Learning


This post will be the 100th posting on Raviva.org.  Somehow, that feels like a milestone.

But this blog has also reached a more significant milestone — it is moving to a new site,  hosted within the website of the new Deborah’s Palm Center for Jewish Learning and Experiences  http://www.Deborahs-Palm.org

I value all of you, my subscribers, and appreciate the conversation.

So please, check out the new Raviva home, and join me under Deborah’s Palm Tree.

http://www.deborahs-palm.org/blog/

I hope you will subscribe there.

For now, from this, Raviva’s first home, Shalom Uv’racha — Farewell and many blessings.

New posts will now be on Raviva’s new home site. I look forward to seeing you there!

Deborah's Palm Tree

Deborah’s Palm Tree

It’s Official!

Weekly classes in South Orange, NJ

Weekly classes in South Orange, NJ

is now offering Jewish wisdom in learning groups and programs in Northern New Jersey.

As I migrate the Raviva blog to my new site, here is one of the programs that Deborah’s Palm is offering — a weekly Sunday morning class “Your Jewish GPS” —  in South Orange, NJ.

Please visit:  www.Deborahs-Palm.org

The new site includes a page “Ask the Rabbi” — I’d love to hear from you!

This was first posted in the blog of Rabbis Without Borders on the myjewishlearning.com website.

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/rabbis-without-borders/2013/09/22/seekers-and-unaffiliated-an-opportunity/

I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being  professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.

And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in

labshul 5774 torah service YK

New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.

That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.

Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.

We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.

I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation.  Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.

The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their  support.  It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.

(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)

I was an unusually clumsy toddler. My parents were concerned about the frequency with which I walked into furniture, so they consulted doctors who diagnosed severe nearsightedness and eye coordination problems.  From the age of twenty-two months I wore glasses. Eye surgery and years of regular visits to eye hospitals for muscle-training exercises addressed the coordination problems. So I know all too well the importance of vision. I am grateful for my ability to see, and feel tremendous sympathy for those who cannot.

This year I welcomed cataract surgery — it enabled correction of my vision so well that I rarely even need reading glasses. What a blessing to be able to see! Given where I have come from, you can imagine my glee at newfound vision.

I also have an appreciation for the use of the term “vision” in the context of organizational planning.  We have to see where we need to go in order to get there without bumping into the furniture.

In the Jewish world today, there is a profound need to for clearer vision.  We are all experiencing dramatic cultural changes that impact our individual and communal needs and interests and beliefs and values.  The goals and programs of synagogues and Jewish community centers of a generation ago are no longer working very well.  Just as all of us with visual impairments have to have our eyes checked for updated prescriptions or procedures so that we can see, our community needs a check-up. What is our vision going to be?

We have to be willing to look beyond the borders of our habits and imagine a new horizon.  There is no time for trying to jury-rig our current way of being to try to force it to fit into some safe, known formula.  The needs of our times are too great. The conflicts and economic challenges in our world are impacting us all so greatly; the moral direction of our society is all too murky.  We need see our way through to a clearer sense of life’s meaning and purpose through religious devotion and spiritual community that guides and comforts us. If our spiritual communities can’t do this, then what purpose do they have?

Why pray?  How can I pray? These are questions that we need to address as individuals and as a community.  How can we mine the resources of centuries of liturgical innovation to help us craft a devotional experience that is engaging, meaningful and compelling. Our prayer should provide comfort, joy, reflection, renewal and direction.  The words of our siddur (prayer book) were created to do all this, and much more. But what good are they if we just don’t “get it?”   We need a new vision of prayer that touches the heart and the head.

Why should we educate our children in the heritage and traditions of our people? How should we? What is the goal?   The old model of Jewish education as a supplement to the home where Judaism was observed is no longer meeting this generation’s needs. (Jewish afternoon schools are often referred to as “Supplementary Schools”.) We need new a vision – towards clarity about why we teach our children what it means to be a Jew, and the facilitation of structures that engages the whole family in lived Jewish experiences. There is so much to be passed to our children – and us – from the riches of Jewish thinking about values and ethics and purpose and identity.  Clear vision will guide us to the gems of Jewish ideas and lessons – anything less will just keep us clumsily searching and frustrated.

Congregation Beth Hatikvah has been spending a great deal of time in the past several months on new visioning for our Shabbat/Friday night and for our Religious School. Two committees of our congregation’s leaders are bringing their experience in leading the synagogue and their life experience to parse these questions. Their courage to think broadly and outside of the boundaries of habit is matched by their smart and insightful contributions to the conversation and their devotion to the community.  A new vision is taking shape.

Four several generations, the sages of the Talmud were engaged in a dialogue about Jewish life and ideas. Their debates and insights shaped a new vision for the Jewish people during a time of tremendous change. Our dialogue and insights can be informed and inspired by them. In that way, our vision will be clear and forward-thinking and our future will be as strong as our past.

