Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A first day

So tomorrow's the big day: my official start date. After what seems like a LONG time (oh, wait, it was) I'll be coming into the office not just to have pre-meetings or unpack but to go to work. To say that I'm excited would be an understatement; I've been looking forward to this moment for at least six months.

I'm not going to blather about the importance of beginnings--that fact is self-evident. The question becomes: what do you do with it? What world do you--do I, do we--create as we begin together?

Again, I could repeat anything you could find from a good corporate or self-help manual about beginnings (The First 90 Days is probably as good as anything else out there). Setting the right tone, building relationships, scoring 'early wins', building consensus, etc. all play a role. For me, it all begins with ritual. We have a ritual for beginning and ending the week, beginning and ending Shabbat, beginning and ending the study of Torah, writing a sefer Torah, and anything else one might consider sacred. Likewise, this moment should be one of kedusha, of holiness. So, before the staff meeting (yeah, I'm making us have one of those), before anything else, we'll hang two mezuzot on my office doors. If you're around CBE at 11-ish, feel free to pop by.

"Rabbi Tarfon says: The day is short, the task is great... the reward is
great, and the Master of the house is insistent." (Pirkei Avot. 2:20) Time to go to work.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Moving Day!

So that's it. The last stuff from the house and office were loaded up today. I gave a hug to whoever was around and said my goodbyes, and the truck headed down to unload at Beth Emeth and the house on St. George (yes, I know, a rabbi living on St. George. The cross streets are "St. Andrew's" and "St. Crispin's", so we can all fight for the Queen, Gawd Love 'er. I am, of course, kidding). It was a little teary. I'm surprisingly upbeat despite seeing my house disassembled and my life packed into boxes at breakneck speed. I did get a little sad disassembling the desk to curb, oddly, and I am sad to leave the garden Marisa and I planted (especially as it's just really starting to come into bloom now), but otherwise I'm very mellow. And tired. And something else I can't put my finger on (it might be nostalgia, but it's probably the caffine).

I do wish I had a ritual to have done today at the office to say goodbye. I had my formal goodbye service two weeks ago already, so something big would have been inappropriate, but it would have been nice to do a simple blessing; just a one liner as one does for putting up a mezzuzah (which is what we did as an office when I moved in). There isn't a blessing for taking down a mezuzah (at least that I know) and I was too crazed in the moment to come up with something fancy (excuses excuses I know), so I guess hugs and goodbyes will have to do.

I guess I just have a feeling I'm going to see a lot of the folks from Shir Ami again. In a different capacity, for sure; I'm not the rabbi of that congregation any more (well, at least as of July 1st), but I know the Jewish community is too small for us to not run into each other in Philly, at conventions, on Facebook or in some other venue. My dad is still in touch with people from his congregation in Gary Indiana, which he served for three years in the 70s, so I figure our paths will cross again.

Right now I'm in the Cosi in Newtown waiting for the boy to get out of school and the dog to be done at the groomers, and I'll bring 'em down the hour's drive to Wilmington. If you're around the Newtown area, feel free to stop by! If not, feel free to say hi in the comments space, especially those lurkers out there who have been reading but not commenting. Give a holler, yo!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

How (should?) Jews pray?

With thanks to Rabbi Oren Hayon, who posted this to his Facebook. It shows a multiplicity of ways we experience prayer. How do you pray? How do you define prayer? What does it mean for you to pray?

Incidentally, My Jewish Learning is a great website for those interested in Jewish study, be you a novice or an experienced learner.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

What's it all about, Rabbi?

It's been a pretty amazing weekend. It began with an incredible service of farewell for me Friday night, and concluded with a barbecue with my HaGesher (20s/30s Chavurah) friends. I've been trying to figure out how to talk and write about the experience of it all, and I'm very much at a loss for words. In many ways it's been more emotional than I'd been expecting: I realized I've been so focused on getting started at Beth Emeth that I haven't taken enough time to process what it's meant to work with such great people at Shir Ami and what it means for me to leave. And then there's the tribute stuff. As I said Friday, I'm not very good at hearing positive things said about me--I'm too much a New England Yankee, too focused on the work, and I haven't done enough to deserve (I think) any praise. I'm especially mindful of that fact as Rabbi Grumbacher, my soon-to-be emeritus rabbi, was receiving the same treatment for his tremendous 37 year career. A little perspective for this boychick!

