To Hear or Not to Hear

If your life could change in a moment, what would you want it to be?

Most of us quickly consider what we’d want from the world or
from another person: more love, more money, more respect, more health, more learning, more time.

Now, instead of changing factors outside of your life, think about your own character. What would you change about yourself?

Having a clear answer to that question helps define a serious Jew. When we study the expanse and depths of Jewish moral literature, we see that its words are reaching out to us to transform us.

Jews who take the tradition seriously allow and invite its wisdom to reach into and transform us. We can live with greater truth and less falsehood, with greater compassion and patience and less anger, with greater perspective and less “judgmentalism,” with greater wisdom and less small-mindedness.

Here, of course, is the problem with life-changing wisdom that comes from a tradition, or from any source. Unless you want to change, unless you can clearly detect the ways in which you need to transform yourself, you will experience such wisdom directed at you as misaddressed, mistaken and misconceived.

How many of us can remember cogent and timely advice given to us, but we could not understand how crucial it was for us at the time? How many of us have given advice to another out of true love and concern, and seen our advice misunderstood or ignored? We need to be spiritually and morally ready, it seems, to hear the truths we need to hear.

Back in Torah portion Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35), the Israelites were not ready to hear. When Moshe came down from Mount Sinai, the Israelites were cavorting with the molten calf. If we understand this psychologically and archetypically, this cavorting with the calf was a way of not listening, of making ourselves too busy to attend to the truth that was presented to us.

The Holy One has redeemed us from slavery; not just political oppression, the rabbis remind us, but also from a spiritual death. We were steeped in sin. I think of cultures and subcultures today that have gone bad, of nations and neighborhoods where basic human values are forgotten. I think of individuals I have known, wracked by anger, envy, resentment or fear, taken far from the center of their being.
The Holy One addresses us, calling us to lives of nobility, but we don’t hear; a “not hearing” that continues in each of us at one time or another.

And then there are moments when we do hear. This week’s parsha, Vayakhel-Pekudey, is such a moment. After the disaster of the molten calf incident, Moshe provides forgiveness from God for the people. He ascends Mount Sinai and receives another set of tablets, engraved with words that evoke the wisdom of the divine implanted in each person’s heart.

This time, we don’t shut out those words that evoke us into full being. In this week’s parsha, we find the people of Israel donating of their wealth — not to an idol that helps mute the divine, but rather to building a sanctuary that will keep the divine word alive in their midst.

That sanctuary we built in the desert thousands of years ago seems to be the key. There are words in our tradition that can alert each of us to full consciousness — a different word for you, a different word for me. What makes us fellow Jews — Jews in fellowship with one another — is that we listen to the same tradition together, we study together, we work together to keep each other awake.

We must build sanctuaries — communities of learning and devotion, fellowship and service — in which this holy wisdom is preserved and lived out. The Hebrew word root of the name of our parsha, “Vayakhel” also gives us the word kehilla, which means congregation or community.

From a Jewish perspective, from the wisdom of our parsha, these must be communities of meaning, where we are taught how to change our lives, where we are given a vision of what our lives could be become. Our communities can be places where the divine word given to each of us is heard and lived, lifting us to the lives to which God is calling us all.

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah congregation, as well as provost and professor of liturgy and mysticism at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

Tranforming the Synagogue — A Scorecard

Synagogue transformation programs exude good intentions, but do they actually work?

The record is mixed. They are no panacea, but they sometimes benefit participating congregations — at least temporarily — by attracting newcomers, energizing existing members and perhaps forcing the synagogues to re-examine themselves.

For example, Rabbi Shawn Zevit, a spokesman for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, said participating congregations in his movement have enjoyed “modest success” in luring unaffiliated Jews, although getting them to participate in synagogue activities has not always been easy. On the other hand, he added, some existing members have become more deeply involved in congregational life thanks to transformation initiatives.

Those initiatives include Synaplex, whose core mission is to strengthen Jewish identity and create a sense of community largely by making Shabbat meaningful.

Turnout at synagogues that have participated in the program for at least two years generally doubles, triples, or even quadruples on Synaplex weekends, according to Rabbi Hayim Herring, a spokesman for Synaplex’s parent organization, STAR, or Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal. What’s more, Herring added, membership has either stabilized or increased at 17 pilot congregations evaluated by his organization, even those that had been losing members.

