Posts Tagged ‘Jews’

Jews and Aspens

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

By Sam Glaser

I am writing this on a long, lazy Tisha B’av afternoon.  The sky is brilliant blue and a gentle breeze is beckoning me to leave my air-conditioned studio and get on my bike.  No, not today.  I must conserve my energy and saliva.  At my synagogue we have undertaken a dramatic journey using prayer, speakers and chanting of Kinnot, the anguished poetry of Jewish suffering through the ages.  We sit on the floor, wearing wrinkled clothing and simple, non-leather shoes.  We are unshaven and unkempt and no one cares.  A custom particularly hard for this extrovert is not greeting friends.  We acknowledge each other with a stare, realizing that this day is not about camaraderie, it’s about alienation and exile, death and mourning, dashed hopes and endless tears.  Tisha B’av was once a universally observed commemoration of disaster befalling the Jewish People.  It is now observed by perhaps 10% of the tribe.  That in itself is reason to mourn.

This current war with Hamas in Gaza has corresponded appropriately with this Three Weeks of “decreased joy.” It has also done wonders for Jewish unity.  Among Israelis there is 95% agreement of the justice of our acts of self-defense, in a country that can’t agree on anything.  That same unanimity of purpose is sweeping the Jewish world and has created a sense of clarity that is rare in a world clouded in shades of grey.  This intense galvanization of the Jewish spirit began when we were praying for the well being of the three kidnapped teenagers.  As the atrocity of their senseless death spiraled into war, the Jewish people remained united in their revulsion of the unmitigated evil of Hamas and the need to be rid of the menace of their arsenal of rockets and terror tunnels.  My brother Yom Tov, who has lived over two decades in Jerusalem told me that he’s waited twenty-three years to feel this degree of unity.  As we go from ceasefire to ceasefire we stand together in prayer for a peaceful, lasting resolution.  And perhaps more importantly, we should pray that we remain in this holy state of achdut, unity.

I realized this week that the Jewish nation can be compared to aspen trees.  Ask anyone what the largest organism on earth is and they will likely respond: the blue whale.  No!  It’s the beautiful aspen tree that festoons the High Sierra with brilliant color.  What you cannot see below the earth’s surface is a network of roots that comes from a single source.  Aspens are not separate entities.  They are often separate expressions of a single subterranean root system, sometimes stretching up to 130 feet from the parent tree.  One such colony in Utah is estimated to be thousands of years old, having survived many forest fires because the roots survive beneath the heat of the fire.  Do you see the analogy?  Aspens occupy a sweet niche in a coniferous forest, swelling their collective Autumnal sunshine-yellow glory wherever the colony can obtain enough light.  The Jewish People is an interconnected family that has weathered the storms of history, shining the light of peace, love and innovation on the world whenever given the chance.

It took the kidnapping of three of our kids to remind us just how tight knit a family we are.  Synagogues of all denominations worldwide were praying for their lives.  Gentile friends of mine couldn’t quite understand why I was so rattled by their abduction.  We didn’t know these kids or their families personally and yet we had their names on cards in our pockets and their images engraved in our minds.  I wish I had the aspen analogy then to explain this connection.  It’s super-rational.  Even weird.  Why do we care so much about one another?  As individuals we may appear like separate islands in an archipelago but drain the water and one will see that we are all connected.  Jews are like fingers on a single hand.  Cut one and we all bleed.  The fires of the destruction of Jerusalem, pogroms or the Holocaust may rage but they cannot extinguish the spark that animates every Jewish soul.  It is this very spark that Hitler vowed to obliterate in Mein Kampf, may his memory be erased.

We all feel the pain of our fellow Jew because in essence we are one entity.  In our day-to-day we may not dwell on the miracle of eternal Jewish unity.  But attack us, steal our children, murder the elderly who cannot make it to bomb shelters quickly enough…you have unleashed the fury of the Tribe.  We will not be kicked around anymore.  Now we are back in our land. Now we have the IDF.  We have more learning of Torah than in any point in history.  When we stand together we are invincible.  Even my musician friends who haven’t been to the synagogue in decades are ready to take up arms.  These days even the most ardent lefties are taking a stand as militant members of God’s Chosen People, rising to the defense of the beloved holy nation of the Creator of the Universe.

