Thursday, July 31, 2008

Morning Has Broken

Let me put my bias out front. I love daily minyan. It is one of the must unappreciated parts of Jewish life. The sense of community and belonging that come from daily prayer and the sense of peace it brings to the whole day, are feelings that I can not get if I pray alone and they make getting up early worth the effort.

I began my davening life just before my 13th birthday. My father bought me my first pair of tephillin and showed me how to put them on. Then he gave me a small siddur. Inside the cover was a list of about ten page numbers. He told me to learn those ten prayers first and when I got good at those ten, to add another new one. We did not have a daily minyan at our synagogue at that time (although there is a morning minyan now). My father and I sat together in the living room of our home, and prayed together every day until I went off to college. I continued to pray by myself until I discovered daily minyan when I started Rabbinical School in Los Angeles. In the minyan at Adat Ari El in Los Angeles, I became part of a group of old men (woman were not part of the minyan until a couple of years later), most of whom were well over 70. I learned to laugh and joke with them and shared their good and bad days. For the hour or so we were together in the morning and then again in the afternoon, we became close friends and looked out for each other. Eventually I learned to be Shaliach Tzibor, the one who leads the davening, I started reading Torah there and in my final year at the University of Judaism, I was the Ritual Director of the minyan at Adat Ari El.

I have gone to minyan every time I could, at synagogues all over the world. I have come to believe, as one of my minyan friends, Morrie would say, “It is the heart and soul of our synagogue.”

I came to terms many years ago that I would never be able to “sleep in” in the morning anymore. I came to realize that there would always be a minyan that I would need to attend before I would go about my work. Minyan frames my day. The morning (Shacharit) service helps me put my day into perspective. Saying the liturgy that I have come to know so well, gives me sacred space to put the activities of the day into proper perspective. “I had so much to accomplish,” says a poem I once found, “That I had to take time and pray” ( ). It now is rare that I lose patience and get angry at anyone during the day. My siddur has at the beginning of the service, “I hereby accept the obligation of fulfilling my Creator’s mitzvah in the Torah: Love your neighbor as yourself” as a reminder that we all have to get along. The early morning blessings for our body and soul and for keeping close to Torah and away from sin remind me of what I need to concentrate on when I am going through my day. The frustrations are just inconvenient; I try to keep my focus on what is important.
Ashrei gives me a chance to symbolically recite the entire book of Psalms three times daily. Shema gives me the chance to publicly affirm each morning and evening the theology that is at the core of my life. Three times a day I say the Amidah, adding my personal prayers for the health of family and friends, for justice and peace and often add a prayer for what is happening in my life as well. Others at Minyan can take off their Tephillin before Aleynu and rush on to work, I only remove my Tephillin after the last Kaddish and then I sit for a few moments more reading a book with a thought for my day.
In the afternoon, I set an alarm so I don’t forget to get to minyan at the end of the day. It helps me make the transition between work and home, so that when I get home for dinner and my evening responsibilities, the pressures and worries of my office are all put away until tomorrow.
There are barriers to joining a minyan. When we are beginners we need to learn the special melodies that go with daily prayer that are different from the nusach for Shabbat and Holidays. Since there are some who only come for Kaddish, it may take a couple of days until the “regulars” come and say hello. It is hard to always be welcoming to those who use the minyan and then forget about it for the rest of the year. Yes they daven fast, but they know the secret to daily prayer. We don’t have to all be on the same page all the time. When we find a prayer that speaks to us that day, we pause and spend some time there, and then catch up when that prayer has said all it will say that day.
I teach that anyone who wants to see a daily miracle should attend a daily minyan, either morning or evening. Every day we need to find ten all over again. What happened yesterday does not count. There can only be a minyan when ten adult Jews walk in that door. Some days I think we will never make it and suddenly it swells to twenty Jews. Other days I think will be easy and we struggle to get the tenth in the door.
We have been a lifeline to some who were living alone. We have strengthened those who have lost parents, spouses and yes, even children. All of us at minyan are wounded in some way and we support each other. The old guys often celebrate with good scotch, but I could never imaging drinking scotch before breakfast. In my minyan community, I can share what concerns me, and my senior friends speak with experience to let me know that my concerns are either well placed or not. They have been there before and I have learned much from speaking and listening to them. We are all graduates of the school of hard knocks and we have much to share with each other. Minyan gives us all a reason to get up each morning, so that we can be there for each other.
What is the value of saying the same prayers over and over again each day? Well, first of all the prayers are the same, but each day I find that I am different and a different prayer speaks to me. Second, peace comes into my life as I welcome familiar prayers back again each day. Third, over the course of the year, there are subtle differences in the liturgy that help me be sensitive to the passage of time and sensitive to subtle nuances in my life as well. Finally, as taught by Rabbi Max Kiddushin, there is a kind of “normal mysticism” that comes when we say the same prayers every day. There is something more that comes from praying familiar prayers over and over again that is not found in the translations on the opposite page. Prayer by prayer, each word, each song, each thought helps me discover a new way to find God in my life. If I am unsure, suddenly words pop off the pages that make me feel better. When I am sad, a familiar passage suddenly lights up with new meaning that brings hope and joy back into my life. When I am too full of myself, I find that the siddur helps me make room for God.
There is not a minyan in the world that does not miss a day from time to time. No matter how traditional the community, no matter what time the minyan meets, no matter how many members the congregation has. There is that special feeling that everyone gets when the tenth person comes in that door because that is the moment that binds the group together in prayer. If you ever feel alone and unappreciated, come to minyan early, and they will be overjoyed to see you and count you in their group. They do it not out of a sense of duty, but out of the joy that comes when we bind ourselves together as a community of ten.
Join a daily minyan. It will seem strange at first but the people there will welcome you to join them in prayer. Keep coming and see how quickly they warm up to you. How they get you involved in their lives and how they intertwine so beautifully in your life. It is almost never intrusive or rude, only a group who care for each other as they thank God for daily renewing their lives.
At minyan, I have learned never to take tomorrow for granted, and to thank God for the gift of today.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

