Archive for the ‘Synagogues’ category

One Jew Reflecting on Christmas: A Postscript

February 3, 2014

I write this on the morning after the Superbowl.

Yesterday evening – not having a Superbowl Party to attend and not being very interested in sitting at home, watching the game (though we do love the commercials) – my wife and I went out for a bite of dinner, followed by an exciting evening of grocery shopping and a visit to Starbucks.  As we drove the streets of Davenport, Iowa, I could not help but be struck by how empty they were.  At the restaurant, we were 2 out of their 3 diners.  Most of the staff were gathered round the wall mounted TVs, watching the game.  While there were some people in the grocery store, relatively speaking it, too, was empty.  Then, at Starbucks, we were the only customers.

As we left Starbucks, heading for home, my thoughts traveled to two places:

The first was to Jerusalem, back in 1970, when I was a first year student at the Hebrew Union College.  It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish holiday calendar (except for Shabbat).  I do not know about how it is today but in those days, on Yom Kippur, the usually crowded streets of Jerusalem were eerily empty and quiet.  The only moving vehicles were the occasional military jeep.  The silence and stillness seemed to emphasize the sanctity of the day.

The second was not so much a place but a document – the last posting I placed on this blog:  “One Jew Reflecting on Christmas.”  In that posting, I bemoaned the changes I have been witnessing as to the very nature of Christmas Day in our society.  As I stated in that posting, it was not that long ago that out on the streets, Christmas Day, you might say, belonged to the Jews.  We would go to the movies and, except for the Jews, they were empty.  The same was true for the Chinese restaurants; the only restaurants that were open on Christmas Day.  Everyone else were gathered in their churches and homes, with their families, celebrating their sacred holiday.  However, this has become less and less the case, as with each passing year the movie theaters have become more and more crowded, as have the Chinese restaurants.  Indeed, this year, the movie theater was more crowded than I ever remember seeing it.

Driving home last night, on Superbowl Sunday – revisiting in my mind one Yom Kippur in Jerusalem 43 years ago and Christmas in the Quad Cities just a month and a half ago – I came to the realization, with a bit of a shock and sadness, that it is not that the American people have lost their sense of sacred occasions.  Rather it is that they have changed their views on what they hold sacred.  The place in their hearts once held by Yom Kippur and Christmas now is held by the Superbowl.  The church and the synagogue have been replaced by the stadium and the sports arena while the Christmas family dinner and, to a lesser extent, even the Passover Seder, have been replaced by the Superbowl and tailgate parties.  The streets of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur are now the streets of America on Superbowl Sunday night.

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Traveling the Road to Sinai

April 1, 2013

Our Pesach Seder, or S’darim, are behind us.  In just a few days, Pesach itself will be concluded as we gather for Yizkor.  Now, as our tradition tells us, we are in the period of the counting of the Omer.

But what is counting the Omer?  In the book of LEVITICUS, our people were instructed that on the second day of Pesach they were to bring to the Temple a sheaf of barley as an offering.  The Hebrew word for “sheaf” is “Omer.”  In that same passage it states that starting on the second day of Pesach, it is a mitz­vah to daily count the Omer; counting the 50 days from Pesach to Shavuot.  Since Shavuot is the festival of the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai – and as our tradition expanded upon that, the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai – the counting of the Omer is literally marking the days between the time we were liberated from our slavery in Egypt to the time God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.  In counting the Omer, we are in our own way participating in the journey across the wilderness from Egypt to Sinai; from slavery to Torah.

From the first Pesach and Shavuot to this very day, by counting the Omer, we Jews make that very same jour­ney.  While Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, and all of their followers physically traveled the 50 day journey from Egypt to Sinai, we, on the other hand, spiritually travel it.

But how does one spiritually travel from Egypt to Sinai?  To answer that question, we have to ask ourselves, “What does Egypt spiritually represent?” and “What does Sinai spiritually represent?”  For in finding the spiritual meanings of Egypt and Sinai, we discover the true path of the spiritual journey which each of us, as modern Jews, must take.

What is the meaning of Egypt?  We hear it stated over and over throughout our Pesach Seder.  Egypt is slavery, and therefore the journey from Egypt is nothing less than freedom.

What is the meaning of Sinai?  For Jews throughout the ages, Sinai has always stood for Torah.  So what is Torah?  Torah is our guide book to becoming a good Jew and a decent human being.  It tells us what we need to do in order to achieve those goals.  In other words, it lays out for us our responsibilities as Jews.

For us, the counting of the Omer should not only remind us of that journey our ancestors took some 3,500 years ago, from Egypt to Sinai, but also the journey that each of us as modern Jews need to take; the journey from freedom to responsibility.  For freedom is a wonderful thing, a blessing, and we American Jews enjoy a great deal of it, but freedom without responsibility is nothing other than license, and that is not a good thing.  It most certainly is not a blessing.

As Americans we are well aware of the fact that freedom has a price; that sometimes it even requires a sacrifice.  We know that freedom does not mean “I’ll do whatever I damn well please and the heck with you!”  While freedom is a gift, it is not the gift of absolute selfishness.  It is the gift of living in a community of people equally free, and doing whatever is necessary to protect the freedom of others as well as our own, and to protect the integrity of the community and all that it stands for.  In order to do so, we have to exercise our freedom to choose to do the right thing and not just the selfish thing.  We have to choose to be at one with others rather than only looking out for ourselves, at times placing above ourselves the values and principles that keep freedom alive and vibrant.  Hillel put it so well 2,000 years ago when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, then what am I?”  With freedom comes responsibility.

