I first read this essay when it came out in 2013, just before graduating rabbinical school. It was an invaluable tool for communicating my vision with my synagogue and the greater Milwaukee community. As I am preparing to leave Congregation Shir Hadash, I want to consider my work in the context of three of the four propositions.
Shir was already firmly rooted in an appreciation for the sacred texts of other traditions and able to find spirituality in secular texts. In my time, I sought to deepen the connection of Jewish wisdom to the wisdom of the world. One way this manifested was by using the Ted Perry version of Chief Seattle’s speech in place of the second paragraph of the Shema and meditating on what both pieces say about our environment.
In response to Harold Schulweis’ quote that, “Most rabbis have answers to the questions that Jews no longer ask,” I am constantly asking my community what spiritual Jewish conversations do we need to be having and working to shape programming based on their responses. In partnership, this manifested as a book group with Plymouth Church, the community in which our synagogue is housed, reading Jon D. Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil. When there was a particular spike in Islamophobia, we had a Kabbalat Shabbat service with our Sufi friends that included zekr (chanting) that paralleled certain Hebrew tefillot. The focus of the evening was a teacher from the M.T.O. Shahmaghsoudi School of Islamic Sufism and myself teaching on our shared patriarch Abraham. In the Torah, when Avraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away, this is the end of their story in our Torah. In the Qur’an, however, the story of Ibrahim’s relationship with Hagar and Ishmael continues right where the Torah leaves off. Together, our communities learned about our patriarch from the viewpoint of both traditions.
Integral to this work is making connections and creating space where all people can feel comfortable. This is even more important now, when our biases and ignorance as people are bubbling to the surface. At weddings where there are Christian family members, I equate the transformative power of kiddush to the transformative power of communion. At b’nei mitzvah where there is Christian family, I reference Mark 12:29 where Jesus declares the Shema and Ve’ahavta to be the greatest commandments of all. This worldly approach is necessary for the multifaith world we live in and to ensure that our doors and minds remain open to multifaith families, of which Shir Hadash has many.
My most effective tzedek work was with our b’nei mitzvah students. All too often, we try to cram all the requirements of b’nei mitzvah into one year, which puts undue stress on the youth and forces them to created rushed work. I developed a curriculum starting before b’nei mitzvah and going through high school that most notably separated the tzedek project from the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. The first year is called “Becoming B’nei Mitzvah.” The students focus on the ceremonial aspects of becoming b’nei mitzvah. In the course of our conversations, we discuss tzedek and tzedaka in theory. The year after their b’nei mitzvah, they learn about mitzvot together and engage in tzedek projects. They do one project together as a group once a month, facilitated by the parents, while working on individual projects to suit their tastes. That year is called “Being B’nei Mitzvah.” This teaches that the process of becoming and being b’nei mitzvah is an ongoing one to which tzedek is a top priority.
I have observed two obstacles keeping more synagogues from picking up the tzedek mantle: a concern of endangering their non-profit status and a desire to avoid conflict within the synagogue. To the first concern, the IRS website provides guidance and the takeaway is that nonprofits cannot positively or negatively influence vote for a particular candidate. This leaves abundant room for advocacy and education initiatives, an opportunity that many synagogues are missing because they fail to see that this, too is holy work. To the second obstacle, machlokot l’shem shamayim, “differences for the sake of heaven” are spiritual exercises glorified by the rabbis of the Talmud. We need to create safe spaces in which to do more of this. Practicing these skills in a spiritual setting gives us the fortitude to use them in the world.
Lives of Sacred Purpose/kedusha
One way that I have sought to offer a glimpse of kedusha in our services is through visual tefillah, and not the program designed by the Reform movement. Visual tefillah, to my mind, is much more than putting the words on the screen. It is another way of translating the tefillot by using an image to tell a story. Or, perhaps it is a meditative focal point. For example, for Yotzer Or, I chose an analemma, a picture taken of the sun from the same spot each day. In this particular image, the pattern of the sun’s movement formed an infinity symbol, which I connected to sustainable solar energy. For Psalm 92, meod amku machshevotecha, “how deep are Your thoughts O God”, I used a picture of a fish from the depths of the ocean that was recently discovered, playing on our usual notion of “deep.” I strive to offer new meanings for the prayers and connecting the experience to an image that can be taken away allows people to bring that experience out of the synagogue with them.
I am so grateful that I began my rabbinic career at Shir Hadash, a synagogue way ahead of its time. It gave me the opportunity to fine tune my skills in each of the four areas mentioned in this essay. I look forward to taking what I have learned and developed forward into my next community.
Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum is a graduate of Hebrew College in Newton, MA. She is currently the rabbi of Congregation Shir Hadash in Milwaukee, WI and will become the rabbi of Temple Har Zion in Mt. Holly, NJ this coming summer.