“Why do we pray?” I asked before we entered our makeshift sanctuary. We had gathered at the cabins. Dressed in white, we walked along the road accompanying the Torah, the quiet solemn march was visually powerful. But even with this wonderful set up, part of me worried. I attend a great many Shabbat services in a variety of settings, formal and informal, Orthodox, Reform, unaffiliated. Far too often the young people have trouble engaging. They don’t sing along. They fidget. They talk. They don’t seem to pray.
So while the question was genuine, I was also hedging my bets. Trying to have the campers set up a framework that made sense to them and would allow them to find their own way into prayer. But I need not have worried. Kids pray at camp.
Throughout the summer, my social media networks –which admittedly have a strong clergy faction -have been filled with reports of inspiring prayer services at camps across the country. Early in the summer I had dinner with a woman in her 70s, who recalled the yearly ritual of a day spent in prayer each summer, mourning the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Over 50 years later, it remains one of the most powerful prayer experiences of her life. I can still recall sitting under the trees by the lake when I was not even ten years old and writing my own prayers. My pride at having my words included in our prayer book still resonates. I often hear adults mourn the really spiritual praying they were able to do at camp but eludes them as grown ups.
At Camp Be’chol Lashon where I work now, the campers lead the service. Some are very familiar with Jewish prayer while others are encountering it for the first time. In pairs or small groups they take their place in front of the community, explain, lead and engage. There is lots of music, some discussion, and tons of participation. It is a tight community. There is a sense of intimacy. The atmosphere is serious but relaxed. Campers easily offer up thing for which they are grateful, the names of those in their lives who are sick, the memories of those who have passed.
Away from camp, young people pray –but mostly it is a private affair- when the personal needs strikes. Judaism encourages communal prayer but outside of camp the tone is different, the sense of empowerment and fun can be lacking.
Spaces where children take the center stage for prayer are less common. Schools come with the baggage of expectations and evaluation. Youth group gathering are few. Most sanctuaries are dominated by adults and even on the occasion of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service when a child is welcomed into their growing role in the community, the adults, their rules, their seriousness and tunes dominate.
The campers at Camp Be’chol Lashon easily provided answers to my “why pray” query. “To talk with God.” “To let our wishes be known.” “To give voice to our hopes.” As I facilitated the short conversation, which also touched on the fact that one need not believe to participate, their answers reminded me that young people understand prayer in the abstract. The inspiring service that followed, was proof positive that given the tools, freedom and encouragement, young people can and do pray.
George Zimmerman has been found “not guilty” in the murder of Trayvon Martin. The trial was high-profile and symbolic, and thus the verdict was quite upsetting to anti-racist activists. Jewish activists, moved by this upset, are in a good position to reach out to African-American communities, if we are willing to take the time.
Do I wish Martin had not been murdered? Yes. Torah says, “Do not murder.” (Ex. 20:13). Torah teaches that a human being is created in the Divine image (Gen. 1:27). Murder is not just a crime against a person; it’s a crime against creator, against a bottom line for any society (Gen 9:6). Talmud teaches that taking a life is like taking away an entire world: a person’s future, his descendents, and all their futures (Sanhedrin 37a). Trayvon Martin, by many accounts, was a typical teen, poised to mature into a young man. One can observe the terrible bereavement of his family; one can never know for sure the potential good lost to the world.
Do I wish Zimmerman and other Americans were less poisoned by racism? Yes. Torah says, “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Lev. 19:17). “If a foreigner lives among you, do not oppress him. An immigrant shall be to you like a citizen; love him as you love yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33). George Zimmerman, by many accounts, was not a sophisticated thinker, took his job as a security volunteer beyond its limits, and spoke of African Americans in offensive ways. Negative emotions overtook him; he could not sit still, and thus he pursued when told not to, with tragic results.