For us as Jews, our Omer counting journey places its focus on some very particular freedoms and some very particular responsibilities; the freedoms and responsibilities of what it means to be a Jew today.

There is something sadly telling in the fact that most modern Jews celebrate Pesach – celebrate freedom – but far fewer celebrate Shavuot – celebrate responsibility – and even fewer still count the Omer – give serious consideration to what it means to make the journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  Yes, we know that we are free to be Jews, but too many of us interpret that as merely meaning that we don’t have to convert to another faith to be considered equals in the land we live.  Too many of us think that being free to be Jews means being free to choose to do nothing Jewishly with our lives, and if not nothing, then to choose to keep our Jewish activities at a bare minimum – attend a Pesach Seder of sorts which often is significantly abridged; perhaps go to a High Holy Day service or two; light some candles and give gifts on Hanukkah; or even take on the expense of joining a synagogue but rarely attend or participate; while never publicly denying being a Jew, at the same time never really publicly proclaiming it either.

But does the freedom to be a Jew really include the freedom from living Jewishly?  Many years ago, when I was a rabbinic student intern in a wonderful congregation in Scarsdale, New York, one of my responsibilities was to teach the Confirmation class.  Our Confirmation program centered upon a series of guest speakers, each addressing a topic of significance.  In one section of the course, over three weeks we explored the differences between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism.  While all three speakers were excellent, the one that really stands out in my memory is the Orthodox rabbi.  Why?  Because of an exercise he conducted with my students.  He simply asked them, “What does it mean to be a Reform Jew?”  One student replied, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to keep kashrut.”  Another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means you don’t have to wear a yarmulka at services.”  Yet another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to fast on Yom Kippur.”  Still another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to go to services on Saturday, or even on Friday if you don’t want to.”  And so the students went on, that is until he stopped them.  Then this Orthodox rabbi turned to them and said, “Don’t tell me about what you don’t do as Reform Jews.  Tell me about what you do.”  The students were stumped.  For them, being a Reform Jew was all about not having to do this and not having to do that.  It was all about their freedom and little or nothing about their responsibilities.  That Orthodox rabbi challenged those students to tell him, “As a Reform Jew, I choose to do this or I choose to do that” and they were hard pressed to respond.  For them, Reform Judaism meant a lot of free­dom but little, if any, responsibility.

Those Confirmation students are far from alone when it comes to Jews today, nor are their responses just restricted to Reform Jews.  Just count the empty seats in any synagogue on Shabbat.  Just count the empty chairs in any Jewish adult education class.  Just compare the number of those who attend syna­gogue and Jewish community events to those who belong to the synagogue and to the community.  Just examine how most Jewish institutions languish for need of volunteers and especially for leaders.  Even Tikkun Olam activities which, at least in our synagogue, are the most popular, pale in support when compared to our population.  Today so many Jews are just too busy to be Jewish.

This is precisely why the counting of the Omer journey is so vitally important for our people.  We need to come to grips with the fact that being Jewish does not end with our freedom to be Jewish.  Our journey is not just a Pesach journey.  It is not just about our liberation from Egypt.  It is also a Shavuot journey.  It is a journey toward Torah; toward the taking on of Jewish responsibilities.  It is about imbuing our Jewish freedom with Jewish life and Jewish meaning.  It is about bringing our Judaism to life in our lives and in the lives of our families and our community.  We need to journey from Pesach to Shavuot.  We need to journey from Egypt to Sinai.  We need to journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  The 50 days of the Omer stretch before us, offering us the opportunity to explore, to ponder, and ultimately to decide how each of us, making the decisions that work best for us, can travel that path from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility; from being free to live as Jews to living meaningful Jewish lives.

Evangelizing Jews to Judaism

June 18, 2012

A few years back, I invested myself into reading all 12 volumes of the LEFT BEHIND series; that best selling series of novels built around the beliefs of certain evangelical Christians concerning the future period of time between the “Rapture” – when all truly believing Christians will be physically taken up to heaven – and the Second Coming of Jesus.  I read these books because I felt it important to get inside the minds of the evangelicals.  I felt that we Jews need to know what these people believe, and particularly what they believe about us, especially considering how significantly their influence on American society has increased, not to mention the number of copies of each of those books which were sold, and therefore the large number of people who resonate the the theology expressed in those books.

One of the things that is abundantly clear from these books is their burning passion to evangelize Jews to Christianity.  Indeed, while these books described their desire to bring everyone to their beliefs, when it comes to the Jews, their hunger for our conversion is nothing short of obsessive.

It is in this light that one of the great ironies of our time is that it some of our most ardent allies when it comes to Israel are evangelical Christians .  It is this irony which has ignited many debates in the Jewish world over whether we should embrace these evangelicals as our friends when it comes to Israel – under the rubric of “a friend in need…” or distance ourselves from their support of Israel, in light of their apocalyptic designs for Israel and for us.

For centuries upon centuries, we Jews have been greatly distressed by the attempts of Christians to bring us to Christianity.  Throughout that time, various Christian groups have employed many strategies to “save our souls for Jesus.”  Indeed, throughout most of that time, they turned the political power of their societies against us in pursuit of this goal, attempting to convert us through coercion , persecution, expulsion, and even execution.  Therefore, when put in a historical perspective, the attempts of contemporary American evangelicals to bring Jews to Jesus are pretty innocuous.  Yet their efforts continue to concern us.

