Friday, December 23, 2011

Reflections on Biennial

Here's my reflection on biennial, presented sermonically. I tried to incorporate those comments I received from folks in answer to my question; in the coming weeks I hope to post their actual comments as well. Chag Urim Sameach!

Tonight we continue our celebration of Chanukah, the festival of lights. But that is not what the word ‘Chanukah means’. Chanukah means ‘dedication’, and it hearkens back to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, defiled by Assyrian Greeks and their allies, restored after too much bloodshed to its former grandeur. One would think this holiday would then fail to speak to us; I don’t know about you but as much as I love barbecue I don’t long for a return to Temple Sacrifice, and the assimilationist tendencies of the Maccabees’ enemies don’t feel so far off to us—the idea of learning all that world has to offer us as opposed to Mattathias’ parochialism. Even the rabbis are happy to give it short shrift: there is no tractate Chanukah in the Talmud, after all; it appears but briefly in Tractate Shabbat, around the question of lighting lights.

And yet, throughout the centuries, this holiday has resonated. Yes, lighting lights in the darkest time of the year is common among all religious traditions, and yes, its proximity to Christmas has given the holiday extra ‘oomph’, let’s not delude ourselves. But for me, there is another element, a spiritual element that goes back to that idea of dedication. While I don’t dedicate myself to a Temple rite that long ago expired, this holiday gives me a chance to think about what I want to rededicate myself to—what I should focus on in my own personal life and my professional life, as a husband, father, friend and rabbi .
Fortunately, I had an opportunity to have that reflection on dedication last week, but on steroids. Last week, 15 of us went by car and train down to the Gaylord Convention center, just across the Potomac from Alexandria, to join as many as 6000 other Reform Jews at the Union For Reform Judaism Biennial. This is the time when congregational leaders, clergy, and laypeople gather for singing, learning best practices, schmoozing, networking, and the study of Torah. Oh, and shopping. Some of us had been to previous gatherings, especially the sisterhood folks. I’ve been to eight myself. Others had never been to one, or if they had, it’d been years ago.

This convention was notable for a number of reasons. It was it the largest gathering of the Union ever, with registration fully closed a few weeks before. It was the first time the Biennial was addressed in person by Israel’s deputy prime minister and former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak. It was the first time AIPAC was welcomed, along with the head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and politically conservative leaders like Representative Eric Cantor and William Kristol. It was the largest gathering of Jewish rockers ever, from Julie Silver and Dan Nichols to Rick Recht, Mattan Klein, Michelle Citrin and Josh Nelson. It was the first convention addressed by a sitting president, Barack Obama, who began by kvetching about the length of the skirts his daughter wears to bar mitzvahs and giving a drash on the Torah portion, and gave a shout-out to NFTY, causing 300 teenagers to go absolutely bonkers. It was a time of transition, as Debbie Friedman was remembered, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, The leader of the Reform movement for 16 years, handed the presidency over to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, formerly senior rabbi of Westchester Reform in Scarsdale New York, a very different but equally passionate and devoted rabbi and community activists.

Most of all, it was the most intense, most engaging and dynamic biennial I have ever been to, and our delegates came home exhausted and rejuvenated at the same time. I asked them to share with me what was, for each of them, the most important thing, or idea, or moment that they took away from their experience.

For some it was the idea that we are part of a larger community, with a voice that should be heard and heard loudly. As the only Progressive synagogue from Malvern PA to Havre De Grace Maryland, and certainly the only voice of Reform in the First State, it can feel a little lonely, and it’s easy to feel like we do what we do in a vacuum. To experience Shabbat with 4700 Jews of all ages, to sing with 4700 other voices, to enjoy Shabbat dinner and song session with 4700 others (and the chicken was just fine thank you) is a powerful moment. And to see our values—of choice, openness, egalitarianism, of a Shabbat that isn’t Orthodox, of a Religious Judaism that is OURS, and not THEIRS (whoever they may be) and only ours sometimes—hailed and trumpeted and celebrated by thousands of others, representing 900 congregations and over a million individuals, filled our hearts with affirmation that Reform has a voice that must be heard.

