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, November 2016

For those of you who were out of town or unable to be at Ahavas Israel for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, I encourage you to download my sermons from our website or contact the synagogue office and ask Deb to mail them to you. I hope you will find the messages both inspiring and challenging.

Now that a very busy month of holidays has passed we return to a normal 6 day rhythm punctuated by a Sabbath break. It has been about six months since we instituted our “Torah Study Shabbat” service schedule. The early morning Torah study has attracted about a dozen or so serious participants so when we begin our service at 10:30, we begin with more energy then then the other weeks of the month. We have not yet noticed that many of the people who said that they wanted a shorter service have been coming on the second Shabbat of the month, but there are still six months left in the initial stage of the experiment. Our Junior Congregation will also meet on the second Shabbat of the month so that will give greater incentive for another population to join together.

Perhaps the Torah study or the shortened service will be a gateway that will help you feel more comfortable in the Ahavas Israel community. Shabbat can be a social or a religious or even an educational anchor of a Jewish community. I love seeing people hanging around the meeting room or the library, not wanting to leave after services. With several more volunteers to shop, prepare kiddush, and clean up, we could prepare enough Kiddush food for a light lunch. This would enable those who wanted to stick around to study in the library or bring board games or just socialize. This community can be whatever you want it to you, as long as you are willing to put the time into it.

As Theodor Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream – im tirtzu, ein zo agada!”

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • agada – story
  • halom – dream
  • midrash – story, typically a commentary

Building Community: Legitimate Programs vs. Gimmicks

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi

At  a recent meeting of rabbis of small and isolated congregations, we had a discussion about the difference between legitimate program ideas and gimmicks.

All of us struggle with building and maintaining our communities in a Jewish community which is shrinking.  There is a great temptation to grab ahold of any gimmick, trick, or slick program just to get people in the door.  Take these, for example:

Free iPad for the first person to arrive on Shabbat morning each of the next 5 weeks!

Next week – a 15 piece band accompanying the Shabbat morning service!

Tired at shul?  Starbuck’s coffee served before the rabbi’s sermon!

Sometimes we work hard to create a successful program which gets people through the door and into the seats on Shabbat morning, only to find out that all of the “non-regulars” who came and were excited by the program don’t return.  This kind of program is a gimmick – we might work hard and fill up the seats, but we haven’t made any long term impact on the community.

If, however, the program is built up over time so that it adds something to the community, it becomes a legitimate programming idea, not a gimmick.

The difference between gimmick and good programming idea can often be determined by whether it fits into the mission and vision statement of the congregation (see the end of this article for a statement of our mission and vision), and whether the organizing group is committed to maintaining the program for a long term period of time.

The three tongue in cheek examples I gave above do not support our mission as a congregation — it wouldn’t matter how many iPads we gave away, it wouldn’t affect the energy of our Shabbat community.

Scholar in Residence weekends can be an example of a very expensive one time program that might fit into the mission of the congregation, but doesn’t necessary have a long term impact – it brings people out once, but doesn’t build consistent community.

Our religious life committee in general has done well in choosing programming wisely and supporting it long term.  The Sanctuary Shabbat speaker series has been ongoing for 3 1/2 years, and I believe has contributed to our Shabbat community. This year, by the way, I feel especially good about integrating the Scholar in Residence into Sanctuary Shabbat and choosing a scholar who did not charge an outrageous fee.  We had an enjoyable learning-filled weekend and didn’t have to feel guilty about spending $6000 and not drawing DeVos Performance Hall size crowds.

We have consistent (and always fun) parties on holidays like Sukkot, Simhat Torah, Purim, Shavuot, and Lag Ba’omer.  Because they are an ongoing program, our community has come to expect and look forward to gathering together to celebrate holidays.

Help us continue to be successful! The Religious Life committee itself is relatively small, but the job is does is critical to the success and growth of our community.  The committee is therefore seeking to create a “Religious Life Auxiliary,” a group of people who would be on call via phone or email to come help set up or cook for a program, or clean up afterwards.  You will not be required to come to meetings – simply respond to an email request to show up a certain time on a certain date to help.  If you are willing to be a part of the Religious Life Auxiliary, please contact Rabbi Krishef (Rabbi@AhavasIsraelGR.org or 949-2840).

Mission Statement of Congregation Ahavas Israel:

Congregation Ahavas Israel creates a vibrant egalitarian Conservative Jewish community helping each individual follow his/her spiritual path using traditional Jewish practice.

Vision Statement:

To achieve our mission, we strive to be to be a community which embodies Torah:  To make every decision and every act reflect our commitment to Torah.