I propose that the efforts of these evangelicals constitute little, if any, threat to the American Jewish community.  It is not that the evangelicals are not sincere in their aspirations.  They are most certainly sincere.  Nor is that they are not energetically invested in their efforts, for once again, they are most certainly energetic in their pursuit of our souls.  Rather, they pose little threat to us because of the nature of the American Jewish community itself.

For the evangelicals to be successful in their conversionary tactics, their Jewish targets must possess some basic desire for a religious expression in their lives.  American Jews need first to be concerned about the well being of their souls before they can start to worry about in what manner can their souls be saved.

Sad to say, the overwhelming majority of my co-religionists do not possess such desires or concerns.  The nature and the well being of their souls is probably one of the last things about which they are worried.  They truly consider themselves Jews, but for them, being Jewish is more of a tribal thing than a spiritual one.  They are Jews, but for all intents and purposes, they are a-religious.  Indeed, even the nature of their tribal affiliation can be vague and tenuous, as is evidenced by their lack of involvement, support, commitment, and knowledge of such tribal organizations and issues as the Jewish Federation and the State of Israel.  They are Jews, but the nature of the thread that binds them to their Jewishness is thin and frail, and when it comes to spiritual matters, it is practically non-existent.

Case in point:  For the last several years I have joined with my evangelical neighbors in their “Night to Honor Israel” programs.  I figure that if I can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my Roman Catholic neighbors in attempts to address the blights of war, poverty and homelessness, in spite of our significant differences over such issues as women’s reproductive rights, then I can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my evangelical neighbors in our support of the State of Israel, in spite of our differences over several sensitive social issues such as same-sex marriage.  From these “Night to Honor Israel” experiences I have garnered three interesting insights:  1) That there are evangelicals and then there are evangelicals.  There are those evangelicals whose faith compels them to save the souls of the Jews by bringing them to Jesus, and then there are those evangelicals whose faith instructs them that of all the people on the face of the earth, the only ones that do NOT need to be brought to Jesus are the Jewish people, for the Jews are the people of Jesus and most beloved in the eyes of God.  2) That the commitment of these evangelicals for the survival and well being of Israel is indeed profound; more profound than that of far too many American Jews, and 3) That when at these events, as we all talk about our commitment to Israel, while the evangelical speakers address their commitment to Israel in religious terms, often quoting the Hebrew Scriptures not just for illustrative purposes but rather as absolute proof texts, the Jewish speakers invariably frame their remarks in terms of Jewish history and Jewish peoplehood and rarely, if ever, mention God and scripture.   For these Evangelicals there is an eternal and indestructible relationship between the State of Israel and God.  Ironically, for the Jewish speakers there seems to be little if any connection between Israel and God.  Spirituality does not seem to play much of a role in this matter, or in any matter, for so many of our Jews.

So the evangelical Christians can try as they may to bring Jews to Jesus but they are plowing and sowing their seeds in infertile soil.  In presenting their case to such Jews, they might as well be speaking in tongues for these folks possess little, if any, spiritual vocabulary and perhaps even less of a sense of spiritual connectedness.

But this is not necessarily all bad news.  While we need not worry about our co-religionists being evangelized to Christianity, we should be seriously considering how we, as a RELIGIOUS community, can more effectively evangelize our fellow Jews to Judaism.  After all, while the threads that bind them to Judaism are thin and frail, they still exist.  There is something within them that helps them to see their Jewish identity as something important enough not to let go of it.  Right now, it may not be important enough to play an on-going role in their lives; it may be something buried deep within the background of their consciousness, but still something is there.  It has not disappeared all together.

This is where the synagogue comes in.  For the synagogue is the Jewish RELIGIOUS institution.  Though one of the roles of a synagogue is a communal one, that of being a “Beit Keneset,” a House of Jewish Assembly, we are NOT just a Jewish community center.  We are NOT just some sort of Jewish ethnic society.  We are far more than that.  We are a “Beit Tefilah,” a House of Jewish Worship, and a “Beit Sefer,” a House of Jewish Study.  Our primary mission is a spiritual one.  It is to promote Jewish spirituality; to empower and enable our members to connect with God in very Jewish ways.  To that end, our secondary mission is an educational one.  It is to provide opportunities for Jewish learning so that our people can have access to the tools necessary to accomplish our primary mission.  As far as Jewish communal activities are concerned, they are but our tertiary mission.  The Jewish community WE build is suppose to be built around our shared spiritual values.  It is the function of Jewish Federations to build a Jewish community around our shared ethnic values.  In the synagogue, we are supposed to be coming together as a community to enhance our worship and study experiences; to find ourselves drawing closer to God in a both a personal and communal way through prayer, study, and the performance of mitzvot, both ritual and ethical.  Back when I was growing up, the organization, Religion in American Life, used to run TV ads stating, “The Family the Prays Together Stays Together.”  It is in that way that a synagogue is one big family.  We need to pray together if we are to stay together.

Therefore, the mission of every synagogue is and should be to evangelize Jews to Judaism; to build upon the tenuous connection that most Jews have to their Judaism; to strengthen and enrich those bonds in powerful spiritual ways.  It is our responsibility to enable our people to evolve Jewishly; to take them from identifying themselves as Jews by birth to a place where they will identify themselves as Jewish by choice; to help them to come to appreciate that being Jewish is meant to be more than a mere accident – something we are stuck with – but rather it can be something that positively impacts upon our lives on a daily basis.