But a boost in headcount does not necessarily translate into meaningful change, according to representatives of both transformation projects and participating synagogues.

“The goal of a synagogue is not simply to get people to use it, although that may be the initial goal,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “The ultimate goal is to effect change in the person and the congregation. I’d look at the situation two years from now and see how many people have had continuous involvement, or became involved only because this is something new.”

The success rate of these experiments varies dramatically, according to Epstein. Without offering percentages, he said he has observed “large numbers” of congregations that seek a “quick fix,” and therefore have achieved only limited success — and “large numbers” that have been able to reinvent themselves and become more vibrant institutions.

Benchmarks of congregational transformation come in many forms — some of them concrete and easy to quantify, but many more of them abstract and difficult to attach numbers to. They may be manifested by congregants who now take Jewish learning seriously. Or who have inculcated Jewish values into their lives. Or feel prayer in their bones for the first time. Or it may be reflected in a once-impersonal synagogue that now has a warm, friendly atmosphere and makes newcomers feel at home.

Whether these innovations actually take root is the product of many factors, according to Epstein and others, including the quality of leadership at individual congregations, and that can vary widely. The consensus: The best leaders are visionaries who cultivate congregations that creatively and boldly pursue long-lasting change rather than simply add new programs. Ideally, such an approach is so firmly implanted in the congregational culture that it will survive changes in synagogue personnel.

“You have to be ready to look at yourself objectively and critically and really be honest about what your strengths and weaknesses are,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “You need to create rising expectations and break your sense of complacency. It’s very difficult.” Freelander said only about one-half of the congregations he has monitored have been able to create a climate that is conducive to profound change. “But when it happens,” he added, “you can see the light bulbs going off and the congregation is better for it.”

The point at which change becomes “meaningful” or even “profound” is subject to interpretation, of course. Herring of Synaplex, for one, said an important threshold has been crossed when a congregation “moves from using Synaplex as a program to using Synaplex as a way of doing business in the synagogue.”

However it is defined, fashioning a truly transformative approach to congregational thinking and decision-making “is incredibly hard to do and we still have a lot to learn about how to do it,” said Lawrence Hoffman, the co-founder of Synagogue 2000, an initiative that was launched in 1995 and recently evolved into a leadership-training program known as Synagogue 3000. The goal of Synagogue 2000, in part, was to help congregations become more spiritual, adult-centered and welcoming.

Hoffman estimates that about one-third of the 100 congregations served by Synagogue 2000 had poor leadership, and therefore achieved lackluster results. Of the remaining synagogues, he said, about one-third of them were modestly successful at transforming themselves and one-third were very successful.
Amy Sales, associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, said that about half of the Synaplex synagogues she surveyed could legitimately be called success stories.

A third major shul-overhaul program is the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) , which focuses on Torah study as an important entry point into Jewish life. “On one level, transformation seems daunting,” said ECE director Rob Weinberg. “But on another level, we’re just asking congregations to do the best of what they already do, but on a regular basis.”

Stressing that he considers success to be a “continuum, rather than a yes-no proposition,” Weinberg estimates that roughly one-half to three-quarters of the synagogues that have participated in his program for several years have in fact transformed themselves.

Temple Shalom of Newton, Mass., is one of them. Under the ECE aegis, the 1,000-family Reform congregation spent five years coming up with five core Jewish values — lifelong learning, enriching spirituality, creating community, social action, and Jewish continuity.

Ideally, every new synagogue event or program exemplifies one of those values. For example, when three of the temple’s aging Torah mantles disintegrated, more than 330 members, from nursery school children to grandparents, needlepointed decorative covers for the new mantles, illustrating the values of kedusha (holiness) and kehillah (community).

