Archive for the ‘NFTY’ category

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.

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Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 8

July 18, 2011

In my first installment in this series, I spoke about merger discussions which were going on at the time between my congregation and a local independent pseudo-traditional congregation which withdrew from the Conservative movement several years ago.  At that time I stated that since I had addressed my institutional reasons for why the resulting congregation should affiliate with the Reform movement in my answer to one of the questions in the Merger Task Force’s rabbinic questionnaire, therefore in this series, I would restrict my focus to my personal ideological reasons for my love of and commitment to Reform Judaism.  However, as I now conclude this series, I wish to remove that self-imposed restriction and revisit why I feel so strongly about my congregation’s connection to the institutions and organizations of Reform Judaism.

While ideology, practice, culture, all are important, they do not exist in a vacuum.  They do not spring up overnight, born of thin air.  Rather they are the product of like-minded people coming together and investing their time, energy, thoughts, and emotions into formulating these ideologies, establishing these practices, and creating this culture.  That is precisely what has been, and continues to be, accomplished by the institutional branches of the Reform movement – the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ – formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations), the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the American Conference of Cantors (ACC), the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR),  the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE), the National Association of Temple Administrators (NATA), the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ – formerly the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods), Men of Reform Judaism (MRJ – formerly the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods), and the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY).  It is because of the work of these organizations that the ideals of Reform Judaism have been translated from thought into action; from dream into reality.  It has been through the organizations of Reform Judaism that our ideology has been given substance.

As a Reform rabbi, I probably am more conscious of this fact than many congregants, for throughout my career I have had the privilege of being on the “front lines,” participating in my own small way as so many of the principles of Reform Judaism have transitioned from discussion topics to Reform Judaism’s operative doctrines.  I was ordained with the second woman rabbi, in the same ceremony in which the first woman cantor was invested.  Indeed, at ordination, I walked down the aisle with the second woman rabbi.  My wife/cantor and I were the first clergy couple to meet and fall in love at the Hebrew Union College.  Today women rabbis and cantors, as well as Jewish clergy couples, abound.  I was there at the CCAR conventions when the principle of Patrilineal Descent was first proposed, then submitted to a task force for study, later to have that task force report on its findings, and then finally to have the body debate and vote this doctrine into being.  I, along with several of my congregants, was at the plenary session of the then Union of American Hebrew Congregations, as we considered and ultimately approved resolutions calling upon our congregations to be open, welcoming, and fully inclusive to all Jews regardless of sexual orientation.  Then later I was there when the Central Conference of American Rabbis voted to accept gay and lesbian rabbis, and later still, to support rabbinic officiation at same sex marriages.  These, and so many other significant issues were seriously studied and debated before they were voted on and established as Reform Jewish standards.  Today, so many of these ideals are considered as matter of fact on the liberal Jewish scene, but they would not exist today had it not been for the formal efforts of the institutions of Reform Judaism to give them birth and establish them as fixtures of contemporary Jewish life.  Others may have come along later and adopted them for themselves but there is a fundamental difference between adopting a principle and establishing one.  It is likewise fundamentally true that those who establish principles will continue to work to establish new principles while those who merely adopt the work and ideology of others will only continue to adopt the work and ideology of others, drawing from the well but never adding to the pot; never building for the future.  The institutions of Reform Judaism build for the future.

While establishing ideological principles is an important part of the work of the organizations of Reform Judaism, it is not the sum total of what they do.  There is so much they do which is practical and hands on for our congregations and their members, and for other Jews as well.  In my own congregation, one of the clearest examples of this is to be found in the Reform movement’s creation of the Chai Curriculum and its support materials, which is the curriculum which we have been using in our Joint Religious School.  The students from my congregation, as well as the students from the unaffiliated congregation, are receiving an excellent Jewish education as a direct result of the efforts of the Education Department of the Union for Reform Judaism.  Along with the Chai Curriculum, my religious school has greatly benefited from the counsel and expertise of educational consultants whose services have been provided to us by the URJ, free of charge.  Then there are the camps.  Over the years, so many of our children have greatly benefited from the excellent Jewish summer camp experiences which are to be found in the network of our movement’s Reform Jewish summer camps.  Likewise, there have been young people in my congregation whose knowledge of and commitment to the State of Israel are a direct result of their have gone on wonderful youth trips to Israel sponsored by NFTY.

However, do not think that belonging to the URJ only benefits the children.  It benefits the adults of a congregation as well as the congregation as a whole.  Educational consulting is only one of the consultation opportunities which is provided by the URJ.  On several occasions my Board of Trustees has benefited greatly from synagogue leadership workshops conducted by URJ staff members.  We have sought their counsel on financial matters, fund raising matters, administrative matters, and even on the subject of possible merger – something from which the members of the other local congregation also benefited.  The URJ also offers a host of materials to enhance adult education programs and worship.  Indeed, throughout most of the 150 year history of my congregation, whichever prayer book we used in our worship, it was a prayer book produced by the Reform movement.  Then there are the URJ’s online resources.  Congregants can participate in online adult education through such programs as “Ten Minutes of Torah.”  Our movement also provides online discussion groups for those interested in various aspects of Reform Jewish living.  If you wish to discuss worship practices, you can be a member of IWorship.  If you wish to discuss the particular issues that confront small congregations, you can be a member of Smalltalk.  An invaluable tool for every synagogue president in our movement is the discussion group Presconf.  Personally, I have derived great benefit from participating in the discussion groups for Reform rabbis (Ravkav) and HUC alumni (Hucalum).

Nor do the offerings of our movement end here.  Of course there are our affiliate organizations, such as the Women of Reform Judaism (of which my congregation’s Sisterhood is one of the founding members), Men of Reform Judaism, and NFTY (which has provided our community with regional and national youth group experiences for high school students from both of our local congregations).  Then there are the URJ’s subsidiary organizations such as the Hebrew Union College, the Religious Action Center (RAC), and ARZA.  The Hebrew Union College trains our rabbis, our cantors, and our educators so that they are not only highly educated Jewish professional but highly educated Reform Jewish professional, who are committed to Reform Jewish principles.  It is through the RAC that so many of the Tikkun Olam activities of our congregations originate and are coordinated.  Make no mistake about it!  It is due to efforts of the RAC that when it comes to Tikkun Olam activities on the American Jewish scene, it is Reform Judaism which is the unchallenged leader.  ARZA is the body which connects our movement to Israel and advocates for Reform Judaism in Israel.

As a result of all of this, it is the formal structures of our movement which weave our individual congregations into a powerful Reform Jewish family.  It is through this network of connections which we share with other Reform congregations that we draw strength, sustenance, and identity.  Others may imitate us but in the end, without these connections, they will always remain mere imitations; never the real deal!