Happy December and happy Kislev too, as both months began yesterday. Welcome also to almost the earliest Shabbat of the year. Candle lighting time for Stamford is 4:08 this afternoon. Technically it's a minute earlier next Friday, but why quibble? Another calendar quirk occurs on Sunday and Monday, December 4 and 5, when we begin adding a special line in the weekday Amida asking for rain (tal u'matar). If you are really interested in getting into the weeds of why a secular date determines when we begin saying a prayer, then you should read this rather complex article. It's fascinating that the date for beginning the recitation of a prayer in the Siddur is based on the agricultural calendar of Iraq.
Our service tonight will be a bit different. I'll be assisted by our seventh graders, who will be celebrating Shabbat here and then at my house for our annual Shabbaton. I'm pleased to add that a number of our TBE day school seventh graders will be joining us, which gives the kids a chance to renew old acquaintances and make new friends.
PLUS tonight we will welcome to our service a few dozen teens from our local BBYO chapter. This is BBYO's Global Shabbat, which, according to the website, showcases BBYO's "commitment to amplifying our voice as a community that is fortunate and grateful to celebrate the joy of Shabbat together as one united movement." It's great that BBYO is doing this, and we at TBE are thrilled to host. The Global Shabbat theme this year is "Gamechangers," and so tonight, for a change, we'll have a game - a Jewish identity game.
All this, and yet it will be very much our traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service. I encourage our adult community to join us, including parents of the seventh graders and teens, so that we can celebrate Shabbat as a truly multi-generational community. We look forward to Cantor Fishman's return from Israel next week, and another special service, featuring Banot in Concert.
This weekend we also celebrate those from our congregation who are being recognized by the UJF at its Winter Soiree, including Jill Kaplan, winner of the Harvey Peltz Leadership Award, and Gary Schulman, co Volunteer of the Year. Mazal tov to them, and thank you to them as well as to the UJF professionals who do so much for our community.
Israel on Fire
Last week's devastating fires have left many in Israel homeless and despairing. Along with all the other damage, Masorti communities in Israel have been severely damaged by the fires that have burned through Haifa, Zichron Yaakov and elsewhere. Here are
some ways we can help Israelis to rebuild:
Jewish National Fund Fire Relief - http://www.jnf.org/
Masorti Fire Relief - http://masorti.org/
UJA Fire Relief - https://www.ujafedny.org/israel-fire-relief-fund/
Someone with ties to the congregation sent me this urgent this help-wanted blurb:
Afternoon sitter for almost 4-year old son; must have valid driver's license and own car. Looking for someone who can pick up our son from school, bring him home, and help with afternoon/dinner/bedtime. Minimum 3 hours a day M-F. Please message firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Three Dimensional Judaism
On Shabbat morning, with our 7th and 6th graders joining us for another B'nai Mitzvah Club Shabbat (and we also have another Shabbabimbam tomorrow), we're going to take a closer look at two new surveys of American Jewry that have been released. This is in conjunction with the portion "Toldot," which means "generations," and is the perfect time to discuss the future of the Jewish people.
One survey is the Boston study that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. See the full study here and the executive summary here. See this report from the Boston Globe, and a commentary from the LA Jewish Journal.
The headline that people are focusing on is the dramatic decline of affiliation with the movements. For Conservative and Reform it is especially dramatic over the past decade (yes, Reform too), while Orthodox continues to lag far behind, at four percent. The biggest gainer is that ubiquitous category, "Jewish with No Religion." There is much to discuss about these new revelations.
Another major new study was released this week, "Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity." (download it here). The report is worth reading from start to finish, but to cut to the chase, here are some recommendations made at the end:
The broader Diaspora community should count as "Jews" only those who have a Jewish parent or have undergone proper conversion (that is, conversion by one of the established denominations). Self-defined Jews should be welcomed and respected but not officially counted as Jews.
Diaspora communities should be clearer in asserting through programs and actions, especially those aimed at intermarried families, that Judaism is not strictly a religion - but rather a civilization, a culture (in a broad sense that includes religion) of a people.
