Friday, March 27, 2015

Parashat Tzav: The Anniversary of My Bar Mitzvah

It was a dark and stormy night. No really, it was! On Friday, March 24th, actually 26 years ago, the rain came down in sheets, and the thunder shook the little synagogue on Winter Street in Hyannis. The room was full to overflowing, with the moveable walls opened up like the high holidays, congregants cheek-to-jowl with friends and family from all over. And on the bimah, trying not to tremble with every thunderclap, stood nearly thirteen year-old me. With my birthday five days away, I led services and read Torah in my new blue blazer and polo tie, my grandfather’s kippah on my head and my great-uncle’s tallit on my shoulders. And after chanting from parashat tzav (though not half as well as you will, Brooke) and reading the haftarah, I spoke about responsibility—my responsibility as a person and a Jew, and our responsibility as a member of the community. I talked about the sacrifices listed at the beginning of Leviticus 6—the burnt offering, the meal offering—and the specificity of each ritual, and how that demanded us in our day to pay attention to the details of what we do and how we do it. At least as well as a thirteen year old can speak on the subject.
You may be wondering why I led and read on a Friday. At the Cape Cod Synagogue, as in many Reform congregations, Torah was read on Friday. Saturday morning services were not a regular thing, but were an option for bar and bat mitzvah, and it was offered to me as it was offered to my classmates. But somehow that didn’t sit right with me. It felt wrong to have some kind of special, private service. I remember at the time leading up to my bar mitzvah that I asked to lead a ‘normal’ service, a regular service, a congregational service. I didn’t want special treatment (very New England of me) but there was something about the idea of leading what the congregation expected, of being a part of that experience, that resonated with me. And I was proud for having led a regular congregational service for my bar mitzvah. It was only as an adult that I found out that Friday night had been used as a lesser-than experience for women.
I bring this up at a time when the bar mitzvah is evolving, at breakneck pace. Increasingly families are choosing to create bespoke experiences, often outside the synagogue, sometimes for educational purposes, and sometimes because they want what they want, and they can find a rabbi or a cantor or a ‘spiritual leader’ who is happy to create the experience that child and that family wants. At the same time, synagogues are looking at their bar mitzvah programs and services and are asking the question—is this creating the right experience, the right education, the right kind of Jewish person we want to create? The Reform Movement a few years ago started what they call the Bar Mitzvah Revolution as a way of encouraging congregations to re-imagine how they do teen engagement. If that weren’t enough, the bar mitzvah is coming under fire not just from without but within, as folks like Rabbi Patrick Aleph of Atlanta wrote a couple of years ago that we should ban the bar mitzvah, describing it as an impediment to educational and liturgical engagement and merely a revenue stream for synagogues, an addiction that must be broken.
For a long time—even as a teen—I’ve felt we invest too much capital into one experience, one day, in a Jewish adolescent’s life. I remember giving advice as a high schooler classmates of my sister telling them that it was just one day and not to get too worked up over it, and I hear the same advice given by many well-meaning adults to kids today. Sometimes I chafe when I hear my own teenage words used today but really, we do invest so much energy, time, and emotional bandwidth into this one life cycle event. And suffice to say there’s room for improvement in the whole experience, from educational process to logistics to the day itself, no matter how wonderfully we as a congregation may handle it. And if I may be so bold, I’d like to suggest my experience 26 years ago may give us a model for what it should be like.
First, there was the communal element. I wanted to lead a regular service with the congregation present. No gimmicks. No themes. No bells or whistles. Everyone invited to the oneg, everyone participating in their normal service. Perhaps the idea of having a 13-year old on the bimah gives some of you pause, but what does it say when we allow the bar mitzvah to be a private, family event instead of welcoming the child into the minyan as a community? As I led services—with my voice breaking and my kippah falling off my head at one point—I still understood that this was the congregation’s service, and that I was entrusted with leading it adequately. I think I did okay, but there’s tremendous power in that, and in being welcomed into communal Jewish life that way. You can’t have that experience in a ballroom somewhere.
The next was choice. I wasn’t given an option of whether to do one, but how, and when. I chose what to talk about for my bar mitzvah. I chose whether to have it on a Friday night. That level of choice required that I be involved from the beginning—at a 13-year old’s level—in the liturgical process. Not just learning the prayers but understanding the service structure and making some decisions about my involvement. For people on the cusp of adulthood, being given that choice is a powerful thing. What teen doesn’t want choice, after all? Choice takes into consideration the individual and their needs. Choice means trust. Choice is empowerment.
But with that choice comes responsibility. Of course, that’s what I preached on that night, but there is a responsibility to standing on the bimah. There are expectations and requirements to fulfill—not just my own or my family’s but the congregation’s as well. I had an obligation that night, as the rain came down, and really, every bar and bat mitzvah has that same obligation---to be there for the rest of the community, in prayer, in study, in support and in times of need. That is the point of it all.

