Divre Harav – November/2020

One of the results of the pandemic worldwide is the necessity of “doing Judaism” at home with less support from a community. Judaism has always been a home based religion, centered around the idea of each individual responsible for their own engagement with mitzvah. The requirement of minyan adds a community aspect to prayer, but prayer itself is an individual obligation.

The Zoom minyan or the broadcast of a service places a greater share of the responsibility of a spiritual experience on the individual. It’s easier to zone out and wander away when you’re not in the room with other people, standing, sitting, and hearing voices all around you. Some who are feeling unsatisfied by a Zoom minyan or by watching a broadcast of a service might therefore be wondering, how do I start a Jewish prayer practice? And how might my individual engagement with prayer enhance or support my engagement with a remote minyan?

Here are two paths to begin a Jewish Prayer 101 practice. What we generally refer to as prayer can be broken down into three major categories:

  • Meditation, which can be understood as quieting and preparing your mind for other forms of prayer;
  • Study, which can be understood as God communicating with you through sacred text;
  • Prayer, which can be understood as you communicating your needs, wants, and desires to God.

Although there is a long history of Jewish meditative practices, for most people, the prayer that feels most “Jewish” falls into the latter two categories.

The Shema consists of three paragraphs from the Torah – Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. it does not contain petitions addressed to God. Rather, it falls in the category of study. Through recitation of the shema, you will consider the role of love in your life; love of God, but also love of God’s creation – other people, animals, and nature. You will consider broadly the ways you express this love, intellectually, physically, and financially (with your heart, soul, and might). You will consider the consequences to the world around you of living rightly and wrongly (the second paragraph of the shema) and how remind yourself to stay on the right path (the third paragraph). The Shema is a total of only 20 verses, but there is a lot packed into those verses, enough that you might focus on a different lesson each day for several weeks before repeating a lesson.

The internal directions of the Shema are to recite the words twice a day, when you wake up and when you go to sleep. Any Jewish prayers can be recited in Hebrew, English, or any language you understand. Traditional synagogues are committed to Hebrew prayer because that is the language of the Bible and the historic language of our people, not because God doesn’t understand English. Part of your prayer practice could be to spend a little time learning what each Hebrew word means.

A prayer practice takes practice! Give it some time and you might consider keeping a journal of the thoughts that the Shema brings up for you. Let me know how it’s going.

Hebrew Word of the Month:

  • Tefillah – Prayer
  • L’hitpallel – to pray
  • Berakha/Berakhot – blessing/blessings

Divre Harav – October/2020

When this pandemic is over, we will have fundamentally altered the definition of community. A minyan has long been defined as a mini-community. The boundaries of minyan are defined by the space of a room. You are either in the room and in the minyan, or out of the room and out of the minyan. If the room’s door or windows are open, however, and if someone is leaning in the window or standing in the doorway, than the liminal space is included in the minyan-space. And that slight extension of minyan opened the door, so to speak, for a kind of online minyan – at least for exigent circumstances. We treat your computer screen as a window into another space. And if a collection of spaces are connected in real time and there are 10 individuals within those spaces, it is as if a collection of individuals have become a community, a minyan. 

We began our online Monday through Friday minyan as a temporary measure to maintain some semblance of connection as pandemic closures began cutting us off from human contact, never thinking that more than six months later, we’d still be meeting, approaching our (God willing) 150th consecutive weekday morning minyan. We have people participating regularly in our minyan who have rarely or never come in person. Their is no question that they form a community that looks forward to seeing each other every weekday morning. 

When we begin broadcasting our Shabbat morning services online, several of those who had been coming in person decided to try out the online service at home. It’s convenient, to be sure. It’s great for those who cannot travel to Grand Rapids every week, those who have other mobility challenges, and those with health concerns about being in a closed space with others. But it does not create community. There is no connection among those who are watching, or between the leaders and the watchers. The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has ruled that once a minyan is properly constituted, those watching may participate fully as if they were within the minyan, even saying Kaddish. But we need a minyan in the sanctuary for this to fully happen. So I have a request: If you are watching the broadcast and you hear me say that we are short of a minyan: if you are able to grab a mask and help make a minyan, would you come to the synagogue and help out?