The other day I was looking through a book entitled THE ROSH HASHANAH AND YOM KIPPUR SURVIVAL KIT.  It is one of a growing genre of books aimed at Jews who get little or nothing out of their Judaism.  Such books operate under the assumption that Jews think doing things Jewish is a waste.  In fact, a few years ago, the Wednesday morning book group in my synagogue studied such a book whose title says it all.  That title: “HOW TO GET MORE OUT OF BEING JEWISH EVEN IF:  A. You are not sure you believe in God, B. You think going to synagogue is a waste of time, C. You think keeping kosher is stupid, D. You hated Hebrew school, or E. All of the above!”  There is no question about who is the target audience for that book!

Anyway, I was looking through this book about making the High Holy Days more meaningful, especially for those Jews who are basically clueless as to what Judaism is all about, and I came upon the author’s analysis of Jewish education.  He stated that Jewish education should be answering the questions, “What,” “How,” and “Why”.  What aspect of Jewish practices are you studying?  How should you observe them?  And why should you observe them?  He then went on to say that traditionally, synagogues and religious schools have focused their efforts on addressing the “What” and the “How” but have failed to adequately address the “Why”.  For example, they teach that on Pesach you hold a Seder.  That is the “What.”  They then go on to teach that when you hold a Seder, you are expected to do A, B, & C.  That is the “How.”  Where they fall down is that they fail to adequately teach, “Why do you hold a Seder?  Why do you eat matzah, charoset, and bitter herbs?  Why do you have a cup for Elijah?”  You get the idea.  There is a failure in teaching the deeper meanings behind the actions.  That, by the way, is why I have always loved being a Reform Jew, for historically, Reform Judaism has instituted many changes in Jewish life in order to pay more attention to the Why.  For example, when I attend traditional Jewish worship services, they being all or primarily in Hebrew, even though my Hebrew skills are of such a level that I can understand the meaning of the prayers being offered, still I walk away feeling empty because I cannot help but think of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the worshipers in those sanctuaries have no more of a grasp on the meaning of those prayers than if those prayers were being offered in Klingon or Martian.  They may love the sound of the Hebrew and the feel of the Hebrew, and even the thrill of being able to “decode” the Hebrew characters of the text, but that is simply the “What” and the “How.”  The “Why” is nowhere to be found in such worship experiences.  Since prayer is speaking to God, how sad it is that they do not even know what it is they are saying!  Reform Judaism on the other hand felt it imperative to introduce praying in the vernacular as well as in Hebrew so that our worshipers can know what they are saying when they are speaking to God.  Our traditional prayers have meaning – deep meaning – and understanding what we are praying – what we are saying to God – that is the all important “Why”.

I share all of this with you because I agree and I disagree with this author.  I agree with his claim that by our better understanding of the meanings of behind religious practices those actions will start to come to life for us; that in order for our rituals to have any vibrancy in our lives, we need to understand their deeper meanings.  It is in such understanding that our rituals possess their great power.  However, where I disagree with the author is in his claim that all of our synagogues and our schools have failed to teach those meanings.  With this, I disagree strongly.  For there are many synagogues and schools in which they are being taught.  We do teach them, and we will continue to teach them.  The problem is not that we do not teach these things but rather that we can teach them till the cows come home, yet all our efforts will be to limited purposes if the vast majority of our people continue to refuse to avail themselves of such education.

This is the real challenge which we face in evangelizing Jews to Judaism.  It is the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”  Offering classes and programs is not the problem for us.  We can do that.  They can take many shapes and forms.  We are flexible if flexibility truly helps us to meet this need.  But how do we get our people to drink the water from the well of Jewish knowledge?  How do we awaken in them the desire, nevertheless the hunger, to learn more about our faith and our heritage?  They exercise and watch what they eat to safeguard the health of their bodies.  How can we awaken within them the realization that they need to safeguard their spiritual health as well?

I teach a B’nei Mitzvah Family Class.  In anticipation of their special day, every Bar or Bat Mitzvah student and his or her parents are required to attend this 8 session course.  While most groups going through this class are a mix of those who are  synagogue regulars and those who are not, the majority generally are not.  You do not see them at services.  You do not see them in adult education classes.  If you see them at all, it is more likely at social functions.  During these classes, we explore the meanings behind Bar & Bat Mitzvah and related topics such as “What is a mitzvah?” and “What are meanings of the rituals found in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah service?”  Invariably, most of these people find themselves deeply engaged in these sessions.  For these brief moments they come to see their Judaism in ways they have not seen it before, and they find it very meaningful.  The challenge facing our synagogues is how do we build upon this?  How do we engage such people in further Jewish study when there is no gun being held to their head – “Take this class if you want your child to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service”?  How do we engage others in such meaningful study?

This is where we need to turn to our synagogue “regulars.”  We do not need to sell them on the power of Jewish worship or on the power of Jewish study.  That truly is preaching to the choir.  For they have already discovered these things.  They come to Shabbat, not because of any requirement but rather because it fulfills them in very special ways.  They attend adult education classes, not because of any requirement, but because the knowledge and the insights they receive from those classes enriches their lives.  They fully know from whence I am speaking.  They know that it is the power of Jewish worship and study which fuels their sense of engagement in this Jewish community.  Indeed, it fuels their sense of engagement in the greater human community.

That makes them our best representatives to the the Jewish people at large.  Rabbis such as myself could deliver this message to our fellow Jews who do not seem to know what these people know – We could deliver it day after day; we could deliver it standing on our heads – and most would react by thinking, “The rabbi is just blowing smoke.  What do you expect a rabbi to say?”  But if they could hear it from their fellow Jews; if these inspired Jews were the ones who went to their fellow Jews and said to them, “Come join me at Shabbat services.  Come with me to this class or that class” and these inspired Jews told them why they find Shabbat services so meaningful; what it is they find so compelling about Jewish learning, then perhaps – just perhaps – what these inspired Jews have to say about these passions of theirs will start to ignite similar passions in their apathetic fellow Jews.