Do I wish Zimmerman had been found guilty? No. Torah says, “Do not pervert justice or show partiality” (Deut. 16:19). The jurors took the judge’s instructions seriously. They were asked to determine whether the prosecution proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. They were not asked to determine whether Martin deserved to live or whether Zimmerman was a racist.
Do I hope the family will bring a wrongful death suit in civil court? Yes – if they are not too exhausted to do so. Torah says, “an eye for an eye…one who strikes an animal will pay damages; one who strikes a person will be executed” (Lev 24:2-21). After respectful debate about the Biblical context of this teaching, Talmudic scholars decided that, in their world, financial compensation for injury would replace revenge. True, they did not have murder in mind, but contemporary opponents of the death penalty take seriously some of their arguments regarding injury. A second ruined life does not console or compensate for a lost life. But financial compensation for suffering, health care, lost wages, and legal fees can make a concrete difference.
Do I wish that Jews would be more proactive about realizing these teachings: all human beings are created in the image of God, do not hate your brother in your heart, and do not pervert justice? Of course. As individuals living in a multicultural society, I think most of us do realize them. Many white Jews who live in racially diverse areas work, dine, volunteer and socialize with African-Americans. If we are at all reflective, we reflect on the dynamics of these relationships as we do with any other.
Do we use our professional and personal contacts to re-open dialogue between two communities who, a few decades ago, worked as allies in the civil rights movement? Not often enough. My mind is drawn back to the 1995 book by Michael Lerner and Cornel West, Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion and Culture in America. Lerner and West ask each other difficult questions. For example: When Congress seems more sympathetic to Jewish concerns about Israel than to Black concerns about economic inequality, and Jews fail to criticize this, do Jews understand the ill-will it causes? When Black Christians affirm the Exodus narrative but don’t reflect critically on anti-semitic elements of the Christian narrative, do they understand the racist perspectives they internalize? These are difficult questions to discuss without simply becoming defensive.
Both the American Jewish and Black communities are self-protective, and with good reasons. But there is strength in numbers, in coalitions, and in asking serious questions. Even if justice, in its strict procedural definition, was served in court this weekend, we know that social justice was not. Perhaps we, as leaders or members of small segments of the Jewish community, can use our personal contacts to initiate deeper dialogue between groups. Torah says, “Justice, Justice pursue!” (Deut 16:20)
On the one hand, becoming a rabbi occurs upon the bestowal of ordination as the culmination of a period of study. This, of course, can lead to a whole host of questions about how rigorous the type of study program ought to be, but for present purposes I want to focus on the meaning of the label “rabbi” in a professional context. The designation “rabbi” is in many ways akin to “doctor”–a job-related title that also connotes societal esteem, trust, and the product of extensive preparatory education. And just as my wife is still a doctor when she is on vacation, so too a rabbi remains a rabbi. While the sunshine (God-willing) may numb the mental capabilities somewhat, I still have the same professional status while on vacation that I had before I left.
On the other hand, being a rabbi is inherently different from being a doctor in one key respect: a rabbi’s work is relational whereas a doctor need not be. Rabbi literally means “teacher”, and a rabbi needs to be in relationship with others no less than a teacher needs students. Whereas a doctor can still practice medicine in an isolated lab, a rabbi cannot be a rabbi in isolation.
But vacation is not isolation (as my children are sure to remind me). When I return to my ancestral homeland of California for vacation, the trickiness of rabbinic identity stems not from an absence of relationships but from the complexity of hanging out from family and friends who see me as Josh, not as Rabbi Ratner. Even if I try to “act” like a rabbi during a family squabble or answer a friend’s halakhic question, I am not really their rabbi any more than they are my congregants.
