Is it mere coincidence that the Jewish festival of Passover, beginning this Friday eve, April 6th, falls in the early weeks of Springtime? The answer is ‘no’, both from a historical perspective but also from a symbolic perspective. Historically, several scholars suggest that there was a pre-existing Springtime celebration before the Jewish people assigned Passover and the re-telling of the exodus from Egypt to this time in the calendar. In fact, we see hints of this earlier celebration embedded in the Exodus story itself. Exodus, chapter five begins: ‘And afterward Moses and Aaron came, and said to Pharaoh: ‘Thus says the Eternal, the God of Israel: Let My people go, that they may hold a feast for Me in the wilderness.’ Spring is the season of new flowers and buds appearing in nature, and it is the lambing season. The centrality of the sacrifice of a lamb just before the tenth and final plague that led to the Hebrew slaves being allowed to go free may well have been related to an earlier celebration where a first-born of the new flock was offered up in thanksgiving.
Today we do not sacrifice animals as part of the Passover celebration; instead a shankbone is placed as one of the symbols on a Seder plate that takes center stage in the home-based ceremony held in Jewish homes all over the world to mark the beginning of the holiday. Another symbol of fertility and new life is also found on this plate – an egg (a Spring time symbol shared by our Christian neighbors at Easter).
But Spring time remains deeply symbolic as a time not only of new birth, but struggles for freedom from oppression over the centuries, new hope and new possibilities. We may be most familiar with the recent waves of unrest and uprisings against dictatorial leaders in the Middle East, dubbed ‘the Arab Spring’. These movements did not literally begin during Springtime, but commentators quickly adopted the phrase that can be traced back to the 1800s. Ben Zimmer, author of www.visualthesaurus.com, finds the earliest usage with a German philosopher, Ludwig Borne, in 1818. Referring to several European revolutions in the mid-1800s, in French the phrase used was printemps des peuples (springtime of the peoples) and, in English, ‘The People’s Springtime’.
What is common to both the current socio-political changes, the European revolutions, and the Biblical Exodus is that the journey from slavery to freedom is never straightforward. We are much more certain about what we are seeking freedom from but it usually takes a lot longer to know what we will do with our freedom. For the Hebrews it took forty years of wandering in the wilderness but, along the journey they created a covenant with God that provided them with laws and structures for creating a new society in a new land, where time and again they were reminded not to oppress others, because they had once been slaves in Egypt. This is a message that we all need to hear, year after year, precisely because it is so easy to forget the greater purpose of freedom once we have the power to choose our own path.
Chag Pesach Sameach – A Happy Passover to all!
A version of this article appears in the Editorial pages of The Bridgeport News and other publications of the Hersam-Acorn Consortium
Women and women’s rights have received a lot of attention in politics and media in recent weeks. March is Women’s History Month – a time to celebrate the contributions of women in the USA, particularly contributions to social and economic justice, and women’s rights. How ironic, therefore, that the beginning of March saw a debacle over women’s freedoms to make personal and moral choices about their own bodies. We saw women being silenced through their absence from important conversations taking place in congressional committees, and we heard Rush Limbaugh using crass language to dismiss the perspective of one young, brave woman who offered her opinion.
I know there are many perspectives on the issues themselves. But I am deeply concerned by the tone of the conversation, and what appears to be an increasing inability to engage in respectful discourse.
This past week, I was talking with a group of students at my congregation about two different ways of thinking about the power of speech. On the one hand is the US Constitution, guaranteeing the right to free speech. This is a core American value, and my students were all able to express the importance of this legal construct intelligently and articulately – our middle schools are teaching them well.
On the other hand, we explored some Jewish values and teachings on the subject of lashon hara. Literally meaning ‘evil tongue’, the term is often used to talk about the negative impacts of gossip, but the teachings apply to much more than that. Jewish wisdom sees speech as such a powerful tool that even saying something positive about someone should be done with great care (it may have a negative impact, such as stirring up feelings of jealousy in someone else). That might seem extreme, but it is indicative of how strongly the tradition feels we should guard our tongue and try to always speak from the highest place possible.
At our Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat at the end of last month, we engaged in an exercise where we took issues in the public realm where we felt strongly one way, and were required to make a persuasive argument for the other side. It was a powerful exercise in which we were able to see the validity of another perspective. I highly recommend trying it – it becomes much more difficult to demonize ‘the other side’ when we recognize that they do not come from a place of malice, but have another way of seeing things that also contain some truths.