The American Jewish community needs some serious evangelism of its Jews to Judaism.  While we rabbis and cantors can offer to this efforts our knowledge and our expertise, there are no greater evangelicals – no people better suited for this task – than inspired lay people; Jews who love Shabbat; Jews who are thrilled by Jewish study; Jews who revel in their life in the Jewish community.  Jews who understand that their involvement in such Jewish activities does contribute significantly to making them both better Jews and better human beings.  This is their time.  They are the key to the Jewish future.

Counting Jews

May 30, 2012

This past Shabbat, we began the reading of another book of the Torah.  In Hebrew that book is called BAMIDBAR, which means “In the Wilderness” but in English it has another name – NUMBERS.

Why the difference between the Hebrew and the English names?  It is a matter of culture.

In the ancient culture of the Jewish people, books, and indeed weekly Torah portions were named after the first significant uncommon word in the text.  Tonight’s text begins with the statement “Vaydaber Adonai el Moshe bamidbar Sinai” – “Adonai spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.”  While, of course, the words “Adonai” and “Moshe” are unquestionably more significant than “bamidbar,” still since so many sentences in the Torah begin with the phrase “Vaydaber Adonai el Moshe” we skip it and go to the next significant word.  Ergo “Bamidbar.”

The English title of Torah books follows the Greek tradition of giving them names which are more reflective of their content and theme.  Indeed, with the exception of the book of NUMBERS, the more familiar names of the other books of the Torah are actually their Greek names – GENESIS, EXODUS, etc.

So why is the book of NUMBERS called the book of NUMBERS?  Because it begins with a taking of a census of the Jewish people in the wilderness.  This census is taken in the second year of their sojourn in the wilderness and it is taken tribe by tribe, and included all males twenty years of age and older.  According to the text, the total count was 603,550.

This is not the first time in our history that Jews were counted.  There is an earlier census in the book of EXODUS which comes up with an identical number.  Then, of course, we see in the very beginning of the book of EXODUS that the number of Jews accompanying Jacob into Egypt were 70.

It would appear that counting Jews is a longstanding practice among out people; one which we still seriously engage in today.  It remains very important for us to know the numbers: How many Jews were killed in the Holocaust?  6 million.  How many Jews live in Israel? – 5,931,000.  How many Jews live in the United States? – 6,588,065.  How many Jews live in the Quad Cities? – approximately 800.  How many Jews belong to Temple Emanuel? – Approximately 155 households.  How many Jews attend our religious school? – 63.  How many Jews attend Shabbat services – sadly usually under 20.  There is no question but that in Jewish life we are always playing the numbers game.

But perhaps for all these millennia, we’ve had it all wrong.  Perhaps rather than focusing our attention on counting Jews we ought to be focusing it on whether or not our Jews count.

This, my friends, is both a private concern and a community concern.

Privately, each and every one of us should be asking ourselves, “As a Jew, how much do I count?  Have I made my life into a Jewish presence?  Have I consciously applied my Jewish values in the daily conduct of my life?  As a Jew, have I stood up and been counted, when it really counts?  When my days on earth are over and I am physically gone, will my presence on this planet have counted for any good?”  It is simply not enough for us to be counted among the Jews.  If our lives, as Jews, are to have any purpose whatsoever, then we need to be counted on as Jews.  We need to be there, living our lives as lives of mitzvot, both the ethical mitzvot and the ritual mitzvot.  We cannot just talk about Torah.  If we are to count as Jews, we need to live Torah.

Just as we need to make sure that we count as individual Jews, we also need to insure that our Jewish community also counts, and counts as a Jewish community.  Just as we as individuals need to be there, our Jewish community needs to be there.  As a community, we need to be up front and visible, presenting to the world around us a model of what it means for a community to operate according to Jewish values.  We need to make of our community, a community which is proud of its Judaism; not just privately or secretly proud but publicly proud.  As a Jewish community, we have nothing to be ashamed of.  Quite the contrary!  We should wear the badge of our Jewish identity with pride.

Just as we, as individuals, must have our every action influenced by our Jewish values, so should we as a community have our every action influenced by those values.  Our community should be driven by those values.  We should not wait for others in the general community to signal for us what is the right thing to do.  Our Jewish tradition informs us as to what is the right thing, and as a community we should act upon that information, even if it means that sometimes we stand and act alone.  By conducting our Jewish communal life in this way, that is how we make our Jewish community count for something; count for something good and something truly Jewish.

When Jews come to the synagogue to observe Shabbat, by our very presence in the sanctuary on Shabbat, we have not only been counted in our minyan, but more importantly, we have made ourselves count as Jews.  We have made ourselves count as Jews because our very presence raises up the sanctity of Shabbat; this day declared holy by God from the very first week of Creation.  We have made ourselves count as Jews by actively affirming our intimate connections with the Jewish people, our Jewish heritage, and our special Jewish relationship with God.  Accomplishing all of that – taking such actions as to help us to better count as a Jew – is far more important and far more meaningful than merely being counted as a Jew; being considered Jew number 13 of 21 who happen to have attended the Shabbat service this week; than being Jew number 35 on the Temple membership roster.