Looking ahead another six month to when (again, God willing) we have an effective, widely-available, vaccine against COVID-19, how do we reconstitute our face-to-face community? How much of the virtual community do we retain, even though it takes away from our in-person minyan? We have fundamentally altered what it means to be part of a synagogue community. Can we take the best of the online opportunities and the best of the in-person minyan and build out from there? We can’t really eat together virtually – for that we need to be really together – but we can hold very effective and efficient meetings without taking the time and the gas to travel to the synagogue building. Can we create a hybrid weekday minyan, gathering some people in person and others through Zoom? Can we distinguish between weekdays and Shabbat and not let technology be a substitute for true community for our Sabbath service (at least for those who are able to join in person)?

In the meantime, those of you who are young enough to imagine being a part of a 22nd century Ahavas Israel will someday look back and know that you were part of an amazing era of synagogue transformation!

Hebrew Word of the Month:

  • Minyan – a quorum of 10 adults
  • Mei-ayin – “from where,” as in ‘Where are you from?’
  • Mi-nayin – “from where,” (Talmudic expression) as in ‘Where [do you know that] from?’, ‘How do you know?’

Divre Harav – September/2020

Over the past five months plus, I have become an expert in participating in prayer online. No matter what the status of COVID-19 cases might be in West Michigan in mid-September, some will not be comfortable in an in-person service. And Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur might be your first experience in a virtual synagogue environment. Here are some things you should know:

First, the service this year will be significantly different than in the past. We have designed it with the pandemic in mind. It will be shorter, to reduce potential exposure time of those sitting in the sanctuary, to acknowledge that wearing face-masks for a prolonged service is uncomfortable, and because we know that it is more difficult to remain engaged while watching a service through a screen.

We have crafted this service carefully, choosing prayers that are engaging, even while sitting at home. But in the end, the service is only as active as you are. The trick is to place yourself in a sacred frame of mind and imagine that you are sitting in your favorite seat in the sanctuary, no matter where you are physically located. Stand when the congregation stands, bow when the congregation bows. respond – out loud – when the congregation responds. Sing along with Cantor Stuart and read the English readings along with me. Don’t stand by and watch — Participate!

We are making High Holiday Mahzorim available for you to take home for each person in your household. Set aside your electronic devices and turn off the notification on the screen that serves as your window into Ahavas Israel. For 90 minutes (or so), follow along and contemplate the themes laid out before you in the liturgy. The season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time of renewal. Draw your attention to the areas in your life which would benefit from breathing new life into them. The New Year and the Day of Atonement is about strengthening relationships with family, reconnecting with friends, remembering to be generous, giving, and kind to yourself and others, establishing a prayer routine, and finding God at the center of your consciousness.

Leo Laporte, a tech journalist, describes the consumption of media as a “sit-back experience,” versus the “lean-in experience” of interacting with the content. I encourage you to lean into your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experience with an active posture and an active mind. If you take my advice, whether you are sitting in the pews or sitting at home, I virtually guarantee that you will be transformed!

Hebrew Word of the Month:

  • Mashgiah Ruhani – spiritual advisor

Divre Harav – Summer/2020

Even an optimist has to face reality now and then. And as much as I want to believe that life is going to switch back to normal this summer, I have accepted that there is a real possibility that we’ll be making significant changes to our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services this fall because it will not yet be safe for many of us to gather together.

Our Zoom services this spring have been a much needed opportunity for connecting with other people in real-time conversations through the windows on a computer screen. We’ve successfully convened a minyan every day, Monday through Friday, from the end of March to the beginning of May, and counting. But creating an engaging zoom experience requires my hands on the keyboard, turning on and off microphones, scrolling pages and announcing page numbers, as Stuart and I take turns leading pieces of the service. For Jews like me who believe that Shabbat is a time to refrain from turning on and off electricity and using devices, using a laptop or a mobile device is a violation of the sanctity of Shabbat.

In addition, convening a minyan normally requires 10 people in the same physical space. During the pandemic, when face to face contact carried life and death risks, I’ve used the concept of pikuah nefesh (saving a life) to allow for an expanded definition of minyan to include ten Jews in a zoom meeting, with near real-time audio and visual connection. When we can again gather in person, however, we’ll go back to requiring a minyan of 10 in the same physical space, although I expect that we’ll also continue to include additional participants via zoom. 

