In 2012 my wife Barbara and I followed our grandchildren to Brooklyn (Carroll Gardens). I now teach Torah at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope.
I have clear memories of my father as a Reform rabbi, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He taught that our people must survive so as to demonstrate higher values in the face of popular prejudices that diminish the divine image. In the first decade of my career racism and war dominated my sermons and activities. Being a Jew was mainly a matter of responsibility.
My resources: a Reform background; learning to daven with a Conservative group at Brandeis University Hillel; several months in an Israeli Orthodox setting – Kibbutz Sha’albim and Mir Yeshivah in Jerusalem; rabbinic training at Hebrew Union College. Following ordination I pursued an academic career in Bible and archaeology before getting married and committing in the late 60’s, to the pulpit in New York City.
A large suburban Philadelphia congregation, Adath Israel, offered me, in the 70’s, the task of creating a program for young singles, college age through mid twenties. As assistant rabbi I had a budget and a secretary and full support of the senior rabbi and the board to do whatever I could think of. How to reach out to a segment of the congregation that had little or no inclination for Jewish practice? Shabbat dinner gatherings had been among my best college (Brandeis) involvements. My wife, Barbara and I had been doing Shabbat for years and when we had children, the little ones soon found their places in the ritual. It occurred to me that the dining room would be the ideal place for young people to meet, talk, learn. Even prayer and song go well with good food.
I put together a loose-leaf booklet of blessings and songs. Shabbat hymns interspersed between the candle lighting, blessing of the children, kiddush, and motsi. The booklet had words and music to a growing list of z’mirot and folk songs and the complete Birkat Hamazon. Barbara baked challah, and roasted chickens and made spectacular deserts. I gathered names and phone numbers of over 300 young people and set out to invite a dozen or so to our home for dinner every Friday. Resistance faded as word spread about the food, the joyous atmosphere, and the serious talk, the intellectual exploration that never lagged before midnight.
Holiday parties on Chanukah and Purim were a natural with that group. For Chanukah everyone brought a menorah, so that living room, dining room, hallway, were all glowing with lights. Following the blessings and lots of singing, some made latkes, others fried sufganiot, and all the rest gathered into groups to play dreidle for peanuts. For Purim people came in costume and outlandish makeup. We read through the entire Megillah, with freestyle noisemakers. Afterwards everyone formed and decorated hamantaschen for immediate consumption and for delivery as shalach manot.
We used the spacious and elegant temple facilities only for High Holiday services and for one rock music Shabbat service that I commissioned from a band that had been practicing in our basement. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we sat in a large circle, with room in the center for movement (e.g. all did the full bow in aleynu, and we chanted Sh’ma in a close packed, unified bunch). We printed the music to the responses and hymns and had several student musicians leading the singing with guitar, piano, and harp. At nearly every prayer we paused for responses, questions, and talk. In place of sermons we used movie shorts to raise discussion.
I served Temple Shalom of Colorado Springs in the late 70’s and 80’s. It is a merged congregation, holding Reform services Friday nights and Conservative every Saturday morning. I liked the scope and my children grew comfortable in both forms of worship. On Simchat Torah we marched and danced the seven hakafot with a pair of jazz musicians in the lead, on trumpet and baritone. Then the participants formed a circle at the perimeter of the sanctuary and we unrolled an entire Torah scroll into their hands, for the readings. Each Purim we read the Megillah in a different style. Once I assembled readers who could handle Hebrew, Yiddish, Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, Russian, and Polish. The reading proceeded with each paragraph in a different language. For balance we added Brooklyneese and Alabaman.
My career is sharing what I have learned about memorable Jewish experiences. I still look for ways to make the most of childhood, of intellectual development, of family and community, of worship, and of healing from the painful blows we all receive. Pleasure, comfort, and fun are essential to the practice of Judaism. Jews know all too well the problems of being who we are. We are entitled to the good stuff as well.