But praise came: from youth group kids, board members, the local federation, my senior rabbi. It came in many forms: heartfelt speeches from lay leaders I had worked with intimately, the presence of my family, well-chosen music (I knew Cantor Elson had me in mind when he picked THREE Bonia Shur tunes), truly unexpected gifts and presentations (acknowledgements from the State Senate and the governor? Really?), an amazing oneg (and yes, I did get to have nibbles of some of it), sharing hugs and tears with people--adults, kids, peers--Marisa and I had built real relationships with over 6 years, in the form of donations in our honor and letters, cards and emails of well-wishing, in sharing laughs tonight at the barbecue, and (a gift I'm especially appreciative of) a 'yearbook' of sorts from my friends in HaGesher, with pictures and messages about what the last few years have meant to them and us.

I've been trying to figure out what it all means. I hope it doesn't mean my career has peaked after 6 years! What I keep coming back to--other than all the references to my ponytail (yes, I had one until 5 years ago. Get ready to Rock, Wilmington!)--is all the talk of relationship building. For me that is my favorite part of the job--being the 'couple yenta' as one put it. I call it 'micro-community building'--literally building community one relationship at a time, person by person. Not just creating relationships between myself and the individuals (though that's important too) but between individuals--giving those who come multiple points of contact. As I say repeatedly, if I have a legacy at Shir Ami it's that I didn't just create programs or taught classes or led services but created groups of friends who look forward to being together both at the synagogue and outside the synagogue.

Without sounding weird or egotistical (I hope), I'd like to share a Facebook message my friend and congregant (and HaGesher member) Steve Goldberg sent me. I think it'll help explain where I'm coming from and what I mean.


Author Terry Pratchett has written a series of books centered on his Discworld. They are a blend of fantasy, humor, and deep concepts. There are 36 books in the series so far, and I've read them all.

Occasionally, a character reminds me of someone.

Dwarf "religion" is a motif of the 34th book, "Thud!" Religious leaders of the dwarves are known as Grags. "Grag" translates roughly to renowned master of dwarfish lore.

The most orthodox of Grags (known as "deep-downers") keep to the mining caves they consider home. Most dwarves, even the secular, carry an axe. It is then a turn of perspective when the reader is introduced to Grag Bashfull Bashfullsson. (Bashfull is a typical dwarf name, as Snow White teaches us.)

Grag Bashfullsson is depicted as young for a dwarf, and very young for a Grag. He is first introduced as a go-between for the secular dwarf community of the city, and the protagonist, Commander Sam Vimes of the City Watch. Vimes has a murder to solve, and the dwarf community has been obstructing his investigation. It is through Grag Bashfullsson that a dialogue is established.

Unlike the deep-downers, Grag Bashfullsson walks about in daylight like the secular dwarves of the city. When Vimes asks about this, Grag Bashfullsson explains that he feels it is enough to have the caves in his head. When questioned about his apparent lack of an axe, he says, "I believe it is enough to think about axes." He proves this later in the book, when he effectively incapacitates a villain non-lethally with a well placed chop similar to a martial arts move - as if his hand were his axe - when no other recourse is available.

These differences are insignificant compared to his most valuable contribution to the dwarf community. Unlike other Grags, who obsess over tradition, Grag Bashfullsson looks to see how the dwarfish community will move forward, with particular interest towards forging peace with trolls, known long-time blood enemies of the dwarves.

Young, wise, different, respected, and incredibly valuable to his community. You can see why I was reminded of you.

At the service in your honor, every speaker mentioned your (former) ponytail. Typically, when secular Jews think "rabbi" they don't immediately picture "ponytail." Thanks to my mother, I'm a little more used to thinking differently about rabbis. Even so, when I first met you, I thought, "This isn't what I expected. Seems nice, though."