It is true and important that the first amendment protects the right to free speech. But just because we can say it, doesn’t mean that we should say it. Our moral values point to a higher standard, and it is also good and true to hold those who speak in the public arena to this higher standard. They set the tone for the rest of us.
A version of this article was first published in the Op-Ed pages of The Bridgeport News, Bridgeport CT on March 16, 2012
Today saw the spreading of some enticing rumors regarding a soon-to-be-announced ordination program out of the newly-created Kabbalah Institute (KIRR – Kabbalah Institute for Reincarnated Rebbes). The program has already been running in pilot phase for 7 weeks, hence the rumors that the first ordination class is about to be announced.
When contacted for further details, KIRR would not divulge the full details of their program of study. However, it is believed to include sleeping with a volume of Zohar under your pillow for 40 nights, a daily mikvah, and the learning of a series of daily affirmations designed to align the sephirot within you. Rabbis ordained by KIRR will be qualified in the supervision, cutting, and wrapping of red string. They will be able to determine if string that has been worn for some time is still kosher or in need of replacement. All are expected to complete an Advanced course in Powerpoint, due to the centrality of glossy and impressive visuals that accompany the various curriculum they are trained to teach about where to find the secrets of life, the universe, and everything (Douglas Adams is a compulsory text for the first 7 days of the program).
But the biggest potential game-changer in this new rabbinic program lies in the promise that, when the first class of ordained KIRR Rabbis are revealed tonight, it will include their first woman. While the identity of this woman has not been confirmed, many are postulating that it no other than Madonna Ciccone. Evidence from her recent performance at the Superbowl points to this conclusion. A cleverly-orchestrated choreography, provided in partnership with Cirque de Soleil, has been analyzed using the most sophisticated Gematria and Torah code software on the market today, and was found to reveal the secret message, ‘I am a Rabbi Without Borders’. Asked for official comment at CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), Rebecca Sirbu, the Director of the Rabbis Without Borders program simply said, ‘Madonna is not currently one of our RWB Fellows, but we have just put out a call for applications for next year’s cohort (at http://www.rabbiswithoutborders.org).
Upon hearing the news, the Rabbinic Council of America (Orthodox), expressed outrage at the use of the title Rabbi for women ordained by KIRR. However, they were willing to tolerate the use of an alternative title, Baalat shum davar, (Mistress of absolutely nothing).
Last week, while checking in on the latest articles on the Religion page of the Huffington Post, the following headline caught my eye: Proxy Baptism Seekers Eyed Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel For Posthumous Mormon Rite.
For those who might have missed it the details, in summary are as follows: There is apparently a long-standing tradition of Mormons submitting the names of deceased people for a post-humous proxy baptism into the Mormon church. A researcher found among names submitted via an online site that is accessible to Mormons only the name of Elie Wiesel – still very much alive. Among the names submitted for this Mormon ritual has often been those who died in the Holocaust.
In fact, Mormon church rules mean that one is only meant to submit the names of your own direct descendants. After previous examples of famous Jews being included in these proxy baptisms, negotiations between Mormon and Jewish leaders led to an agreement in 1995 for the church to stop the posthumous baptism of all Jews, except in the case of direct ancestors of Mormons. But researchers have demonstrated that the practice did not stop. The church did apologize for these latest events this past Monday, calling them a serious breach of their protocol.
I was going to dismiss the story as just one of those things that often irk us but are so fringe as to be unworthy of great debate, but I was prompted to pause and think about some of the broader questions that arise from this. Before thinking about matters of the soul, I want to first turn to questions of ownership regarding other aspects of our ‘person’, namely our personal data.
In recent weeks there has been a lot of press coverage about the rights we have to our own personal data and information in the era of facebook, twitter, etc. You might have been aware of some black-out days on some services, like Wikipedia, protesting against new proposed legislation that would make it illegal to post any information online without verification that it is yours to post. It would make the sharing that many of us do on facebook of videos that ‘go viral’ or cute cartoons etc. potentially illegal and would hold the services that facilitated this sharing accountable. This, most agree, is taking ownership of data a step too far, bringing the whole online crowd-sourcing, sharing world of cyberspace to a grinding halt.