And it was poignant to see Eric (he’s a classmate of my dad’s, I can call him that) talk about his own children’s spiritual journeys, and about the very real deficits we are facing in our movement, not only financial, as in so many congregations that are suffering from lack of treasure, but the spiritual deficit too many of us feel, unconnected to each other, working ourselves to the bone, over programming our children such that the only relief we feel, as Eric said, is when we finally stagger to sleep, exhausted.

For me, and I know I speak for cantor as well, I came away with a profound feeling that, while what we do here at Beth Emeth is good, it is not yet great. That we are too used to the idea that ‘good enough’ is good enough. That immediate need so often trump opportunities to really focus on our vision of what we could be as a caring congregation, devoted to Tikkun Olam and meaningful Jewish experience. I know I feel that myself more often than I’d like to admit: with so much to do already, so many practical demands on my time that are right here, it’s hard to see past them to what is truly visionary, what encourages us to be the kind of congregation I know we can be. For that, I want to give three examples of things I’m going to be working on with our leadership that I think, I know will lead this congregation to be the place it should be:
The first is our school. This is not to fault our wonderful religious school director—I know Myrna’s devotion to this place and rely upon her wisdom daily, and anyone who knows me knows how much I appreciate what she does in this place. Nor is it to fault our devoted teachers, far from it! It is clear that we have the best religious school in the state, if not the region. But we do not do enough to provide our kids—and their families—with Jewish experiences. Oh, we’re excellent at teaching them ABOUT Judaism, but giving them opportunities to connect with deep, resonant Jewish moments in their lives, well, we could do more, and we could do better. Just as you can’t learn to play tennis or drive a car just from reading a book, our children will not learn to live meaningful Jewish lives if we only talk ABOUT the experience. They need to experience it for themselves. If that sounds a little like a pitch for Jewish camp or an Israel trip, you’re right. That’s what makes camp and Israel so successful, and we need to bring more of that here, including more opportunities for our families to experience Shabbat and the holidays, and experience each other: how many of our kids don’t know each other because they go to different schools? We can do more and we can do better.

