Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Israel's Social Justice Movement: Links and Videos

The recent flare up in Israel's south needs to be taken seriously - as Israel and others are doing - but let's call it what it is: an indication of the weakening power of the extremists. Hamas and its Syrian-Iranian allies thus far have been unable to sustain its plot to drag Israel into a sustained conflict in order to save Assad. Libya falls and Assad's noose continues to tighten. Israel's responses have been surgical and measured (like today's)rocket barrage.
Eventually, if handled correctly by Israel and other interested parties (meaning the Saudis, Europeans, Egypt - yes, Egypt - and the Americans, everyone who wants Assad to fall) this flare-up will die down can return to the big story of Israel's summer, the Social Justice Movement. Inspired by the popular uprisings in the Arab world, though completely different in focus and NOT calling for the fall of the government, this movement began with a simple Facebook protest over the cost of cottage cheese. It has since taken the country by storm, with the focus being affordable housing. It is felt by many, including myself, that what's happening now in Israel is something that American Jews can connect with - especially those who might have put support for Israel on their personal back burner. Read about it and judge for yourself.

These links have been provided by the New Israel Fund. See Social Justice protest catches fire.


Good intent of those in tents (16 August 2011)
Israel's version of the French Revolution: Liberty, fraternity, creativity (11 August 2011)
The Other Israelis (10 August 2011)
Liberal U.S. groups back Israel protesters (2 August 2011)
Netanyahu's time is up (1 August 2011)
The People Demand Social Justice? A Background of the Protest Movement (Fact Sheet in PDF) (1 August 2011)
The protest wave has changed the face of Israel's political map (31 July 2011)
Hysteria in overdrive (29 July 2011)
Tent City Revival (29 July 2011)
Adva's Shlomo Swirsky explores the link between Israel's settlement policies and the economic protest (29 July 2011)
Israel's Affordable Housing Protest Catches Fire (28 July 2011)
Haaretz editorial: Netanyahu, listen to the demonstrators (28 July 2011)
Jerusalem Post: Uri Savir - Israel’s Facebook generation (28 July 2011)
Washington Post: Housing protests galvanize young Israelis (26 July 2011)



We didn't so much experience the earthquake itself as we did its human aftershocks.

When the earthquake hit, we were driving along Pennsylvania Avenue, from Georgetown, where we had just had lunch, toward the White House. We had decided to make a swing through downtown DC before saying goodbye to Dan and dropping him off at his new dorm.

At one point the car lurched forward. I thought little of it because I normally drive a Toyota. Time for another recall, I thought. Then I recalled that I was driving Mara's car, not the Prius. Still, I made little of it, and because we were in motion anyway, we didn't feel any significant movement, though we did hear what sounded like a loud, obnoxious truck.

Then, as we passed G.W. Hospital, we noticed people spilling onto the sidewalk on both sides of the street. By the time we hit the next block, the sidewalks were filled with people. A bomb scare, perhaps - or just the coincidence of thousands of people wanting to enjoy Washington's first humidity-free day in weeks.

Was a Presidential motorcade about to come through? But the President is on Martha's Vineyard. No chance. How about a parade? On a Tuesday afternoon? In Washington, the only thing that people would be celebrating on August 23 is that all the politicians are out of town.

We were now very close to the White House and both sides of the street were teeming with people on cell phones. No one seemed panicked but we were insatiably curious.

Then we heard the sirens, a police car sped past and, just a couple of weeks short of the 9/11 anniversary, worst case scenarios flashed through my mind. I rolled down the window and a man crossing the street in front of me shouted, "Did you feel it?"

We turned on the radio to hear the latest and turned right, heading toward the Washington Monument. It occurred to me that following an earthquake, that was probably the last building we would want to be near, so we skirted the Mall toward the Capitol. We saw no damage, but one fire truck had its long ladder extended to the top of a building downtown. The Capitol area was cordoned off and we had to take a circuitous route back up town. We made it back to American University unscathed, but gridlock gripped the city and after dropping off Dan it took us over two hours to get past the Beltway and safely on the road toward Baltimore. Traffic flowed smoothly after that, though I did hold my breath as we went through the Harbor Tunnel.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Chasing The Mother Bird: A Strange Mitzvah

