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Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Last fall, I wrote here about the Visioning process our synagogue is undertaking. Now that the first part of the process, namely the house meetings, is over, our community is reflecting on what has happened so far.
I attended one of the house meetings as a participant, and two more as a facilitator. I also participated in a meeting regarding High Holy Days services that was partly inspired by the house meetings, as well as a wrap-up meeting with Visioning meeting hosts, facilitators, and scribes. As a result, I think I have a reasonable idea of what was said in the meetings, although the official results are still being tabulated.
One thing I already knew, but which came up often in the conversations and bears repeating, is how much we love our clergy. Many people were enthusiastic about them in our meetings, and on several occasions we had to say, “Ok, we’ve heard about our clergy. What other strengths do we have?” Our amazing clergy is a huge blessing, and I hope the final report helps them to know how much we appreciate them.
We are also blessed with a world class Executive Director as well as an outstanding Director of Community Connections.
One of the more prominent challenges is one, unfortunately, is one for which I don’t believe we will be able to find a solution that will please everyone. It is about High Holy Day services, and we already had a meeting about it which clarified for me why it can’t be completely resolved.
Our congregation is so large that we can’t hold High Holy Day services in our synagogue, because the sanctuary isn’t large enough for everyone. Instead, for years we have rented the local Civic Center Auditorium, which seats 2,000 people. On Erev Rosh Hashanah and on Kol Nidre we fill the auditorium. Many congregants love the feeling of being in such a large space filled with praying Jews.
Others, however, feel the auditorium seating and large space are alienating. There are other things about the more traditional, tending toward Classical Reform service that doesn’t fulfill their needs. So, with the blessing of the clergy, a group of congregants began an alternative service in the synagogue sanctuary on the morning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Over time, the morning alternative service has grown every year, so that now the sanctuary is filled to capacity. As a result, the Civic Center is no longer filled to capacity on those days. Some of the people who attend the Civic Center services are starting to feel abandoned. Some families are split, as some members prefer the Civic Center services, and others prefer the sanctuary services.
We talked about the possibility of changing the Civic Center services to be more like the sanctuary services, and combining the services once again. The “trouble” is that the Civic Center people love their services there, and the sanctuary people love theirs. If we change one to be like the other, we’ll just end up with a bunch of people resenting what they gave up for the other group, and neither one feeling they’re getting what they need any more. In other words, it would be a real lose-lose proposition.
The next steps in the Visioning process will be to scout what’s happening in other synagogues, and to report back findings to the congregation. I’m curious to see what possible solutions and initiatives will come out of this process.
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January 30, 2013 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Rabbi Daniel Gordis recently published in article called, “The Letter that Natanyahu Should, but Won’t, Send,” in response to Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.
He throws out the common trope that intermarriage will spell the demise of Reform Judaism, despite the fact that Reform Judaism continues to thrive in the United States. One would think that the old claim that Reform Judaism will necessarily die out after three generations would, itself, have died out by now, since Reform Judaism is still going strong after many more than three generations, but there it is again.
At any rate, he also claims that “virtually no young Jews are conversant with Jewish texts,” and goes on to lament that most non-Orthodox homes don’t have a Mikra’ot Gedolot or the Talmud. The claim about the Mikra’ot Gedolot strikes me as a technicality. I would venture to guess that most Reform Jewish homes have a Tanach, the Hebrew bible, and many have a Chumash, or Torah commentary. So even if we don’t have the commentary Rabbi Gordis wishes we had, that doesn’t mean we don’t have any basic Jewish texts at home. There are, of course, basic Jewish texts that one may find in a non-Orthodox Jewish home that one may not find in an Orthodox Jewish home.
I do agree that it would be great if more non-Orthodox Jews had more familiarity with ancient Jewish texts. For those who already have a Chumash, however, I still wouldn’t recommend that the next thing to do would be to run out and buy a copy of the Talmud. I’m not sure whether this is what Rabbi Gordis was recommending, but I know at least one person who took it that way, so I’d like to address the idea here.
Why not run out and buy a copy of the Talmud? First, it’s a big, expensive series of books, especially for those who aren’t fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic and therefore need to buy a copy that includes an English translation. Second, the Talmud isn’t something that one just picks up and reads. It is obtuse and confusing. Nobody is likely to get through it the first time on his or her own. It is meant to be studied with others; having one sit on a bookshelf untouched is useless.