One year after my own ordination, I can already feel the power the label “rabbi” conveys. As we are taught in rabbinical school, rabbis–like all clergy–serve as proxies for God in the eyes of our laity. Whether we like it or not, we are the symbolic exemplars of all that is religious. And, like the “God complex” surgeons sometimes take on, the rabbinic affect can subtly, subconsciously start to intrude upon one’s own psyche and sense of self-worth. I have always disliked the idea of being a religious token or intermediary between others and the Divine, but I am starting to question how much control I have over this pastoral dynamic when serving in my pulpit, no matter how many sermons about spiritual autonomy I give. So maybe it will be healthy for my sense of humility, during this vacation, to try to focus on reclaiming “Josh” and putting “Rabbi Ratner” on hiatus for a couple weeks.
A couple of weeks ago, Michal Kohane caused a few ripples in the blogosphere by getting fired over the column “40 Plus and Screwed: More on Less Young Adult Engagement.” Her premise is that the Jewish community has put most of its efforts into engaging 20-and-30-somethings – with trips, and “service opportunities,” grants, fellowships, and essentially begging young Jews to come and be Jewish by offering all kinds of swag and calling them “leaders” (whether or not they are) and basically offering any kind of enticement that can be imagined as attractive to the young. And that this effort is excessive, misguided – and really, not quite Jewish in its exclusion from consideration the talents and wisdom of those over this age demographic:
…one can be “old,” and much freer, able and available, professionally and spiritually, with lots of energy, insight, wisdom and knowledge about life, but guess what. If that’s who you are, the Jewish people don’t need you anymore. Oh, wait, I’m exaggerating. They do need you. You’re welcome to pay dues. And memberships. And support the never-ending campaigns. And we will call on our various phonathons, because young people need to party. And travel. And explore their identity. And you? you’re already 50, maybe even 60. Seriously? You haven’t been to Israel?? and you still date?? But that’s one leg in the World to Come! So we are not going to invest in you. Please, step aside, and hand over the keys. And your check book? Thanks. Because that is the only role we left you. You are “40 plus and – therefore – screwed.”
Yes, I’m exaggerating, but not much. At a recent meeting about the millennia generation, someone – over 45 – dared ask, what can any of us, “alter kakers” “do. Alter Kakers by the way is not a nice thing to say, but no one corrected the derogatory term. One “millennia child” answered quickly: “You can listen,” he said. Another joked: “there is really nothing you can do.” The audience nodded with pride.
I don’t disagree. I would also add, although she doesn’t that this particular form of ageism is gendered (take a look around the room of any powerful Jewish organization and see how many of them are older men, as opposed to older women).
But I’d ask some additional questions here – not because she’s wrong, but because I think she actually misses the point. While there is certainly ageism, and gender bias, and an insane focus on getting young Jews to breed by any means possible, this doesn’t really have anything to do with the young people whose narcissism she complains about. These programs aren’t developed by those twenty and thirty somethings, and don’t, for the most part take into account their needs – which is why many of them fail to develop long-term affiliations.
But here’s the real question:
Not just for the “screwed 40somethings,” but also the 20 and 30 somethings. Why are we offering any bribes at all?
Because, ultimately that’s what a great deal of this boils down to. “Please be Jewish, so we don’t die out.”
But Judaism doesn’t need that.
Judaism is not going to die out. And I think perhaps it’s time that we stopped treating Judaism as though it needed to be bolstered by various metaphorical swag bags.
The attitude comes from a view of Judaism which thinks that Judaism is simply a sort of super-ethnicity, with some nice cultural baggage that we want to live on. But Judaism is a rich, powerful relationship with the universe and the divine, and it is a mission. And not everyone is going to accept that mission.
The mission requires some dedication – it means that priorities have to be set because -as Moses said to Reuven and Gad in the Torah portion this week – your cattle? really? You’re going to put your flocks ahead of this great mission that we’re on? They are not the most important thing. God drives our lives, and our goals; God is our mission, and bringing the holy into this world is our mission- you need to get your priorities straight, and sometimes that means setting aside the bigger paycheck, the soccer game, the Saturday shopping trip.
Instead of asking why 40-somethings aren’t being offered tidbits along with 20-somethings, I’d ask, “what are you offering Judaism?” All of us, whatever age we are.