Chasing The Mother Bird: A Strange Mitzvah
Friday, August 12, 2011

Q: An acquaintance of mine recently boasted to me that he had happened upon a bird's nest and seized the opportunity to perform what he considered the mitzvah of shiluach hakan, scaring away a mother bird before taking the eggs. This mitzvah is intended to teach compassion, so that a bird should not have to watch the devouring of its young, but I find it hard to believe that it is meant as a mitzvah to be done in ordinary circumstances if one is not in dire need of the eggs. I even saw an email posting once listing the location of a bird's nest so that anyone who wants to do the "mitzvah" can do so. To me, this seems like a mitzvah “haba b'evera”, cruelty to animals in the name of doing a mitzvah.

A: Your suspicions are correct: this strange commandment(Deut. 22:6) is not trying to teach kindness to animals. A number of other Torah and rabbinic narratives do that. This particular mitzvah has confounded sages for centuries. Since the Torah promises to grant whoever performs it long life (plus other goodies, including possibly hastening the arrival of the Messiah), it has become almost an obsession to explain it – and perform it. In one famous Talmudic case it drove a rabbi to madness when he witnessed a boy performing this mitzvah who then fell from a tree and instantly died.
Still, note that you can fulfill the commandment even if you simply lift up the eggs (about 12 inches) and then return them to the nest. Since studies show that the mother bird will likely return to the nest, that would be the most humane thing to do.
Last month I went on Safari in Africa and was confronted with a similar situation. We were driving in the bush at night and as we directed our spotlight to the left of the car, we saw three small lion cubs huddled together near a small cave. Their mother had left them to hunt, so we were free to exploit the moment and could have tarried to take lots of pictures of the terrified cubs. But our guide instinctively redirected the light away from the cubs, knowing that the light could attract the attention of would-be predators, like hyenas, male lions - and more callous humans. We elected to leave the cubs be, so that they would stand a fighting chance of still being alive when their mother returned.
The next morning we revisited the spot and saw the cubs again, but this time they were huddled safely alongside mom. We may not be rewarded with longer life, but we got much better pictures along with the satisfaction that we had made the ethical choice not to upset the normal rhythm of nature.
I wish I could say that the mother birds of Deuteronomy might find maternal bliss upon their return to the nest, as this lioness did. But in a strange way, the mother bird commandment does teach us to be more compassionate to living beings; not in our fulfilling it so much as our debating it. Maybe that’s why it was put there in the first place – to pique our sense of moral outrage.

My Worst Enemy's Shiva (Hammerman on Ethics)

My Worst Enemy's Shiva

Friday, August 19, 2011

Q. The mother of my worst enemy just died and I'm not sure whether to visit during Shiva. In truth, I sincerely see this as a chance to reconcile (we haven't spoken in about five years but have a lot of friends in common). My only concern is that he would misinterpret the reason for the visit and kick me out of the house. I really don't want to cause him any discomfort. What should I do?

A. Do you think this would be the first time that two people at a shiva had unresolved issues? It happens all the time, usually involving people from the deceased’s family who are barely on speaking terms. I’ve seen amazing moments of reconciliation happen during the period of grieving. When someone says “over my dead body,” sometimes that’s precisely the most likely location for enemies to reunite, as happened to Isaac and Ishmael when they buried Abraham.

So go.

But I add this disclaimer: If you poisoned his Akita or stole his birthright, I might hold off until the time is right. Jacob’s journey back to Esau was paved with gifts and trepidation. It took decades before each party was ready. In any event, if you do go to the Shiva, I’d avoid visiting during peak periods, when the mourner might feel you are simply making an appearance for show. If the guy shows signs of being uncomfortable with your presence, or worse, begins to make a scene, I’d make a hasty exit and not take it personally. The rabbis explained that the second Temple was destroyed because of the resentment of a person humiliated in public by his worst enemy. Don’t let that happen to you. It’s also OK to wait until after shiva, when you might call and meet for coffee in a quite spot. Or maybe the best strategy would be to write a heartfelt letter.

I believe that all conflicts have an expiration date. Even the Hatfields and McCoys signed a truce just a few years ago. If you could reconcile with your worst enemy and become a true pursuer of peace, echoing the words of Psalm 34:15, you will make the world a better place. And an enormous weight will be taken off your shoulders.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Only In Jewish Stamford!