As I began talking to you, I was pleasantly surprised at your sense of humor and awareness of pop culture. You held your own in witty banter against me, something that my mother still struggles to do. This isn't what I expected... and it was a good thing. I have enjoyed socializing with you at HaGesher events, as a friend and as a learned scholar from whom I could learn if I just listened. I wish I made more time to listen.

I remember when you reached out to me when my divorce was beginning. You offered to meet with me at a Starbucks. It sounded funny to me. I thought, "With his busy schedule, shouldn't I be coming to his office? Of all places, we're going to meet at Starbucks? Is Starbucks even Jewish?" Yet it made sense when I thought about it - talking in a comfortable, neutral atmosphere, rather than making an appointment to Meet With The Rabbi to discuss my problems.

I appreciated your sensitivity and understanding during our meeting. I don't remember all of the specific words that were said - much during that time is a blur - but I remember the feeling tone. You were compassionate without being preachy, and when I saw the dark humor of the situation, you were willing to reciprocate with humor of your own.

Now, as you are leaving, you no longer have a ponytail, but you are noted by every speaker honoring you for having had a ponytail. Not because the people you have touched focus on appearances only, but because your ponytail was a physical representation of your most valued asset - your unique way of reaching people, of affecting our lives.

This is why I say that you continue to wear your ponytail in your heart. Yes, it's a funny idea. More so because of the element of truth.

It is enough to think about axes.

I wish you and your family best wishes on your new adventure.

This is, in a nutshell, what it means for me to be a rabbi. Not to be a dwarf who carries around axes figurative or literal, but that I can, in building relationships with people, instill and inspire and teach some little bit of Torah in the process. That, through carrying Torah in my heart and showing it through my actions, I can encourage others to do the same.

Friday I talked about how the greatest reward for any rabbi is the opportunity to share just a little bit of Torah, to move the work of the congregation just a little bit further, to create meaningful relationships both with and between congregants--to literally walk amongst the people, not above or beyond. Tonight I told the HaGesher people that what made the difference for me was that being rabbi was never a 'job', but that Marisa and I could created real, normal relationships with people while still being their rabbi. I have been given amazing gifts through my work at Shir Ami, gifts that inspire me and I believe prepared me for the work ahead at Beth Emeth.

The first six years of my career have been amazing and a real blessing; I don't take any day of my 72 months here for granted. Now I'm ready to get started with the next six, and the six after that, and however many years God gives me to do this work I was called to do.

Monday, June 8, 2009

While we're on the subject; what is the role of the rabbi in congregational life?

I don't subscribe to "10 Minutes of Torah" any more, but it is a fantastic program for quick learning put out by the Reform Movement. This Monday's is especially pertinent as we get two perspectives on the role of the rabbi in congregational life from my colleagues Cindy Enger and Doug Sagal (special thanks to Jerry Arenson at Beth Emeth for giving me the head's up). Both carry a great deal of wisdom and thoughtfulness, and I agree with much of what they're both saying. So, I thought I'd share their messages with y'all. As always, I'd love for you to share your thoughts on both or either. While we're at it, what do you think the role of the rabbi is today? Is it to welcome and to create a sense of belonging? Is it to create shared vision with the lay-leadership? Is the rabbi 'in charge' or a 'spiritual consultant' to the congregation? Is the congregation the best place for the rabbi to serve? I'm going to refrain from commenting further, as I want to hear your ideas on this matter.

What is the role of the rabbi in our congregations today?

Rabbi Cindy G. Enger

The poet, David Whyte, reminds us, “There is no house like the house of belonging.” (1) For us Jews, the synagogue is a house of study. The synagogue is a house of prayer. The synagogue is a house of gathering in community so that we can perform acts of loving-kindness and righteousness and mark as holy significant moments in time. The synagogue, as Rabbi Jonathan A. Stein writes in the most recent issue of the CCAR Journal – A Reform Jewish Quarterly, “is where the soul of our people resides and from which the core of our tradition flows.” (2) The synagogue, at its best, is also a house of belonging.