When the Chosen People get fired up, a fascinating counter balance is unleashed.  God stays carefully behind the scenes…this is our drama to play out in this world.  When the Jews are hitting all the outside shots there is a force in the world that goes insane with envy, filled with anger, frustration and a maniacal desire for revenge.  It makes very little sense.  After all, give the Jews some space and they will revolutionize computers, agriculture, medicine and the arts.  For the whole world’s benefit.  We send humanitarian aid to the enemy and treat their wounded in our hospitals.  When and if Hamas can be neutralized, we will rebuild Gaza.  Our enemy has had many names over the years:  Arabs, Islamic fundamentalists, Germans, Cossacks, Romans…it doesn’t matter.  Anti-Semitism is a force of evil that is backwards and irrational.  But potent nonetheless.  In this current conflict there is little question which group holds the moral high ground.  But somehow this fact seems to be lost on many of our Hollywood celebrities, the European Union, in fact pretty much every nation except for Canada, God bless Prime Minister Steven Harper.  This conflict seems to be serving two primary purposes: to unite the Jewish People and teach everyone else that neutrality is not an option.

In response to the current events in the Middle East I have a suggestion for my concerned Christian friends.  When you find yourself in conversation with a Jew, don’t dwell on Israeli military strategy or politics.  Instead, perhaps offer words of condolence.  Our little nation is under siege.  Our children are being killed.  Bloodthirsty enemies with warped values that the Judeo-Christian world cannot comprehend surround us.  Just offer words of support and friendship.  Let us know that you share our pain and join us in prayer for a peaceful world.  Stand with us in our time of need.  Make sure you are a member of a church that “gets it.”  One that isn’t neutral or trying to divest from Israel, but is bravely advancing the cause of the Children of Israel.

For my Jewish friends, let this be a time of deep reflection.  You are in this boat, like it or not.  Might as well like it!  Rekindle a sense of wonder, investigate your roots, figure out why the messages of Torah are so powerful, meaningful and eternal. Don’t miss out on this greatest experiment in human history!  It’s your most precious inheritance, your most important legacy to your offspring. Anti-Semites will hate you no matter how likeable you try to be.  Hitler didn’t care much whether we were Reform, Orthodox or never Bar/Bat Mitzvah’d.  What is this spark of light that lies dormant in every Jewish soul?  My Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, zt”l used to say that if you don’t know what your willing to die for, you don’t know what you are living for.  For what are you willing to lay down your life?  Your children, your country, your people?  So then LIVE for them!

We returned to the synagogue at 7:20pm for the mincha-ma’ariv prayers.  At this point in the waning hours of Tisha B’av everyone was even more disheveled and exhausted.  Only now, as the sun set were we permitted to don our tallis and tefillin, having been denied the glory of these crowns earlier in the day.  We were comforted by the words of divine forgiveness in the Torah reading depicting the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf and the words of the prophet in the Haftorah:  “For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”  Even when all seems lost, God is with us, guiding us and giving us hope.  Even on this mournful day we must serve God with joy!  We then uttered the Amidah with an intensity that is only possible when one is ravenous and parched, poignantly aware of one’s mortality.  The Amidah includes a special insertion for a rebuilt Jerusalem, a paragraph only said on this day of destruction that echoes throughout history like rolling thunder from the original bolt of lightning when our Temple was destroyed.  Finally at the conclusion of services at 8:30pm we drank the most delicious mouthfuls of water outside of the synagogue and celebrated the end of the three week mourning period by blessing the moon and then dancing together in the darkness.

May we continue to dance together like aspen trees shimmering in a gentle alpine breeze.  May our unity be as self-evident as the aspen’s subterranean inter-connectedness. May our survival mimic that of the age-old grove of this hearty species with roots so deeply intertwined that it can withstand the heat of any historic conflagration.  May we adorn humanity with beauty much like the stands of this stubborn deciduous species among the fringes of the coniferous forest, bringing life, love, peace and the awareness of the Creator to all of humanity.

A footnote: I just did a search online for “aspen tree poetry” and came across this lovely verse by Monica Sharman.  Can you imagine my shock when I saw the biblical passage that she quoted, the aforementioned verse that I had already chosen to mention from the fast day reading?  Another large-world, well-managed moment…just when everything in the world seems so random, chaotic and confusing.  Thank you, God.