I have to say, I’m also tired of the endless programs, the baby-marriage-hookup-drives for the young, the demographic desperation.
And in perfect honesty, I suspect that few of those 20 and 30 somethings are that impressed by them either.
Judaism is a rich, deep tradition – it is a difficult one, because it is not one that is accessed superficially and easily. It is demanding of time and effort. It is not just about once a week – Judaism is a 24/7 activity, that requires immersion, study, patience, persistence and connection to other Jews.
It can’t be done well in isolation. And frankly, maybe it’s not for everyone.
Which is not to say “My way or the highway.” Our communities have gotten lazy abut very basic things: friendliness (but NOT customer service. Judaism is not a business, and the faster we drop that foolish trope, the better), acceptance, and yes, thinking about what a community is.
Both edgy indie minyans and shuls have forgotten that communities are not about finding your age or personality niche and working it. If you have an age range of only twenty years, you have failed, because a community must be composed of children, teens, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty-somethings, Also eighty-somethings. People who are sweet, people who are annoying as heck; people with money, and those who are middle class (the few of those left) and people who are poor. People with green hair or adopted children, or no children, or single people, or gay and lesbian couples or people who like to camp in the great outdoors and those who think that Holiday inn is roughing it.
That is a community.
There are definitely things that we could all do better, no question. Lots of things could be done better.
The fact that some people will start at a more basic level of learning is fine, but we shouldn’t be offering only basic learning. Study can be done at all kinds of levels for all kinds of different abilities – but it should be challenging and difficult and rich for anyone at whatever level – and all of us should take ourselves to the table -Every Single Person should make a commitment to study and Jewish living, and spending time with people who are not like you.
And no one should be satisfied with the same basics over and over again – or, more realistically, unsatisfied with them. Because I think that’s really what’s missing. The superficial is terribly unsatisfying. Have we gone too far in some ways, emphasizing flashy programs over deep study and demographic concerns over genuine commitment to an important mission from God?
And that’s why Kohane is right, and wrong: it isn’t that people over forty have been excluded – it’s that all of us have been. And it’s long past time to do something about it. But there’s no “someone else” to do it. It’s us. So get up, and open a book, and go to shul, and do something Jewish with someone else. If you don’t have the skills to do it yourself, well, that’s what shul is for – to create a community where we can all lean on each other.
I am an unabashed advocate of Jewish day school education. I attended day school from kindergarten through eighth grade, and I firmly believe that I would not have the same Jewish identity, comfort level, or knowledge were it not for my day school education. One of the first decisions my wife and I made as parents was to send our children to day school.
As a result, I now am also well aware of the exorbitant cost of day school, ranging from $20,000-30,000 per year (at least for non-Orthodox day schools).These overwhelming costs, unfortunately, are often prohibitive for parents who might otherwise want to send their children to day school. So you might think I would be excited about recent efforts within the Jewish communal world to expand access to day schools. Jewish federations, community relations councils (CRCs), and organizations are becoming actively involved in a new, heretofore heretical, project: lobbying state governments to pass new laws making it easier to pay for religious day schools. The UJA-Federation of New York has hired a lobbyist to push for enhanced government entitlements and tax exemptions for Jewish schools. Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, has called on the Jewish community to embrace greater state support of parochial schools. In Louisiana, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the OU, and a local Jewish day school met with legislators to support vouchers and tax credits. As this article notes, last year the JCPA featured panel discussions about tax credits, vouchers, and state reimbursement for non-religious school expenses at its annual policy conference.
But there is an important question that we need to be asking: is the short-term boost these efforts might give to our day schools worth the Jewish community’s entanglement in the thicket of religion and education? These stances would have been anathema for most major Jewish organizations throughout the 20th century. From the ADL to the AJC, the leading institutions of Jewish-American engagement were steadfast in protecting against any encroachment of religion into the educational sphere. Jewish organizations were some of the most outspoken guardians of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits the federal government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” And for good reason: the history of Jewish communal life for much of the past 2000 years has been the history of how well or poorly we were tolerated in countries where religious and political governance usually went hand-in-hand.