Third, a lot of the Talmud is about the minutiae of halacha, or Jewish law. If you’re an Orthodox Jew and you need to know whether the oven that you took apart, moved, and put back together is still ritually pure, the Talmud can be very useful. If you’re interested in how the ancient rabbis argued about such matters, the Talmud can be quite interesting. If you’re not Orthodox and you’re looking for ways to have a more meaningful Jewish experience, most likely these halachic discussions are not going to provide that for you.
There are, of course, many parts of the Talmud that can help any Jewish person to find ways to have a more meaningful Jewish experience, and many discussions that are not halachic in nature. Does God get angry, and if so, for how long? Does God pray? What are the ethics we should follow? How should we treat our workers and each other? These are the passages many non-Orthodox Jews would find the most engaging. Unfortunately, purchasing a Talmud will not go very far in helping them to find the information they seek.
So, what is a Jew to do?
If you’re interested, I would suggest that you look in your area for a class on the Talmud or other ancient Jewish texts. Many synagogues and other organizations offer them on a regular basis. Usually, you don’t need to be a member of a synagogue to take classes at one. Be sure to check out the content of the class. Is it just on halacha? Is it on ethics? Is it on theology? Look for something that appeals to your interests.
If you don’t have a Chumash, buy one. Buy a copy of “The Bedside Torah” by Rabbi Bradley Artson for an accessible interpretation of the Torah. On a weekly basis, read the Torah portion and commentary for that week. Better yet, join a Torah study group, or form one of your own. Approach a local rabbi to ask for recommendations about other Jewish texts to read.
There are a lot of different ways into the Jewish texts. The best ones involve studying with others. The worst possible thing you can do is to waste your money buying a huge, obtuse text and have it do nothing more than weigh down your bookshelf. Instead, get out and engage. Then, once you’re familiar and comfortable with the Talmud, go ahead and consider buying a copy of your own.
January 23, 2013 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
A funny thing happened at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem last week. According to Our Quiet Prayer at the Kotel on the Women of the Wall (WoW) website, just shy of a dozen women prayed out loud at the Kotel, wearing tallitot (prayer shawls), and nothing bad happened.
Such a thing would be quite unremarkable in any other place where Jews live freely. But to anyone who has followed events surrounding the Women of the Wall and the Kotel, this was something extraordinary.
For decades, the Women of the Wall have gathered at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of each Hebrew month, and have been met with everything from flying chairs and diapers to detainment and arrest. Just recently, the women were told they couldn’t even bring their tallitot and other ritual objects into the Western Wall area, even though there is no law prohibiting it. Indeed, the law says a woman may wear a tallit at the Kotel, as long as she does not wear it like a man.
So how is it possible that, after decades of struggle, suddenly a group of women were able to pray as they wish at the Kotel with no fuss or bother?
First, it wasn’t Rosh Chodesh, so nobody was expecting them. Second, they made sure they didn’t all arrive as one group, making them less noticeable. But, once they gathered, put on their tallitot and began to pray, people must have noticed, right?
Indeed, they were noticed. But instead of attacking them or complaining to the authorities, some of the onlookers joined them in song. Nobody seemed to mind.
So, what does this mean?
Detractors of the Women of the Wall might say this proves that the Rosh Chodesh prayer ceremonies are deliberately provocative, while this one was not. They might say that WoW invites the media and others each month to create a big show, and they aren’t there for a meaningful prayer experience at all.
Supporters of WoW might say the only reason their monthly services become a disturbance is because the authorities make it into one by detaining and arresting the women, and by making up new rules as they go along. They may say that if only the police protected them against attack as they would protect praying men under attack, the fuss would have died down long ago.
But no matter which side you support, the fact remains: This is a turning point. Those eleven women proved last week that women can pray out loud, wearing tallitot, at the Kotel without creating a disturbance. They proved that there are others ready and willing to join them, if only they are allowed to do so in peace.
To arrest or detain even one more woman at the Kotel for “disturbing the peace” for doing no more than what these eleven women did so publicly and so peacefully last week would be the height of hypocrisy. The claim of disturbance no longer holds any water.
It will be interesting to see what happens next.
January 16, 2013 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Last weekend we were privileged to have Rabbi Sharon Brous from Ikar speak at our congregation and at a couple of other events in the area. We all agreed she was fabulous, but it got me to wondering what, exactly, sets her apart from so many other rabbis?
