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 – April/2020

A Passover thought.

 The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is related to the root tzar meaning “narrow.” Most of Egypt’s population lives in a narrow band on either side of the Nile or its delta. When you are in mitzrayim, you are confined to a narrow, constricted space. That’s what it means to be in slavery – to live in confinement.

Slavery can be physical, financial, emotional, or intellectual. We can be enslaved to an idea, unwilling to entertain that we might be wrong, or unwilling to hear alternative points of view that might change our position. We can be enslaved to a dead-end job we can’t afford to leave or a well-paying job whose stress is slowly killing us. We can be enslaved to fear, anger, jealousy, mistrust, or even love.

What is it that enslaves you? Are you held hostage by your memory? Were you hurt or wronged year ago, and even today are still carrying the pain? Consider the lesson of this Zen story of two Buddhist monks:

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a beautiful woman, fine dressed in silk, also attempting to cross. She asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman on his shoulders so her dress would stay dry, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on with his journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.

Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could not contain himself any longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted even to touch a woman! How could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river a long time ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

A good memory can be a curse. Forgetfulness can be a blessing. What are you holding onto from your past that is keeping you from living a mentally and physically healthier life?

Think of the things that keep you imprisoned in mitzrayim. Make a list. Write them down. And this Passover, choose one of them and free yourself. Celebrate the seventh day of Passover, the day of crossing through the Reed Sea, by singing a song of freedom from something in your past that enslaved you.

This is the message of Passover. Free yourself from the things that enslave your body and mind, physically, financially, emotionally, and intellectually.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • mitzrayim – Egypt
  • av’dut – slavery
  • heirut – freedom

Divre Harav – March/2020

A Sabbatical is a wonderful time to step outside the normal routine and explore new pathways of learning. It is also a time for self-care, to step back from the ongoing stress of caring for a congregation and take care of only myself and my family. I returned from Sabbatical refreshed, reinvigorated, and renewed. I am blessed with congregational leadership who have given me this time. I am grateful to Toby Dolinka, Diane Rayor, Ken Strauss, Sheryl Siegel, Diane Baum, Melissa Hillman, and Fred Wooden for sharing divre Torah and leading Torah study, and Barb Wepman and Deb Johnston for handling administrative and programming questions in my absence.

But I am most grateful for Stuart Rapaport, who make sure that weekday and Shabbat services flowed smoothly. Without Cantor Stuart, my Sabbatical would not have been possible. We get by from time to time without him, but it has always been a tremendous relief to welcome him back. The forty-five year era of Cantor Stuart, though, will come to an end on October 2, 2021. He has informed me of his intention to retire following the fall holidays of 5781.

We have known for years that we needed to look beyond Stuart and identify and train individuals to read Torah and services, and we have taken some steps towards that end. However, we now have a firm date. When he retires, 18 months from now, our congregation will deeply miss him. He has made his mark on all of our Shabbat and Festival services, leading and reading Torah, teaching B’nai Mitzvah students and adults, a beacon guiding the music and liturgy of our prayers. He has been a remarkable Bima partner. No one will miss him more than me.

Looking forward, we need to get serious about preparing to replace Stuart. You may remember a program that USCJ used to run back in the 90s and early 2000s, known as Imun. It was an 8 day retreat seminar at Ramah, and its goal was to teach lay leaders how to take on roles such as leading services, reading Torah, and delivering a dvar Torah. USCJ has updated and reimagined this program to meet the needs of today’s small congregations and their lay leaders. Imun 2020 is a collaborative program of USCJ, the Rabbinical Assembly, and the Cantors Assembly. Its purpose is to empower lay leaders of small and remote congregations to fill certain roles in their congregations such as leading a Shabbat or weekday service, reading Torah, delivering a sermon, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, or officiating at a baby naming or a funeral.

The program has 3 parts: 

1.          Two Zoom webinars on the evenings of April 30th and June 10th, to begin to get to know other participants and to set learning goals.

2.          A 5-day, 4-night retreat July 9-13, 2020, at Ramah Darom, one of the premier summer camps of the Conservative Movement, located on 185 acres in Northern Georgia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

3.          Optional peer coaching when participants return home.

Participants must know how to read Hebrew and have some familiarity with the liturgy. More information can be found here:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Imun2020App

Ahavas Israel has a generous adult education scholarship fund, the Belle and Israel Shapiro Fund, which will cover all costs, tuition and travel, for anyone who wants to go to IMUN 2020. In exchange, we expect that participants will lead services or read Torah at least twice a month. For those whose Hebrew is not quite good enough, we offer Hebrew classes. For those who want to begin to learn but are not able to commit to IMUN 2020, Stuart and I will meet with you privately.

This will be a new chapter in the life of Ahavas Israel. Those who wanted new or different music, now is the time for you to step up and learn how to lead a service and help us bring those new melodies and new ways of dovening into our services. To slightly paraphrase Exodus 10:9, “Let us go forward into the future with our young and our old!”

Hebrew (and Yiddish) Words of the Month:

  • hazan – Cantor
  • doven (Yiddish) – pray
  • Lein (Yiddish) – read Torah
  • shaliah tzibur – prayer leader
  • ba’al k’riah – Torah reader