If I Could Turn Back Time

The eternal question: “What time will services be over?”
I suppose this question would not be so bothersome if the reason it was asked related to some important duty that needed to be performed after the service. At the end of Yom Kippur, when everyone is hungry, I can understand why people want to get out as soon as possible. These are the rare cases. The real question behind the question “What time will services be over?” is “How fast can I get out of here?” Non fundamentalist Jews seem to want to be anywhere but in a synagogue praying. If they have to be at the service, they will often come late to minimize the time they have to spend in prayer.
Ritual Committees and Boards of Directors have issued ultimatums to their clergy staff to have services end “on time”. Letters get written and apologies made when services run “late”. It is not just a Jewish problem either. One Christian minister, I am told, tells his congregation that the service will be over “When they have nothing more to talk to God about.”
I agree with Educator Joel Grishaver, that the real issue that underlies our question is never about time, it is about engagement. Grishaver talks about the other big issue in Judaism, the amount of time we require our children to be in “Hebrew” School. There is a common thread in both issues. As long as people don’t see religious education and prayer as important, they will find all kinds of ways to spend less and less time in both.
This puts the issue squarely in the hands of Rabbis and Cantors. I have way too many colleagues who complain that their own services are deadly boring. My good friend, Rabbi Jack Moline has chided them that if the services are boring then they have no one to blame but themselves. They set the tone of the service and it rests, almost exclusively in the hands of the Rabbis who put the service together.
But before you go out with this message to your own Rabbi and Cantor, remember that they almost always try to give a congregation what they want. Most of the Jews in the pews tell their clergy that they want the service to change as long as the change does not affect their own “favorite” part. Rabbis and Cantors regularly receive advice on how to change the service for the better that is contradictory and often at odds with what a Jewish prayer service is all about. Every generation tries to craft a service that they like, with words and melodies that call up warm memories and then fight tooth and nail to keep it that way forever, to the chagrin of those who came before and have different melodies and to those who will follow them who want to change these melodies.
That being said, there still is much that can be done to improve how we pray in synagogue.
First of all, we need to be true to the meaning of prayer. We neglect teaching about God and the meaning of prayer at our own peril. Many of our members have no idea who they are praying to and are not challenged to think their theology through. Our members are not “greenhorns” anymore. They are college educated and have the resources of the internet and more at their disposal. We should not be afraid to challenge them to spell out what they mean when they say words like “God”, “Prayer”, “Revelation”, “Redemption”, “Repentance” and “Torah”. Dr. Arnold Eisen, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America would also have us add “Mitzvah” and “obligation”. Rabbi Sharon Brous, on the website of her congregation, has every board member’s name listed with some of the reasons they are active in the congregation. When our members have an understanding about why faith, God and Torah are important, they will have a better understanding of why they are in synagogue in the first place.
Next we will have to remember that prayer is a very personal and individual process. That is why it is becoming less likely that any one service can fill all the needs of every one of our members. The days of “one service fits all” is coming to a rapid close. We need to fall back to an earlier format where different groups of people had their own service that they did in their own way, at their own time and with their own melodies. We need to get away from the big box service and open instead small, intimate prayer groups that perhaps only come together as a community for a communal meal or collation after all services are finished.
I like to listen to a good singer as much as anyone else and I know many Cantors who are beautiful singers and accomplished musicians. But there are too many concerts on television, on cable, on line and in the concert halls for people who want to pray to sit through another. Many congregations are opting to go without a Cantor so that the congregation will have to pick up the slack and lead the service. I would hope that a modern Cantor would understand that the real job today is to teach congregants the melodies and nusach of our liturgy and enable them to lead and participate in the service. We need Cantors who can write the music that will change the way our congregations will experience prayer using all the tools that this kind of composing can bring to bear. We need relevant prayers, to be sure, but we also need relevant music. I have already written that there are composers who are not Cantors who have changed the way our congregations sing. If Cantors want to make a difference, they need to use the skills they have to go beyond these non-cantorial composers and create a new golden age of liturgical music for our congregations.
Many have written about how we need to get away from our services as a “show” with a Rabbi and Cantor in the front and everyone seated theater style in the room. We need to have more movable chairs so that our members can see each other when they pray and sing and the Rabbi and Cantor must move among them, not stand in the front. At least they should face the same way as the members to be a part of the congregation not separate from them. High bimahs that have clergy “standing over” the congregation must be torn down and the wall between the bimah and the seats must be removed.