I’ll start out by saying she is well versed in Torah. That should go without saying in regard to any decent rabbi, but if I didn’t say it, I can just see readers skimming through this post and then commenting at the bottom about how nothing she does matters if it isn’t based in Torah. So I thought I’d just nip that one in the bud.
The first thing Rabbi Brous brings to the table that some rabbis do not is a clarity of vision. She sees Judaism as it has been practiced in the recent past, and she sees where it could go. Her vision includes the desire to create a sense of surprise, to foster innovation, and to create a sense of connection to God and to others in the community.
Not only does she have this vision, but she is able to communicate it to others in a way that is convincing and easy to understand.
But she doesn’t just talk about this vision. Rabbi Brous has been able to bring these ideas to fruition by founding Ikar, which says on its website that it is “a religious approach that fuses piety and hutzpah, obligation and inspiration, tradition and soul.” In other words, she isn’t just writing and speaking about what needs to be done to reinvigorate Jewish life; she is taking it to the next level by putting her ideas into practice in the real world.
What Rabbi Brous brings to the table besides her vision and her action is her integrity. You can tell by the way she speaks that she is speaking from the heart. She isn’t interested in platitudes. She isn’t interested in catering to what she might think others want her to say. No. It is obvious that her energy and her focus come from a place of honesty and integrity that make her at once both vulnerable and powerful in a way that only the courageous can be.
One would think all of the above, taken together, would be more than enough to raise her above the level of an ordinary rabbi, and you would be right. But she adds one more important skill to all of this. She is able to spiritually inspire groups of people, even strangers.
For instance, during services on Saturday morning, she led us in a niggun, a wordless melody. But first she explained that prayer is both about connecting with God and about connecting with other people. She made it clear that in order to have a complete, deep prayer experience, both elements must be present.
As we began to sing and connect, she encouraged us to reach out to those around us who might be at a lower state of connection, and to pull them up with us. It is hard to describe what happened in that room, but in the space of a few short minutes it left several members of the congregation in tears.
I know I haven’t done justice to Rabbi Brous and what she has created at Ikar, especially since, as a Northern Californian, I haven’t had a chance to attend services there myself yet. If you live in Los Angeles and haven’t been there, I urge you to visit Ikar to check them out. See for yourself what makes Rabbi Sharon Brous so special.
December 26, 2012 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
There was no bar or bat mitzvah ceremony at my synagogue this weekend, so the chairs in the front row, normally occupied by the bar/bat mitzvah families, were empty. At the rabbi’s request, some of us moved up to the front row.
In the moments before we say the Amidah, the central prayer of the service, I usually follow the tradition of taking three steps back, and then three steps forward. The reason for the three steps back is to acknowledge that we are about to approach God through prayer, and to show our awe by stepping back. We then prepare ourselves mentally and spiritually, and take three steps forward to show we are ready to speak with God.
Often, I’m standing between rows of chairs, so, by necessity, I can only take three very small steps back and forward. Because I was on the front row on Saturday, I could still only take three small steps back before I hit my chair, but then I was able to take three normal-sized steps forward.
Sounds great, right? Except, apparently, I was the only one standing in the front row who follows that tradition. Suddenly, I was standing three full steps out in front of everyone else, with no other people near me.
I quickly found myself feeling completely exposed. I didn’t want to mess up my participation in the tradition by taking three steps back to my seat again. More importantly, I didn’t want to retreat from God. That is when I realized that how I was feeling that moment – unprotected, completely visible, and vulnerable – is exactly how I want to feel when I am standing before God.
I don’t, I realized, want to feel like I’m hiding anything from God. I want to feel like I’m standing alone and completely open for God to see and hear the real me. I don’t want to feel hidden or protected by other people, by rows of chairs, or by anything else.
On one level, my desire to feel that way seemed ridiculous. God can see and hear me perfectly well no matter where I am or what I’m doing, whether or not I try to avoid it. From one perspective, whether or not I feel exposed to God makes no difference.
On the other hand, I liked the visceral experience of feeling that openness and vulnerability, rather than just knowing of its existence intellectually.
There is an old story of a rabbi asking a thief why he is more afraid of what people think of him than what God thinks of him. When the thief asked why the rabbi would think we felt that way, the rabbi said, “Because you only steal when you think people can’t see you. But God can always see you.”