And just as our presence in the synagogue on Shabbat is a demonstration of how we can count as Jews, more that merely be counted, so is our presence at such Jewish values activities as adult education and Tikkun Olam activities also demonstrations of how we can count as Jews.  For when, for example, in the Fall, the members of my congregation walk in the CROP Walk Against World Hunger, while the numbers of our congregants who walk are impressive, still it is not so much the numbers who walk but rather that all of us who are walking, are walking for a cause; are walking for a cause very much in consonance the teachings and values of our faith.  In so walking, we are demonstrating those Jewish values in action.  In other words, in that moment, as Jews, we count.

My prayer for all of us is that as we continue to travel the course of our lives, we will forever strive to live Jewish lives that count.

The Prayer of Breath, the Breath of Prayer

February 26, 2012

There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services.  Some come to remember loved ones who have passed away.  Some come to take the opportunity to actively affirm their Jewish identity.  Some come because they find Shabbat worship to be a meaningful way to start a weekend of leisure.  Some come to connect with Jewish friends or with the Jewish community as a whole.  Perhaps some come because they have nothing better to do on a Friday evening.  There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services, but I suspect – indeed, I hope – that perhaps the most common reason is that in one way or another they wish to try to establish some sort of connection with God.  At the least, they may view the very act of leaving their home on a Friday evening and making the physical effort to come to the synagogue for prayer as a means of showing God that they care.

To me, the saddest aspect of contemporary American Jewish life is that in most synagogues, like my own synagogue, many of the seats of our sanctuaries remain empty Shabbat after Shabbat after Shabbat.  For the empty seats serve as a painful testimony to the fact that most of our people rarely or no longer feel the desire or need to connect with God.  They are Jewish.  They probably believe in God.  But they have little interest in pursuing an active relationship with God, particularly through prayer and worship.

But be that as it may, we cannot force people to want to connect with God; to want to engage God in their lives through prayer.  We can only try our best to provide them with the opportunities and the inspiration to do so.  The rest is up to them.  As the old adage says, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”

However, as for the people who do choose to come to Shabbat worship, to stretch that analogy a little further, they are the horses who have chosen to drink; to drink from the wells of spiritual refreshment and Divine connection which Shabbat worship can offer.  It is precisely to these people that every synagogue has a responsibility; the responsibility to assist them – to work with them – in the search to find ways to make their prayers a more effective vehicle for connecting with God.

This past December, I traveled to Washington, D.C. in order to attend the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism.  While at that convention, I had many wonderful and meaningful experiences.  Among them was a workshop entitled “Making Prayer Real.” It is upon that workshop which I wish to reflect.

First off, I have to tell you that I found the title of that workshop to be odd.  “Making Prayer Real” implies that our prayers are not real, and I do not believe that to be the case.  I believe that the prayers of any person who takes the effort to come to synagogue on Shabbat are real.  They may not be as effective as they could be, but they definitely are real.

That aside, I found the workshop  – particularly one aspect of the workshop – to be enlightening.  It was some­what meditative, but it was more than mere meditation.  I say “mere meditation” because I believe that while meditation techniques can assist us in prayer, they cannot replace prayer, especially in a Jewish setting.  For Jewish prayer is predominantly, though not exclusively, communal, while meditation is almost exclu­sively, if not exclusively, personal.  While there is a place for meditation in Jewish prayer, the greatest power of Jewish prayer is to be found in what we do together as a community of worshipers.

But back to the workshop.  At this workshop, one of the presenters – Cantor Ellen Dreskin, with whom I used to serve on faculty at the NFTY National Camp in Warwick, New York – conducted an exercise involving God’s name and breath.  As most, if not all of you know, we Jews are not permitted to pro­nounce the actual name of God.  It is a four-letter name composed of the letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, and when we see it in the texts, we say “Adonai” in its stead.

Yet there are many Hebrew words and names that incorporate elements of this name in order to include some sort of connection with God.  So, for example, the Hebrew name for Elijah is “Eliyahu.”  “Yahu” comes from that four-letter name of God, and the name “Eliyahu” means “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey is my God.”  There is also a very well known Hebrew word which also includes an element of God’s four-letter name.  That word is “Halleluyah” with “Yah” being the God part.  The word means “Let us praise Yah; Let us praise Adonai.

Yet when you consider “Yah” it is a sound that is made up of nothing but breath – “Yah.”  So Cantor Dreskin had us do an exercise.  She asked us to take a deep breath and hold it.  Hold it as long as we could.  And when we finally let it out, we were to let it out with a “Yah.”  Dear reader, try that now then do it again.  “Yah” – God – is breath, and without the eventual “Yah” – without God – we cannot continue to breathe.  When you think about it, God is present in our every breath.  Every time we exhale, God is there.  For as long as we breathe, God is an integral part of our every moment, both waking and sleeping.

Then she turned our attention to that word: “Halelu-yah – Let us praise Yah.”  So we took a deep breath and held it, and then let it out saying “Halelu-yah.”  Dear reader, try that then do it again: “Halelu-yah.”  With our breath, we are praising God.  Our every breath should praise God, for without God, we would have no breath.

There is probably nowhere in Jewish texts in which this is better expressed than in Psalm 150, which is included in the Shabbat morning worship service.  For in verse 6 of that psalm it says, “Kol haneshama t’haleil Yah, halelu-Yah! – Every breath praises Yah, so let us praise Yah!”  Of course Cantor Dreskin had us sing this verse, but if you cannot sing it, then at least say it:  “Kol haneshama – t’haleil Yah, – halelu-Yah!”

