When I was hired as the new senior rabbi of CBE in Brooklyn, I was asked by my board of trustees to write up my vision for the congregation. All four of the propositions in Rabbi Sid’s book, JewishMegatrends appeared in my vision.
In order to accomplish any of them, however, our first work must be to surprise people with Judaism. We are not starting from scratch. Many of our people have had negative experiences with synagogue life and Judaism, whether scarring or boring, and do not think we have what they are looking for. Even if we succeed at all four of these priorities, we will not reach them until we first surprise them by: a) finding them where they are; b) using creative media for our message: and c) juxtaposing Judaism with elements not associated with Judaism. Examples of this are bringing the architecture and design world into the sukkah, as was done with Sukkah City and as we did at CBE this fall; beginning a communal seder in the Egypt gallery of a major museum, as we’ll be doing this spring. There are endless possibilities here. Once we open minds with surprise, we must provide substance as described by the four propositions:
- In school and university, our people are exposed to, and gain respect for, wisdom traditions from around the world. Our task is to help them think of themselves as inheritors of one of the greats among these traditions, and to engage in a deep translation project through which the chochmaof Judaism becomes both accessible and contextualized in relation to other traditions. This cannot be facile – we have already tried the pithy quotes approach. It must be related to the real, big human questions that our young people and adults are asking, and it must mirror the process of reflective inquiry our tradition models. At CBE we are re-thinking our entire K-12 and adult education system from this perspective, with the goal of offering our people their tradition as their own lens of wisdom through which to understand their lives and world. This is what it was always meant to be.
- I believe that community organizing and the full array of social justice approaches, from direct service to advocacy, are the single most relevant and compelling means to engage the next generation of Jews in Judaism. And the blood of our brothers is crying out from the earth to us. The earth itself is crying out. This is the centerpiece of my rabbinate and of my life and always will be. What’s important here is not to bifurcate social justice and spirituality, and not to allow this work to be a secular activity that Jews do through their Jewish institutions, but to push ourselves to dig deep to embody the interrelations between the different forms of avodah, to pray with our feet, to consciously, explicitly live Torah through our action. I am working toward building a spectrum of entry points, from one time social service activities, to relationship building opportunities across lines of race, class, religion, and neighborhood, to sustained partnerships across those lines, to community organizing and advocacy campaigns in coalitions, to movement building for real, significant legislative and justice victories. In Reform CA, we did this work at the state level as a movement in coalition, winning the Trust Act, which now protects 1.5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, winning $1 billion in affordable housing, and winning new legislation requiring California’s police departments to keep detailed data about racial profiling. The work not only can make a significant difference in the world but also builds deep, trusting relationships.
- Lo Tov Heyot HaAdam Levado– People are increasingly bereft of community. Millennials are the canaries in the coal mine, writing as they do about the isolating qualities of social media. We have what everyone needs – each other. Everything we do, from tefilla, to talmudTorah, to tzedek, is ultimately about relationships. Everything we do should be intentionally designed to deepen relationships of trust among our people. Community organizing is a powerful means to do this through storytelling in one to one settings. That mode can be brought into services, into classes, into committees. The ultimate test of our work is not how many Jews we have in our programs but whether, in good times and bad, those Jews show up for one another. Whether, beyond particular friendships and age cohorts, they feel they have a home with one another.
- I returned to Judaism as an adult through a spiritual search that first brought me to Buddhism. Our people are disproportionately represented in that world. When our synagogues failed us, we looked elsewhere. It is time for our synagogues to provide for the spiritual needs of our people. This is where the deep translation work is perhaps most needed – to make the language and concepts of the siddurspeak to contemporary Jews, to adapt the mystical stream of our tradition to contemporary needs, to teach neo-Hasidut to those who have been seeking meaning, holiness and purpose in other traditions. This work must not be separated from tzedek or chochma or kehilla (relationship building). All four of these priorities must be viewed as fractals, all within each. The first class I’m teaching at CBE is “What is it to Pray?”, using the work of Mike Comins and Making Prayer Real. Given that services are the primary way our people interface with shul, we must figure out how to make services speak directly to the spiritual needs of our people, and we must give people a way into the experience of prayer as a spiritual practice. That’s step one. Some people will never want to pray from the siddur. My goal at CBE is to create a calendar of Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv every day of the week, with each one a different spiritual way in to Judaism. On Tuesday, Shacharit might be yoga and on Thursday Ma’ariv might be chanting nigunim. On Wednesday, Mincha might be study of Likutei Mohoran, and on Friday it might be meditation. Regardless, each will end with kaddish yatom, so that mourners will have a minyan. People can pick up the calendar as they would at a gym, and try new things each week or commit to a single regular group that they get to know better and better over time until it becomes their community.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where she’s interested in exploring the edge of what synagogue can be. She previously served as associate rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles. Before that, she worked for fourteen years in social justice non-profits and as a consultant in organizational development and strategic planning.