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

Matisyahu Dovens at the Intersection in Grand Rapids

Matisyahu comes out on stage complete with the large black velvet kippah (thank God, not advertising Mashiah – he’s broken ties with Chabad), tzitzit hanging out, and peyot swinging.  The crowd – 1,500 or so, whatever the Intersection in downtown Grand Rapids holds – goes wild.  I can’t figure out why this group of Grand Rapidians is so excited.  He begins singing.  The first song is about a princess yearning to return to the King.  I wonder how many of his fans have any idea that he is talking about the soul yearning to be near God, and how many are just attracted by the energy, the volume, his voice.  He’s not just singing, something that the crowd intuitive knows, even though they might not be able to name what he is doing – dovening.  He’s praying.  He’s leading the crowd in prayer.  His body is swaying back and forth.  He continues with a song about the death of the body – created of earth, destined to return to the earth.

Later on, both the music and his dancing become more conventional, less like something you’d see in a synagogue.  But near the end of the evening, after a wild dance, sweat visibly dripping off his peyot, his kippah falls off.  He grabs a towel, and puts it over his head and shoulders, like a tallit.  We’re now back to the dovening.  His mood changes.  He hums a melody – “My help comes from Adonai, maker of heavens and earth.”  I may be one of a small handful in the room who understands the Hebrew words that go with that melody.

He begins dovening again, singing about Jerusalem, praying for the messianic era.  It is clear to me, in this context, that his prayer reflects not just a Jewish messianism, but the hope that his music will unite Jews, Christians, non-Theists, all those represented by the bodies in the room that evening, in worship of God together, creating a beautiful messianic moment.  May we see the day.