This is not just a prayer nor is it just a meditative technique.  What it is, is a life perspective; an important spiritual life perspective.  For if we want to truly connect with God, we have to honestly come to the realization that God is just not present to us in the sanctuary, but is present to us every day, every hour, every minute of our lives, with every breath we take.  God is our constant companion, and every breath – every moment of life – is yet another gift from God; a gift for which we should be grateful.  It is only when we begin to view God in this way that we can begin to start to pry open those gates which seem to keep us from God and God from us.  The Hasidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, once said, “Where is God?  Wherever you let God in!”  When we begin to recognize God’s presence in our every breath – that our every breath is a prayer – then we will have begun to let God into our lives.

So if our every breath is a prayer, why come to the synagogue?  Why come to services?  I once heard a dear friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Stephen Pinsky, give a sermon about prayer.  It was back in my New York days.  In that sermon he said, “People ask me, ‘Why do I have to come to the synagogue to pray?  I can pray in the middle of Central Park.’  To this I respond, ‘If you find yourself in the middle of Central Park then you better pray!’” His point was telling.  People say that they can pray anywhere but the fact of the matter is that unless the situation is such that it evokes prayer, they rarely if ever pray.  The Shabbat worship service offers us the opportunity to set aside some time for the act of praying; for actively reaching out to God, and opening ourselves up to receive a God who is reaching out to us.

It is not unlike our love for our dear ones.  We know we love them.  We feel our love for them con­stantly, but we don’t always express it.  We don’t always marry word and deed to intention.  We don’t always say to them, “I love you,” nor do we always demonstrate through our deeds the love we hold for them.  Yet there are times like birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, which provide us with the opportunities to express in word and deed that which is always in our hearts.  So it is with Shabbat and worship.  It offers us the opportunity to open our hearts and express to God that which is always there, and perhaps even open our souls and receive God’s reciprocating touch.

Sensing God in our every breath – praising God with our every breath – and praying to God on Shabbat are by no means alternatives but rather they exist in a symbiotic relationship.  Our constant experiencing of God in our lives fuels and vitalizes our prayers.  It makes them meaningful.  It endows them with wings with which to fly to Heaven.  And as for our prayers, they give voice – a clear and beautiful voice – to the connection we feel to God with our every breath.  They enable us to announce to the world, and most importantly to God, those profound feelings we carry in our hearts.  For in the end, prayer is not just a matter of reading words out of a book but rather attaching those words to that which is in our hearts, so that together they can rise to Heaven and draw Heaven to us.

Snow What?

January 27, 2012

Friday, January 20th was not a wonderful weather day here in the Quad Cities.  Indeed, it was actually quite miserable, with cold and snow falling all day into the early evening.  It most understandably was one of those days when, having arrived at home after a long day at work, for most people, going out again was probably one of the farthest things from their minds.  Here at Temple Emanuel, during the course of the day we wrestled with whether or not to cancel services.  However, since by mid afternoon, we only had about 2 inches of snow on the ground, we decided to hold them.  After all, Shabbat is Shabbat, and 2 inches does not a blizzard make.

One of the calls which we received during the day, asking whether or not we would be cancelling services was from the associate pastor of a local Presbyterian church whose Confirmation class had been scheduled to attend our worship that evening; a church which has been sending its Confirmation class to our synagogue for a “Jewish worship experience” for so many years I cannot begin to count them.  When I told her that services would be held as scheduled, she sounded quite pleased rather than disappointed.

That service was planned as a special one for our congregation.  Not only were we hosting these visitors and longtime friends of our congregation, but we also were hearing from those of our congregation who had the privilege and pleasure of attending the recent joint biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Women of Reform Judaism, as they shared with us their insights and reflections on that gathering.  On top of that, we were observing the first Yahrzeit of beloved modern Jewish music composer, Debbie Friedman, by including in the music of the service many of her settings for our prayers.

No sooner had the Cantor and I pulled into the parking lot than the students from the Presbyterian church started arriving in car-after-car-after-car.  While some of our congregants arrived later, when the service began, the Presbyterians were in a significant majority.  Though the numbers gap shortened as the evening progressed and a few more of our people arrived, I strongly suspect that had it not been for the special reports and music, we would have remained far outnumbered.  At the beginning of the service, I made a quip about how it seemed as though the Presbyterians were made of far hardier stock than the Jews, but we all know that it is more than that.

Our congregation serves as host to many different church groups in the course of any given year.  One thing that most of these groups hold in common is that they are in awe of what they experience here.  They are captivated by the very sound of the Hebrew prayers.  They find our melodies enchanting.  The text of our services really touches them.  They are both fascinated and moved by our Yahrzeit boards, our obser­vance of Yahrzeits, and especially when mourners share some reflections on the people they are remembering that Shabbat.  And when the ark is open, and they see the Torah scrolls they are wide-eyed in mystical wonder, and especially so when they are fortunate enough to attend on a Shabbat eve when we actually take the scrolls out of the ark, carry them around the sanctuary, and read from them.  For so many of these church members, attending our services constitutes a spiritual, or even mys­tical, experience.

This is truly one of the great ironies of American Jewish life; that Christians have a far greater appreciation of Jewish worship than do Jews.  They find so much more meaning in our worship than do our own people.  Nor is this odd imbalance limited to the worship experience.  I find it so whenever I speak or teach about Judaism to a non-Jewish audience.  The non-Jews flock to study Judaism while the Jews seem to flee from the opportunities to do so.  In speaking with the folks at our own Federation, they, too, acknowledge that while their public programs have met with great success, it is not so much the Jews who attend them but rather the non-Jews.  Indeed, for as long as I have been in our community, that has been the greatest complaint that I have heard about the massive crowds who year in and year out attend our Interfaith Yom HaShoah observances; “Where are the Jews?”