However, there are also stories of iphone and Android apps that, without your permission, access your address book and collect the data found there. There are questions about the ways that Facebook makes whatever you are posting available as data for their advertisers, which is why ads that might be more pertinent to you pop up on the right side of your Facebook wall. On the one hand, I rather like that the system is smart enough to only show me things that I might actually be interested in rather than the more indiscriminate advertising I am subjected to every day I turn on my TV. On the other hand, I do have concerns about how my data is being stored and who is getting access to it without my knowledge.
How is this relevant to the ‘baptism by proxy’ story? I find it interesting to contemplate whether these debates about who owns some of our essential data in life can also be carried over to thinking about who might make a claim to our essential souls in death.
If we are horrified by the mormon church story, is it because we find the idea that they believe that they are actually doing something of material impact and worth by these rituals utterly preposterous, or is it that we are truly offended that they should claim the rights to any souls that are not their own? If the whole thing is just ridiculous, then perhaps we should all just buy tickets to the Book of Mormon, and have a good laugh at the strange practices of another faith tradition (its not like we don’t have enough of our own, and Purim is coming so we have plenty of opportunity to make fun of some of our own stranger practices).
But I suspect that most of us aren’t finding this a laughing matter. And I think it might be because, whatever we think we believe about what happens to our souls after death, the idea that another faith group has the right to any part of us suggests that we are somehow deficient in their eyes as we are. In their eyes, there is something about our identity, faith tradition, and the way that we are walking through life that is incorrect and, hence, we need to be saved. That they seem to be especially concerned about the souls of those who died or survived the Holocaust just adds to the insult.
There is an old Jewish morality tale, the source of which I haven’t pinned down (but please provide it in the comments if you know it!, but it is the essence of the message that is relevant here:
A story is told about a pious Jew who boasts to his rabbi that he saved another Jew’s soul. A beggar had asked him for a meal and he agreed, but insisted that first they must pray the afternoon minchah prayers. And before serving him a meal, he ordered the beggar to wash his hands and recite the appropriate blessing, and thereafter to recite the motzi prayer over the bread.
The rabbi showed his annoyance with his pious disciple. “There are times, my son, when you must act as if there were no God.”
The disciple, taken aback by this counsel, protested, “How could I, a man of faith, act as if no God existed?”
The rabbi replied, “When someone comes to you in need, as this beggar came, act as if there were no God in the universe, as if you alone are in the world and that there is no one to help him, except yourself.”
The disciple asked aloud, “And have I no responsibility for his soul?” The rabbi replied, “Take care of your soul and his body, not visa versa.”
We are commanded by God to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; to do what we can to make existence for each other better in this life; to alleviate suffering when we have the ability to do so. When we die, many of us believe in a soul that continues into eternity; a soul that is reunited with the Source of all existence. But what actually happens and where we go, we do not know. We leave it in God’s hands. We don’t need any intermediaries and we respectfully ask that, like our personal data online, that others keep their hands off!
As I write today’s blog entry on Tu Bishvat, I’m sitting in my home office looking at the piles of paper that I need to sort and file in order to begin getting things in order for filing my taxes this year. Its never something that I particularly look forward to, and I’m sure much procrastination will ensue before I actually succumb to the task. Yet this task that remains at hand, and today’s festival have much more in common than you might imagine.
Today, when we think of the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, we think of a Jewish Arbor Day; a day to give thanks for trees, the fruit of the trees, and the beauty of our natural world. Some might think of the Kabbalists’ “Tu Bishvat Seder“ ritual which utilized different kinds of fruits symbolically to take the participant on a journey into the different levels of the soul. However, relatively few will be thinking of the historical origins of Tu Bishvat, derived by the rabbis of old from a commandment in the Torah:
“When you enter the land [of Israel] and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten” (Leviticus 19:23).
As explained on the main pages on Tu Bishvat on myjewishlearning.com, ‘when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, Tu Bishvat served as the day on which farmers offered the first fruits of the trees they planted, after the trees had turned four years old. The following Tu Bishvat signified when the farmers were allowed to begin making use of the produce of the trees they planted, whether for personal or economic reasons.’ The Rabbis of the Talmud established the 15th day (Tu) of the month of Shvat as the official “birthday” of trees from which to determine the age of the trees.