Another is our Saturday morning experience. Too often we fail to make minyan when there is no bar or bat mitzvah. Too often attendance at Torah study is dependent on who’s teaching. Too often we as a congregation surrender the morning service over to the family of the bar mitzvah, with the best of intentions, and while I think we do the bar mitzvah experience better than almost any other congregation I have seen, with real love and devotion, we can do better. Shabbat morning must no longer be the neglected stepchild to Friday night, nor dependent on ‘shtick’ like one-off programs. We can do more, and we can do better.
Finally, our Friday night Shabbat experience. (uh-oh, here it comes!) Where are the children? At home and in bed, with some exceptions.  Where is our patience with young families? Where is our willingness to engage, not just with each other, but with the tradition itself? We have taught a generation that they’re only allowed here for family services or some special program “fir de kinderlach”, that worship must either be formal or ‘entertaining’, and unchanging—not only of structure and time and space, but worship that leaves us unchanged. I know I have worn people out with talking about Friday night, with trying different things and trying to meet different needs halfway. I have often despaired, and have heard the accusations that I’m trying to ‘Shir Ami’-ify our congregation, or make it something that it’s not, and before last week I was willing to give up. I was reminded at biennial that to do so, to give up, would be to shirk my duty to this congregation, to you, to myself, to give up on making this congregation’s Shabbat the best it can be, to be truly great. We can do more, and we can do better!
More than anything else, we as a congregation need to dream big, we need to think big. I know you have dreams for this congregation. I do too. What are your dreams? Please, share them with me, with the leadership, and don’t think ‘this will never happen here’, or, ‘they won’t listen to me’. I will and we will. If we dream small that is all we are going to be, and I’m not talking about numbers in attendance. Biennial reminded me of the importance of having that vision, of living up to that vision, of sharing that vision with others. I want to hear your dreams, and I want to find ways to make them come alive. We can do more, we can do better.
You’ll notice I didn’t say anything about the solutions. That’s on purpose. Oh, I have ideas, and soon enough we’ll talk about them: with our teachers and parents, with our Ritual committee, in forums large and small. I know that many of you have better ideas that will achieve the same things: more engaging Shabbat experiences for all generations, more connection in our religious school, the uplifting of Shabbat morning, and a host of dreams only you can articulate. The practical stuff will come—it will be complicated at times, there will be the gnashing of teeth and shaking of head, and a not a few people will tell me I’m crazy, and some of them to my face. But tonight, in Chanukah, we talk about rededication. I rededicate myself to this Reform Community, this House of Truth, this congregation that I promise you, will shine even brighter, even brighter than it does now. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Saturday morning services are in competition with many family and community activities and for those who are not involved with family or community, the services often do not hold any meaning. So first, I think we need to look at what motivates people to participate in any one activity over another. The activity has to be need-meeting or of personal value in some way. Being part of a shared experience, or being directly involved, or even feeling a personal obligation as a member of the synagogue community are likely to attract people. People will come if there is something in the service that touches them, something that stimulates them intellectually, or for the shared/social component.
    Here are some ideas on what might motivate people to give up an hour on Saturdays.
    1. Lay participation. 1) Why not invite a family instead of a board member to sit on the bima and assist with services when there is a service in the round. The invited members could be asked to read some of the English responsive prayers, assist with the Torah and be involved in the procession. 2) Make being a knowledgeable lay Torah/prayer reader a goal among adults, and regard those who do become involved as valued members. 3) Include the haftarah blessings and reading among the Saturday ritual honors. Encourage lay d’vars. invite congregants up for alliyot instead of doing that as a group, and include those who participate in the service in the Torah procession. 4) Invite those who are secure leading Hebrew prayer to do so. 5) Aliyot can be offered to congregants who have recovered from an illness, become a parent, become a grandparent, escaped from an accident or danger etc., had a special birthday etc. All aliyot could be called up by name to make it more personal and perhaps invited prior to the service by invitation. In this way their families and friends might also come to the service.

    2. Family Involvement. 1) Invite the families of children in each grade to attend Saturday services once a year and make that a family oriented service with interactive Torah study (possibly act out or role play) and invite the class to “lead” a closing prayer or the shema, or even part of the Amida for the older ones. 2) Have a grandparent day in which children bring their grandparents or another relative and alliyot could be offered as a group to the grandparents. , OR There could be a special blessing the grandparents/aunts, etc. say for the children, or a prayer the children offer to the grandparents. All grandparents could be offered a flower, etc or a card or gift made by the child. In all family-oriented services children can be invited to march in the Torah procession and to carry small Torahs. Those who don't carry Torahs could keep rhythm with a tamborine, rhythm sticks, bells, etc.

    3. Themed Services: One service in the round could be devoted to singles of all ages, in which they are invited to an aliyah, to assist with the service, to offer a d’var etc. to be followed by a lunch/discussion. One service could be devoted to meeting spiritual needs with meditations and prayers for strength and healing. Creative prayer could play a role here. The themed Shabbats could feature selected musicians such as Doug Coulter, Carlbach, Friedman, etc.

    4. Reformatting of Service: I would suggest for the services in the round that in lieu of a d’var, Torah study can be incorporated – i.e., overview of portion followed by interpretive discussion of selected verses or examination of a prayer from the point of view of “What does this prayer say to you? Or even a discussion of the Jewish view(s) of God, or why pray? Etc. When there are children present, they should always be invited up to the bima at some point to help lead a prayer etc. I like the idea of echoing the Hebrew reading of Torah with English, and congregants (especially the older children if present) could do the echoing while an adult reads from the Torah.