So are we making a Faustian deal by having Jewish communal organizations advocate for new laws making it easier to pay for religious day schools? And if so, is it worth it? The parent in me says yes to both. The lawyer in me says no. The rabbi/communal leader in me is unsure. What do you think?
I recently read an essay published earlier this year on xoJane that a woman wrote as a paean to her (still living) mother. The essay outlined how her mother saved women from abusive partners, helping with money, or helping them, literally, escape.
The crux of the story, though, isn’t just her mother’s heroism, but how her mother came to it. To the daughter, it was the following anecdote that was at the center:
You know, it’s funny — Cindy was the one who tried to sponsor me for that women’s sorority. I didn’t have many friends here, being from away, and I’d helped her with all these fundraising projects. I thought it would be so much fun to have women friends. And she put my name in at her sorority, but of course I’d been married before and divorced, and that was a black mark against me. Those women turned their noses up and said they didn’t want a woman like me. Cindy cried when she told me, she even resigned over it. Over me.” “So, after that I sort of kept my head down, you know? That had killed what little self-esteem I had; I didn’t have much to begin with. That’s when I decided I couldn’t win. Been born on the wrong side of the tracks and that was just that. Of course, looking back on it today, I wouldn’t have fit in with any of those women anyway. That’s when I quit trying to be social. And not long after that, I guess, women just started coming to me.”
According, at least, to this telling it is the mother’s otherness, her inability to fit into the mold of the good housewife type of the time, which freed her to do the things that other women simply wouldn’t do – like take in women being abused by their husbands to protect them.
The story reminded me a little of my own mother. I had no idea, growing up, that it was at all unusual for a family to have people who weren’t related to you living at your house, just because they needed a place to stay. When a high school friend of mine’s family decided to move back to Texas in the middle of the year and he didn’t want to go, it was our house where he lived until he graduated. When a friend of my sister’s was kicked out of her own house, she lived with my family. I don’t remember thinking anything of it, off at college. That was just what my mother did, along with making jewelry, and hopping on board with the latest appalling health food fad (please, just don’t mention wheat germ or lecithin oil).
The writer of the essay explained that, “As her daughter, it took me nearly 20 years not to pity my mother’s ‘otherness.’ She stopped pitying it herself a long time ago.”
It is a natural human tendency to try to “fit in,” and failing at it, or deliberately turning away from what is “normal,” can make one an object of pity, or disgust. Perhaps it’s for that reason that there are so few Jews. Judaism does not only set us apart, it demands our separateness, in our speech, our habits, and in our families. To sanctify is to separate. And it is hard.
But it is also a blessing. To be separate can allow us to see and to do what others are unable to see and do. One who is other can be dangerous, beyond the boundaries of “normal” behavior. On that path can be sociopathy, but it can also be heroism.
Being “outside” is painful. Humans thrive as part of a group, and we need one another. We crave acceptance. But the story from xoJane reminds us that being separate, other, outside - sometimes makes us the ones closest of all to others. When we make that choice to accept and use it.
Why do you try to be so inclusive? It’s OBVIOUS that you are liberal because you care about these marginalized groups! Why do you have to be politically correct all the time?
These questions and more are often posed to Orthodox rabbis and individuals who care and advocate for the full inclusion of all Jews in organized Jewish life. Regardless of whether the advocacy is on behalf of people with differing physical and mental capabilities, women, LGBTQ Jews or others invariably there will be those in the community who label those actions of inclusion as gestures of political correctness and/or secular liberal values.