In the rising wind of a coming dust storm
a mini-stand of aspen planted between

the heron pond and the stucco home
made some noise; they say it’s

“quaking.” But that name makes one
think of timid fear. Listen like

a musician, with the psalter’s ear,
and hear, instead, the sound of applause

For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field
shall clap their hands.
(Isaiah 55:12)

Jews in the Pews

Friday, October 25th, 2013

by Sam Glaser

Business is great.  The economy’s steady upturn has slowly trickled down to the bottom feeders of the socioeconomic ladder: non-profit organizations. With a bit more disposable income and the promise of more down the road, members of synagogues have been making good on unpaid dues and supporting special programming like Shabbatons, musicians and speakers.  Boards of Directors and clergy have realized that they cannot rave about dynamic synagogue life if they have cut back all their programming. And singer/speakers like me who offer all-ages programs rich in enthusiastic Jewish celebration and deep soul content are suddenly in fashion again.

The problem now is that Jewish institutions, which have been gasping for breath for the past five years, perceive that the real issue is greater than mere membership retention.  Those proud and few who have remained true to their shul in the lean years are the proverbial “choir” to whom the synagogues and JCC’s are marketing their refreshed calendars.  The great challenge revealed in the Pew Research Center’s recent study is that most of our fellow Jews are not even exposed to the message.  The real wake up call is  that Jews on the fringe are an endangered species and the challenge of our generation is fight complacency and endeavor to bring them back.

According to the study, 1/3 of Jews age 33 and younger, the American Jewish future, are claiming that they are Jewish with no religion. They have a vague sense that they are part of an elite and afflicted ancient cult and have a predisposition to enjoy Seinfeld and deli-food. Thanks to thewidespread acceptance of Jews in the greater culture, most have a sense of Jewish pride.  But the net result of that acceptance is that 4/5th’s of these “non-religious” Jews will marry out of the faith and all but eliminate the likelihood of raising the next generation with even basic Jewish values. Who will support Jewish non-profits in the future? Who will our teachers teach?  Who will fill the pews of our mega-synagogues?  No wonder this study has organized Judaism reeling.

I’d like to offer a few ideas for turning this ill-fated ship around.  I believe I have an unusual perspective gained from twenty years of visiting Jewish communities in fifty cities every year. I interact with, teach and entertain Reform, Conservative and Orthodox audiences, work with preschools through elder-hostel programs, visit schools, shuls, temples, JCC’s and even the occasional church. The formula that seems to work best requires a combination of three factors that I think are ignored at our peril.  I’ll sum them up in three simple words: Hineni, Halacha and Hillel.

In my office we can tell well in advance if my weekends are going to be successful. Some organizations hire me, pay a deposit and then we don’t hear from them until they request my travel information a few weeks before the show.  The fact is that we help our clients to be self sufficient by making all the marketing materials available online.  On the other hand, some venues bother us incessantly about how to “get out the vote.” Some daily.  These are often the gigs that are exceptional.  These organizations realize that they must strive to gain consensus, to establish committees for the sake of getting more people involved, to get the adults and kids in choirs on stage with me, to have my music playing “on hold” when people call in.  They may honor a few dignitaries, include a raffle or Chinese auction and call on local businesses to advertise in the program. They send the congregation links to my videos, they send buses to the senior homes to bring in the elderly, they have the teens run the intermission concession and pass out the aforementioned programs. They have the community vote on which workshop I present during Shabbatons, arrange for multiple individuals to pick me up and feed me, give out honors in advance for opening the ark and being called to the Torah.  The cantor might sing a duet with me, a brave teen instrumentalist gets to sit in on a particular song and then soloists and choirs all combine for a blockbuster finale.

Hineni CvrIn short, experienced leadership galvanizes the community by making requests, giving individuals the chance to answer Hineni, here I am.  I have a theory that since the time of Abraham, Jews have been primed to wait in quiet desperation until they are called upon and they cannot help but answer in the affirmative.  We respond to the call with a sense of honor and duty, glad that we were thought of, wanting to make a difference. Leaders can elicit Hineni responses when coordinating membership drives, planning artist-in-residence programs, banquets, even when recruiting enough folks for a minyan. The only prerequisite to releasing the inherent Jewish drive to take on a task, contribute funds or volunteer is a leader with the ability to pair individuals with a particular job and the guts to make the request.  The request must begin with “I need YOU to do ___________ for the community,” in other words, the community member feels uniquely singled out for the job.  Synagogues that elicit the Hineni response are typically busy beehives of activity, with all ages constantly coming and going, more like community centers than cold and corporate auditoria.