Today we no longer have a temple and relatively few of us are farmers (although there are some wonderful programs engaging a whole new generation of Jews in farming and growing food locally, such as the Adamah fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Center in the CT Berkshires, and the Kayam Fellowship at the Pearlstone Center near Baltimore, MD). Tithing is a term that is more frequently used in churches than synagogues. Perhaps the closest modern-day equivalent would be the paying of our taxes.
While tzedakah (acts of righteousness, including but not limited to monetary charity) is regarded as an obligation in Jewish tradition it is, nevertheless, a choice as to how we give, when we give, and how much. Tithing in biblical times, and paying our taxes today are obligations that fall upon us at particular times, with consequences if we fail to respond.
What is of spiritual and communal significance is that, looking back at the biblical and rabbinic sources, the farmer had an obligation to tithe from the fourth year’s produce and only then could they begin to reap the benefits for themselves. This was part of the biblical understanding that when we reap rewards, even from our own labors, we first give in recognition that we should never see ourselves as the sole agent in our success. We give thanks to the Source of Existence, and we give for the sake and for the needs of the community at large, recognizing that our place in the economic and social landscape is intrinsically linked and benefits from the broader society within which we operate. We begin by designating a portion of the year’s income as ‘not mine’. From there we figure out how to live with the rest of our portion. We might feel a little differently about paying our taxes if we tried on this framework for size, rather than seeing the government as ‘taking’ something away from us.
This Tu Bishvat I find myself considering the wisdom of this ethical framework and spiritual lesson to current conversations about U.S. tax codes, the obligations of the wealthy to pay a fair share, and the ways we talk about our obligations to ensure the well-being of all in our society. How different our communal, political, and media narratives might sound if we embraced some of these lessons today.
Last Shabbat, the guest speaker at my congregation, B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT, was Rabbi Andrea Myers, author of a wonderful memoir entitled, ‘The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days.” Through insightful, and often highly amusing, personal stories, Rabbi Myers chronicles her own journeying from a Long Island home with a Lutheran father and Sicilian Catholic mother, to Brandeis University, coming out as a lesbian, traveling to Israel and converting to Judaism, and then returning to the USA to become a Rabbi, a wife, and a mother.
There are many layers to the stories that Rabbi Myers tell – in each chapter of her book we learn something about Jewish practice, something about inter-family interfaith relations, and a lot about the spiritual journey that can unfold for each and every one of us as we find the courage to become more of who we truly are.
Prior to her after-dinner presentation, Rabbi Myers also spoke during our Shabbat service, sharing words based on a piece that she wrote for The Huffington Post some months back entitled, ‘It Gets Beautiful.’ Our suburban middle-of-the-road congregation loved getting to know Rabbi Myers. We pride ourselves on being open, welcoming, and inclusive, but nevertheless I was struck by how everyone present responded to the bigger message – become more of who you truly are – told through the lens of this Rabbi who is a Jew-by-choice and a lesbian. Even ten years ago in a Reform congregation, such a presentation which today reflects some centrally held values of inclusivity and the affirmation of sexual and gender expression found in the Reform movement, would have been seen as much more radical.
The evolving understanding that GLBT Jews can live full and visible lives as Jews loving the people that they love is something that is no longer found in just one or two of the most liberal Jewish denominations. In 2006, the Conservative movement voted to permit the ordination of gay and lesbian Rabbis and the celebration of same-sex commitment ceremonies. Back in November of 2011, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an Orthodox gay Rabbi, officiated at a same-sex wedding.
In the UK this past week, there has been widespread reaction to a controversial story reported in the Jewish Chronicle that a power-point lesson about sexuality at the Jewish Free School in London ended with a slide that some students interpreted as an endorsement of the organization, Jonah (Jews offering new alternatives to homosexuality). While the school, under the auspices of the United Synagogue (the majority Modern Orthodox movement in the UK) has denied any such endorsement, the story has sparked thoughtful conversations that indicate that, in today’s world, there are many young Orthodox-affiliated Jews who no longer regard traditional Jewish observance as a barrier to living a life true to one’s sexual orientation.
The UK Jewish Chronicle also reported on January 19 that the Amsterdam Orthodox Ashkenazi community has suspended their Chief Rabbi, Aryeh Ralbag, who is US-based but travels several times a year to serve the Dutch community. This action was taken in response to Rabbi Ralbag signing a declaration, along with 180 other Orthodox Rabbis, psychotherapists and educators, that homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle. Ronnie Eisenmann, the lay head of the Dutch community was quoted in the JC, saying: “homosexuals are welcomed and all Jewish couples are accepted as full members so long as they are recognized as ‘couples’ under Dutch law.”