I would argue though that there is a deep underlying Jewish value for the full inclusion of all Jews in Jewish life that does not depend on someone being politically correct or solely motivated by secular liberal values. Indeed, full inclusion is an imperative that serves as a prerequisite for meaningful Jewish life for anyone and its roots are at Sinai:
“In the third month of the children of Israel’s departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai. They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19:1-2)”
“Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the children of Israel…’ (19:3)”
“Moses came and summoned the elders of Israel and placed before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. And all the people replied in unison and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!’ and Moses took the words of the people back to the Lord. (19:7)”
The Torah in introducing the moment of Sinai emphasizes that all the people were present for the episode of the great theophany. The liberation from Egypt and the journey through the desert were for this experience. The people were forged into a nation through the servitude of Egypt but only at Sinai did they become a nation with destiny.
Rashi, the great medieval commentator, offers the insight quoting the early midrashic work Mekhilta, that the people were as “one person with one heart.” The exceedingly large, disparate and diverse group of Jews encamped in the desert wilderness became unified in heart and soul. Each person valued intrinsically every other person in the community. No one person saw another person as an instrument towards a greater goal or, the reverse, as an impediment towards a desired outcome. Every member of the community was valued. Every member of the community was welcome. Every member of the community was powerfully present.
During the holiday of Shavuot we carve out a single time in the year where we attempt to recreate the experience of revelation. Many people have the custom to stay up all night studying in anticipation for the first rays of light of the revelation. We declare in our prayers that Shavuot is the “time of our receiving of the Torah.” The truth is that while Shavuot is a specially designated time for recreating the Sinai experience, we are called upon to approach God and the Torah anew every day. Every day is a new opportunity to meet God in a revelatory experience through prayer, study and sacred interactions. The aspiration of the synagogue prayer experience is to encounter Sinai anew again every day.
However, the Sinai moment cannot be recreated, the mountain cannot be gathered around and God cannot be heard unless every member of the community is present just as they were at the first Sinai moment in the desert wilderness. The religious life of every Jew and the religious life of the entire community is deficient when not everyone is able to be present. That is why it is so fundamentally important that historically marginalized groups are treated with dignity, respect and honor just like anyone else in the community. When the barriers towards inclusion and access are removed and every member of our community — not just those who already have a seat at the table — are fully present then we will have restored the community to a point ready to encounter Sinai.
Those who see the work of inclusion as a concession to political correctness or some outside values that do not stem from the Torah would do well to hearken to the story of revelation. The story of how a diverse and large group of former slaves found a way to stand next to a mountain with respect and dignity for all paved the way for the chasm between heaven and earth to have been bridged and the Torah, the book that lit the world with Divine meaning and purpose, to be revealed is not just a narrative to be revered but an imperative to strive towards achieving that level of inclusion in our modern communities today.
Two moments of communal life have come to my attention recently that speak to the dangers of exclusion in the building of successful community that are worth discussing. Without disclosing the organizations themselves because these problems can occur nationwide and in any organization, it is important to examine the situations and what they teach us about working to build inclusive community representation because ultimately only when everyone is at the table can true civil discourse happen and true decisions on behalf of the community at large really take place.
The first incident involves an umbrella organization that is comprised of representation from diverse segments of the broader community. This umbrella organization meets periodically to discuss issues relevant to the community at large and to take stands on legislative and communal points of interest. This organization was presented with an application for membership from an entity whose ideology does not resonate with every member at the table. They are undoubtedly an organization that fits criteria for membership in this umbrella group according to the bylaws but because enough voting members find discomfort with some of the stances this organization takes, their application was rejected.
The second incident involves a new entity that also wishes to be an umbrella organization. This entity wishes to exert influence and leadership over important resources within the community and to be a critical player in shaping the religio-cultural discourse within the community at large. The first major act of this nascent organization was an act of exclusion by denying membership to entities that, by all reasonable measures, would and should be members of this new umbrella organization but deviate too far from the personal mold of religious character of the majority of the membership. In other words, the common uniting characteristics between those “in” and those “out” are enormous but they diverge on some specific sub-denominational identity markers that make the majority who is “in” feel uncomfortable to the extent that those on the “out” were rejected even before a formal application process transpired.
