Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tefillah in the Synagogue

Swap out the word "Conservative" for the word "Reform" (or any other form of Judaism. Or religiosity for that matter) and you get an article that speaks to the heart of what ails us and our ability to pray meaningfully as a community. Or at least, it well identifies the questions. What, then are the answers? How do we ensure that the synagogue is not (to quote Heschel and this article) a graveyard where prayer is buried?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

High Holiday sermon question

So I'm working on sermons for this High Holidays, and based on a great conversation with Geri Newburge, I'm thinking of doing something interactive with the congregation--really hard to do with a HHD crowd I know, but any thoughts on what might work or make sense? I was thinking of asking people to break into smaller discussion groups...or a guided meditation? Thoughts?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Judaism not Twitterable?

So I have confession to make. While I love social media (from discussion forums to Livejournal to Myspace to Facebook to this blog to Google+) I don't like Twitter.* It just never felt like the right medium for me. Don't get me wrong, I think there are some colleagues out there that are doing some amazing things with 140 characters (Tweeting the Exodus comes to mind), but I think it's far, far too easy as a medium to lead one down to the dark places of online culture: snark, sarcasm, the lunge-parry-reposte that in many ways is coarsening our dialogue.

So I was happy to see Donniel Hartman's blog post on the subject, and I totally get where he's coming from. As a small and 'ever dying' people (to use one of the far-too popular perceptions about us), we freak out about numbers and so we try (as Hartman puts it) "something, anything" to boost numbers. And we've been increasingly successful, but at a price.

We have begun to master the art of condensing the Jewish message, so that it is communicable through a narrow bandwidth, short-term experiences, and brief social media exposures. The problem, however, is that the message, even if received, is not significant enough and compelling enough to attract ongoing interest and generate long-term commitment.
Herein lays the new Catch-22 of contemporary Jewish life: In order to reach the numbers we need, we have to dumb down our message and water down the experience. A dumbed-down and watered-down Judaism, however, cannot compete in an open marketplace of ideas. Therefore, our successes lay the foundation for our failure. At the same time, when one deepens the message and intensifies the experience, one seemingly loses the numbers game.
The Jewish people have, since our inception, been the carriers of ideas. We changed history, not as a result of our economic or military power, nor by the enormity of our numbers. It was by the depth and significance of what we stood for – a way of life permeated by important ideas and values held together and conveyed through powerful and meaningful experiences – which placed Jews and Judaism as a transformational force in human culture.
This content is not Twitter-able. The journey of a meaningful Jewish life needs a wide bandwidth. It requires knowledge, time, and commitment. If we want Judaism to have a great future, and not merely a great past, we need to set our sights higher and deeper.
I truly believe this is the greatest challenge facing the Reform Movement and Judaism as a whole, as well as every individual synagogue and community. You open your doors wide to welcome everyone, but in our fear of scaring people away, refrain from challenging them with deeper ideas, with more study, with greater commitment. Twitter in many ways is just part of a larger trend on instant gratification that's served as fodder for high holiday sermons since Sinai so I won't delve that deeply in, but he raises a great question, arguably the question of the 58th century: we got them to follow our tweets, to read our blogs; how do we get them to engage in meaningful Jewish experiences for themselves instead of living through them vicariously. Or to put it another way: we got them in the door, now what do we do with them? Projects like Tweet the Exodus, which uses the best of the internet--multiple sources and media, collaboration--suggests a model for Twitter engagement that can be both broad AND deep; more like a Talmudic discussion than Milton Berle rattling off one-liners. So how do we modulate the tweet-voice toward that model?

I get a little nervous about his conclusions: what it means to 'demand more' of an individual in the Progressive Jewish world is very different from what it means in the Orthodox world, and I'd have loved for him to have acknowledged that nuance. Indeed, even getting more specific, like 'demanding more study' can mean very different things and lead to very different outcomes depending on the community and that community's Narrative. However, I think the basic premise is a good one. We got them to follow: how do we get them to lead, if not the community, then themselves.