SIXTY FIVE members of our community - representing Chabad of Stamford, Congregation Agudath Sholom, Temple Beth El, Temple Sinai, Young Israel of Stamford - and the UJF and BJE studied a seminal Tisha B'av text together at the inaugural "Texts that Tie us Together" program, co sponsored Young Israel's Kollel. It was a pleasure for me to participate with a number of our congregants. As an added bonus, as you can see below, I had the pleasure of meeting the new rabbi from Temple Sinai, Rabbi John Franken, for the first time.

Only in Jewish Stamford could the Conservative rabbi meet the Reform rabbi for the first time at Chabad on Tisha B'Av!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Halakhah Think Tank: The Nine Days

Halakhah Think Tank: The Nine Days: "by Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6 articulates the principle that, with the arrival of Av, we minimize our joy.

Various texts, synthesized in Shulhan Arukh 551, give this concrete expression: we minimize our profit-making initiatives and avoid building or renovation projects that are about increasing joy and pleasure (e.g. building a swimming pool or renovating a display space for art). This frames the mood that other traditions connected with the 9 days, which attempt to foreshadow the coming sadness of 9 Av through various ascetic deprivations.

As is the case with regard to all practices connected with 9 Av, there is a plausible read of Jewish history that sees all of these practices and 17 Tammuz as obviated in light of the return of the Jewish people to the status of sovereign majority in the Land of Israel. Some have even argued that this dramatic turn of events vitiates 9 Av itself or at least renders it an optional fast. That central question is beyond the scope of this summary, which aims to describe practices leading up to 9 Av for those who feel that the successes of Zionism do not fully eradicate the ongoing significance of this period of mourning. See the end of this summary for a final thought on this matter.

Several practices in various communities are specific to the first 9 days of Av:

Weddings, Celebrations and Musical Instruments

There is a baraita on Yevamot 43a that gets understood to mean that during some unspecified period of time before the week in which 9 Av falls, people refrain from getting married or having parties celebrating betrothal (betrothal itself being permitted). Ramban applies this restriction to the first 9 days of Av. So rulesShulhan Arukh. [We noted that many European communitiesapplied this restriction throughout the 3 weeks between 17 Tammuz and 9Av. See that earlier summary for more on this.]


A baraita on Ta’anit 29b reports a number of traditions on laundering clothing, withR. Meir forbidding laundering from 1-9 Av, R. Yehudah forbidding laundering during the entire month of Av, and R. Shimon b. Gamliel forbidding laundering during the week in which 9 Av falls. Mishnah Ta’anit 4:7 sides with the view of R. Shimon b. Gamliel, allowing for doing laundry on Thursday (or Friday) in honor of Shabbat.

On Ta’anit 29b, there is a discussion regarding the precise nature of the ban on laundry. R. Nahman thinks it is about not wearing laundered clothes. In other words, this ban is similar to the ban on haircutting, in that it is about appearance. R. Sheshet thinks the ban is more expansive and includes a ban on doing laundry even if one only intends to wear the clothing after 9 Av. It is thus about both appearanceand refraining from constructive, restorative acts like that of laundering clothing. The gemara ends up concluding that we follow R. Sheshet.

While the gemara seems content to apply this restriction during the week of 9 Av itself, many European communities reverted to R. Meir’s position and forbade wearing laundered clothing or doing laundry during the first 9 days of Av (see Maharil). Many communities did not apply this restriction to laundering children’s clothing, and Rema indeed rules that one can launder any kind of clothing that is regularly soiled to the point where it can no longer be worn (as is often the case with children’s clothing and adult undergarments).

Other interesting discussions emerged regarding what counts as “laundry”. Already in the Talmud, a Babylonian text suggests that the laundering of clothing in Babylonia is not as effective as that of the Land of Israel (likely because the rivers and streams in Babylonia were much fuller of silt and slower flowing). Therefore, the text claims, only ironed clothing falls under the prohibition. Subsequent interpreters and authorities argue over their own local conditions.