I recently co-officiated with a rabbi who had just taken his first full-time rabbinic position and was already beloved by his chosen congregation.  He was a capable speaker, practiced what he preached in terms of living a Jewish life and also had a fine voice for leading the prayers.  He had connected with the community in pastoral moments where he displayed his God-given gifts of compassion and insight. I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, but I felt compelled to give him this Hineni theory before I departed.  His community is aging and is endemic of the “running for the exits” tendency of the younger set.  I believe that all those great sermons and moments of tenderness will be ineffective in stemming this tide unless he finds the inner resolve to get under people’s skin with chutzpah.  I encouraged him to invent programming to empower the full range of congregants, to chase after ex-members, young familes and the unaffiliated with communal, even secular activities and not to spend an extra minute in his office when he can be meeting his constituents “where they live.”  In short, to get past the fear of rejection and elicit Hineni from everyone he meets.

Another crucial component to our survival in my humble opinion can be summed up with the word Halacha, or the path.  Just like planets have their orbit around the sun, so too do humans and more specifically, Jews. Our path is informed by the vast system of mitzvot that we have held sacred for millennia. No need to reinvent the wheel here. Part of the “Hineni” job of Jewish leadership is to reinforce that we all have an internal compass that is nurtured by the 613 commandments and clarify that they are not the 613 suggestions. Mitzvot are the skeleton that supports the body of Judaism. There is no continuity or survival without them. When an interviewer asks me where I’ve seen evidence of flourishing communities, I point out those synagogues where the leadership has laser-like focus on making mitzvot a priority, regardless of denomination.  One case in point is Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC, a Reform congregation where I experienced a united, dedicated community like no other.  I asked Rabbi Fred Guttman if he would reveal his secret. He replied, “it’s simple: I just get the congregation to take on mitzvot and build from there.”

Incorporating halacha into a leadership style is controversial. It requires that the leaders personally engage in halacha, to “walk the talk.” It requires that the education budget be allotted not only to the children but also on increasing the chance for true “informed” choice for the adults. It requires gentle, private tochacha, or rebuke, when any given individual is straying from the path. It requires nudging our young people to try on kashrut, to make Shabbat and holidays sacred, to marry within the tribe and be fruitful and multiply. I see posters around my neighborhood reminding me that parents are the “anti-drug,” in other words, that in spite of evidence to the contrary, our kids do care about what we think. I believe we continue to care about what our parents and other role models think until we’re six feet under. We can all look back on our lives and acknowledge the times that a mentor steered us on the right track. We Jews have a spiritual “right track” and it’s worthy of intensive research and aggressive marketing.

My last item, at least for this essay, is Hillel.   And by that I mean the amazing collegiate institution that is the pride of Jewish America, and by extension, all Jewish programming for our endangered tribespeople under thirty. Hillels enhance Jewish life on campus for those lucky enough to have had a Jewish day school education and are the last chance for engagement for those that haven’t. I just returned from leading a Shabbaton at Lafayette College, a top 50 liberal arts school in the rolling hills of Easton, PA. A passionate, self-selected group of Jewish students celebrated Shabbat with me, a 27-hour period which included spirited davening, divrei Torah, great meals, my workshop “Jewish Perspective of the Afterlife” and after Havdalah, a rowdy concert where many of them got into the act. Perhaps the Hillel board chose the afterlife course since Halloween is coming up? According to the Hillel website, 94% say that being Jewish will “continue to be important” to them after graduation. Is there any question where our benefactors should be directing funds?

That said, I think what we are seeing is that “continue to be important” is not enough to give these young people the gift of Jewish grandchildren. Nor is the powerful Birthright program or the multitudes of great Jewish summer camps that dot our countryside. The programs with the efficacy that we require must open the door to a life of Jewish commitment, in other words, a life of mitzvot. Hillel Shabbatons, Camp Ramah and NFTY will succeed only to the degree that Jewish leadership pursues the aforementioned individual “Hineni” connections. And when these young people are called upon, the framework on which they base their Judaism must include not only adventure travel and falafel but also an opportunity to learn of the Jewish derech, or path. Yes, we have to “nudge” them. Or else I fear they will be lost in space, spineless, grasping for meaning in their lives that they will satisfy in arenas outside the Jewish weltanschauung.