There has been a lot of ink spilled over using musical instruments at Shabbat Services (There is no reason not to use them at daily minyan but I don’t see people demanding that change.) For the most part this is a false issue. Musical instruments in a place that has not had them will be, at best, a curiosity for a while and then things will return to what they were before. It is not the instruments that make the difference, it is the music itself. The right music, with or without instruments, will draw people in. There are just as many exciting congregations who only clap their hands on Shabbat as there are those with guitar, drums and keyboard.
Cutting and changing the liturgy is also a critical issue. The first part of this issue is the language problem of Hebrew text. When someone says they don’t understand the words they are praying, they don’t mean that they can’t translate the Hebrew, because that translation is often right on the opposite page! What is not understood is the reason that this prayer belongs in this place. We all sing songs when we don’t really know the words, because the music inspires us (Kol Nidre, for example is all about music, for the words are about as unspiritual as you can get.) Jews will sing in Hebrew if they have an understanding about the importance of this one prayer. We have a hard time trying to teach why we need a long string of psalms at the beginning of the service, why we repeat so many prayers so many times and how to use the liturgy as a springboard to touch the pain and gratitude that is in our hearts. Most of the time, all we teach our congregation is that everyone needs to be on the same page at the same time. We need to teach that it is OK to spend some time on a page that speaks to us, and let the rest of the congregation move ahead and we can catch up later.
We should challenge ourselves and our members to write personal prayers and share them with the congregation. We need to make a place for this in the service. I was in a congregation where the Bar/Bat Mitzvah stood before the ark as the Torah was put away and offered a personal prayer. Every week a Jewish adult should be asked to do this for the congregation. It is an exercise that will change the life of the one offering the prayer and change the lives of all those who listen to it. We live in a technological age where we should be able to add new words and translations to our prayer books regularly, and not feel tied by the bound texts we currently use. We print up announcements for the congregation, why not print up special prayers to be inserted in the service each week or a selection for the month.
Rabbi Brous has taught that our services should reflect the lives of our congregation. The Shabbat service before a natural disaster should not be the same as the one that comes after it. She is correct. We need to find ways to tailor the service to the mood of the congregation and the mood of the country. Our members do come to synagogue when they are celebrating and when they are sad. They come when they are happy and when they are insecure with themselves and with the world. They come to pray for loved ones who are sick and to find meaning in the face of death. There should be something in our service to speak to these needs.
I recently attended a theater production on a Showboat on the Mississippi River. The actors came out at the beginning of the performance and insisted that the audience participate in the show. We were to boo the villains, cheer the heroes and express our happiness or dismay with what the characters were saying. I have been to Baptist churches where this is so common that when I spoke, they verbally encouraged me on and were right in there with me as I shared my message. Rabbi Eugene and Annette Labowitz say that we should swap our sermons for a story that has a message for the congregation. Others go out into the congregation and engage them in learning, to struggle together with a difficult text. Storahtelling, the group in NY that makes the Torah Service come alive believes that a good song in the right place can help bring the message home. We need to do more to put the focus on the lesson and not on the Rabbi.
Dr.Ron Wolfson, has written a book on how to make our synagogues more welcoming. (This is a topic all of its own!) His method is to visit any religious institution that gets a huge crowd at services and then he ask them how they do it. There are many models out there of successful liturgy and engaging services. We would do well to visit them, understand them and then adapt their ideas into our own communities. Let me also add here that there are other, non liturgical issues with our service. We functionally exclude from the congregation young families if we don’t offer babysitting. We exclude the elderly if we don’t have large print books and hearing assistance. We exclude the disabled when our buildings and our bimah are not accessible. We exclude the intermarried when we don’t address their needs in the service. We exclude Jews with little Jewish education when we don’t have pamphlets with transliterations and explanations of what the service is all about.
The movie trilogy, “Lord of the Rings” consisted of three very long movies. I never heard a complaint that any of the movies were too long. Time problems are problems of engagement in the service. If we make the service come alive, they will come and they will stay. Let us encourage our Rabbis and Cantors to use all of their creative talents and we will soon reap the blessings of a fully engaged community.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

