Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5775: A Congregation Of Learners

Once there was a student who struggled with his learning. (I know, right?) His father watched and grew more and more exasperated. He cajoled, he threatened, he took away every privilege he could think of but nothing seemed to motivate the child, who slipped further and further in his studies. Finally the father brought his son to the teacher. He complained mightily how nothing worked, nothing motivated him, and he expected the teacher to show his son what for. The teacher looked at the student, and said, ‘leave, I’ll take care of this.’ The father, satisfied that his son would learn real discipline left the room. The teacher went over, wrapped his arms around the student, and held him close for a very long time.

For more years than anyone dares count, Myrna Lawrence has been that embracing, calming, loving presence. Every year the students return knowing that Myrna will be there to encourage them, motivate them, and sometimes rebuke them, but always in a loving and supportive way. She has a way of bringing out the best in her students, be it in the classroom or the bar mitzvah lesson. She has calmed the nerves of many an anxious parent wholly focused over their child’s performance, while Myrna redirected that focus quietly and subtly to the child’s growth as a human being and a Jew. She has had the blessing of seeing students who knew her as Mrs. Pollack come back as teachers and as parents of new students themselves. And now, after more than thirty years in education and more than a decade as our Religious School director, Myrna is retiring. It is a rest well earned, and her legacy here is secure, having touched the lives of so many people—parents and children—in our congregation. It is bittersweet, as it places us at a crossroads, a crossroads between who we are and who we want to be.

Change, as Myrna has often joked, is a four-letter word, at least in this congregation. We get nervous about new directions. We are very proud of our history, and, as befits a more than century-old community, often focus on preserving who we are rather than thinking about who we might become. And with those challenges in mind, I feel like this moment provides us an opportunity, and as we begin our search process, we must embrace that opportunity to think about learning in our congregation.

Notice I didn’t say ‘the religious school’ or ‘education’; I said learning; congregational learning, lifelong learning. One of the reasons I came to this congregation is because of its varied and joyful learning experiences: the school and bar mitzvah programs to be sure, but also confirmation, youth group, the adult education programs, brotherhood and sisterhood, our speakers, the choir, and all the independent learning groups scattered throughout the community. Each one is wonderful and engaging, and each one has been cut off from the other, removed into its own peculiar silo separate from the rest of the congregational experience. I know this, and you know it too. I know this by the way many of you began to tune out the minute I mentioned the religious school. ‘What does that have to do with me? My kids are grown, out of the house; I did my part, after all.’ I know this by the way parents and younger empty nesters hear the words ‘adult ed’ or lifelong learning and assume we’re talking about someone else, someone other than them, someone retired, older, with different interests and needs. And I feel this most palpably in those brief moments when those siloes come down; when a confirmation class kid comes to Torah Study, when the 7th grade comes to hear a Brotherhood speaker, when an older person comes to volunteer in a classroom or offers to teach, or just comes to participate in a program supposedly geared toward the parents. In those moments I see a brief image of who we might be: a congregation of learners.

What is a congregation of learners? It’s a congregation that starts from a place of learning. Okay, rabbi, you put the words in a different order, what does that mean? It means that we become a place of curiosity, that doesn’t assume answers but asks questions, indeed a place that omeid b’she’elah, that stands as a question mark, that seeks out opportunities to engage from a place of inquisitiveness.
The obvious way to see what that means is as a place of solid, engaged, and interactive learning experiences. We should ask ourselves, why don’t religious school, adult education, sisterhood, brotherhood and youth group do more joint experiences? I’m not talking about surrendering ownership—each group does different programming that is incredibly successful and meaningful—the brotherhood speakers, the adult education classes, Torah study, books & bagels, etc. And each is good at saying the other, non-obvious participant is welcome. But that’s not the same as cross-pollenization. Why aren’t there more opportunities for the kids and adults to learn together? Why aren’t there more moments of shared learning? Why isn’t there more interactive learning? Not all of us learn with our tuchus in a seat—why isn’t there more art, more movement, more DOING? Why aren’t there more opportunities to learn with the other congregations, or the JCC, in a collaborative fashion? Because kids and adults can’t learn together? Because it’s too hard to find people interested to teach or engage more through movement or tactile learning than discussion? Because we’re just too different from the other congregations? Let me share three experiences that suggest otherwise.
When Beth Ranauto, one of our parents, sat down with me for coffee last fall (a conversation that emerged from my invitation to all religious school families to sit down one on one), she mentioned that she feels her most spiritual when she’s moving—yoga, but also hiking and running out doors, and she said wistfully “I wish Shabbat could be more like that. Why can’t Shabbat be outdoors moving?” To which I responded, why couldn’t it? So we planned a Shabbat hike for a Saturday morning. No Torah study, no service, but a hike with moments of meditation and study, and a Torah reading and Kaddish all built in. We’ve done three now, and each one has seen around 30 people—twice as many as we get on a typical Shabbat morning—and different people than might have come to a conventional Shabbat experience. There was Torah learned, there was Shabbat experienced, but out in the world, allowing us, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Joshua Heschel, to pray with our feet.