These recent events demonstrate that, as we continue to evolve in our understanding of human sexuality and move toward a place where civil rights are not given or withheld on the basis of sexual orientation, Jews of all denominations are engaging with these questions in new ways that challenge the boundaries for some within our communities. As they do so, many draw on Jewish wisdom and values to reframe the conversation; no longer the language of toevah (abomination) found in Leviticus 18:22, but the language of b’tzelem elohim (made in the likeness of God) or lo tov heyot ha’adam levado (it is not good for a human being to be alone). These conversations require us to consider whether religious truths must be defined by their unchanging nature, or whether, as Rabbi Andrea Myers suggests, truly becoming more of who you really are requires a kind of truth that can evolve with us as we, as individuals and as Jewish communities, continue on our journeys.
On January 9, 2011, a sweet singer of Israel, Debbie Friedman, passed away. While her Hebrew yahrzeit is at the end of this month, for many this is becoming a month of remembrance. Family gatherings, concerts in her memory, special Shabbat Shira dedications in early February, as her legacy and her songs live on.
On Monday night, I ended my eighth grade class with a brief sharing of some of my own personal interactions with Debbie, and the enormous role she had in pointing the way to the path that became my life as a rabbi. When I teach Torah about m’lachim – angels in Jewish tradition, I often point out how, when they show up in our holy text, they bring a message that redirects the life path of the one being visited. Think Hagar (twice), Jacob wrestling with an angel, Joseph meeting a ‘man’ in a field who redirects him to find his brothers (without which the rest of the Joseph story that we have recently read in this year’s Torah cycle might never have unfolded). When I teach these texts, I ask people to think of the encounters in their own lives that might fall into this domain. Debbie was most certainly ones of those people for me. One of the last songs she wrote was a new setting for Shalom Aleichem – the poem we sing on Erev Shabbat to welcome the Sabbath angels into our homes and our lives … how fitting.
Many have written far more eloquently than I about the legacy of Debbie’s music; how she transformed the way we sang our souls to God, and the sound of prayer in our sanctuaries; and how her blending of English and Hebrew enabled us to understand and connect with the prayers in a deeper way. For me, and for many who had personal encounters with Debbie, whether they were intimate friends, or once-only events, the legacy that we remember goes beyond the gift of the music. In the outpouring of remembrances that were shared online in the days and weeks that followed her passing, what so many shared was the way that Debbie was deeply and truly present to others. She had a gift for seeing within another person and, in that moment, asking the most important question. She was a Spiritual Director of sorts, although she would never have claimed that label.
During this month of January as I remember, sing Debbie’s songs, look through old photographs, and connect with others, I know that all who do likewise, in the USA and beyond, are truly making her memory be for a blessing. ‘And you shall be a blessing’, she sang to us. Now we sing it for her.
At the end of my eighth grade class, I played the original recording of Debbie as a teenager singing the Shema. I told them how young she had been when she began to write these melodies, how she song-lead at camp, how she went on to touch so many thousands of lives. I pray that, while they will never have the blessing of meeting Debbie Friedman, they may still be touched by her gifts and inspired by her life.
Working with Jewish teenagers, I’ve seen it demonstrated that one very effective way to get them thinking deeply about their identity and the role that their religious values, beliefs and practices play in their daily lives, is to engage them in a comparative religion class. Whenever we begin such a course together, we always start by looking at the various reasons that are often heard for studying other religions. For example:
- To learn about another religion and come to better understand it.
- To explore the similarities and differences between our faith and the faith of others.
- To find common ground and, through understanding, build stronger relationships with people of other faiths.
All of these reasons are true, but the one that I find to be most true in terms of actual impact over a relatively short period of time is that we come to better understand and know ourselves.
And so, during this year’s course that I teach in our local Hebrew high school program one night a week, we recently came to end of our 4 week introduction to Islam. During this same period of time, the incredibly well-crafted TLC TV show, ‘All-American Muslim’ has been airing. A number of the students have been watching it, and it has provided not only a wonderful window into the lives of a diverse group of Muslims living in Dearborn, Michigan but, as we reflect on how questions of practice, observance, gender roles, interfaith relations, conversion, childbirth, and more, are part of the discourse of the families portrayed in the show, so the Jewish teens that I work with have found many of these topics to offer a powerful lens to look at their own lives and the diversity to be found in the Jewish community.
