of belonging was central for me.

Q: Where did you study at university, and from where did you receive your rabbinic ordination?

A: After spending my freshman year in the Overseas Program at Tel Aviv University, I continued my studies in New York at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminar (of the Conservative Movement) where I received two undergraduate degrees – on in Sociology and the other in Jewish History. I also received a Masters Degree in Jewish Education. Some 11 years later I began taking classes informally focusing on prayer and liturgy. I then decided to continue my studies toward rabbinic ordination at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Juggling a family and full-time position, I took my time completing the program.

Q: When did you make aliyah, and what factors influenced your decision?

A: I made aliya in 1997. I had spent significant time in Israel over the years and was always looking for the next opportunity to visit and spend extended time there. I had an opportunity to take a sabbatical for a few months working with an educational project at Kibbutz Gezer. I met my (now) wife, Varda Livney on the Gezer baseball field and stayed.

Q: Your educational background includes study and experiences from    Progressive, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism. Is this reflected in the Saltz Centre curriculum, where you serve as Director?

A: I've been active in the Progressive/Liberal/Reform Movement continually since 1989. I celebrate the diversity of our movement as reflected in our communities and congregations around the world. I believe my own pluralistic background is a tremendous asset to my work with the World Union and Saltz Center. I strive to share the complexities of our Jewish tradition in the Saltz Center programs. I make an effort to ensure the wide-spectrum of approaches and understandings of Zionism and Israel are reflected in our seminars.

Q: You formerly served as Associate Director of the Pinat Shorashim Israel-Diaspora Seminar Center from 1996-2003; what was that work like?

A: Pinat Shorashim was a hand-on learning laboratory working with groups of all
 kinds from around the world exploring the meaning and significance of Israel in Jewish life. It was a creative an innovative educational project that 
combined text study, physical building, ecology, kibbutz, community and cooperation into a magical combination that had a tremendous impact on those who participated in the experience. Pinat Shorashim shaped my approach to Israel education.

Q: What were some of the notable experiences in your work as Director of Education and Marketing at IsraelExperts?

A: Working with the team at IsraelExperts was a richly rewarding experience. While there I had the opportunity to work with congregations, federations, schools, camps and other groups crafting meaningful Israel experiences. Our team there created leadership seminars, political action workshops, spiritual immersions, and multi-faith encounters. One of the most memorable projects was the Common Ground Mission.  A group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim teenagers learned about each other – exploring the commonalities and differences in their traditions. The program included significant pre- and post-trip programming in order to maximize the impact on participants. In Israel they explored the meaning of the Land of Israel in their different faith traditions as Children of Abraham.

Q:  How long have you lived at Kibbutz Gezer? What role do you have at the kibbutz?

A: I've lived at Kibbutz Gezer since making aliya in 1997 and have witnessed its ongoing evolution as we have become what is commonly referred to as a privatized kibbutz. My wife sits on the management committee and I sit on the membership committee.

Q: Could you please tell our readers about the Anita Saltz International Education Centre of the WUPJ?

A: The Anita Saltz International Education Center is the educational arm of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Through high quality educational programs we provide a global forum for Reform Jews to engage in serious, quality Jewish study in Israel, as well as in Reform Jewish communities around the world, on topics including Jewish peoplehood, the centrality of Israel in Jewish life, leadership development, teacher training, social justice and more.

Q: What are some of the programs offered to members of the UPJ region through the Saltz Centre?

A: Roswell Social Justice Seminar, December 26, 2013 – January 2, 2014: We’ll explore what our tradition has to say about social justice before we head out into the streets of Jerusalem and Israel to meet individuals and organizations working make a difference. We’ll hear their challenges and success as we roll up our sleeves to help them turn their vision into a reality. Finally, we will work on our own action plans for address these issues in our own communities.

Beutel Leadership Seminar, February 3 – 23, 2014: This program is an intensive study of issues critical to the future of Israel and the Jewish people. In addition to developing leadership skills, it offers an opportunity to study ancient texts, history, philosophy and Jewish thought, discuss current political and social issues, and explore spiritual pathways within the context of Progressive Judaism. Participants return home with a broad range of new knowledge, insights, connections and experiences, enabling them to provide their communities with a wealth of added value.

Bergman Seminar for Progressive Jewish Educators, July 24 – August 3, 2014: The program incorporates arts & culture, spirituality & liturgy, Hebrew language, history & memory, politics, text study, Jewish values, pedagogy and more. The seminar will focus on the multitude of Jewish narratives and play off the creative tension between Israel and Diaspora communities. We’ll address the critical challenges facing the Jewish people; encounter creative projects addressing these challenges; and dream up our own imaginative initiatives.  

Q: How can UPJ members support the work of the Saltz Centre?

A: Join us in Israel on one of our seminars! Make a donation to provide scholarships so as to ensure no one is denied access to our programs for financial reasons. Participate in an online Webinar. Assist us in recruiting participants for our programs to ensure representation from the UPJ and
enrich your own community. On your next trip to Israel spend a few hours or days learning with a custom educational experience. Dream with us and let us know what additional seminars would be meaningful for you and your community!

Speaking engagements for Rabbi Burnstein:
Wednesday 6 March: Temple David (Perth) evening function
Thursday 7 March:
Young adults function (Sydney private home)
Friday 8 March – Boardroom lunch (Sydney CBD); Erev Shabbat services at North Shore Temple Emanuel (Sydney), followed by a  communal Shabbat dinner
Saturday 9 March
– Shabbat morning service at Emanuel Synagogue (Sydney), followed by Lunch and Learn (private home)
Sunday 10 March –
Mini-Beutel session at Emanuel Synagogue (morning)
Tuesday 12 March -
Emanuel School (Sydney)
Thursday 14 March –
Day: King David School ;  Evening: “My Grandfather’s Rocks” hosted by Kedem (private home)
Saturday 16 March –
Shabbat morning services at Temple Beth Israel, followed by presentation after Kiddush “Israeli Culture through Music and Story”

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