I have been thinking about the late 1960’s lately. I was ten years old in 1968. The civil rights movement was in full swing and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Profound counter culture movements (beatniks and hippies, etc.) reflected the rebelliousness of the era, ultimately influenced American culture.

The Vietnam war raged. We remember Kent State, Columbia and Berkeley from the protests and tragedies of that era. The 1968 presidential election was marred by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Black Power and feminism also radically impacted American.

We were never the same after those years.

What is it about times of upheaval, change and uncertainty that leads to positive and enduring change? What tools do we have to guide us out of the maelstrom of the chaos that enswirls us?

These questions resonate for me as I approach Parashat Vayikra, the opening chapters of the book of Leviticus. Our ancestors responded to the chaos around them by creating and refining ritual structures. In their attention to the details of the priestly rituals in the Mishkan, and then the Temple, they sought to collect the Divine energy that would help them to feel safe and secure. It offered them a window into ultimate meaning — the MIshkan was the place where the presence of the Eternal One dwelled; the place where their earthly lives could experience eternity. The priests guided the people there through ritual.

In our world today we are also experiencing turbulence, uncertainty, and fast-moving cultural changes that will shape the years to come. Change does not come easily.

Some have turned to fundamentalism to stave off despair or reject the emptiness of secularism. The desire for structures of meaning is understandable, especially with the light of Vayikra shining on it. Yet, all three Abrahamic faiths are being rocked by the loud voices of their extremist fundamentalist minorities.. Each faith community is struggling against  the destructive pull of a small, but loud few.

It is helpful to recognize that this trend is both old and new, explained by the context of our turbulent times. Yet, for most of us, such structures are not compelling or sufficient. Still, aspects of the religious rituals and lifestyles of tradition hold great potential for us too. We too seek the comfort of faith. We need the experience of meaning. Even when we are not choosing all of the answers of past generations, we are still asking the same questions.

In many ways we are engaged in the same search and the same process as the wilderness generation that is described in Vayikra. We are examining what we have received in the traditions of the past to shape the most meaningful and spiritually rich rituals. We are creating the mishkan yet again — our place for the indwelling of the Divine presence in our hearts and our lives.

American Jews have been bringing many forms of creative spirit to our rituals and customs. Israeli Jews have a special opportunity to mold and shape Jewish rituals from the places of our people’s birth. Many wonderful new creative forms of Jewish engagement  are emerging in an Israeli Jewish cultural renaissance. We have a great deal to learn from each other.

The poetry of Yehuda Amichai is one of the most beautiful tools to bridge our communities. He knew how to capture the earthly and the heavenly, in the chasm between the old and the new.  I conclude with a 1967 Amichai poem upon the reunification of Jerusalem.

On Yom Kippur 5728, I donned

Dark holiday clothing and walked to Jerusalem’s Old City.

I stood for quite a while in front of the kiosk shop of an Arab,

Not far from Shechem Gate, a shop

full of buttons, zippers and spools of thread

Of every color; and snaps and buckles.

Brightly lit and many  colored like the open Holy Ark.

 

I said to him in my heart that my father too

 

I explained to him in my heart about all the decades

And the reasons and the events leading me to be here now

While my father’s shop burned there and he is buried here.

 

When I concluded it was the hour of Neilah (closing of the gates)

He too drew down the shutters and locked the gate

As I returned homeward with all the other worshippers.

Yehuda Amichai

(from Achshav B’ra’ash (“Now Noisily) (Schocken 1975), page 11-12, translation by RIchard Silverstein

My love affair with Jewish learning began at an early age. I was an unusual kid who loved Hebrew school from the start. But my classmates didn’t share my affinity and my passion for yiddishkeit. I recall an early high school reunion where a group of old friends gathered around a table in a suburban Philadelphia catering hall. I noticed that all of us at that table had been members of the same Hebrew school class. Thirty-three of us were confirmed together in 1974.  Reuniting, we gravitated to one another as naturally as old family members would. Most notably to me was the fact that of all of the kids who were confirmed together, I was the only one who was Jewishly engaged at all.

Of course, at that point few of us were yet raising children, the entry point for synagogue affiliation for so many people. But still, the complete disconnection from anything Jewish was sadly striking to me.

Today’s Jewish leaders are wringing their hands about the next generation, fearing that the current model of synagogues is no longer appealing to the next generation. While many in my generation eventually found their way to synagogues, their Jewish connections are more tenuous for them and for their children.

There are several new trends responding to changing needs and interests of younger Jews.  One is the popularity of hands-on service work. Tikkun Olam (a kabbalistic term, meaning, “repair of the world”) is the buzzword and its appeal, as an expression of Jewish values, is transforming the Jewish narrative in our day. It has become a key element of this generation’s Jewish identity.