Perhaps the world would be a better place if we all remembered more often before whom we stand.
December 12, 2012 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
It happens every year. Chanukah rolls around, and at some point the rabbi asks me about my latke consumption. Every year, I tell him I haven’t had any. Every year, he is horrified.
He’s a bit of a foodie, and for him, latkes are an integral part of the holiday experience. It’s not just him, either. It seems I’m surrounded by latke addicts who need to get their annual fix, and who can’t fathom how anyone could get through the season without one.
It doesn’t matter how many times I explain that I never had a latke as a child, so they bear no weight of nostalgia for me. It doesn’t help to suggest that latkes are an Ashkenazi custom and my family roots are Sephardic. It makes no difference when I assure people that I enjoy a full Chanukah experience by lighting candles with my husband, saying the prayers, etc.
I may even insist there is no commandment in the Torah or in halacha (Jewish law) related to latkes, yet those around me continue to treat me like I am some poor, lost orphan who needs to be shown the true path. They invite me to their home for latkes, they promise to bring latkes to the synagogue for me, they offer to send me their favorite recipe.
One person who couldn’t believe I would refuse these offers whispered, “You must be allergic to them, right?” Wrong. I’m allergic to fish, but, in my limited experience, fish and latkes almost never cross paths.
Looking at my calendar for the coming week, I realized, with great trepidation, that I will be at the synagogue or at other synagogue-related activities on seven of the eight days of Chanukah this year. “Here it comes again,” I thought.
Then it hit me: This year, I’ll cut them off at the pass.
So I went out and bought a box of Manischewitz latke mix, and on the first day of Chanukah I made my first-ever bunch of latkes. I would say that, unlike the experience of my fellow congregants, there was no emotional content involved for me, except I was appalled by the amount of oil the latkes soaked up.
My husband, who is not Jewish, came by, and asked me whether they were any good. “They’re kind of like bad hash browns,” I told him, and gave him a couple to try.
After I ate as many as I could stomach, I threw out the rest of the latkes and said to myself, “Seriously, if I wanted something like this, I’d rather buy some Ore Ida hash browns and eat those. They taste better, and don’t soak up so much oil.”
On the other hand, I thought, “Why eat something I’m not really interested in, just to fulfill the expectations of others? I’m being more true to myself when I stick to my guns and tell my incredulous friends that latkes simply aren’t part of my Chanukah tradition.”
Satisfied with my decision, I went downstairs, where my husband sat with his empty plate in front of him. “Those were good,” he said, “maybe next year you could make them with real potatoes, so they’ll be even better!” Sigh.
November 14, 2012 | 7:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I was recently watching an episode of “Breaking Amish,” an unscripted show about four young Amish and one Mennonite person who go to New York to decide whether to give up the ways of their families and to become “English,” or, in the language most of us would use, to adopt the American culture instead.
I discovered this series late in its run, and became fascinated by the stereotypes and misconceptions the Amish in the show have about the rest of us. In particular, when two of them decide to get married, their Amish and Mennonite (respectively) Best Man and Maid of Honor throw a bachelor/bachelorette party, to which they invite a stripper. The Amish couple are upset, while those throwing the party seem confused.
“We thought you wanted an English wedding,” they say, “and this is what the English do. Why are you so mad?”
In contrast to my experience with bachelor and bachelorette parties, they seem to assume that all such celebrations must involve strippers. They seem to think that all non-Amish or non-Mennonite people are sexually loose. They seem to have absorbed a lot of stereotypes about American culture that may be true for some of us, but which most assuredly are not true for others.
I found myself wishing there were someone there who could point out these stereotypes to them, and say something like, “Sure, some people have strippers at these parties, but many don’t. Here are some other things people do at these parties instead.”
One of the opportunities I saw in writing this blog is to dispel some of the common myths people seem to have about Reform Judaism. For the most part, my plan – and my practice – has been to simply write about Reform Jewish life as I experience it, and to hope that by doing so, some readers may learn some things they didn’t know, and thereby learn the error some of those incorrect beliefs.
I know there are false beliefs out there, but sometimes I am still stunned when I see them. The vitriol that some people fling at the Reform movement is something I have difficulty taking in stride. A recent example of these kinds of false accusations are contained in the comments section of a recent online article I read titled, “Can Reform Judaism Get Its Mojo Back?”