I’ve carried that experience—that sense of what it means to be part of a community, what it means to be entrusted by that community, and what it means to be obligated to the community—for 26 years. It has defined my Judaism in so many ways, and would have regardless of my calling. The thunder didn’t hurt, either. And as we prepare for another child to celebrate bat mitzvah for this portion, the day before I turn 39, I would ask you this: does your Judaism have space for community? Does it have room for choices—for yourself and others? Does your Judaism give you a sense of Obligation—to your community, to your people, to God? Because it’s not just about one day—it’s about every day. Every day we’re called to make choices. Every day we’re called to be part of a community. Every day we are reminded of our obligations. May we fulfill them meaningfully, to the betterment of all. Amen. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

All Together Now: Parashat Vayakheil

Reflections on the Torah Portion for this week's sermon: 

I have to tell you it was truly awesome—in the most authentic sense of that word—to have so many gathered for a simple Shabbat dinner tonight. There was an energy to having folks together breaking bread and celebrating Shabbat, veteran members and new members, young and not-so-young, blessing children and blessing each other. And I want to thank, again, Amy Harrison, Marisa Robinson, Jenn Steinberg, Jan Goodman and Sybil Schwartz for their efforts putting it together.
We gathered to make Shabbat, and that’s how our Torah portion begins too. The portion begins: “Vayakhel”, he gathered. Moses gathers everyone to create the mishkan, the tabernacle. Everyone is invited to participate, just as everyone was invited to participate in tonight’s dinner. And yet the first instruction is not where to put this item or that item, or how to assemble this component or that component, or even what materials to use. The first instruction is to observe Shabbat, just like we’re observing Shabbat now.
Seems like an odd way to begin a project, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we get right to the nitty-gritty of how to create this sacred space? Not unless we know why we’re creating it. The space—and the project to create the space—has to reflect the values of the community. It’s all well and good to invite everyone to participate; surely that builds community. AND, community will be that much more meaningful if we can articulate our values.
So it was tonight and the energy in tonight’s Shabbat dinner. To be sure some of that awesome energy was the size of the group; but I don’t think that was the whole of it. It was the reason we were gathered. There wasn’t a complex agenda; it wasn’t about the food, as delicious as it was, or about celebrating one group or individual over another. It was, fundamentally, about coming together and making Shabbat. Not honoring folks. Not for a specific program. No gimmicks, no schtick, just celebrating our values. That’s it. But that’s all it has to be, too.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? And yet, how often do we forget that our values drive our purpose, and not the other way around.  We do a lot of dinners, and programs; we have a lot of meetings and conversations. Each one is wonderful and attracts a different kind of person, but our purpose isn’t to have programs, and dinners, and meetings and conversations. We don’t fill the space for its own sake. Our purpose to come together is to celebrate and support each other, to worship together, to learn together, and to make a difference in the world. Those programs, meetings, dinners and conversations are what goes into creating meaningful engagement with each other—all of each other, not just one or another group.
In the book Ministry Is A High Calling: Aim Low, the author, Kurt Schuermann talks about walking a bride-to-be and her mother through the sanctuary to prepare for an upcoming wedding. They went off by themselves to discuss whether it was a good space or not, and came back and asked if he could move ‘that thing’. That thing was the cross at the front.
Now, we don’t have that specific issue, but the ikar of the story is relevant. When we gather only to nourish our own selves, only to satisfy our own wants and needs, we forget our values, and the space becomes just another space, no matter what it may mean personally; real empowerment becomes impossible, because the space is too crowded with individual wants and desires. When we come together because of shared values, then we can actually create the space to live those values, and all our contributions—from staff to volunteer, organizer to contributor—are held as good and equal and valid.
We gather—we gather to celebrate Shabbat. We gather to celebrate each other. We do it together, by creating that space for one another. We lift our voices together to share our values. May it always be so.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Yes, And: A Framework For Thinking About Israel Engagement