Some argue that students that come to Hillel events are from different backgrounds and therefore must be catered to with kid gloves so as to not offend or demean those with less Jewish education or tradition. I must admit that I was saddened when the dear students with whom I was interacting over the weekend were stumped when I asked what Lech L’cha meant or what was Abraham’s noted character trait. They didn’t realize that Jews believed in reincarnation and had no idea of the meaning of Kaddish. I’d like to make a plea that our national Hillel rabbis and interns take it up a notch. As I’ve seen at every Hillel function that I’ve had the pleasure to lead, the students will rise to the occasion. They are hungry for Torah and leadership. They need role models that are living a Jewish life and doing so with class and a sense of fun. They want their programming to include not only talks on Jewish history, Israel and the holocaust but on the Jewish soul, text study and personal growth through mitzvot. They know that they are about to enter the abyss of the job market and the ills of society at large and need to be armed with our Jewish secrets for success. Like many Jewish events, food is the primary magnet to attract these “starving students.” But once they are there for the meal we must also feed their hunger for spiritual transformation, for our rich tradition of tools they can use to navigate the waters of life.

I agree that it’s pointless to cry about the Pew study without coming up with concrete action items. I will be working with my wife to raise a pool of matching funds for Hillel programming over 2014-15. We will be partnering with the non-profit Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity to enable Hillels to book programming that informs as well as entertains. Several campuses in each region will be involved in any given weekend with Thursday Night Live concerts, Shabbatons and Sunday workshops and teacher/staff/board training. Students can opt in to any or all of the events on the schedule with transportation provided. In tandem with this effort will be a subsidized distribution of Jewish music downloads from top Jewish artists, with a featured album available every month for free to university students. It is my hope that this small effort will help to create a groundswell of renewed enthusiasm for Jewish life and serve to better inform the choices of young Jewish people during their college experience and after they graduate.

The solutions above are a-denominational. Some may argue that Orthodox Jews are immune to the above issues. I can state from experience that they too are badly in need of an injection of renewal and joy and lose sleep over their kids’ connection to Yiddishkeit. Others might argue that mitzvot are outside the purview of Reform Jews or are “optional.” No! In fact “The (1999) Pittsburgh Principles asserts that each Reform Jew has the right, indeed the obligation, to enter into dialogue with the mitzvot…affirming a mitzvah, declaring one is not ready yet to accept it, or even rejecting it. But the dialogue must precede the decision, or it is not really a decision.” Conservative Judaism wins the prize in the Pew reports of Jewish organizational hemorrhage. I’m hopeful that the new breed of JTS/AJU graduates are eschewing the ivory tower-academic rabbinic model with which I grew up and instead can incorporate the wide-eyed sense of amazement and intoxication with God’s love that religious life requires. Many Conservative rabbis model halachic life but are unwilling to offer halachic education or tochacha to increasingly secular congregants for fear of appearing pushy or damaging relationships with the board. Clearly the clergy of all denominations must restructure their time; they can’t be too busy in board meetings, fundraising and preparing sermons or they will miss out on crucial Hineni moments. If the Pew study revealed anything it’s that all our movements are in need of healing and that any one’s success is a victory for the Jewish People. More than ever, we’re all in this together.

My friends, all denominations are struggling with retention. All of our organizations are striving to improve the Jewish experience that they offer. All are concerned about maximizing nachas: that profound Jewish joy button that is only pushed when our deepest soul clearly perceives that the Jewish mission is alive and well. When our leadership has the guts and the wisdom to create Hineni moments in our lives, we will rise up and say, “Here I am!” When we are encouraged to focus daily on the Jewish “path” and nurture every age group with Jewish literacy, Torah study and the importance of halacha, our out of kilter orbit will eventually stabilize. And with the devotion of resources to inspiring and directing our youth, we will create an atmosphere of love for heritage that will make the decision to raise a Jewish family a no-brainer. Let us spend our hard earned resources not on further Pew exposés of our demise but on the programs that have proven to have efficacy in stemming the tide of assimilation. I’m confident that with resolve and sagacity we’ll once again see Jews in the Pews.