Friday, January 16, 2015

Shabbat-O-Gram for January 16

Shabbat Shalom.  A special birthday will be celebrated over the coming days:  Jack Steinberg, a long time TBE member who currently resides at Atria, will be turning 100.  Mazal tov, Jack! 

Building a Bonfire

I hope you can join us at 7 PM (note that time!) for services this evening, featuring guest guitarist Avram Pengas.  And then you are cordially invited to join Mara and myself at my home for the Oneg.

Unless we suddenly are inundated with unexpected numbers on a holiday weekend, tonight’s service will take place in the lobby.  At times people have asked why we prefer the lobby to the sanctuary at times when we are not expecting throngs of worshippers.  Why do we lobby for the lobby?  Let’s be clear, I would love to have 250 here every week – and with Cantor Fishman and the fantastic array of musical and prayer experiences we are planning, we are quite likely headed in that direction.  But in the meantime, a prime goal of our services is a sense of intimacy and connection that cannot easily be achieved in a large, half-empty room.  The difference is profound.

Contemporary Jewish musician Joey Weisenberg put his finger on the attitudes of contemporary American Jews, and in particular millennials, in his work “Building Singing Communities: “If you want to build a bonfire, bring the logs close together.”

As Hannah Ashar adds in her essay, “Ideas for Nurturing Jewish Peoplehood with Warmth, Intimacy and Self Expression” (p.24), “The suburban arrangement of many American shuls (and much of American Jewish life) allows people to sit, sing, and pray at a distance. Choose intimate prayer spaces and ask that people come close during tefilot.” She offers other suggestions in that brief essay that we might want to follow.  But for our purposes, the key is that people are praying in close proximity to one another.  When we talk about “participation” in services, which can be achieved with lots of communal singing, or it can be achieved in silent meditation.  We can be full participants even when simply listening to the cantor or rabbi.  But that can happen only when we feel connected to our community  and in relationship with the people around us. Right now, in our facility, that is best achieved in the round - and in the lobby.

This conversation is not a new one.  You can get some valuable historical insight in this 1994 essay, “Why temples look the way they do.” -  “Stage Three (1970s and on): Synagogues reflect new worship styles. Sanctuaries are built with Shabbat worship in mind, setting out seats based on expected attendance. To encourage congregational participation and make the worship leaders more accessible, the bimah is built low and open, and seats are often arranged in a “U” or semicircle so worshipers can see one another. Sound systems are rarely necessary, as discussion and Torah dialogues have often replaced formal sermons. Organs and choir spaces rarely exist; members prefer a cappella singing or the use of electronic keyboards or guitar as accompaniment.”

And now, a generation after that, if anything, the trend is to go even smaller.  Yet intimacy can also be felt when there are lots of people.  In some ways, even our High Holidays can, at times, feel intimate.  But that’s because most of the seats are filled.  At TBE, no one should ever feel alone.

So now that you’ve seen why rabbis and cantors usually lobby for smaller, more intimate prayer spaces, you can feel free to challenge those assertions.  I would love to hear new ideas and a vigorous conversation about how to have a more meaningful prayer experiences here.  We should never stop growing!

But if you want to lobby against the lobby, please be prepared to answer one simple question: How do you propose that we build that bonfire?

All Hatred is Local

When the late Tip O’Neill coined the phrase, “All politics is local,” he had no idea just how small the world was about to become.  Yet now, despite the growing hegemony of social media and instantaneous global reaction, we can take comfort in the stubborn fact that local communities still think for themselves.  So global trends, while increasingly disturbing and impactful, do not instantly transform determine local attitudes.  That’s very comforting, given the intensifying global phenomena of Islamic extremism and anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism in Europe is hardly new and it’s not going away.  We need to be concerned about it.  Were I living in France right now, moving to Israel (or America) would be an increasingly attractive option.  But that doesn’t mean it is rising everywhere.  Here in Stamford, our interfaith community is engaged in ongoing dialogue designed to keep lines of communication open.  Last night at the Ferguson Library, over 100 people from a wide variety of racial, religious and generational backgrounds got together for a conversation about race.  It was a moment we can be very proud of. 

I am not so naïve as to suggest that the evils of the outside world can’t affect us.  Do we need to be vigilant about security?  Of course.  Especially now.  But the local leaders that I speak with, Christians, Muslims, Jews and none-of-the-above, are all on the same page, the page of moderation, dialogue and love.  We are fortunate to live in a community where Jews can always live freely and proudly, a place where our congregation has always been respected and cherished.  No doubt racism and hatred still reside behind closed doors of many local homes, and no doubt latent prejudice persists even in the public realm.  We need to have ongoing conversations about how we all too often prejudge people by what they are rather than loving them for who they are.  A generation after Dr. King, the racial playing field is still far from level.   

But the conversation persists.  Extremism may indeed be global, and the globe is shrinking fast.  But hatred, like politics, is still local.  And so is love.

Dr. King asked of God in 1964:
... grant that we will always reach out
for that which is high,
realizing that we are made for the stars,
created for the everlasting,
born for eternity.
May we learn again to reach out for those stars

And Let US be the fulfillment of his dream.

An App for Empathy

By the way, did you know that there is an app for empathy? According to “The Wisdom Daily,” “‘20 Day Stranger’ is an iPhone app developed to create an intimate and anonymous connection between you and another person. For 20 days, as you and a stranger get up, and go to work (or school or travel or wherever else the world takes you), while the app tracks your path, pulling related photos from Foursquare or Google Maps along the way.”

Dr. King would have loved that.

An Israeli Election WE Can Vote In

I highly recommend JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen’s posting, “Speaking to and About Israel.”  Here’s a salient quote:

After the carnage in Paris, the Jewish State seems more necessary to Jewish survival than ever before. It also seems to stand front and center in the global battle against terrorism. Israel’s importance in that war is out of all proportion to the country’s small size and population. When Israel occupies such a prominent place on the agenda of world leaders, and on the world Jewish agenda, when Jews have once again been singled out by history, North American Jews dare not be silent where Israel is concerned. Our voices more than ever must be as strong, loving, judicious, faithful—and honest—as we can make them. What shall we say, as Jews, here and now, to Israel? And—no less important—how should we say it?

Yes, we have so much at stake in Israel’s future.  With that in mind, voting has begun in the World Zionist Elections. (See to register).  MERCAZ represents Masorti / Conservative Judaism.  We have the chance to help shape the World Zionist Congress and, thereby, have an impact on creating an inclusive Israel by voting for Mercaz (slate #2).

The Mercaz platform is based on three values:
·         Religious Pluralism in Israel Did you know that Conservative rabbis cannot legally perform marriages or conversions in Israel?  This is wrong and must be changed.
·         Affirmative Action for the Masorti (Conservative) Movement Why should the Israeli government give millions of dollars to Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox synagogues and institutions and the 50 congregations of the Masorti Movement have to fend for themselves?
·         Ecology We believe that we are responsible for safeguarding the fragile ecosystem that exists in the land of Israel. 

Anyone who identifies as a Jew and is over 18 years of age can vote.  Registration can be done in 5 minutes, online at . The cost is $10 for adults and $5 for students and young adults (ages 18-30). Once you have registered, you will be able to go and vote immediately.

Shabbat Shalom (and Go, Pats!)

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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