If you know anything about improv, you know the first rule is ‘yes-and’. Improv is all about collaboration, and telling a story together. “Yes” accepts the reality our partner is creating; “and” gives us the opportunity to share ourselves in the process.

The idea of improv, the playfulness of improv, the value of “yes-and”, informs my approach to Judaism. Judaism, at its best, is an opportunity for playfulness, a chance for members of a community to create and enhance one another’s stories. Our best moments as a community, as a people, are when we are able to engage in “yes-and”. The joy of "yes-and" is that they are affirming, inclusive, and participatory not merely from an obligatory but from an invitational stance as well. 

I bring this up mere moments after attending this year’s AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC, the same day Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu gave ‘THE SPEECH’, one that has wrung out our collective kishkes for months.  This, on top of Israel’s elections, the increasingly shrill voice of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction) movement, and the World Zionist Elections, may lead us to a sense of ambivalence or fatigue on Israel. There may be a sense that Israel’s story is not our story, or there is no room for our story in Israel’s story; the role of settlers, the ultra-orthodox, the extremist right, the politically manipulative all give us pause.

And, regardless of our feelings about various individual political leaders, we have an obligation to maintain our relationship with the Jewish state; through Israel Bonds, and our own travel.

And, we must use our voice to speak to our legislators so that our country’s relationship with Israel is affirmed and sustained, and the real, existential threats to Israel are kept at bay.

And, we must deepen our commitment to the Israel we believe in by voting for ARZA in the World Zionist Congress elections, and supporting the Reform Movement in Israel, always remembering that Jewish and democratic are not oxymorons, but complementary ideals.

And, we must teach our children to cultivate their own meaningful relationship with Israel, and give them the tools to respond to anti-zionism and anti-semitism whenever and wherever they encounter it, including in the classroom and the campus.

And, we must remember that we are not witnesses to history, but actors. That we have an opportunity to teach those around us about what Israel means to us, and why we support and sustain it.

I won’t claim that AIPAC is a conference filled with opportunities for nuanced discussion. Nor will I claim it’s apolitical; it is, by definition, political, in the best sense of the word. 

And, it is the best opportunity for we as Jews to learn about Israel, advocate for Israel, and deepen our commitment to Israel. 

And, participation does not preclude our commitment to J-Street, ARZA, or IRAC; the latter two are present at AIPAC, and our voice is increasingly heard in the AIPAC community. Rick Jacobs, David Saperstein, Jonah Pesner and Rick Block were all present, along with 160 Reform rabbis and rabbinic students. Donniel Hartman of the Hartman institute, a progressive organization committed to reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians, was present. Ari Shavit, who we heard from some months ago in Delaware, was present. We as progressives have a voice at AIPAC, a chance to add our story to theirs, to make it one story of our support for Israel. But only if we make the commitment to be present.

I have already registered for AIPAC 2016. I would encourage  you to join me next year. And, I hope you will seek out every opportunity to support the Jewish State, and help dream and realize the Israel we want to see; a truly Jewish, democratic and progressive country in every way.