We belong to a synagogue -- a congregational community -- when we feel safe and respected, when our voices are solicited, when our presence and contributions are appreciated, when we feel listened to and heard. We belong to a synagogue when we feel nurtured and nourished and encouraged to grow. We belong to a congregation when we contribute of ourselves, offering to the synagogue community the best of ourselves. We belong to a synagogue when we allow ourselves to be open and contributed to -- when our lives are enriched and expanded by Torah and all of its opportunities for learning, by worship and relationship with God, by sacred obligations and acts of loving-kindness shared with one another and with the larger world. We belong to a congregation when our participation has meaning and when we see ourselves and see one another as integral, essential parts of a distinct, living entity, a breathing and changing whole.

We Jews choose to affiliate with synagogue communities for many reasons. “Belonging” as I have articulated it may or may not be among those reasons. And yet, when we allow ourselves to journey beneath the surface and ask: “What becomes possible with synagogue affiliation, what is possible when a group of Jews comes together and call themselves a congregation?” what shows up is the possibility of belonging.

One of the roles as rabbis in our congregations is to recognize a variety of doorways and create openings for a diversity of people to enter. We are diverse communities. We come from different places, and in so many different ways, we see the world through different lenses. We want different things; we find meaning in different aspects of Jewish living. We are diverse communities, and we do not always agree. Nonetheless, deeper than our differences is our common mission to support each other in participating and growing Jewishly. As rabbis, we are blessed with the opportunity to teach that while our diversity is not always easy, it is among our communities’ greatest strengths. Diversity is a source of vitality and creativity, a resource to be nourished and cultivated, acknowledged and cared for. Within our communities, we do not need to be uniform in order to experience and extend to others a similar sense of belonging.

A central role of the rabbi – one of the many roles of the rabbi – in our congregations today is to be a voice and take a stand for the synagogue as a house of belonging. We do this in our teaching, preaching and counseling. We model this in our speech and in our listening. We encourage community members to engage in conversation and experimentation so that together we might begin to see and then internalize a vision of the synagogue as a house of belonging. We facilitate this when we help make our texts and teachings, our traditions and practices accessible, relevant, and alive.

As rabbis, it is important that we articulate and communicate our vision of synagogue community with kindness and compassion, with patience and persistence, with confidence and care. (3) Some moments invite agitation; others call for comfort. Sometimes we lead out in front. Sometimes we guide and push more quietly from behind.

Ultimately, we rabbis are both facilitators and privileged participants in a sacred conversation called synagogue or congregation. Our congregations are the place and the process through which the Jewish people strive to journey home – from brokenness to healing and wholeness, from estrangement to belonging.

The doorway is open. The space is inviting. The divine presence does dwell among us. The synagogue is our house of belonging. From possibility to reality – together, we can go there.

(1) David Whyte, “The House of Belonging,” in The House of Belonging(Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 2004) 6.

(2) Jonathan A. Stein, Editor, CCAR Journal – A Reform Jewish Quarterly(Winter 2009): 1.

(3) Deborah Joselow, “Making Change in the Kehillah, CCAR Journal (Winter 2009): 108.

Rabbi Douglas Sagal

I am humbled by the invitation to participate in the Eilu V’eilu dialogue, and honored to share this with my colleague Rabbi Cindy Enger. I look forward to learning from Rabbi Enger, as well as from readers of Eilu V’eilu.

We have been asked to address the issue of the role of the rabbi in the contemporary congregation. It is my belief that the role of the rabbi is to partner with the lay leadership in developing a vision for the congregation and to work with the lay leadership in moving the congregation ever-forwards towards that vision.

But what is authentic partnership?
Most congregations use the language of “partnership” to describe the ideal relationship of rabbi and lay leader. My observation is that across the landscape of all Movements, few congregational leaders and their rabbis understand what genuine lay-rabbinic partnership means, and few congregations and rabbis enjoy authentic partnership.

Partnership between rabbi and lay leadership means that it is publicly acknowledged that both sides in the relationship have insight, knowledge, and vital information necessary to develop a compelling vision. Only when the lay leadership respects the rabbi’s knowledge and skill, and the rabbi respects the lay leadership’s vital experience and awareness of the needs of the congregation can true partnership develop. In other words, in a true partnership, it is only when rabbi and lay leadership combine their insight that a full and complete picture of the congregation and its needs emerge, and a compelling vision be developed.