At Shavuot this past year, we were exploring how we could make it more meaningful, when the Cantor suggested that, since the holiday is commemorated with a ‘flower offering’ we plant something, maybe at a local nursing home or the like. Sonia Sloan suggested that we reach out to local community gardens that might need volunteers. That led us to a meeting with local leadership (herded by Sonia’s boundless energy), and dozens of people descending on Harlan Elementary school with supplies, tools, food (always food), and energy, to sing some songs and share with each other and with our local community. We got dirty with the students, none of whom were Jewish, and we explored what it meant to connect to a holiday and to Torah in a very different way—living Torah rather than just talking about it. And again, it brought out folks who would never have come to a Shavuot service, or a conventional study session.

Finally, this summer, Beth Emeth, along with Adas Kodesh and Beth Shalom, took a trip to Israel together. 33 participants from three congregations, including 7 children aged 6-14. Total age range was 6-80-something. So many things could have gone wrong, and everything went right. Conservative and Orthodox and Reform got along beautifully. Older participants adopted the kids like they were their own nieces and nephews.  From time to time we split apart—while the adults went to Yad Vashem, the kids went to the biblical zoo, and the like—but there was a sense that we were learning, each at his or her own level, together.

We could say those were unique, one-off experiences, and that’s true. But it also tells me that we can capture that energy and experience it in all our congregational programs. There’s no reason the 80 year old can’t learn with the 8 year old, no reason we can’t turn the learning experience on its head, no reason we can’t engage with our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community and wider community. No reason that we can’t build relationships with each other even as we learn and explore Torah together.

Those examples are a good start. I’m getting excited just talking about those programs and their potential and I hope you are too. But there is more to being a congregation of learners. As I said before, it’s not just about the programs, it’s about the attitude. We must stand not as if we know all the answers but bring forward good questions. That’s true about Torah and Jewish practice, but it should also be true about our interactions with each other. We should be curious about one another, engaged with each other in fellowship. The best study groups are the ones where, like Cheers, everybody knows your name, and people are genuinely concerned for each other’s welfare. While it’s certainly true that nosy is Delaware for “I care about you”, and the more private among us might chafe, part of being a congregation of learners is learning not just about the subject material but each other. I’m not speaking about more programs or organized projects. I’m talking about noticing when a participant isn’t there and calling her up to make sure she’s okay. I’m talking about offering rides to one another. I’m talking about sharing photos of grandkids and stories about trips and asking for help with work or the number of a favorite babysitter. I’m talking about being genuinely interested in one another’s welfare.

What does that have to do with learning trope or Talmud or listening to a speaker? When we engage with one another, when we’re curious about each others’ lives, that’s where trust happens. And when we trust one another, that’s when we can go deeper in to learning—we can encourage each other to challenge and push and get beyond our limits. That’s when we become a real community in the fullest sense of the word.