*At some point in the blog post, you should have made some kind of joke about rabbis' sermons and length. You know, like "if you can say it in five minutes (or 140 characters) then why use 20 (or 1400)?" Go ahead. I think it's joke 42, if you're looking it up.

Home from camp

Sorry I didn't get to post more from my camp experiences. Needless to say, I was spending a lot of time with the kids (and foolishly took no photos, in part because Harlam has a 'no cellphones' rule that I was already breaking like Chuck Norris breaks ninjas).

It was a fantastic experience. The staff is amazingly professional (especially considering we're talking about mostly 18-21 year olds). As important is the love they clearly have for their kids and for Judaism, as well as for camp itself.

And that's reflected in the kids themselves. These kids are passionate about their Judaism and their camp experience. No one grumbled, no one felt the programming was a waste of time (even among the 14-year olds!). Whether they started out this way or not, every single kid I talked to was enthusiastic about being Jewish and being part of a Jewish community.

My shiurim went very well--well, the first time it went great, and the second time (I repeated the class) so-so, but considering past years where I was sure kids only signed up because a counselor made them, I'll take so-so. Shabbat was, of course, incredible, with the Machon/CITs leading a pretty amazing service. Of course, I got to embarrass myself talking to a CIT (going into senior year of high school) who I didn't recognize, not realizing he was a Shir Ami kid I had worked with for bar mitzvah four years earlier. Hey, the last time I saw him he hadn't hit puberty!

None of this is to say that camp is perfect: there needs to be more leadership and programming training for the staff, the dining hall remains an issue, and the way Jewish values are taught and expressed don't always line up with day-to-day reality at camp (one small example: the youngest kids did an Alex's Lemonade Stand on Shabbat. Great value in terms of tzedakah, but not exactly shabbesdik). the new director, Aaron, went even further to say that some things need real improvement, but it's getting there, and there's a real sense of vision and mission.

So I'm now home, getting over the camp cruds, sore, lightly sunburned (despite SPF 45), and basically ready to go back. Can't wait 'till next year!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Day in the Life at Camp

It will inevitably happen that, at breakfast, your assistant unit head will approach you and say, "O wise faculty person, we are in a jam, can you help us?"

Okay, without the first part, because all camp staff know that faculty are basically a pain.

Galil was understaffed this morning, preventing the usual programming for "Galil Time" (where the kids sign up to go with each counselor for their specialization) so the wonderful AUH (Mollie) asked me to come up with something fun. I explained to her that I was NOT fun, but after brainstorming with two other faculty members (Regina Hayut, a classmate cantor in New Jersey, and Stephanie Schwartz, the educator at Mainline Reform) we came up with doing a series of trust exercises, in anticipation of tomorrow night's trust-game based unit t'fillah. It went very nicely, but what else would you expect from a program that involves Aryeh bobbleheads and blindfolds? (No Aryeh bobbleheads were harmed in the performance of this activity).

I'm endlessly impressed by the staff--poised FAR beyond their years, very capable and highly responsible (and responsive), they clearly have a passion for their kids and this camp, as well as making Judaism come alive. Probably not any different than any other camp, but it's wonderful to see these kids--many of whom I've watched come back summer after summer as children, tweens and teens--step up as 'adults' and role models. What's especially amazing is how many of these folks will NOT become Jewish professionals, but will carry that passion for Judaism and engagement with them into synagogue life (well, we hope).

Shiur round one went AMAZINGLY. I hope round two goes even half as well tomorrow and Friday. Then it'll be time to get ready for Shabbat and pack it up for home.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Dorney Day!

So it's Dorney Day, which means the kids go to the amusement park, and many of the facutly (myself included) stick around to get some work done: reading, prepping sermons for the High Holidays, or (in my case) putting my programs together.