A bottom line sensible rule for observing the ban on laundry during the 9 days in the contemporary world seems to be: Don’t do laundry in a washing machine if at all possible and certainly don’t iron or dry clean clothing during this period. And don’t wear clothing that gives off an obvious impression of just having been laundered or dry cleaned (as opposed to T-shirts and other more basic items of clothing that don’t look so different when freshly cleaned). This includes brand new clothing that has never been washed, ironed or dry cleaned, but which still contributes to an appearance inappropriate for this time period. In general, there is no leniency to wash clothing in honor of Shabbat once one reverts to R. Meir’s position on laundry, though a number of later authorities permit laundry for Shabbat if one has nothing else to wear.

Meat and Wine

It is clear from the Talmud that there was only a ban at eating meat and drinking wine during the last meal prior to 9 Av (unless the day before 9 Av was on Shabbat). Nonetheless, more stringent practices emerge. Rambam is already aware of those who stop eating meat at the beginning of Av (with the exception of Shabbat) andRa’aviah reports both this practice as well as a practice not to drink wine during this period. These restrictions get cited in the Shulhan Arukh and are endorsed as normal practice in the Rema, with exceptions made for celebratory feast, such as a circumcision or the completion of a major section of Jewish learning. Rema makes clear that this practice even extends to Havdalah, and thus if wine is used for havdalah, it should, if possible, be drunk by a minor who is present. Alternatively, one could use another acceptable liquid for Havadalah, such as beer or juice.

With regard to beer, note that the main thrust of the practice surrounding meat and wine is their connection with the sacrificial order (see Tosefta Sotah 15:11) rather than the pleasure they give or the alcoholic content of wine. Beer and other alcoholic beverages are thus acceptable during this period, since these were never offered on the altar in the Temple.


The Talmud contains no restrictions on bathing during this period, including on the day before 9 Av. Nonetheless, Rambam is already aware of a practice of refraining from going to a bathhouse during the week in which 9 Av falls. This seems to be limited to bathing in heated water. Ra’aviah reports a practice not to bathe for the first 9 days of Av and Terumat Hadeshen argues that this applies even to cold water, like swimming in a river. [There are several disagreements as to whether one can be lenient on Friday afternoon as part of the preparation for Shabbat.] In any event, even for those observing this practice, it is always permitted to bathe in order to remove dirt; the focus here is on bathing for pure pleasure. Again, a common sense guideline: regular showering as part of a basic hygiene regime is permitted, but showers that are overly long or hotter than they need to be to avoid basic discomfort would be out of line with what this restriction is trying to accomplish, which is the achievement of a more ascetic pose leading up to 9 Av.


As a closing point, it is clear from every section above that these practices manifested themselves in a range of ways in different communities. For those who grew up with no particular practice and for those who feel that the contemporary State of Israel ought to impact this area of practice in a significant way, it is appropriate to think about observing some of these practices in their more moderate forms. For instance, one might only refrain from bathing in hot water during the week in which 9 Av falls and might act similarly with respect to laundry and shaving/haircutting. These are just a few of the ways in which one might achieve a balancing of values in this area of Jewish practice, allowing for the maintenance of some ancient customs while still recognizing the dramatically different moment in Jewish history that we live in compared to many of our ancestors. Another challenge is to strike a balance between one’s individual synthesis and some basic communal norm, though a number of the activities above are more private and thus more amenable to varied practice even within a single community.

Amy Winehouse and Cremation, Meaningful Prayer and the Sabbath of Vision - Shabbat -O-Gram

Shabbat Shalom! It's good to be back and I look forward to seeing everyone at our outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat service this evening at 6:30. I want to thank everyone for holding the fort while I was away, including those who gave divrei Torah and led services. I'm especially appreciative of Cantor Mordecai and Rabbi Michelle Dardashti for their efforts. BTW, you can see a nice welcoming piece on Rabbi Dardashti in this week's Jewish Ledger.

If you haven't had the chance to take a look at some of the photos I took in South Africa, you can find them here. I've thrown in a few more (but thankfully not all 3,000).

Since the last O-Gram, several pieces I've written have appeared and may be of interest, including one highlighting our Friday night service: Laugh. Cry. Love: Liberal Judaism Lives. JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen has also addressed the issue of worship renewal in a two part essay: See Meaningful Tefillah in the Synagogue and Meaningful Tefillah in the Synagogue, Continued, and join in the conversation that follows his comments.