Our mini-unit culminated with a visit from a mother and daughter who live locally, to engage in a conversation about their own journey of faith. Mom is from Puerto Rico, and converted from Catholicism to Islam in 2000. Her daughter, raised as a Muslim, shared her own interfaith experiences with members of her family, the multiple identities of being both Muslim and Puerto Rican, exchanges she has had with students at school who understand or do not understand the co-existence of these identities, and the personal spiritual path she walks as she navigates life as an American teenager and a practicing Muslim.
While my students had many questions for our guests, our guests in turn had questions for our students. Why don’t your names sound Jewish? What is a Hebrew name and how is it used? Why is it that we say our culture is Puerto Rican and our religion is Islam, but being Jewish is both culture and religion? How do you deal with explaining Jewish holidays and taking holy days off school?
I sat back and listened to my own students provide incredibly articulate answers to these questions, even as they were thinking out loud and learning about the kinds of questions that those who see us as ‘other’ might ask; things that we might take for granted but yet cause us to reflect deeply on who we are and how we live our faith when we are asked the questions. In a brief 45 minutes, I saw my students articulate aspects of the meaning of their faith and identity in a way that two years of preparation for a bar or bat mitzvah could not achieve in the same way. At the end of our class, our guests joined us for the mid-evening break, to enjoy latkes and apple sauce with our students.
I am well aware that there has been a vicious campaign attacking ‘All-American Muslim’ in recent weeks. I wish those who attack from a place of ignorance and fear could have been present in my classroom last week. Our exposure to and interactions with each other strengthen the bonds between us, and strengthen our own individual sense of identity and faith.
I was recently sharing my excitement about Bill Bryson’s latest book, At Home, during a Friday night sermon. The premise of the book is how we can learn so much history from the very ordinary objects in our homes. He writes:
Looking around my house I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me. Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to those two. Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon? And why do forks have four tines and not three or five? There must be reasons for these things… I heard a reference on the radio to someone paying for room and board, and realized that when people talk about room and board, I have no idea what the board is that they are talking about. Suddenly the house seemed a place of mystery to me.
I started to turn these questions in my head, and to think about the Jewish home this way. A few years ago Vanessa Ochs wrote an article in which she proposed ways of categorizing the things in a Jewish home. Her categories, I realized, also provide ways that enable us to use our everyday household objects to tell the story and the history of the Jewish people and, more specifically, our personal family histories. The first category is ‘Articulate objects’. These are the self-evident items that might tell you that you are in a Jewish home, like a mezuzah on the door, a menorah, a challah cover. The specific ones that we have may tell a personal story, but the objects themselves tell more of the ‘official’ history of Judaism.
The second category she calls ‘Jewish-Signifying Objects’. For example, it is not unique to Jewish families to have photographs of the grandchildren in abundance. However, the university graduation photos of every one of my grandmother’s children and grandchildren all lined up on one wall tells a social history of the first generation of her family to get a college education, and the enormous value that a Jewish parent places on education in general.
The final category is what Ochs labels ‘Ordinary objects transformed.’ These are things that might be found in any household, but in a specific context take on the role of klei kodesh – holy objects that we use for sacred purpose or mitzvot. An ornate white tablecloth that is wrapped in plastic and taken out once a year is more than just a nice, white tablecloth. Used on Rosh Hashanah it is being used for the act of hiddur mitzvah – to beautify the mitzvah of making a festive meal. I use my home computer for all kinds of things, but 99% of the time that I am on Skype, it is to connect with my parents, in part an expression of kabed avicha v’et v’imecha – honor your mother and father.
I can’t wait to read the rest of Bill Bryson’s book so that I can walk from room to room in my home and tell the stories and the history of our society through the ordinary objects that I see. But it is also great fun, and a great way to do Jewish storytelling, for each of us to look around our homes for ordinary and everyday things that tell our Jewish stories. Give it a go, and I’d love for you to post some of your personal and family Jewish stories about some of the ordinary things in your home in the comments here. I’ll cross-post some of the best ones on my personal blog too.