With Galil (8th grade), the only shiurim are what they're calling Mini-Rotations, with an emphasis on integrating Jewish values into your everyday lives. So, how do you play football in a Jewish way? How do you go to the movies, hang out with your friends, surf the internet, or do your homework in a Jewish way? While some of it is, clearly, just about using Jewish vocabulary to refer to day-to-day experiences (you're not being kind to someone but exhibiting 'chesed' etc.), there is a real sense on camp that these kids are now exploring the values that we've been teaching them in a frontal fashion for themselves without any kind of tether, and that's making a huge difference.

I'm going to be doing my teaching on comics, superheroes and being a mitzvah hero. Part of this is my own comfort zone: I've never been good at doing "Torah study and canoeing" or whatever (not to dismiss the idea--I just can't pull it off) and I happen to know something about this subject, both as a collector of comics (though by no means a comic book guy), and as someone who's done a little study (and a little teaching) on the Jewish connection to the comics industry (this article gives you a good taste, as does this recap of an article in Reform Judaism a few years ago). And, what 8th grader (well, 8th grade boy) doesn't like comics? Especially superheroes? Superheroes (or mythological heroes, like the Golem) tap into a psychological need on our part (especially as adolescents) to be both empowered and saved, so why not by a guy in blue tights, who's secret identity is someone as 'weak' as the rest of us are?

It's funny, I've been re-reading Alex Ross' Marvels, which looks at these superheroes through the eyes of regular people (also a theme of his Kingdom Come miniseries), and what comes out is both how small we seem compared to them (hints of the 10 spies in parashat vayishlach, seeing themselves as grasshoppers?), and as a result, how we could both never measure up to that standard, and how we are never satisfied by the good works of others. Do we have the same reaction to those who are observant, that somehow, their performance of mitzvot minimizes our Jewish experience ('they're more religious than me') and causes us to judge our own abilities as wanting ('I could never do that')? Hopefully, the kids will come away from the program having done some cool art, but also thinking of how they can be mitzvah heroes in their own right, feeling both empowered and capable of doing some good in the world.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Arrived at camp!

Just started my first day at Camp. Beautiful drive up to the Poconos, great faculty meeting and lovely first day with the Galil (roughly 8th grade) kids. Got to catch up with Beth Emeth and Shir Ami staff and kids, which was really great. Everyone's off to Dorney Park tomorrow, so I'll be finalizing Shiur (program) plans and working on a d'var torah for Saturday (which is a very different animal at camp than in the synagogue, let me tell you!).

More to report tomorrow.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

U.S. welcomes birth of new nation, South Sudan - World Watch - CBS News

U.S. welcomes birth of new nation, South Sudan - World Watch - CBS News

And from AJWS:

“The independence of South Sudan on July 9th marks a truly historic occasion,” said AJWS president Ruth Messinger. “On behalf of American Jewish World Service, I want to welcome the world’s newest nation and express my hope for a future of peace and prosperity.

“At this moment of celebration, we must also remain focused on the abhorrent violence that continues along the border and in Darfur. When aggression and gross violations of basic human rights are routinely tolerated, these actions repeat themselves with grave results. As an international community, we must ensure there are strong consequences and support those who have been displaced by violence and humanitarian need.

“For years, communities across the United States and throughout the world have advocated on behalf of the people of Sudan. As we celebrate we will also recommit ourselves to continuing our work until there is a comprehensive peace.”

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Rabbi Dan Ain: Top Three Tips for Hiring a Rabbi for Your Wedding


"And, at the very least, contact the rabbi yourself. No rabbi wants to receive an email from a parent with the subject line, 'Will you marry my son?'

Tip to parents: Don't send these."

On Caylee Anthony - Reform Judaism

Many thanks to the wisdom of my classmate, Alan Cook, on this terrible moment in time.

by Rabbi Alan Cook
Associate Rabbi, Temple De Hirsch Sinai, Seattle, WA

The gut reaction of many to the acquittal verdict in the Casey Anthony trial is understandable. We weep for the unrealized promise represented by Caylee Anthony and long for a sense of vengeance, or at least some degree of closure that will enable us to derive some sort of sense from what is an unfathomably horrible crime.