One suggestion he makes is that we take time to learn about the prayers. I'll be doing that during Shabbat morning services this month. Join us tomorrow for the first of the series, "Prayer and Purpose," where we'll be focusing on "Prayers of Light and Love," the two prayers that precede the Sh'ma in the morning service. In this way I hope people will begin to feel more connected to our traditional liturgy, able to find personal meaning in our ancient words. Join us in the chapel. And tomorrow morning we'll also have an ufruf for Laurel Schwartz and Harlan Neugeboren, who will be married next week. It's especially fitting because they met at services here last High Holidays and they will be married just before Tu B'Av, the Jewish Valentines Day.

Also, see these recent articles from the Jewish Week's "Hammerman on Ethics" column:

Amy Winehouse And Cremation

Q - I have always been under the impression that cremation and tatoos are forbidden by Jewish law. Yet the recent funeral for Amy Winehouse was very Jewish in nature although the singer - who was amply tattooed - had asked to be cremated. Is cremation now accepted in Jewish quarters?

Free Speech for Inflammatory Rabbis?

Q - The recent police detainment of prominent right wing Israeli rabbis accused of incitement has been in the news lately. At issue is the halachic tract "Torat Hamelech," (the "Torah of Kings") which allegedly condones the murder of non Jews in some circumstances. This is horrible, but how is it different from any artist or politician making an outlandish statement? Certainly those on the left have said equally inflammatory things. Are we discriminating against the rabbis? Aren't they entitled to freedom of speech?

A Thousand Terrorists for Shalit?

Q - Is the release of Gilad Shalit worth an exchange of a thousand Hamas prisoners, including some who have blood on their hands and could well kill more innocent Israelis (and others)?

Punching Your Ticket

Q - I frequently use a 10-trip punch card on the LIRR. Often the conductor fails to appear to punch the card before I get off. What is my obligation here? Should I tear up the card before it runs out to make up the difference or am I free to use it again as it is the responsibility of the railroad to collect the fare? This does not involve deception since I am ready to pay the fare.

Gay Marriage: A Moral Choice?

Q - I have some sympathy for gay marriage, just legalized in New York, but I can't understand how anyone who takes the Torah seriously could consider it the proper moral choice. I mean, the book of Leviticus is rather explicit in describing homosexuality as "an abomination." How can anyone get around that?

This Monday evening is Tisha B'Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. In Israel right now, there is much reflection on the basic of social justice, how a society should take care of its own. It has led to mass demonstrations and growing tent cities of protesters. See this Masorti Statement on the Israeli Social Justice Movement and Tisha B'Av. For the basics, see, from My Jewish Learning, Tisha B'Av 101. And join us in the social hall on Monday at 8 PM for the traditional chanting of the book of Lamentations with gorgeous slides of destroyed and rebuilt Jerusalem displayed on our huge screen (no, I won't sneak in some cute photos from my safari). Bring a flashlight! Also, for the first time ever, we'll be having an afternoon service on Tuesday, Tisha B'Av day at 1:30 PM, in addition to our regular morning minyan.

Warm wishes to you and to the entire Jewish people for a Shabbat of deep meaning and reflection on this Shabbat of Vision, Shabbat Hazon.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Amy Winehouse and Cremation (Hammerman on Ethics)

Amy Winehouse And Cremation

Q - I have always been under the impression that cremation and tatoos are forbidden by Jewish law. Yet the recent funeral for Amy Winehouse was very Jewish in nature although the singer — who was amply tattooed — had asked to be cremated. Is cremation now accepted in Jewish quarters?

A – The 27 year old British singer was cremated and yes, she was bedecked with tattoos . Since tattoos are a topic I’ve addressed recently on these pages, I’ll focus here on whether it was appropriate for her to have had a traditional Jewish funeral, with a rabbi, shiva and all the trappings, when her body was not laid to rest in the traditional Jewish manner.