You Don't Send Me Flowers Anymore

One of the topics that always comes up when lay leadership or Rabbis talk about Conservative Judaism is why things can't be like the "good old days". Back in the "heyday" of our movement, back in the 1950's, congregations were large, suburban and filled with families with lots of children. It was the center of Jewish life. Fathers, Mothers and Children had many activities to fill their days and there was a sense of community that everyone felt they needed to join. One could not be a "full" member of the general community without membership in a religious institution so everyone was a member. We were drawing members who were disgruntled with the Orthodox movement in this country and those who wanted more than what Reform was prepared to give them. So our congregations were growing like crazy.

We may all agree that those days are gone. We only need to read the above paragraph to understand that the world has changed in the last 60 years. For better or worse, we live in a different reality. We can look at all the demographic changes and instinctively understand that we can not live in the past. So why is it that Conservative Judaism can't get it's act together and grow? It is not the fault of Jews, or even synagogues. Members and congregations are all struggling. Everyone is trying to find the solution to why our movement is shrinking, yet the answers are painfully obvious. We have set our benchmark as the way things were in the 1950's. We can not be the movement between Orthodox and Reform because there really is no one seeking that space between them anymore, at least not like there was six decades ago. Our Jews are not looking for a movement, they are looking for God, and if we show them how we seriously search for God, we can ask them to join us in our quest. Being a movement that is "between Orthodox and Reform" is the wrong benchmark and it directs us to the wrong goals. Our vision is limited, so our results are limited too. It is time to face the world and revision our place in it.

There are those who say that Conservative/Masorti Judaism is aging and dying, that we have failed to inspire and motivate our congregations.
The facts of this are correct, we don't have as many young Jews joining our synagogues. I believe that there are great changes taking place in Judaism today and our communities have yet to adjust to the changes. It is still true that people only join a "full service" congregation when they have children, just as they have done for almost a century. One of the main differences, however is that today, parents have their children when they are 35 instead of 25. Our congregations are aging because parents are aging. Take a look and see how many 40 year old parents we have in our pre-schools. We have lost 10 years in the lives of young Jews because we see ourselves only as a place for "families with children" There are young Jews, lots of them, but they are not interested in our synagogues which are still "business as usual" i.e. waiting for couples to have children. Young Jews marry later, often only when they are ready to have children. They live together, sometimes for 5-10 years before they marry and then return from the honeymoon pregnant. Why should they join a congregation that has no programming, religious or social for these young Jews? There are congregations who have attracted younger Jews but our movement still does not embrace these kind of synagogues. We don't really publicize their programs nor learn from their experiences. Why? I think it is because we are still clinging to the older model.

There are others issues too. Let us look at synagogue music. There is new music for liturgy being written every day, but how much of it finds its way into our synagogue? Most of the Cantors and those trained by Cantors are using music that is almost 100 years old, from the beginning of the last century! Besides Adon Olam and L'cha Dodi, how much new music do we really see in our congregations? Part of this problem is that the people writing this music today, are not trained Hazzanim. They are lay people expressing their spirituality through their musical talents. Instead of co-opting this talent and embracing the new music, instead of refining the trend and writing their own music, Hazzanim bemoan the loss of cantorial music from the "golden age". I believe that we are beginning a new "golden age" of liturgical music and Hazzanim and congregations ignore this at their own peril. I like my "oldies" as much as anyone else, but there is no point in bemoaning the fact that my favorite music is not played on "top 40" stations anymore. This is not about musical instruments on Shabbat or no musical instruments on Shabbat. Musical instruments will only bring attention as a curiosity for a limited time. If the music is right, a service a cappela or with instruments will draw Jews to our services.