Looking back on my Jewish upbringing (my family’s life revolved around the synagogue), I can’t recall many experiences of going out into the world to help those in need. One exception was the annual Christmas volunteering at the hospital, when it felt like the staff humored us by giving us busy work because they didn’t really need us. In Hebrew School we collected tzedakah, but we had no personal connection to those who received it. It wasn’t so much about needy people; we gave our money to JNF for trees in Israel. We gave as much support as we could to help Israel and to efforts to free Soviet Jews. Jewish peoplehood was our cause.

Maybe that is why my classmates were so disconnected 15 years after our confirmation. In adulthood we entered an open, increasingly diverse world and embraced the freedoms of American culture. Our Hebrew school education had done little to help apply the values of Judaism to our world.  What we needed was Jewish engagement that informed out lives and infused our secular world with meaning.

That is why social justice work is so important.  It is the complement to the study of the ancient Jewish texts and ideas. Jewish texts teach tikkun olam as our responsibility for the world. The mitzvot/commandments are what make the work uniquely Jewish.  Social action infuses our Jewish communal life with ultimate value.

Recently, our synagogue participated in a Habitat for Humanity build sponsored by our community’s interfaith council. The experience was inspiring. Our volunteers spanned three generations. While adults laid flooring and painted, several teenagers did the back-breaking work of digging a ditch. Everyone gave the work their best effort and worked alongside the Habitat client who will soon have a remarkable opportunity to own their own home.  This wasn’t busy work — we knew we were making something happen that will transform lives.

We have traveled to New Orleans to rebuild after Katrina, and we regularly help to feed hungry people in our community. There is so much more we could do, including advocacy work to address the root causes of poverty and need. But our work is a good start, and it is also a living classroom for our children.

Today’s Jewish leadership is worried about the loss of attachment to Jewish peoplehood. I share that concern. But the “service work” trend can strengthen Jewish identity. This generation will, with our help, come to appreciate the value of the Jewish prophetic message to engage in social justice.  That is a powerful answer to the question, “why be Jewish?”

This is what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan meant when he talked of the value of living in two civilizations — the Jewish and the American. What a blessing that we are giving our children the opportunity to make Jewish learning come to life in this way!

Yayikra     — An offering to God

March 11, 2011

The other day I was driving up route A1A from Cocoa Beach Florida to the Orlando airport, on the way home from the RRA convention. I was driving with two dear friends, colleagues, who kept me company and navigated. It so happened that our ride coincided with the scheduled landing of the space shuttle Discovery at Cape Canaveral, Kennedy Space Center. We had wanted to find a way to see the landing, but our convention and travel schedule meant that we couldn’t plan for it…. And so we listened to the radio as they tracked the shuttle on its way to earth, right up the moment when the sonic boom, signaling re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, would be heard. We realized at that moment that we were just about due west of the Cape and maybe we would see it after all. At that insight we suddenly saw dozens of cars lining the side of the road, many parked hastily on the grass alongside the road, as the passengers scampered eastward toward the land’s edge, facing the water and the Cape.  Everyone was pulling off the road to stand at the shore and watch for the shuttle.  Folks from all walks of life, by appearances, mostly locals, sprinkled with tourists like us, with kids and dogs, a man with bags of groceries in hand — all rushed to stand shoulder to shoulder, squinting skyward to catch a glimpse of history. This was the final journey of the shuttle, after 39 missions the spacecraft was to be retired.  NASA, we learned, had decided to retire it while it was still in excellent working order.

 

We saw white stripes across the skies, the marks of final circles of the final slow and steady approach to landing. But we didn’t hear the sonic boom. And we didn’t even see the shuttle at all.  After about five minutes, the crowd closest to land’s edge began to turn around and head back to their cars. We asked, “Did you see it?”  “No,” they told us. But we all knew from the radio report that the landing had already been completed.  So the crowd shifted position and headed back to their cars.

 

I have to say that while we didn’t get to experience the thrill of seeing the landing, we had a happy, warm feeling as we headed back.  In a way it was perhaps even better that our hopes had been dashed – there was a communal, collective sense of sympathy and support as we shared the momentary disappointment with the nameless crowd.  There was something very spiritual about that feeling – the spontaneous community wasn’t focused on the “thing”— the shuttle itself, but on the people who had assembled to experience it.

 

I have to say that the experience at first felt a little like being in a “b” science fiction movie, as the crowd is pulled by some gravitational string, all eyes heavenward, while the space ship lands.  In the next scene the aliens disembark – you get the picture. But this had a different ending — with the sunny Florida sky and the return to the car, we quickly returned to reality.  Our hearts were engaged, not in the fear of a “sci-fi” flick, but in the faith of a collective spiritual community.