Unlike other liberalizing trends in contemporary Jewish life, there has been no great clamor for cremation rights. So the ancient taboo has retained its potency – in theory at least. The practice of cremation is something foreign to Judaism, and that runs across the board, for all denominations. Surely the Holocaust plays into this in our generation (although I’ve recently heard of some Jews desiring TO be cremated precisely in order to show solidarity with Holocaust victims – a practice that in my mind is counterintuitive), but the rationale goes to the heart of what it means to be a Jew. We believe that human beings are created in God’s image; there is something about each of us that is of infinite value. Our bodies are therefore sacred and should not be summarily destroyed. If we treat the dead with dignity, the hope is that we will treat the living with the same measure of respect. The Nazis did the opposite, of course, branding people like cattle, crushing them like insects and slaughtering them like sheep.
That having been said, rabbis should always be looking toward to needs of the mourners and in many cases officiate at memorial services and shivas, regardless of how the deceased was interred. There are rulings allowing for the interment of ashes in a Jewish cemetery. Some rabbis might even officiate at that burial and others would officiate, at the very least, at a service taking place elsewhere, before the cremation occurs.

Had I been asked to officiate at Winehouse’s cremation, my response, to quote her most popular song, would have been “No, no, no.” But I would have done the funeral, and with an immense sadness having far less to do with how she adorned the outside of her body than with the substances she put into it.

There’s no denying the tragic nature of this death, even as many of the details remain unknown. Winehouse’s honesty and fragility have had a deep impact on her fans and her death should be a wakeup call as to how we revel at watching celebrities self destruct (see Lohan: Lindsay and Sheen: Charlie).

A death like this should not be fodder for gossip columns. We should strive to salvage a modicum of dignity amidst the media circus that engulfed her soul long before the flames incinerated her body. The real ethical issue here is not how Amy’s corpse was destroyed after she died, but how so many burdens and pressures conspired to destroy her while she was alive.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Masorti Statement on the Israeli Social Justice Movement and Tisha B'Av

English Translation of Masorti's statement

The Masorti movement in Israel will designate Tisha B'Av as a day of solidarity with the “tent protest” movement. On the evening of the fast, and for the duration of the day, we will hold events connecting the destruction of the ancient Temple with this struggle for the future of our homeland; linking the “senseless hatred” in their time with the gaping economic disparity in Israel today.

The Masorti movement emphasizes that social justice is among the most basic principles of Judaism and that for thousands of years the Halachah has harkened to the cry of the weak. We see the emerging shift of national priorities and the renewed vitality of the people in its land as the fulfillment of Zionism. The Masorti movement, as a religious movement, calls upon the government of Israel to concern itself with the welfare of the weak and disempowered in the society - not from the perspective of charity, but from that of justice. We call upon Israel to repair the historic failures which have brought the middle class to the brink.

The continuing erosion of the middle class in the State of Israel in the last few years strikes at the heart of democracy. It requires the government of Israel to alter the national priorities in a profound and comprehensive manner; to be attentive to the cry of the people, and to make decisions which will enable young families, and all those who experience the challenges of Israeli life, to see their future in the land.

The State of Israel is the expression of the longing of the Jewish people through the generations. An engaged citizenry should be a point of pride for any democracy. As such we seek to strengthen the hands of the protestors and believe that change will surely come.

Tefillah in the Synagogue Continued

Here is part two of Chancellor Arnold Eisen's blog about prayer in the synagogue. he effectively makes the case for how we can enhance the prayer experience in Conservative synagogues.

You can see part one and respond to this essay at See his JTS bio andf home page here.

What shall we do to facilitate high-quality tefillah in Conservative synagogues, by which I mean tefillah that encourages encounter with God and reaches to the deepest layers of the self?
There is no one formula, of course. Jews bring different needs, backgrounds, beliefs, interests, and aesthetic sensibilities to the synagogue. They are lifted up in prayer by more than one kind of service. What "works" for me may leave you uninspired, and vice versa. Some congregations respond to this diversity by offering a variety of minyanim on Shabbat morning, making sure to bring all congregants together periodically so as not to lose the sense of being part of a single community. The following four guidelines for tefillah seem to me essential, regardless of a congregation’s size or the style of its worship:

1. Make sure the synagogue is a real community. Have you ever wondered at the opening words of the Mah Tovu prayer "Address fellow Jews . . . " before turning to address God? Encounter with the Creator is facilitated by our sense of connection to the fellow creatures gathered around us as we pray. Our kavanah is increased as a result of theirs; our burdens are eased, our spirit liberated.