As I learned from the Rev. Francis Wade, former rector of St Alban’s Episcopal Church in Washington, “It needs to be acknowledged that the laity have part of the truth, the clergy havepart of the truth, and only by combining our knowledge and insight can we gain access to the entire truth.” (1)

I have maintained that the primary role of the rabbi is to partner with the lay leadership in developing a vision for the congregation and to work with the lay leadership in moving the congregation ever-forwards towards that vision. However, it is necessary for such a healthy partnership to exist in the first place. So I will add an addendum: It is the role of the rabbi to teach the meaning of authentic partnership to the lay leadership, and work constantly and consistently to maintain that partnership on an ongoing basis. Sadly, in too many congregations, this healthy partnership does not exist. Often the lay leadership secretly believes that their knowledge of the “real world” trumps the rabbi’s knowledge of Torah when it comes to “running an organization” and the rabbi believes that his or her knowledge of Judaism and human dynamics trumps the lay leadership’s genuine and authentic experiences of the congregation. It is vital for the rabbi and lay leadership to overcome these obstacles and to develop a healthy partnership in order for the rabbi to fulfill his or her primary role.

If a healthy partnership between rabbi and lay leadership can be established, then the hard work of developing a vision for the congregation can begin. Visioning takes great effort. It requires an enormous commitment of time, energy, and creativity. Visioning and creating a united sense of mission means making painful choices, setting priorities and defining not only what the congregationis, but what it is not. The alternative, however, is worse. “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 19:18). (2)

Once a vision for the congregation and the parameters and scope of its mission have been conceived, agreed upon, and affirmed by clergy and laity alike, it is the role of the rabbi to partner with the lay leadership in putting the energies of the congregation to the service of the vision and mission. The answer to the age old question of “Who is in charge, the Rabbi or the Temple President?” is “the vision and mission of the congregation is in charge-all of us serve that vision and mission.”

The third role of the rabbi, then, is to partner with the lay leadership to tend and nurture the primacy of the vision. A congregation’s vision and mission must be tended as carefully and as lovingly as Aaron and his sons tended the fires of the Mishkan. Difficult decisions become easier when viewed through the prism of a vision.

(1) Lecture, Alban Institute SeminarLeading the Large Congregation, May 2001

(2) I have purposely left vague the definitions of “vision” and “mission”. There are others who are far better qualified than I to address the precise definitions of these terms. However, for the purposes of this brief essay, I define vision as answering the question “Who are we?” and mission as answering the question“What should be doing?”

(for those who saw the post earlier; apologies. I had trouble getting the formatting right and just decided to post their comments in text style. It's harder to read but at least it's readable!)

Friday, June 5, 2009

A change will do you good.

Two shabbatot ago, Memorial Day weekend, I had a wonderful opportunity; I got to sit in the back (think about it; how often does a rabbi get to do that) for a morning service/bar mitzvah at Beth Emeth, my soon-to-be new congregation. It was an opportunity to learn something about the culture, wish mazel tov to the family, daven, chase my son around (hope grilled cheese is allowed in the sanctuary!) and get to know the congregation a little better. In the course of conversation about how nice the service was, what a great job the bar mitzvah candidate did, etc. with people, two individuals (no names!) both said, 'so, I guess you're going to be changing things, huh?'

Change is an incredibly loaded term, with both positive and negative connotations. For many, the first thought is negative: watching a neighborhood of proud historic buildings give way to big box stores (or worse, vacant lots), or a ball player go from star to benchwarmer (I'm looking at you, Big Papi) can be heartwrenching for people. When that change is sudden, it can be a shock to the system. And when it comes to a spiritual community like a synagogue, well, 'change' can be as frightening a word as you're going to get (the others are 'dues increase' and 'out of cookies', but that never happens). Our tradition itself has a mixed response to change. Additions to the liturgy were acceptable, but subtractions weren't (which is how you get a one hour service evolve into four). New ways of understanding Jewish ethics were warmly embraced (well, by some) so long as they didn't contradict the halakha. The Reform movement emerged not out of a desire to form a new branch or denomination or stream of Judaism but to remake traditional Judaism for a modern age (and we all know what happened, ya?).