The intention for the actions of exclusion by both groups is the same. They believe that by casting to the margins those they do not personally agree with on every issue they will help build a community of more consensus and a community more in line with their vision of what it should look like. The reality is that this is far from what happens. In fact, the opposite is true. By creating a climate of “in” and “out” in communal umbrella organizations you are not at all shaping a single community or building consensus but rather contributing towards the very breakdown of community. The consensus is false and instead of one unified community, multiple oppositional communities take shape and begin to emerge. The fault lines begin to become developed to the point wherein people separate from other people, organizations from other organizations and finally the divisiveness becomes so destructive nothing positive can be done.
While, on the other hand, if each of these organizations had accepted as members those entities that fit the criteria for membership but who contain some specific stances that make members in the umbrella organization feel uncomfortable then a true moderating balance would have developed. It is in the absence of those who think differently or who can challenge basic assumptions that extremist positions develop. The power of an umbrella organization that contains disparate views is that moderation occurs in a bi-directional fashion. Furthermore, if part of the mission of an umbrella organization is to exert influence over policy and legislative decisions that impact community that very mission becomes severely compromised when a portion of the community, which by organizational bylaws should be at the table but is not.
The aim of communal exclusion is usually done in order to try and shape an ideal version of community according to whatever vision those enabling the exclusion seek. Yet, community is comprised of those who are in the community, including those with whom one does not agree on every iota, and writing them out of organizational boardrooms does not make them disappear.
In my last article I wrote about the need for a renaissance of mission-driven rabbis. I quoted from the powerful words of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm given at the 16th Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers in Manchester, England in 1968. I have received a lot of positive feedback on the notion that the traditional American synagogue needs an infusion of rabbis driven by a passion motivated by a compelling mission that sustains their work. In the words of Rabbi Lamm, the time has come for rabbis to reclaim the “role of rabbanim in the grand tradition.”
Another dimension to the growth of the synagogue community is what I call a “generosity of spirit.” This characteristic is so important and fundamental that it rests as the ultimate bedrock of all successful communities. A community is at its simplest a collection of individuals sharing experiences together. Communities can be further solidified by shared purpose and mission. The people in these communities invariably spend considerable time with each other in ways that individuals don’t spend with other people outside of their communities of choice. There is a lot of rubbing shoulders in the life of community.
It is this regular rubbing of shoulders that can contribute to the total breakdown of the community if a generosity of spirit does not exist. What is generosity of spirit? The Psalmist in Chapter 51, Verse 14 beseeches God to let “a generous spirit sustain me.” Ruach Nadivah – Generosity of Spirit is cast as intrinsic to the sustenance of life. A generosity of spirit is being ready to suspend judgment and accusation in the face of perceived slight and insult and maintain an open heart. This sounds simple but it takes a lot of intentional work to cultivate within the context of community.
Why did that person not say hello to me? How come that person missed the kiddush I sponsored this week? Why doesn’t the rabbi care enough about me to call me when I was ill? How could those parents let their children run wild through the Sanctuary? That person is so rude to forget to wish me a happy birthday today.
Distrust. Suspicion. Quickness to judge. Contempt. Anger. Indignation. These are all indications of a community that has a breakdown in generosity of spirit. For each one of those scenarios and the multitude of others that manifest in synagogue community, there are a range of possible reasons to explain each and every one of them. The assumption that it was meant as an affront against me and the accumulation of that sentiment amongst many people over an extended period of time absolutely obliterates the bedrock of healthy community.
People do not seek to join communities that are rife with distrust, contempt, anger and indignation. People join communities that are slow to judge others, filled with warmth and caring for each and every member. How do we further cultivate those traits in our synagogue communities? I believe with a lot of patience, a bit of forcefulness and determination.
