Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Divrei Harav -- January 2011

Divrei HaRav – Words from Weisman

Some columns write themselves. Others develop over time. This month’s appears to be both. And I apologize up front for its length – please stick with it, because it deals with topics that are central to our congregational life.

As promised last month, I begin with my profound appreciation of and thanks for the participation in and overwhelming good wishes and generosity before, during, and after David’s Bar Mitzvah. When I looked out from the bimah at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue that morning, at the gathering of nearly 300 family members and friends, what could have been a very unfamiliar moment because the different surroundings, became a truly awesome and overwhelming moment of love and support. From start to finish -- the service, the qiddish, the lunch for our out-of-town family and friends, and the havdalah and party that evening – it was an amazing day that truly moved me, and my entire family. And there are not words to fully express our thanks to EVERYONE who made it so by your involvement!

In addition, since last month, we have celebrated a Chanukkah that, at least on the surface, beforehand, seemed likely to be somewhat disjointed, for its secular calendar earliness and disconnection from both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Instead, it became a celebration of EXACTLY what Chanukkah has become at its best – an acknowledgement of both our Jewish uniqueness and our connection to the world around us, based in Jewish history and values, stressing understanding and peace. We lit the first candle as a religious school, on the same day that the world around us remembered the bravery and sacrifice of Rosa Parks and the suffering and courage embodied in World AIDS Day. We lit the 3rd candle on Shabbat with our congregational family – both at our main service, and at a better attended, more lively Tot Shabbat than we celebrate most months. JOSTY was reborn with the 4th candle, as our middle schoolers ate homemade latkes, competed with dreidels, and exchanged gifts, and also wrapped gifts for the children we will work with as a congregation on Christmas Day in the Warm Nights program. The next day, our religious school family celebrated with music, dancing, magic, and joy – not to mention latkes, sufganiyot and dreidels, thanks to our Education Committee and their corps of volunteers. The 7th candle was lit in memory, as the anniversary of Pearl Harbor was observed. And on the 8th night, our oldest students and their parents lit the last candle while learning from our own Jonathan Tucker and his colleagues from Operation Understanding DC, a remarkable program that fosters understanding through shared experience between Jewish and African-American teens, who helped us break down our own biases and stereotypes, and see the world around us more clearly! By the time it was over, there was a strong sentiment to change the Jewish calendar so that Chanukkah will start on December 1st EVERY year – tempting, but easy to reject – because of all the added value these other commemorations and experiences brought to our holiday celebration!

I had been planning for several months to use this column to start a formal discussion, long overdue, of our worship services and specifically, our now not-so-new prayerbook, Mishkan T’filah. The added spirituality of our Chanukkah celebrations, and the incredible experience of David’s Bar Mitzvah celebration, only serve as a more powerful introduction to that discussion.

More than a few people went out of their way to comment to me on several items of our family’s celebration and our congregational family’s worship, that I found fascinating. There was universal appreciation for the awesomeness of our physical surroundings in the Sixth and I sanctuary – a remarkable worship space – that played a large role in the spirituality of that service. The amazing acoustics, and DAVID’s musical choices for the service, created a spirit for the worship that was both appropriate and energetic, which carried over to our spoken prayers as well. Many commented on the beauty and profundity of the service liturgy itself – over 90% of which was directly out of Mishkan T’filah, albeit reprinted in a separate prayer booklet, one which lacked what has become our Congregation's normal glossy splash of photographs.

But, ironically, the single most frequent comment I got, after respect and appreciation for David’s role in leading our worship, was how many people were so engaged in their participation in the service, that they never looked at their watches to realize that the service ran a couple of minutes beyond 2 and a half hours. Compare that to our normal Shabbat evening worship, when the 1½ hour mark is a Rubicon not to be crossed, for its diminishing returns! Or family services that begin to lose focus shortly after an hour.

I have always claimed that elapsed time is more perceptual than measurable, and more often a factor of engagement than the actual passage of minutes. The shortest sermon I ever heard in person was given by Rabbi Alex Schindler at the 1995 Biennial. When I checked my watch to see if he had been talking for 5 minutes or ten, I was amazed to see that he had been going for a full hour! And still had 32 minutes left before he finished. That is how engaging his message and delivery were! The longest I ever heard was a 7 minute wedding homily that engaged no one.

I share these insights to start our discussion. As a congregation, we are blessed with a number of strengths in this area – musical resources beyond our size, a primary prayerbook and other resources that should allow us to create meaningfully spiritual liturgies, a sanctuary that is both warm and physically flexible, and a schedule that already features multiple prayer modalities and styles. Despite that, the appearance is that participation in worship has decreased, and we need to both be honest in understanding why, and work to reverse that trend.

Included in those assets we have is also a Rabbi who received a prize in classical liturgy while at HUC-JIR, but who is also fluent in the modalities of worship in the less formal settings of our camps and youth programs. I have taken the liberty of making decisions about HOW we use Mishkan T'filah -- some in keeping with the guidance of the editorial committee that created the text, some in keeping with our own established congregational worship patterns. Just because I supposedly know what I am doing does NOT guarantee that I have made the BEST decisions for us, and as a result, we have started to experiment in recent days with other ways of using the book. I want these issues to be part of our discussion as well.

So I ask the following specific questions:

1. For those who attend services regularly (once a month or more) – please share with me what is working for you in our services and what is not, your reaction both to Mishkan T’filah AND the way we use it in worship, and what you would do differently (and what you would not change under any circumstances);

2. For those who find themselves attending less frequently today than in the past – please evaluate and share honestly why you believe that is the case, and what you find missing in our worship that keeps you from participating more often;

3. For those who do not attend except on special occasions, because participation in services has NEVER been a high priority – please share what it would take to get you to make the effort to TRY coming more often;

4. And for those of you who were part of the Prayerbook Evaluation Committee that recommended our embrace of Mishkan T’filah – I would love to hear from you what your experience has been since we switched over; are you attending more or less frequently and favorably; is it meeting your expectations; are there elements of how we use the book that you would look to change?

And for all of us – let this be the BEGINNING of an honest and meaningful discussion and sharing that leads us all to a better understanding of ourselves and Jewish worship and to developing worship that attracts our increased participation.

To that end, be looking next month for more discussion of Jewish worship and our services and liturgy in this space, and information on a new Continuing Jewish Education class on Mishkan T’filah and Jewish prayer.

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