One comment, for example, asks rhetorically, “Will the sect calling itself Reform Judaism survive after having jettisoned the Torah…What a silly question, why of course not!”
This isn’t the first time I have seen the claim that we have “jettisoned the Torah.” What a surprise it would apparently be to this writer to discover the many Torah Study groups in Reform congregations, the Saturday morning services in which Reform congregants read from the Torah scroll, the Simchat Torah celebrations in which we dance with the Torah scrolls, etc. And people have continuously been predicting the demise of the Reform movement in the next generation or two for a couple hundred years, yet it is still the largest Jewish movement in the US.
I actually copied a whole list of comments I could dissect here for their various incorrect assumptions about the Reform movement, and that might make me feel a little better, but I’m not convinced it would be productive.
What I take out of all this is how readily we seem to accept stereotypes and inaccuracies about the “other.” Whether we are the Amish exploring the world of the English, or one political party looking at the other, or one Jewish stream criticizing another, it seems easier to argue based on our incorrect but closely held beliefs of the other than on facts. We seem so mired in what we think we know about others that we don’t take the time to investigate what is fact and what is fiction.
How much better the world would be, if we would just step back for a moment, and make an honest effort to see each other as we truly are.
October 17, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
I don’t remember how I heard about it, but several weeks ago I signed up for CERT training, which I just finished this weekend. CERT is an acronym for “Community Emergency Response Team.”
The idea is that, in case of a large emergency like a major earthquake, the professional first responders will need to concentrate on the big population centers, leaving smaller neighborhoods to fend for themselves for the first 4 or 5 days, until mutual aid can arrive from elsewhere. In the meantime, CERT volunteers can help take care of their neighborhood by doing light search and rescue, first aid, etc., as well as by assisting elsewhere in larger shelters or as needed.
CERT was inspired by the Japanese emergency response system. It was first brought to the US in Los Angeles, and has since spread to all 50 states, as well as a handful of other countries.
I have to say, my first impression of the training was that it was quite poor. The trainers had trouble getting the audio to work for the videos, and a couple of them admitted they hadn’t reviewed the materials they were teaching in advance. We were told the training started at 8:30, but some of the trainers thought it started at 9. The whole thing seemed unorganized.
And that was before we got to the presentation on first aid. As the EMT teaching that section moved from abrasions to things like lacerations and impalements, I felt my blood pressure begin to drop steadily. I went from sitting up straight, to leaning forward, to pushing my chair back so I could rest my chin on the table in front of me, all in an effort to allow more blood to reach my brain.
I have never fainted, but I have come close once or twice, and I know the warning signs. I thought I was going to make it through okay, though. Then he got to the part about what to do if something is impaling a person’s eye.
Now, understand, when I was a kid, I had my eyeball scratched. It hurt like crazy, and I had to wear an eye patch for a while. So I may be sensitive about blood and such, but I’m geometrically more distressed by anything that has to do with eye injuries.
Luckily, I was sitting on an aisle, so I was able to turn in my chair and put my head down by my knees. As this point, I was thinking it would probably be best if I left the room so I couldn’t hear the trainer any more, but I realized that if I tried to get up at that point, the rest of the blood would rush out of my head. There was no way I could make it to the door on the other side of the room.
I was sitting in the second row, hanging out into the aisle, so I thought the trainer, or maybe any of the other 20 or so people in the room, would notice and ask if I was okay. At the same time, I didn’t want to interrupt the training. As I was wondering whether I should say something, one of my classmates asked the EMT, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”
“No!” I exclaimed, keeping my head firmly rooted by my knees, “Don’t answer that question!” He didn’t, baruch hashem, yet still nobody, in this whole room of people in the middle of being trained to provide first aid – including an EMT, two nurses, and three nursing students – seemed to notice I was not completely well.
Soon enough it was break time. I was eventually able to move my head back onto the table, and in time I could sit up again like a normal person.
I’m glad to say the rest of the training went along fairly smoothly, and the search and rescue simulations were both fun and very informative. I think I’m going to try to take the Advanced Training on how to manage a shelter, and I’ll steer clear of the medical stuff as much as possible.
As the CERT folks say, there’s a place for everyone, and I’m glad it’s clear to me where my strengths and weaknesses lie. When the next big emergency comes, I will be much more able to be a rescuer rather than a victim.