What makes it so anxiety inducing is the implication; change might mean losing what made the community--its programs, services, its relationships--special for you. It also suggests criticism; that something is being changed because the way it was done before was somehow fundamentally wrong (which, of course, implies that all the hard work you and your forebears did was wrong, they and you were wrong and you were wasting your time. Put that in your peace pipe and smoke it.).

But change doesn't have to be all negatives, hiding in the closet like the boogeyman waiting to scare folk. Lots of change is good and healthy. As cliche as it is, my life has been inextricably changed by my son coming into this world; some of it has been a challenge (though thank God, manageable in nature) but all of it has been a blessing that has allowed me to grow and appreciate the world differently than I did in my 20s, when the only one I had to worry about was me. Likewise, for a congregation, change can reinvigorate, filling the community with new purpose. It can allow previously uninvolved and unaffiliated individuals to engage. It can give a congregation the opportunity for reflection on who it is and who it wants to be.

Change (assuming we're not all suffering from fatigue of the word) doesn't have to be bad. It does have to happen in a thoughtful and meaningful way. As my teachers Terry Bookman and Bill Kahn repeatedly reminded my PEER classmates and me, change can only happen when you honor what came before, and you have buy-in from the congregation. It means building consensus, putting out feelers and (dare I say it?) marketing (creating focus groups, putting out surveys). It means listening . It means experimenting (I prefer the term beta testing; sounds a little less threatening to me) the idea and soliciting feedback. It means building on what's already worked and slowly, gently, pushing the boundaries of what's comfortable for the congregants.

So are things going to change? Sure; they have to. I'm different than the previous rabbis at Beth Emeth, with a different kind of energy (thanks for that turn of phrase, Cantor Stanton). I have ideas that are different, I lead services in a different way, I have a different style. That doesn't make me right or them wrong; it doesn't make their way worse or mine better. Just different. And over time (God willing) as I build relationships with the folks at Beth Emeth, and we begin to build trust, we--we --will change things. We'll beta test things. We'll listen to each other and talk about what makes our congregation wonderful, and we'll build on that. Some people will like what's changed, some won't, but will understand. Hopefully, so long as we honor what has come before, the foundations of our community, folks won't equate change with knocking the house down. So long as we keep talking and listening and learning about each other and with each other, the changes made don't have to be so scary.

So, I can talk on this all day, but it's no good if you're not talking back. Let me, then, ask this of you, dear reader: share with this blog a positive change from your life that you faced with trepidation. What made you anxious, or scared you? What reinvigorated you? How were you transformed? What blessing did you take away from the experience? What changes excite you, and what changes worry you? Leave your comments below!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Saying Kaddish Too Soon? – Forward.com

Saying Kaddish Too Soon? – Forward.com

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See below: Why it's dangerous to say Kaddish for any Movement

Whenever you talk about any of the movements--Reform, Orthodox, etc.--you tend to get a nice-sized helping of vitriol and hyperbole. Between predicting the demise of Conservative Judaism for what seems like eons (which is sort of like saying Soccer is the future sport of America--and always will be) to sounding the death knell for Orthodoxy in the 1950s to the recent hew-and-cry over the death of Reform, most recently from Norman Lamm, it's nice to read an article (posted below as well--I'm still figuring out all the doohickeys on this thing and hit the button too soon) from Rabbi (Doctor/Professor) Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis discuss Lamm's assertion and the movements in America in general in a calm, measured, historically-based fashion and without resorting to the kind of breathless, 'triumphalist' (to use his description of Lamm's piece) language that just sets discussion among klal Yisrael back 20 years each time. I won't lie, I'm a Reform Jewish partisan, but I also know that all the movements (including those movements that don't like to be called movements, and you know who you are) suffer if one (or more) of them is hurting. Americans crave choice and options and a full diversity of discourse--a polyphony, if you will--and this certainly applies to American Jews and their religiosity.

Reading this also made me wish I had the chance to study with Dr. Sarna; he had already left HUC by the time I got there. Hopefully I'll catch him at a conference at some point.