Friday, December 30, 2011
Friday, December 23, 2011
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.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
As many of you are now aware, Marsha Lee, our longtime congregant, former member of the board of directors, and devoted friend, was kidnapped near her home, and was found dead later yesterday afternoon. Our hearts and prayers go out to her husband Scotti and their family and circle of friends. Few of us know what they are going through, but as a congregational family, I know we will do whatever we can to support them in this terrible hour. To protect the family’s privacy, please contact Jan Goodman with your loving offers of support and encouragement. The funeral will be held at Congregation Beth on Thursday, December 22 at 1:00. Burial will be at Beth Emeth Memorial Park. A meal of condolence will be held at Congregation Beth Emeth. Shiva will be observed on Thursday, December 22 and Saturday, December 24 at 7:00 PM at 4403 Whittier Rd., Wilmington, DE 19802-1231.
Marsha’s kidnapping took place near our congregational home. We want you to know that we are doing everything in our power to ensure the safety of our congregants while on the premises, and have been assured by officials that there isn’t a greater threat to our community. That being said, please be vigilant in the parking lot as always, and if you feel the need for an escort to your car, ask. We will have Hebrew School on Wednesday, and we will continue with those securities measures that are already in place.
As we prepare to light the Chanukah lights, let us do what we can to drive away the darkness that has fallen on their home. May God bring consolation to Scotti and his family, as we—God’s agents—bring comfort to their grief.
Y’hi Or, let there be light,
Rabbi Yair Robinson and President Jan Rosenfeld Goodman
Monday, December 19, 2011
Friday, December 16, 2011
Barak: Israel won't accept Palestinian state that perpetuates Mideast conflict - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News
"I will not allow politicized, targeted legislation to undermine the value of the supremacy of the law. The only Jewish democratic state in the world must remain exactly that: a Jewish and democratic state!" Barak said."
'via Blog this'
Thursday, December 15, 2011
David Saperstein just said nice things about Eric Cantor, andthe Rep. Cantor said nice things about the Religious Action Center. Cats and Dogs, living together!
EDIT : after calling Reform Judaism part of the moral fabric of America and commending the URJ's commitment to Tikkun Plan, he changed tack to Israel and the middle east. Safer topic to be sure, but it sounded too much like AIPAC boilerplate. Having said that, he did start to make some interesting parallels with Israel support and Tikkun Olam, and hinted at what a conservative Tikkun Olam might look like, but never fully went there. Disappointing...
So as you can tell, I made it in (finally), made it to my consultation with my phenomenal president, got to have dinner with some colleagues, caught up with family and friends, saw the evening Plenary (best line from Theodore Bickel, honored tonight with the first Debbie Friedman Award: that she reminded us that Judaism is OURS, not THEIRS and sometimes ours), and went to a bunch of dessert receptions. I had the particularly joyful-but-awkward experience of catching up with my congregants and then having my former congregants love bomb me (which was delightful, but a little like having your ex-girlfriend meet your wife). I got to hang out with people I almost never see otherwise. And now it's quarter to 1, I am well and truly exhausted, but can't quite bring myself to go to sleep.
What's really amazing is the sense of "Biennial time" as well. I have to remind myself that I'm in Washington (well, just outside), and not in San Francisco or Phoenix (in terms of time change). It's a little (I imagine) like being in a casino: the temperature is always 72, the ambient light is constant, the rooms all look the same. It could be 5pm or 11pm, the energy level is the same and you have to pace yourself carefully.
It's clear that the URJ worked REALLY hard on this conference, and the sheer number of people, even for a biennial, is overwhelming. A the same time, as wonderful as the facilities are, it has the feel of a Potemkin Village (or at least a theme park): the hotel and conference center are like a fake town, surrounded on the outside by an equally artificial city. Like they cut part of Baltimore's Inner Harbor or Old Town Alexandria out and dropped it off here.
OK, starting to get random. Going to bed. Looking forward to dinner with congregants, lunch with my former senior, checking out the exhibit hall, going to some sessions (!) and catching up with more people, watching the waves of wonderful folks wash ashore.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
I know I wasn't the first to think of such a thing (if I bothered I could probably find something in a Lawrence Hoffman book that looks pretty similar, as that's what he does), but it in that moment not quite a decade ago, it seemed like madness. MADNESS! This was before the iphone, ipad, Droid, everything-I-need-plus-angry-birds-in-my-pocket, but we could see it was coming.
Of course, it's not madness. This week, the CCAR released Mishkan T'fillah as an ipad app (with more to come for iphone, droid, etc.). Orthodox siddurim have been available on smartphones as apps (along with seforim like the Shulchan Aruch, Maimonides' writings, etc.). More and more congregations (as well as camp, large gatherings, etc.) are emulating the megachurch approach to project the service on a wall, sometimes interactively. More and more synagogues are livestreaming their services. We have seen the future, and it's 'itefilah'.
Part of me thinks this is fantastic. In fact, part of me thinks this doesn't go far enough. It's not enough to have the siddur in my phone for convenience. There should be a social media element to it as well; a way of sharing one's own personal meditations, Twitter-style, while in the moment (this past year's NFTY convention had exactly that; a live Twitter-feed projected along with the liturgy at T'fillah). Certainly to have something like that with seforim to allow for fully engaged social commentary and study, broadening the realm of a study community beyond the self or the four walls or even the need to find a local chevruta and learn, comment, reply to and study with a whole host of folks through Social Media (JPS is starting to experiment with that with their "Tagged Tanakh" ). Why not 'check in' to parts of the liturgy or Torah reading (or a daf yomi, perhaps) Foursquare-style, to signal to friends that you're this far along in your study, in order to encourage others? What about integrated media? You can't make it to services? Don't just 'watch' on the livestream: participate with your itefilah following along, 'synced' with the service you're livestreaming? We have seen the future, and has social media integration.
It sounds exciting--and terrifying. I know of one colleague who loves technology (blogs and tweets, so she's ahead of me) who's bemoaning the distractions that will come from bringing your tablet to services as your siddur. Services getting boring? Don't like the tune? stick your headphones on and tune into a different service! Or just check twitter, the scores, play some tetris etc. And what is there to say about the financial and social stratification: if you don't have a smartphone or tablet, and have to use a prayerbook, does that convey something negative to your fellow worshiper? Does the competition of the parking lot (who's got the better car) now migrate to the sanctuary? Finally, what happens to the sense of praying as a community? We've all seen cartoons lamenting/laughing at youths 'having a conversation'; that is, looking down at their phones and saying nothing to each other. Does this technology bring people together, or push them apart? We have seen the future, and it's...well, kinda lonely.
In Ernest Cline's book Ready Player One, the main character, and indeed all the characters, have escaped a dystopian future world without hope by immersing themselves in a video game world full of pop-culture nostalgia. But at the end, in true 80s movie fashion, the protagonist learns that this escape has led only to a solitary and solipsistic existence, that the world is worth engaging and saving. I marvel at these developments and know that meaningful, engaging Jewish prayer is evolving in directions I couldn't possibly imagine even two years ago, never mind 10. And so long as it's meaningful, engaging, communitarian and prayerful, I welcome our new machine overlords. And if its not, what are these things except new idols demanding are attention?
If you have thoughts on technology (good or bad) I'd love to hear them!