A 2-year-old child is dead. As a parent myself, I cannot imagine any parent reacting so cavalierly to the knowledge that grievous harm has come to their child. Do I think that Casey Anthony was a bad mother? Yes, I do. Do I believe that she had a role in her daughter's death, or at least in the subsequent cover-up? Personally, I do. Do I (in the words of many on Twitter and Facebook and in the media) "know she's guilty"? Absolutely not. I cannot presume to.

Though our legal system may be flawed in some ways, a significant positive feature is the general presumption of innocence it guarantees. The prosecutors in Florida had the task of proving to the jurybeyond a reasonable doubt that Casey Anthony played a role in her daughter's death. Hearsay, circumstantial evidence, and "gut feelings" were all irrelevant. They may serve to convict Casey on Nancy Grace's show and in the court of popular opinion, but they are insufficient in our actual justice system.

And, if we think about it--if we are able for a moment to divorce ourselves of all the emotion we have invested in this case--we wouldn't want it any other way. While I certainly pray that no one reading this would ever dream committing an act as heinous as those of which Casey Anthony is accused, if there were ever circumstances that brought us to stand trial in a criminal case, we would want our attorneys to exhaust every resource at hand to prove our innocence. And in the end, we would hope that judge and jury would mete out justice according to the evidence rather than according to instinct.

While this is what logic would dictate, I certainly appreciate that it runs counter to emotion. Such instances can lead us to question whether justice really exists. According to Midrash, it was a similar case that led Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya into apostasy.

As the story goes, Elisha was walking down the road one day when he spied a boy climbing a tree to retrieve some bird eggs. In accordance with Deuteronomy 22:6-7, the boy shooed away the mother bird before gathering the eggs. Elisha smiled, noting that the boy was fulfilling a mitzvah, and doing so at the urging of his parent, two acts which the Torah connects to long life. He was then horrified to see the boy fall from the tree and die, contravening the Torah's promise. In his shock, Elisha cried out, "Leit din v'leit dayan--there is no justice and there is no Judge!"

This was, as in the case of our responses to Casey Anthony, a gut reaction, and again, perhaps a natural one. Yet what Elisha failed to recognize is that there are many moving parts to divine justice, just as there are many moving parts in our modern court system. We mere mortals are not privy to all the inner workings of either system.

When God prepares to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham enters into a sort of plea-bargain to see whether God is willing to reconsider. In his opening argument, Abraham inquires, "hashofet kol ha-aretz lo ya'aseh mishpat--shall not the Judge of the whole world deal justly?"

So God tries...tries to find fifty worthy men, then forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, then finally ten. And finally God must mete out the punishment that has been ordained, for there are not even ten people in the city worthy of redemption. The Judge of the whole world has attempted to deliver justice. And, at least according to some standard, the Judge has failed.

It happens sometimes. It's an imperfect system. We try to maintain faith that, at least in the long run, all balances out. The scofflaws and evildoers get punished, and the good guys get rewarded. Maybe it doesn't work on the individual level, but we pray it does in some cosmic, karmic way.

So, go ahead and weep for the loss of Caylee Anthony, and the apparent injustice of her mother going free.

But you're in good company. For in some corner of the cosmos, the Judge of the whole world is silently weeping too.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Gaza flotilla: Some questions for the activists sailing to Gaza. - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine

Yes, I'm quoting/citing Christopher Hitchens. Not sure what it means but his questions sure hit their mark.

"The little boats cannot make much difference to the welfare of Gaza either way, since the materials being shipped are in such negligible quantity. The chief significance of the enterprise is therefore symbolic. And the symbolism, when examined even cursorily, doesn't seem too adorable. The intended beneficiary of the stunt is a ruling group with close ties to two of the most retrograde dictatorships in the Middle East, each of which has recently been up to its elbows in the blood of its own civilians. The same group also manages to maintain warm relations with, or at the very least to make cordial remarks about, both Hezbollah and al-Qaida. "