Tuesday, June 29, 2010

You Never Really Leave

I knew when I began at the synagogue that I might not be there more than a year. I knew that I'd be there only twice a month, for a weekend. Little chance to really bond with the community. I'd preach. Meet with the kids. Teach a class. Read some Torah. How much could I connect, really?

It's surprising how much you take with you when you leave, and how much you leave behind. I met older people who are struggling with loss of independence and looming health crises. I met kids who were overflowing with energy and questions. I met people who became dear friends and who are now struggling with their own health issues. I met people on life journeys and was privileged to help them to their next milestone. I was their rabbi, and now that I'm no longer there, I'm still there.

I still worry about the people with health issues or loved ones with health issues. I still want to answer all those kids' questions. I still want to know what questions my adult learners have. I want to be able to recommend books.

The time has come to leave, and yet part of me is still there, and they will always be with me. It's the challenge of the rabbi - of any pastor, really. When you leave, you don't really leave, not if you've done it right.

I have a colleague who speaks of rabbis as symbolic exemplars. I'm not perfectly clear what that is, but I think it has something to do with our representing God in people's lives. If we are accessible, God is accessible. If we are available to bring comfort, it's God (or the Jewish community) that is bringing comfort. It's a lot of pressure, but I've seen people's faces change when I walk into a room. It's not ME, it's The Rabbi. And I know that if I don't extend myself to my community, they do will not believe that God cares about them. That may sound arrogant, but in truth it's a very humble statement. Because it's not about me, it's about making God's presence being felt in a community. And when you make yourself accessible to others, they leave parts of themselves with you, and you never leave.

I still think about people in my first congregation in eastern Connecticut. My dear little shul in New Jersey. Even the people in my one-year interims in Philadelphia and Memphis. They remain part of me, populate my interior landscape with their search, their triumphs, their celebrations and their losses. And far from feeling burdened by their presence, I feel privileged to have been part of their lives and to have had them part of mine.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

More on the Evolution of the Conservative Movement

Apparently, this was a conversation that needed opening. My last post bemoaned the lack of energy in the mainstream Conservative synagogue. A number of friends and colleagues have kindly shared this post with a number of discussion lists, and I've read the responses with a great deal of interest. Rather than email each commentator personally, I think it would be more efficient to post here and let the cybersharing begin.

Not surprisingly (we're Jews, after all), there was a plethora of issues raised. Some were upset that I focused on music, that there's more to religion than music (true). Others focused on spirituality, and still others were upset I had invoked Mordecai Kaplan and wondered where Heschel was in all this. I guess the first thing I need to say, then, is that the post was a sermon, not a thesis. It was never my intention to give a multi-session course in the history of the movement, its greatest thinkers, and its theological roots. Further, I don’t pretend to have the wisdom to declare thus and such are the ills to be fixed and like magic, our movement will be revitalized. What is wrong with Conservative Judaism is far too broad a topic to be addressed in one blog, or one thread on a discussion list. Are most of our membership not practicing Conservative Jews? Undoubtedly. Is music the answer? Of course not. Those are simple questions and easy answers.

Since my original remarks came out of a rabbinical convention, and since we Conservative rabbis like to pretend that we are the leaders of our communities, it might be thought that if rabbis design the right kind of service (whatever that may be), people will respond. I did say that we need to be ready to respond to what the people are saying they want, that it’s not a rabbi thing, it’s a Jew in the pew thing. But it’s far more complicated than that.

The responses I received that expressed discomfort with music, clapping, dancing…all that new stuff in the service were not from people who just wanted their grandfather’s synagogue. They were serious people who wanted the spirituality that comes from losing oneself in the tefilah, and music for them gets in the way. Guess what: it often does for me as well. We don’t always necessarily need a niggun. We don’t always necessarily need to sing something. If I have learned anything from my study of spirituality in Jewish worship, it’s that there are many paths to immersion in prayer, and music is only one.

I think it was Carl Jung who posited several opposing personalities – the feeling versus the thinking; the intuitive versus the sensory. There are those who come to God by intellectual pursuits – study, the regular recitation of prayer. There are those who come to God by ecstatic prayer – music and dance. And if we want to go outside the sanctuary, there are those who find God in soup kitchens or in building a sukkah. My frustration isn’t with those whose path is different from mine. Frankly, even when I am leading the tefilot in my synagogue, there are times I would like to stand still and just be, but the exigencies of time push me on to finish the page on behalf of my community. The spirituality of silence is a powerful thing and demands to be sought.

No, my frustration isn’t with those who would prefer to avoid the intrusion of music. My frustration is with those who are not ready to work at all, who come in, put on a tallit, open the book, look to see what page we’re on, and simply pick up where the community is, with no warm up and often no understanding of what they are reading. They are the ones, in the language of the classic joke, who came not to speak to God but to speak to Goldstein. They demand nothing of the synagogue service but complain the service is too long. They are the ones who have directed our communities for a generation by and large, and they are the ones from whom the indie minyanaires are fleeing. I think that independent minyan is less about music and more about experimentation. Leaving the comfort zone of the institutional synagogue and trying on new things, tossing things against a wall and seeing what sticks.

What do I want for our movement? I want our members to want more, to demand more. I want them to line up for adult education – serious text study, Hebrew, the opportunity to confront contemporary issues. I want them to demand to learn how to enter the siddur. There seems to be the misperception that if rabbis only spoke about what Conservative Judaism is, the people will get excited and respond positively. We have. It hasn’t worked. We need more than the ability to articulate a message. We need open ears and willing hearts.

A few weeks ago, we read in Torah that Moses and seventy elders met at the Tent of Meeting, and God came down in a cloud to speak to them. Eldad and Meydad, who had remained in the camp, spoke ecstatically just as Moses and the elders were doing. A boy ran to Moses to alert him, and Joshua urged Moses to restrain them. Moses, however, said, “Would that all the people were prophets!”

Would that all the people wanted a meaningful role in synagogue leadership, to join with their rabbi and cantor to create the kind of community that would facilitate individual growth, and that they then took advantage of the opportunities they had created.. Would that the membership dreamed about a synagogue that was a reflection of the best in the tradition and the best of the future, and then worked to make that dream a reality. Rabbis can’t do it alone. Someone once made the distinction between rabbis and “real Jews” – meaning Jewish professionals versus the Jew in the pew. My dream for the Conservative synagogue of the 21st century is the evolution of the synagogue into a vibrant, exciting place, where the line between rabbis and real Jews is blurred, where membership means more than a seat for Kol Nidre – it’s identification with a living, growing, changing organism.