At Congregation B’nai Israel, Bridgeport, CT, I’m blessed with a class of almost 30 eighth graders and we meet weekly on Monday evenings.
Last week, we began a conversation with them that emerged from a desire to highlight the upcoming Reform movement biennial conference. I haven’t attended a Biennial for several years, but they are always exciting opportunities for me to hear how visions are being articulated and what kinds of new ideas are being incubated. Some of that comes from the official program but, as is so often the case with these large conferences, its the one-to-one conversations that we get to have with old friends, and new people that we chance upon that provide some of the great food-for-thought. And praying on Shabbat with approximately 5,000 people (the estimated turnout this year) is a unique experience.
This year, Teen Engagement is one of the key areas of focus, with a special track of the conference dedicated to this work. The old models of top-down movement-led design of a program to be launched and rolled out across the country is gone. Instead, a vision of a much more fluid and dynamic project that involves teens in conversations to co-create new opportunities is the direction we are heading.
I wanted my teens in my eighth-grade class to know about this, and gain a sense of being part of something bigger. We began with an initial trigger video, playing this:
While the context for this video is Israel, and the miracle of returning to the land, we extended the conversation to ask our teens how they respond to an idea of carrying a heritage and being part of ‘the hope’ for what might still be to come. The core of our conversation turned to the challenges they identified to their being engaged in Jewish life and activity and, finally, to some of the creative ideas they might have to respond to those challenges.
I don’t think I can truly do justice to what emerged during the conversation, but it was indeed very hopeful and helpful. We only had limited time, and I’m sure the conversations will continue, but the two areas they focused on was the communal worship experience, and ways of engaging in Jewish culture and ideas that tapped into some of the cultural forms and technologies that they are utilizing in the rest of their lives.
On the worship front, they sought more diverse expressions and experiences, and a musical style that had the energy of the music that some of them knew from Jewish summer camp. While this music has been a major influence on the evolving music of prayer in the Reform movement from the mid-1970s, there is no question that the newest sounds still emerge from camp, and a multi-generational service is not going to be the same experience as an age-specific experience. But the generation-specific sounds are not the only reason why young adult independent minyanim and 20s-30s services in large city-based congregations are proving to be increasingly popular.
My teens also pointed to the way that they are engaged in creating the prayer experience when they are at camp, weaving contemporary themes and readings into the core prayers. This is very much in tune with what we are seeing among our engaged younger generations – a desire for more of a ‘do-it-yourself’ kind of Jewish community, where a Rabbi may offer guidance and support, but is not expected or even wanted to be crafting and leading the whole experience. This kind of inclusive engagement in creating communal prayer experiences is working for teens and young adults beyond the Jewish community too. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran minister in Boulder, CO, leads an emergent Christian community that uses this approach to shape the worship experience. She says that it is important that the worshipers are producing and not consuming. ”Sometimes things are a little ‘clunky’ but its completely worth it because the people are really owning it,” she says.
Beyond the world of synagogue and Jewish worship, my teens had expressed the ‘otherness’ that they sometimes feel in their public school context, where they could name countless examples of ignorance of Judaism or ways in which their sense of Jewish identity was so different to outsider perceptions. But their pride in their identity was strong, and they sought more opportunities to be with teens who ‘get it’. Not necessarily through more face-to-face opportunities – these kids already have heavily scheduled lives – but they brainstormed things like a Jewish Facebook for under-18 Jewish teens who wanted to talk about ‘Jew-stuff’ or a Jewish kind of Second Life where they could experiment with different kinds of virtual Jewish experiences and explore more of Judaism for themselves (these kids haven’t discovered ‘Second Life’ yet, otherwise they might know that there is already quite an extensive area of Israel, synagogues and more already there!).
They also loved getting ‘Jewish answers’ to the everyday things … how about a ‘Jewish Siri’?
So much of what I heard in this brief conversation and brainstorm reinforced what we with Rabbis Without Borders have been discussing for some time now as we seek to better understand the contemporary cultural contexts in which we passionately share paths to Jewish life. There are start-up organizations, online communities, and worship communities already responding to the next generation, but ‘mainstream’ Jewish institutions and congregations have a ways to go. I’m encouraged by a Biennial conference that is opening to new conversations and forms of engagement. As we respond and co-create an evolutionary Judaism together, within and beyond Jewish movements, we need only ask the questions and we’ll find that our youth have plenty to say.