I’ve begun investigating different methods of broadcasting streaming video of our service on Facebook Live, Youtube, and other platforms, either with a scattered minyan present in the sanctuary or with no one present but Stuart and me. The central question in anticipation of an altered High Holiday experience is, how do we create an engaging, online experience that feels traditional and also respects traditional Jewish Shabbat and Festival practice? I’m hoping you can help me with that.

When you think back on your years of Rosh Hashanah experiences, what do you remember? What parts of the service feel essential to you? What part or parts of the service would not feel engaging to you if you were to consider watching a High Holiday service on a screen. How long could you see yourself sitting in front of the screen? An hour? Two hours? In such an experience, would you prefer a traditional 15 minute sermon or would you prefer a 30 minute teaching format with a text sheet provided in advance? Finally, what kinds of messages would you like to hear this fall? Have you had enough of coronavirus, or would you expect the service to focus on casting a theological frame around your fears, anxieties, frustrations, and ongoing sense of isolation?

Have I missed anything – what else should we consider that is important to your spiritual experience? Please let me know. Leave me a message at the synagogue, send me an email (Rabbi@ahavasisraelgr.org). I need to know what you are thinking.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • pikuah nefesh – saving a life
  • masakh – screen
  • hazramat media – streaming media 

Divre Harav – May/2020

Shabbat in April was a strange experience for anyone whose normal routine takes them to shul on Shabbat morning. We had nowhere to go.

When all air traffic in North America was grounded in the days following September 11, 2001, the skies were eerily quiet. And when all, or virtually all, communal prayer ceased in the Jewish community in late March and April, a different type of silence emerged. For some, the silence was filled with the calls to prayer issuing from their screens, coming from rabbis and cantors across the country, seeking to gather a minyan via Zoom or Facebook Live or some other online platform. For others, exhausted by endless meetings in front of screens all week, the chance to relax into Shabbat by withdrawing from screens was a precious retreat away from technology.

For some, the days stretched long, sitting along in the house, waiting for deliveries of mail and food. For others, college age children returned and the house grew busier and more crowded, as each person vied for private space in the house to work undisturbed or perhaps to communicate with friends. When the days blur together, especially for people not used to working from home, it is too easy to become the person whose work takes over life. When you remove shopping, eating out, seeing movies, working out, and running errands, work becomes the routine that shapes the day. And Shabbat can become one of the markers that helps us keep track of the weeks since we felt normal.

Shabbat, for me, became a refuge away from the the things taking over my life in isolation. I finished books and magazines that had been on my coffee table. I took a walk with Marisa. I took the dog for a walk. I waited for the weather to warm up enough to be comfortable riding my bicycle. And I reset my body, emotionally, spiritually, and physically, to prepare for the next week.

Because as I sit and write, I don’t know what our world will look like in May, I’ll conclude by sharing a Prayer for Healing and Strength and Wisdom in Response to the Pandemic.

Oh God, we turn to You at this time of peril seeking Your protection for us, our families and all humanity. We ask that You heal, in body and spirit, all those — in this country and throughout the world — stricken by this terrible new plague.

We ask that You strengthen and protect the nurses, doctors and all others who are placing their own lives at risk to care for the sick.

We pray for our leaders and their advisors at all levels of government and for all others who exercise just and rightful authority, asking that You give them insight, judgment and compassion as they make the many decisions facing our country that need to be made now and in the future. 

We pray, too, that You will guide and grant wisdom to all who are tirelessly working to develop new medicines and vaccines to cure and protect against this virus and ask for their success so that soon it may be defeated and this pandemic ended. 

And finally, we ask that You sustain and help all who, even though escaping illness, are finding their lives and the lives of their families in turmoil because of the consequences to our society of the disease.

As we seek Your assistance, support and mercy, we say, AMEN.   

© 2020 Roger Leemis
Permission to reproduce with attribution granted.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • bidud – isolation
  • Mageifa – pandemic
  • N’gif – the pathogen behind the pandemic
  • hisun – vaccine