Meanwhile, the congregation has become active in its local federation and the national Reform movement and has sent two large groups to Israel this past year.
“That’s what it means to us to be a learning congregation,” said Temple Shalom education director Julie Vanek. “Not just creating programs, but helping people reflect on who they are and what they want to be.” l

Jewels of Our Lives

There are stories that one needs to hear many times in order to remember them, in order to file them in a manner that they can be retrieved when needed. But then I’m sure you have listened to stories that you heard not only with your ears and memory, but with your soul as well; stories that you knew the moment you heard them you would never forget them. Thirteen years ago, I was standing in a store of sefarim (holy books) in Yerushalayim with my rebbe, Shlomo Carlebach. He took a book off the shelf, kissed it and handed it to me while saying, "Do you have this book? You must have it."

It looked like so many other books in the store, so many other books in my library. "It’s the Bat Ayin — the teachings of the holy Avritcher Rebbe — you must have it."

"But who is he?" I asked.

Reb Shlomo looked at me and said, "Remember the story with the precious stones? It is him!"

I smiled as my eyes teared. "Yes," I said, "I remember."

The Bat Ayin, Rav Avraham Dov of Avritch, was one of the Chasidic leadership who made aliyah in 1777. One day, a stranger entered his chazter (courtyard) in the city of Tzfat and Rav Avraham ran to greet him. The Chasidim couldn’t hear what they spoke of, but as soon as the stranger left, the rebbe returned to his study and did not emerge for three weeks. The Chasidim were puzzled: Who was that person? What did he and the rebbe discuss? Why did the rebbe lock himself in his study for three weeks? Their puzzlement grew when the rebbe finally emerged and commanded his Chasidim to prepare the most amazing tish (a rebbe’s table).

The Chasidim did as they were told. They ate and drank and sang and danced. But the whole time, all they really wanted to know was: Who was the stranger? What did he and the rebbe discuss? Why did the rebbe lock himself in his room for three weeks?

At last one of the Chasidim mustered up the courage to ask the rebbe, "Why?"

The rebbe silenced them and began: "Many years ago, while still in Avritch, I would always sit for hours with anyone that came from Eretz Yisrael. I would question them about the Holy Land and what it was like to live there. One day a shliach d’rabanan [charity collector] showed up and we talked endlessly. When he stood to leave I begged him, ‘Please, tell me more!’

"He said to me, ‘I’ve told you everything.’

"But I insisted, ‘Tell me more!’

"He said to me, ‘What more can I tell you? When you stand at Ma’arat Hamachpela along with the Patriarchs and Matriarchs you will know.’ And he turned to leave.

"I begged of him, ‘Please, tell me more!’

"He said, ‘What more can I tell you? When you stand at Kever Rachel [Rachel’s tomb] and cry with her, you will know.’ And again he turned to leave.

"I continued to beg, ‘Please, tell me more!’

"He said, ‘I’ve told you all I can. When you get there you will see for yourself, even the stones are precious stones. Even the stones are made of emeralds and rubies and diamonds!’ And with this he left.

"So you see," the rebbe turned to his Chasidim, "when I arrived, everything was exactly as he said it would be. Everything but the stones — they were regular stones, they weren’t precious stones at all. I could never understand why he lied to me. Why the last thing he told me was not true.’

"Three weeks ago, he walked into the chatzer, and despite the passage of 20 years I recognized him immediately. I ran to him and said, ‘Everything you told me was true, but the stones! Why did you lie to me? Why did you tell me they were precious stones when they are not?!’ He looked at me and said with dismay and surprise: ‘What? They’re not?’

"So I locked myself in my study and I began to cry. Every day I would cry and look out at the stones. Today, finally, while looking out of the window I realized that every stone was precious. Every stone was an emerald or a ruby or a diamond!"

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) tells us that on Rosh Hashanah the Books of Life and Death are opened and that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are all registered in one of the two books. But who does the actual signing? Who else but God could do this? The Avritcher Rebbe tells us that it is our own signature that appears in these books. If we choose to look at ourselves, at other people, at our world, at the events of our lives as jewels, then indeed we have signed ourselves in the Book of Life.

The Avritcher Rebbe had to cry in order to transform his sight. And you? Will the transformation happen through joy? Through prayer? Through dance? Through learning? What will it take for you to sign yourself in the Book of Life?