Let us look at learning. Have we done all we can do to make the Torah Service more interesting? It is not about full or triennial readings, it is about engagement. While having an aliyah is interesting for the family who is honored, take a look as what is happening to the others who are in the congregation. They are as unattached as they can be. We need to discuss how we can engage our members in the Torah Service. How can we do this? There are models out there that have just never gained traction. Do we discuss the parasha with the congregation between alioyot? Do we challenge congregants to dig into the text before we start to read? Does the congregation ever get a chance to discuss the interesting comments at the bottom of "Etz Hayyim" or do they just sit there and watch what is going on in front? Far too few congregations have any kind of discussion either before or after the service. Can't change the "Bar/Bat Mitzvah show every week? Why not offer a Torah discussion in the chapel or in a classroom or even in the Rabbi's study during the Torah service for those who are interested. There will be plenty of Jews left in the main service to hear the students recite their haphtara. Check out "Storahtelling"( for a radical Torah adventure and then see how we can make it a part of our more halachic service.

Another way we live in the past can be found in our sanctuaries. We are still building large synagogues with fixed pews as the standard for our movement. Fixed seating is just not the way we need to go. Take a look at many successful congregations of any denominations. Modern prayer spaces need movable chairs. Worship space today should require that pray-ers need to see the faces of those with whom they are praying. We don't need theater seating with everyone watching the Rabbi and Cantor. In the round? Maybe; certainly in a semi circle where people can see each other. If we try that configuration for services we will see an immediate difference.

In our world today, not everyone comes to a synagogue for a religious service or to provide a religious education for their children. Synagogues today have to have many ways to enter the Jewish world. One of these ways is Social Action. How many Conservative congregations have really active Social Action/Social Justice groups making a difference in our communities? Do we feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, support for those recovering from addictions, lobby our representatives? (When was the last time one of our congregations sent a delegation to Washington DC or a state capital to lobby our legislators?) Do we support our local volunteer fire and ambulance corp? Do we open our doors for town hall meetings for neighbors and the larger community? When we ask someone to join a congregation, are we asking them to just sit in a seat a few times a year, or do we challenge them to greater commitment in life? I know absolutely that there are USCJ congregations that are doing this but they operate almost alone. Where do we highlight their work and where do we encourage others to follow their lead?

Permit me one final example of misguided visioning. We no longer live in a world where one size fits all. Small congregations can focus on the needs of those who are their core constituency. Larger congregations need to have more diversity to meet the needs of their large and varied community. We need to experiment with alternative minyanim where people can try out different ways of practicing their Judaism. If Conservative congregations don't provide these alternatives, then our members will go to the synagogue/temple that does. In the synagogue world today, we are so attached to the B/M show service that most weeks, our members only want to come if they are friends of the family. We complain that the B/M takes over the synagogue; so why let them? If we have smaller alternatives, we will soon see smaller more intimate B/M services with happier students and happier families.

We live in a world where Rabbis and Synagogues have to work together to compete in this world. We should be promoting models that work instead of bemoaning what we have lost. We are still looking backward in too many cases, when we need to be looking forward.

Everything I have mentioned are all programs out there in the open market for those with vision to see and understand. It is up to us Rabbis and Congregational leadership to embrace these models and move these models forward. I know that there are many forces in an established congregation that don't see this vision and don't want to leave the models of the past behind. But if staff and lay leadership develop a common strategy and language to work on these changes, a new direction can be achieved. The role of the movement, i.e. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Theological Seminary is to be there to help us learn about new approaches and guide us to find new solutions of our own. We should not dwell on the frustrations. We need to be motivated by the future.

I have been a Rabbi in the pulpit for over 25 years. I should have many good reasons to be frustrated that our congregations don't do more and our Movement does not do more. Instead, I try to motivate myself to do more to make Conservative/Masorti Judaism and the synagogues that I lead, the fine jewels that I know they can be.

I would love to hear your opinions and I invite you to leave a comment. Just click on the link below.