I have to tell you that our community is not alone in this Jewish malaise.  According to a study done by the Pew Forum, which is an organization devoted to studying all aspects of religious life in America, we Amer­ican Jews have a pretty pathetic showing when it comes to the appreciation of our religious oppor­tunities.  So, for example, while the national average for those who attend worship services weekly or more than weekly is 39%, out of 14 different faith groups, with Jehovah’s Witnesses ranking 1st at 82%, American Jews are tied with “Other Faiths” for 12th and 13th place – just above the “Unaffiliated,” with 16%.  According to that same survey, when it comes to how important people feel religion is in their lives, with the national average for those who feel that it is very or somewhat important being 84%, and with Historical Black Churches ranking number 1 with 98%, we Jews rank number 12, with 71%, just above “Other Faiths” and the “Unaffiliated.”

One cannot help but feel sad in the face of these statistics, and in the face of the reality that not only our synagogue but almost all American syna­gogues face on an ongoing basis.  Why is it that so many of those who are not Jewish have such a great appreciation for the rich and wonderful heritage which is our own, while we Jews look at it and yawn?  Perhaps it is the fault of the synagogues.  Perhaps it is the fault of the rabbis and the cantors.  Perhaps it is the fault of our religious schools.  Perhaps it is the fault of our obsessive desire to “fit it” with the rest of our society and not to be viewed as “different” or “alien” by our non-Jewish neighbors; to be with them, wherever they are, whenever they are there, doing whatever they are doing, and not to let our Judaism get in the way of that.  But more likely, it is all of these reasons, and even more.

There are those who say that competitiveness is a Jewish trait.  Maybe it is.  But if it is, then we as Jews cannot be satisfied being near the bottom of the list when it comes to religion; just one or two steps above those who openly profess that they do not care at all about religion.  So what are we going to do about it?  Whatever it is, we have to start doing it together.

Sacred Sites

December 9, 2011

Last Shabbat, the Torah portion, “Vayetzei,” included the very famous passage of Jacob’s Ladder.  According to the text, in his flight from the wrath of Esau, his brother, Jacob reached a point at which he could travel no more and decided to spend the night.  So he went to sleep, taking a stone and used it as a pillow.  While asleep he had an amazing dream.  He dreamt that where he slept there was a ladder, with its foundation in the earth and its top reaching heaven.  On this ladder he saw angels, going up and down.  God stood next to him, speaking to him of grand promises for the future. When Jacob awoke he was filled with awe, declaring “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!”  He was certain that this place was none other than the house of God – in Hebrew, Beit El – and the gateway to heaven.  And so he named the site Beit El, or as some may be more familiar with the anglicized version, Beth El.

As I was pre­paring my D’var Torah, pondering how filled with awe Jacob was when he awoke, I found my thoughts drifting to the very concept of sacred sites; places which seem more conducive for spiritual experiences; places which seem to offer a special connection between heaven and earth.  Some might think that humbug but I truly believe that such sites exist.  For example, I know that when I have been privileged to be in Jerusalem, and I have prayed at the Western Wall, I have felt especially connected to God.  I felt that there, for whatever reasons, heaven was more open to receiving my prayers, and that there, for whatever reasons, I was more open to hearing God’s voice and feeling God’s presence.  Don’t ask me to explain why, for I cannot.  I just know beyond a shadow of a doubt that those experiences were real.  I also know that I am not alone in having such experience.  People of faith across the globe have identified hundreds of such sites.  It is to such sites that so many of the faithful make pilgrimage.  Beit El is but one of them.

When it comes to Jacob’s dream of the ladder, the rabbis were quick to note an oddity in the text.  For according to the text, the angels were going up and coming down.  Since angels are believed to reside in heaven, logic would dictate that the angels would be going down and coming up, not the other way around.  As you can imagine, this inconsistency gave rise to countless rabbinic interpretations.  So I wish to add mine to the list.

Perhaps what makes a site sacred is that on it the search for sanctity must start here on earth and reach up toward the heavens.  Only then can that sacred connection descend down the ladder and touch the earth.

If that be the case then we human beings have it within our power to create sacred sites and not just stumble upon them by happenstance, as did Jacob.  Indeed, for millennia we human beings have been engaged in the quest to create such sites; the Jerusalem Temple, Stonehenge, the Ka’ba in Mecca are just some of the more famous ones.  There are countless others, as we continue to create them today.

Not as famous, but potentially as spiritually powerful, can be any church, any mosque, any synagogue.  Indeed, that is why so many synagogues are named Beth El, or as in the case of my own congregation, Emanuel, which is the anglicized version of the Hebrew Imanu El – “God Is With Us.”  Yes, a synagogue can truly become a powerful sacred site.  Within its walls, God can truly be felt to be “with us.”  But, as with the angels and Jacob’s ladder, in order for the sanctity to be realized, it has to begin here on earth, with our reaching upward toward heaven.  Then, and only then, will we begin to feel the effects of heaven reaching downward toward us.

How is this accomplished?  It is accomplished by many individual acts of will.  It is accomplished by each and every one of us actively choosing to make our site a sacred site.  We do so by acts of kavanah – acts of spiritually focused intention.  We do so by consciously deciding that within these walls everything we do or say must be done or said in the service of God.  Before we act, before we speak, we need ask ourselves: How will our words, how will our deeds serve to bring God closer to us and to those around us?  Most certainly, if we dedicate our every word and our every deed to reaching up toward heaven, then heaven will lovingly descend upon us.  Then we, like Jacob will be able to proclaim, “Surely God is in this place!”