I was recently interviewed for a documentary that is being made of the first generation of women rabbis. It was an interesting experience as I was asked questions that caused me to reflect on my life and my work, almost like crafting the outline for an ethical will. The interviewer asked how my work is similar to or different from what I thought it would be when I set out on the course to becoming a rabbi. This is a question I think about a lot – because I am very much aware of how my rabbinic career is both just what I expected and at the same time vastly different from I anticipated.
The contrasts are a result of the rapidly changing Jewish world. The Jewish community of my childhood is long gone – it exists as a memory of Jewish neighborhoods and nearly universal affiliation of suburban Jews. Memories are often romantically viewed, so I try to be mindful of not exaggerating the “greatness” of the past. Still, I notice that the assumption of a Jewish community whose members are committed to its sustenance and future, and whose Jewish identity is primary in their lives, which I felt as a child, is no longer a shared reality. A generation past the empowerment demands of the 1960’s, when “do it yourself (DIY)” Judaism became chic, the tastes, perceptions, needs, and values of this generation are once again igniting a “DIY” movement. But this time is very different from the last; this generation has been influenced by American individualism, universal globalism, the expanded role of technology in every aspect of our lives, social networking and cataclysmic international changes. We live in an age of information overload, a relentless pace of life, and the scarcest resources are time and attention. The Jewish community must respond to these changes of culture and values by providing engaging, meaningful, uplifting and spiritually fulfilling experiences. We cannot assume anything – we must think creatively and act courageously.
It was from this place that last winter I proposed a new vision for the services of the Days of Awe for Congregation Beth Hatikvah. Imagining that we were going on a journey that began with the first service on Rosh Hashanah eve, culminating in our arrival on Yom Kippur at Neilah’s sunset, I envisioned a continuous, multi-sensory experience that would be as seamless as possible. The vision for the services highlighted the experience as a whole, guiding the congregation through immersive communal and personal prayer. This design required relinquishing some treasured participation of many individuals in the parts of the service, which was not easy. We did this for the sake of creating the most spiritually rich worship for the community as a whole. We truly did “pray different.”
The reaction was largely very encouraging and appreciative; some of the accolades that were shared with me were filled with strong positive emotion. From the start, we knew that as individuals, we would each have some parts of the services that we worked for us more than others, and that not all elements would appeal to everyone. But it is clear that so long as we set our sights on the broad view of the services as a journey that was communally shared, we can continue to build on this success to make it even better. We shared a contemporary creation that was both traditional and very new at the same time. We have much to build on for the future.
Now we are beginning to explore: where do we go now? How can we continue to transform our worship and ritual to be as engaging and satisfying as possible? We have created a great platform for imagining the future. And we have an exciting task ahead of us – shaping the vision of our Jewish life together, creating memories for our generation and the next.