A synagogue’s success as a house of prayer correlates directly with its standing as a house of assembly, a community of shared responsibility, celebration, and meaning.

There are many well-known, surefire ways to build community. Tefillah improves markedly as a result.

2. Make the synagogue a house of study. Prayer is rarely achievable without effort, despite the fact that prayer is at times the most natural thing in the world. For one thing, synagogue services use a fixed order of prayers that seek to channel individual kavanah and unite an assembly of disparate pray-ers into a congregation that—as one—rises and chants blessing to God. What is more, prayer does not come easily to modern men and women who do not normally make God a part of the way they account for things that happen in the world.

Study of the siddur helps to bridge the gap. The more we know and reflect on the Jewish texts and history from which the siddur arises, the more we know the meanings found in and brought to the prayer by Jews over many centuries; the more we ponder the tefillot and discover personal meanings in the words, the more tefillah can help us stand before God.

The Hebrew language assists mightily in that effort. It helps that my great-grandparents said these same words in the Ukraine and my cousins say them still in Israel and Argentina. I hope my children will say them after I am gone.

Learn Torah. Torah study, divrei Torah by rabbis or congregants, and discussions of the weekly portion and haftarah likewise help each of us to remember with gratitude "before whom you stand."

Focusing in depth on particular passages is a particularly effective means to increase kavanah. It puts in boldface, as it were, the passages that mean the most to us so that they rise in greeting and welcome as we make our way through the service on subsequent encounters. One such passage for me is, "It [Torah] is a tree of life to all who take hold of it"; another, describing the angels who model prayer for us mortals, calls them "all beloved, all clear-headed, all masters of their own desires, all doing with awe the will of their Creator."

Bring (metaphorically, at least) stereo headphones to shul. These enable you to hear the words on the page in one ear, and the meaning you have learned to attach to those words, with the help of shared learning, in the other ear. The playlist on your stereo will change over time. A verse you hardly noticed for years jumps out at you one day and gives you pause. New meanings may appear suddenly. You may find yourself singing a melody you cannot recall learning.

Add new voices to the prayers. The Rabbinical Assembly’s Mahzor Lev Shalem is so effective, I think, because it includes reflections by a range of contemporary authors, men and women of diverse beliefs and sensibilities. Our Sabbath services should do likewise.

3. Fill the synagogue with good music. This is urgently important for Conservative shuls. I cannot think of a single congregation that achieves meaningful tefillah in the absence of good music. A hazzan who knows how to reach into the depths of the soul makes all the difference to a congregation, modulating melodies that have stirred Jews for centuries with new tunes that capture who we are in this place in this generation—and infusing both with personal kavanah. Unfortunately, cantors who function as solo performers on the bimah have sometimes turned prayer groups into audiences and led many Jews to prefer services without professional cantors. With or without a hazzan, the point is to have music that speaks to the spirit in a way words never can, and that combines with the words on the page to achieve states of joy and devotion otherwise unattainable.

Musical instruments have of late revived Sabbath worship in quite a few Conservative synagogues. Congregations opposed to the use of instruments on halakhic or aesthetic grounds need to work extra hard—by means of a cappella groups, choirs, or commitment to learning melodies during the week so they can be sung with fervor on the Sabbath—to make sure that worshippers are not deprived of good music and the successful davening to which it is essential.
The sanctuary space must be suited to uniting its worshippers in song—not too large for intimacy, not cold or off-putting, well-designed acoustically.

4. Leave room for silence. Words and music sometimes cannot reach depths of feeling or insight as well as silence can. We come to shul for respite from the week’s incessant din of sensations and demands. Music, words, and silence, working together, can enable Jews for whom belief in God is difficult or fleeting to put aside their doubts for a moment, and pray.
I’m grateful every time this happens, in whatever kind of service, and frustrated when it does not occur. I am certain that great davening can take place in Conservative congregations, large and small, because I have experienced tefillah that "works" in all these settings on many occasions.

We owe it to ourselves as Conservative Jews to expend whatever effort is required to make all our congregations houses of prayer that arouse Jews, upon leaving them, to say "Ma Tovu" to one another. "This is a really good tent of Jacob, you know, a place where I am happy to dwell, an honest-to-goodness house of God."