So what would that look like? I’m not entirely sure, but let me paint a picture for you. Imagine for a moment a congregation filled with opportunities to learn: weekly Torah studies, ongoing learning experiences, and short or even episodic encounters, classes for children and parents and adults, Jews and non-Jews, led by clergy, by laypeople, by teens. Imagine some of those offerings being collaborative, where instead of one person at the front of the room telling people what and how to learn, the participants shared their best selves and supported one another. Imagine if there were online materials—not just schedules but articles, videos, interactive materials—that were posted that supported those experiences. Imagine if all those learning experiences were held together with a theme that stretched from religious school to adult ed to youth group, sisterhood and brotherhood. Imagine if they were open to the community, and we cross-listed our programs as well as learning experiences throughout the community with our own. Imagine if there were opportunities for adults to learn with the kids and kids—especially those post bar mitzvah or confirmation—to come learn with the adults. Imagine if, through these experiences, we grew close to one another, building relationships, friendships between and among generations. Imagine if these experiences led us to build deeper understanding within ourselves, that what we learn cultivates in us different ways of interacting with the world and how we see our Judaism. Now imagine this vision was being shaped and guided by a person, a director of lifelong learning, who was knowledgeable, loved this congregation fiercely, and loved the learners who are a part of it. And by learners, it is understood that everyone in the congregation, from the newborn babe to the 100-year old great grandfather, is a learner. And loved and embraced each learner the way Myrna does, speaking to them in the way they needed, embracing them for who they are and gently nudging them to go further, deeper, to challenge themselves.

It’s a lofty vision, in some ways not so different from what we are already doing this year and previous years, and in some ways very, very different indeed. And we as a congregation are going to be looking for someone who can create this vision, enhance it, make it their own, and put it into practice with love of Torah and love of Israel and love of each of us, every single one of us. I know we can find that someone. We have a search committee, led by Susan Detwiler, and a leadership team filled with competent people, loving people, knowledgeable people, each committed to what’s best for us as a congregation. They’ll be looking for someone who is organized, thoughtful, visionary, knowledgeable, a mensch. They’ll be looking for someone who is most likely clergy, a rabbi, who can engage the tradition and be a presence on the bimah even as he or she is a presence in the classroom and engage the individual, the family, the community. They’ll be looking for someone who can lead us to be a congregation of learners, looking to engage with each other and create loving community with one another.

I can say without hyperbole that this search will be one of the most important things we do as a congregation. It points us in a new direction, and has the potential to be transformative. This is more than just a new school director, or keeping our kids engaged; this is about nourishing each and every one of our neshamot, our souls. This is about each of us being Myrna, the teacher that embraces all. This is how we will continue to serve the Delaware Jewish community for generations to come.

Rabbi Eliezer said: In the light that God created on the first day, a person could see from one end of the world to the other. When God foresaw the misdeeds of future generations, God hid this light from them, reserving it for the righteous of the future.

Asked the disciples: "where was it hidden?"
He replied, "In the Torah."
They asked, "If so, will the righteous find something of this hidden light when they study Torah?"
He replied, "They will find and continue to find."
They asked, "If so, what should the righteous do when they find some of this hidden light in the Torah?"
He replied, "They should reveal it in the way they live." (From Martin Buber's Or HaGanuz)

The light is there, waiting for us to reveal it—through our learning, and through our actions, through our sharing. We will reveal that light as we pursue lifelong learning, a director of lifelong learning, and may we find and continue to find in that light not only Torah, but each other. Amen. 


  1. What a lovely way to introduce your vision to your kehillah! Exciting times for CBE! Shana tova!

  2. Outstanding presentation and analysis. In his book Tomorrow's Synagogue Today, Hayim Hering described the modern rabbi's role as part visionary and part talent scout.

    One of my most disheartening Education Committee meetings for my congregation came about four year ago when the chair asked for new members for the committee. I nominated two outstanding high schoolers from the Minayanaires group that I ran. It was summarily shot down. This person just did not want people out of the mainstream. She saw them as a disruption rather than a resource for creativity and accountabilty. to this day, the committee, with me long gone from it, fills schedules but does no reflection on what is offered, how it is received, what goes on elsewhere in the congregation and very little of what might be. They probably don't deserve the talent that those two kids, now both in premier colleges, could have contributed to alter the relentless pursuit of mediocrity. There is already a book on How Doctors Think. Perhaps its sequel should be how Baalebatim Think.