Patience is required with the people who have developed over a period of time the traits of distrust and indignation because it takes a lot of self-reflection and inner work to build a healthy and positive attitude. It is just as important to not become indignant at those who are slow to change positively. A bit of forcefulness is required because if the community does not react against signs of a breakdown of generosity of spirit that breakdown can easily worsen and spread very quickly. Determination is necessary because even if at times it can feel like changing ingrained habits is impossible, we must nonetheless forge ahead and persevere. It is not impossible and it can be done and with enough determination we can make it so.
When we create synagogues bursting and overflowing with generous spirits we will have developed powerful models of a world redeemed amidst the world that is. Communities that demonstrate trust, respect and slowness to judge each person within that community present a picture of a humanity the way we should be all the time everywhere. “Restore unto me the joy of Your salvation; and let a generous spirit sustain me.” The joy of God’s salvation can ultimately be fully realized when we are sustained by generous spirits.
Last week, in my role as a teacher of Judaism, I had four magnificent teaching experiences. The kind that leave you inspired by the beauty of the human race, and send you home proclaiming that people are deep, amazing, varied, and wise.
With a group of toddlers (age 2-3) at the synagogue, I sang and danced “shalom.” And read Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks and danced Sandra Boynton’s Barnyard Dance.
The bnei mitzvah class (age 13) and I celebrated how much they had learned this year, with a synagogue scavenger hunt quiz. Then we went to Starbucks, where we discussed the evils of manipulative advertising and the death penalty.
With middle-aged adults (age 40-70) at a church, I studied the Song of Songs. We read excerpts from the Biblical text, laughed at its bawdiness, and explored its implications for human and divine love.
With elders (age 80-100) at a nursing home, I explored the Biblical story of Ruth. People shared personal stories about the “Ruth” and “Naomi” archetypes within their minds and their families.
For me, it was a week filled with magic.
How does this magic happen?
Great content helps.
Good teaching strategies help, too. Toddlers learn through music, movement, rhymes and pictures. Young teens bond by doing active tasks together. Middle-aged adults have keen intellects and life experience that should be woven into a teacher’s presentation. Elders respond to sophisticated ideas presented simply and briefly.
But neither content nor strategy brings the special magic of being inspired by your students. That happens when you:
Focus on the people, not the content. When you:
Talk with them, listen with them, laugh with them, learn with them.
Retaining this focus is very important in teaching about Judaism.
Too often we, that is, teachers of Judaism, focus on the content alone. We may be determined to show the beauty of Judaism in a particular light – a particularly progressive light, or a particularly traditional one. We may be desperate for people to see this beauty. We may feel we need them to come to synagogue. Perhaps we have invested money and time in our synagogue and we need it to be sustainable. Perhaps we need the Jewish people to continue, and we want to play our part.
Guess what, fellow teachers! These are our needs. They may not be the students’ needs.
Do the toddlers need to know the word “shalom”? Do bnei mitzvah need to recognize a Ner Tamid? Do adults need to know sexy poetry from Song of Songs? Do elders need to know the plot of the Book of Ruth? No. No. No. And no. But it would be wonderful for them to know that they are welcome in a fun, friendly, intellectually open and personally affirming community.
And in that sort of community, Judaism happens.
Because Judaism is something people do. It is not a chunk of content that can be separated from practice. It is a set of evolving traditions that people share in community.
We don’t memorize lists of fundamental Jewish beliefs. We do study together a Bible made up of 24 books offering diverse viewpoints.
We don’t have essential doctrines. We do have rituals we like to do together.
We have no Pope who sets the standards of belief and practice. We do have a rather amorphous world community that votes with its feet.
The practices we do and the books we study are the ones people voted for. Traditions that remain over the years are the ones many people love. Like any kind of love, of course, it’s fraught with conflicts, dead-ends, winding paths, and spectacular compromises.
Jewish teachers should model this kind of love.
Sometimes teachers are afraid to put people over content, because they worry the result will compromise Judaism.
It won’t. It will create love for Jewish community.
And people will come back to what they love, seeking deeper and deeper understanding.