Israel ought to devise more pluralistic policies to encourage the emergence of a non-Orthodox Jewish culture - a culture that has the potential to play a role in the identity of all Jews.
Jewish households - in which as many members as possible are Jewishly connected and committed - should remain the ideal to which the community strives (even while the community recognizes and accepts the fact that many Jews who are important to the larger community marry non-Jewish spouses, and will continue to do so). Jewish communities are advised to take this ideal into consideration in choosing their leaders and role models.
Israel is obliged to make its contribution to clarifying the criteria for Jewishness by serving as an example and offering a clear and easy path for conversion of Israelis who immigrated under the Law of Return and who are not Jewish.
The bottom line is that in both surveys it is clear that distinct categories delineating the relative strength of Jewish identity among different groups are becoming much harder to draw. Synagogues, denominations and "religion" are still an important part of the equation, but far more Jews are likely to define their involvement on secular terms, as cultural or based on a sense of peoplehood.
The new report quotes JTS Professor Jack Wertheimer, who observed that when it comes to the US Jewish community, "questions of personal status have become irrelevant... and the community has no interest in enforcing its boundaries." He continues: "The watchwords today are inclusiveness, pluralism, trans-denominationalism, and 'journeys' leading to a 'self-constructed' Judaism tailored to the needs of each Jew."
I've always had a much broader conception of Judaism as a religion that encompasses peoplehood, culture and history. I've never seen the religion part as being exclusive of the others. As we refine our vision as a synagogue, I believe we need to better understand that most people tend to see the synagogue in those terms, and therefore pigeonholed into a small corner of their Jewish lives. But here that's not the case. It's always amusing for me to see visitors come to our Shabbat services and hear the cantor sing a secular Israeli song - or even show tune - with such emotion that in fact it becomes a prayer. To that all I can say is, welcome to the three-dimensional Judaism of TBE.
Spirituality/ethics/ ritual (a far more accurate term than "religion,") culture and peoplehood: you'll find it all here.
We most closely align with Conservative institutions, but our vision of Judaism is expansive. Just recently, we've also begun partnering with Aleph, the alliance for Jewish renewal, enabling us to benefit from some of the most innovative, cutting-edge spiritually based programs and communities out there. This is not a formal movement but a loose collection of learners and seekers, including communities like Romemu in New York and Nava Tehila in Jerusalem (who brought their music here this past spring). What we do neatly blends into what Aleph provides. Over the coming months we'll be reaping some benefits from our relationship with Aleph.
Our approach is very similar to the one expressed in a recent interview by Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu:
"At Romemu, we're doing authentic and deeply Jewish practice that is rooted in a deeper universal ethic. It's "part of a larger American zeitgeist, a larger American phenomenon in the latter part of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century. It is a seeker's culture, a culture where religious language is both valued and devalued simultaneously, where it's decentralized or neutered of its triumphalist overtones and patriarchal overtones, yet the authenticity of connecting with that language and maintaining or retaining it is still there. So, it's kind of walking a line between something that feels diluted and not authentic and something that is intensely orthodox and has the valence of insularity and being exclusive... (It's) for people who are turned onto God but don't see religions as absolutes but as fingers pointing to the moon. They really want the moon. So, you can walk in and go, "Oh! I don't know all this Hebrew, but my heart opens when I hear that melody. And, I'm kind of excited to learn the Hebrew and pray Jewishly and see what happens."
What makes this work - and at our best, what makes our services work too - is that even the most ardent agnostic is blown away, the one who relates to being Jewish only in terms of culture or peoplehood, the one who would be least likely to be found in a synagogue at prayer, is transformed by the experience. In addition, everyone feels welcomed by a service that treasures warmth and inclusivity.
So when people move up to our area from places where such services exist - and there aren't many - they can now look on the Aleph website and find us, link to our website and meet our clergy. Soon, hopefully they will visit, or check out the livestream of our service, and they will see that we offer the Three Dimensional Judaism they are looking for.
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