 

What is it about the shuttle that captivates our hearts? Surely the technological feat, the excitement of outer space, the thrill of adventure elevates our hearts to awe.  Just a few days before our drive northward that day, my friend and I had visited the Kennedy Space Center and we were awed by the exhibits. We saw a breathtaking Imax movie of the experience on the International Space Station.  The scenes of space and of earth from space in glorious 3-D were very moving. One astronaut observed that when you look at earth from that vantage point and see oceans and land masses without borders, you can imagine that all of humanity is one whole. We are all one people.

 

In fact, the movie emphasized the incredible success of the collaborations that have made the Space Station come to life. It is truly a borderless, international enterprise, bringing together the best talents of several countries to create the technology of the station and its scientific experiments. With international crews, the space station is a soaring example of what is possible when we reach beyond boundaries, far up into the heavens, acting as ONE human community.

 

Some people might wonder: why explore space?  The exhibits at the KSC drove home the message – the scientific knowledge developed and collected by the space program have helped us in the fields of medicine, education, food production, energy, and more. We explore space in order to help humanity live on this humble planet. We explore space because, in the future, we may need more options for human life beyond our planet.

 

There was a slogan on one of the posters in the space shuttle exhibit that read, something like: “It’s a destiny, not a destination.”  Adventure, exploration, and scientific inquiry– all are the destiny touted by this space exploration. But even more so are the human characteristics of courage, intelligence, striving, collaboration, trust, and, yes, even FAITH.

 

“Space – the final frontier” – so proclaimed Gene Roddenberry in the introduction to Star Trek.  Sadly, my friend and I had to leave the Space Center before we had time to see the Star Trek exhibit, but the message of it was clear still.  Space is the wilderness, the midbar, that remains to be traversed. It’s pull, its gravity, is that it is a place to venture heavenward, to be with the source of all life, our Creator. This is just what our ancestors did when they left Egypt to travel to the Promised Land.  Liberated from the confines of borders, from the mundane stuff of life that distracts and distorts our spiritual selves from our core, we recover our hearts and our faith.

 

The opening parashah of Leviticus, Vayikra tells us that Moses felt “called — vayikra.”  Our people felt God’s call in the wilderness. Moses, like the courageous astronauts, heard it most clearly.  Building the Mishkan, a dwelling place for God’s presence, it allowed him to draw close to the Divine presence.  The space shuttle may not look like the Mishkan, but the detail that went into its constructions was commensurate in its day.

 

Filled with awe, Moses approached God, but still, he was frightened, intimidated by its holiness. The sage Ramban taught that God had to call Moses to reassure him that, although the Tent and the tabernacle were holy and had to be treated with due reverence, they existed to benefit Israel, not the threaten them.

Another commentary (quoted in the Etz Hayyim Humash) teaches that Moses, following the “start-up” phase with the covenant secured, thought that his mission had been completed. He soon learned that his task has just begun. Going forward, he learned to lead by guiding the Israelites to sanctify their daily lives.

 

So too the technology of space travel exists to help humanity, not to threaten us.  We know that we can use scientific knowledge for destruction. This past century has been a frightening series of examples of this.  But the collaboration of the space station, the peaceful enjoyment of borderless, warm, close and shared relationships, is like the journeying of the Jewish people to stand as one at Sinai – with holy purpose, we can receive God.

 

Moses’ mission and the journey of the Jewish people were just beginning in the wilderness.  The space shuttle Discovery may be a mission completed, but the exploration of space is just beginning. Our ancestors sought to bring God close, so that God would dwell within us: v’asu li mishkan, v’shachanti b’tocham – “build me a sanctuary that I might dwell among you.”  From this place we can better ourselves, elevate our lives and bring holiness out to the world. We found this holiness with the faith, courage and collaboration we honed in the wilderness. We have held onto it for the generations since, so that we could realize the dream.

 

The offerings, korbanot, described in Vayikra, were a spiritual tool. The word korban comes from the Hebrew root:  krv, meaning “to bring close” or, “to come close.”

The Tabernacle, Mishkan, brought our hearts beyond the reaches of the self.  It reminded us of what is possible, opening the passageways in our hearts for God to be felt.  The gifts our ancestors brought kept these passageways alive.  The korbanot, the offerings, gave us a chance to move beyond the confines of the “things” that entrap our hearts, creating borders between us.  It was an opening of a space within us for our humanity to be realized.

 

In the offerings at the holy place of God’s dwelling, we are in awe.  The spirit of the Divine spark within each of us comes to light.

 

So too, those streaks of white across the skies left by the space shuttle were a reminder of what is possible.   May the journey be one of a whole and holy human family.

 

 

 

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