Reb Mimi Feigelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

Snooze-Proof Seder

Guests at one of Heidi Kahn’s Passover potlucks stepped into a desert oasis. That year, her Irvine tract home was transformed with a Bedouin makeover achieved by suspending a tent inside. Another year, guests, who always contribute to the feast, were also asked to bring household goods and were put to work assembling care packages for Jews trying to flee the former Soviet Union.

Typically, the amphibian plague, one of many inflicted on ancient Egypt in the biblical story of Exodus, gets a star turn at Kahn’s seder. Plastic frogs croak unexpectedly at arriving guests, who can fold origami frogs while waiting for latecomers. Some guests even don frog masks.

“When you’ve sat through a lifetime of tedious seders and create your own tedious seders, and then go to Heidi’s place and play, no seder will ever compare,” said friend and past guest, Gail Shendelman, of Irvine. “I’m spoiled for life.”

Throwing over typical seder conventions for a sensory and culture-rich affair leaves some of Kahn’s guests infused with Jewish pride and others spiritually reconnected. Nobody goes away dreading Passover.

“It’s like a giant party and teaching experience,” said Kahn, mentor teacher at Irvine’s University Synagogue and a preschool program at the Jewish Community Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa.

“She likes to take a multisensory approach,” said Nancy Kouraklis, another University teacher, who says Kahn’s classroom invariably includes objects to smell and touch, music and ingenious projects.

Her seder is equally marked with myriad novel details that evoke the holiday’s symbolism and origin.

“It’s so creative. It’s like a Broadway production,” said Ilene S. Mountain, a two-time Kahn seder guest.

The first act typically involves children retelling the Passover story. As preschoolers, Kahn’s own girls, Marlee, now 11, and Jordana, 9, romped as the Egyptian princesses who cradled baby Moses. In later years, as Kahn would narrate, every invited child would display a scene they had been preassigned to depict artistically.

This year’s theme wasn’t clear yet. “It depends on the crowd. I’m not ready to commit,” she said.

A native of South Africa, Passover is Kahn’s favorite holiday. She overfills her home with as many as 40 visitors, which always include her parents and siblings. “I don’t want to say no to anyone,” she said.

Kahn can spend four days on meticulous preparations, such as the rose petal bed that cushions a huge, water-filled glass bowl that elegantly elevates hand-washing with nature’s perfume.

The seder’s second act around the dining room table typically lasts 90 minutes and is directed by Kahn, who calls on guests to participate in turn. “There’s not a boring moment in the whole thing,” Mountain said.

Each chair is equipped with a personalized seder pack of props, such as hammers to represent tools of enslavement, and “A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah” by David Dishon and Noam Zion (Shalom Hartman Institute, 1997). Selected guests receive special props, such as a shower of styrofoam that substitutes for a plague of hail or Pharaoh’s crown.

Also at Kahn’s instruction, guests have laden the table with nondairy, vegetarian concoctions because of family food allergies. The menu always includes traditional Passover foods, but with a twist: charoset, for instance, is flavored with Egyptian or Yemenite spices.

Unlike most seders, where guests ignore hunger pangs while the haggadah unfolds, Kahn encourages noshers throughout to fortify themselves.

“The dress code is you have to be able to dance and eat excessively,” she said.

Playing guitar or pounding drums, her brother, Brian Sepel, interrupts the reading for traditional songs such “Dayenu,” or atypical ones such as “There’s No Seder Like My Seder,” sung to the show tune “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

Some guests are wary of letting their hair down. Intuitively, Kahn intercedes.

“I get embarrassed to read aloud,” Mountain said. “Before I even said anything, she says to me, ‘Don’t worry. I have just one paragraph for you to read.'”

One exotic Sephardic ritual stands out for many guests. Kahn ordered everyone from his or her seat to march in a circular procession. She handed each a sheaf of green onions, which to were to use as faux whips on the backs of their neighbors.

“It was kind of silly and juvenile,” Shendelman said. “It took many of us out of our comfort zone. But it did have a different meaning. She taught me a lesson in what it felt like to be a slave and told what to do.”

In the final act, the search for the afikomen (the hidden matzah ), is a treasure hunt that requires clues for its solution. Every child receives a prize.

Kahn’s extravaganza does have its downside.

“You’ll never be able to go to another seder again.” said Mountain. Any other, she said, “is a big snooze.”