fbpx

How Open Temple Remained Open

As the founder and leader of Open Temple, I made a decision from which, since the start of the pandemic, we have not backed down: we will remain Open. 
[additional-authors]
November 4, 2021
Beach Shabbat Sh’mitah Style / Photo from Facebook

On March 20, 2020, a team of musicians, performance artists, free styling rappers, poets and seekers from around the world gathered in a combination of live performances in a Zoom Room as our tech staff broadcast the meeting live. For six years, Open Temple’s Shabbat featured an interactive siddur of films, prompts and prayers projected onto a wall-sized screen in a black box theatre. On this night, three of us met in that theatre, as everyone else was zoomed in and connected through our Sling Studio technology and broadcast live through our website and Facebook, as we had done every Open Temple Shabbat and holiday for the past two years. The pivot into COVID times was seamless, and Quarantine Shabbat was born.

However, the next week, I pulled the plug. Our live Zoom broadcasts of Shabbat services was the opposite of what our quarantined community needed, and muted the essence of why we do Shabbat. Open Temple itself was created to “break down the fourth wall, or proscenium” and engage the seeker through enchanting and stimulating services. Zoom, I observed, was the opposite. It was sensory deprivation, appealing only to the eyes and ears. Where were the satisfying smells of the match after shaken to extinguishment for a Shabbat candle, the Hershey’s kisses I tossed to the children, the embrace from a friend reunited in the holiness of the day? As the founder and leader of Open Temple, I made a decision from which, since the start of the pandemic, we have not backed down: we will remain Open. 

What followed were dozens of gatherings through the streets, waterways, cemeteries (yes, cemeteries) and seaside beaches of Los Angeles. Kayak Shabbat on the Venice Canals, where our band floated down the narrow channels in a barge and our neighbors, as light jugglers, surprised us on bridges over head. Bike Shabbat with the Venice Electric Light Parade, with the legendary Harry Perry singing our Shabbat prayers and accompanying himself with his famed and discordant electric guitar. A Passover Seder converted into a Seder Crawl through the alleys, medians, canals and streets of Venice as we discovered public swings, came upon a transformational sound bath, and launched 100 butterflies into the gardens surrounding the canals—all in service of the Telling of our Seder Story. Tisha b’Av was also an invitation into the streets of Venice, but this time, a darker tale, as the dirge of Eicha (Lamentations) played as background music as we marched in a silent walk through encampments and witnessed the graffiti in a post-George Floyd world. Simchat Torah Beach Disco featured our silent-disco headphones as we celebrated our personal relationship to Torah, passing it from one to another as the sun painted a psychedelic canvas in the sky. Rosh Hashanah one year was on a parking lot, as was Drive-in Shabbat. Purim Aerialists on Electric Avenue, Sukkot on the AK Farm and movie nights; another Rosh Hashanah was an oasis on the beach. And our school never closed either, instead moving into smaller-sized pods meeting at Open Temple house, backyards and car scavenger hunts throughout Los Angeles. 

This past Kol Nidre, our band gathered in a cemetery in Santa Monica where we wrapped ourselves in shrouds, asking permission of the grave we stood before, as we laid down upon it, and buried ourselves as the sounds of the Selichot Service rose among us. “How do we measure our lives?” I asked. “Who showed up to our funeral?” “What role does the Kol Nidre service have in resetting the course of our life’s choices? With our 25-hour breath feast, near-death experience, and the backdrop of nearly 700,000 dead, Yom Kippur penetrated our hearts and minds. “For the first time,” many emerged saying, “I finally understood what Kol Nidre was about.”

And what memories and impact might we have had if we remained on Zoom? Do we remember one service from another? Zoom serves a purpose for those of us who are home bound, or perhaps introverted. However, for the masses, it promotes compliancy and brain fog. Many of my colleagues proudly share their metrics: “Our Zoom reached 5,000 people.” What does one do with 5,000 people?, I think to myself.

I fear that as we continue to do away with these community gatherings, our silos will just continue to grow as the echo chambers they have already begun to become, further hastening our hearing loss. 

We have reached a time where our spiritual centers are under a crucible. And ironically, they were supposed to be holy spaces where sanctuary was to be found during hard times. Instead, we have widely broadcast Zoom into home fortresses stockpiling toilet paper. Are our homes our refuge or our prisons? Our holy meeting places, wherever they may be, must be the gathering places for compassionate and curious disagreement, the training ground for holy machlochet, our anchors through turbulent times. Zoom, I fear, promotes doing away with the unexpected softening of the heart when we see the eyes of those from whom we think differently. Gone is the moment when a laugh or a subtle gesture reminds us how to listen to words that sound foreign. Gone is the opportunity to grow in unexpected ways by experiencing someone other than ourselves, a new rhythm, kinesthetically acquired. I fear that as we continue to do away with these community gatherings, our silos will just continue to grow as the echo chambers they have already begun to become, further hastening our hearing loss. 

Open Temple remains and will remain Open. Our commitment is to be as safe and inclusive through these times as we can through balancing city and county mandates with the longing and need of every human heart. It takes humor and it takes grit and a little bit of risk-taking. But, wasn’t that what the rabbis 2000 years ago were doing when they faced the rise of other ways of thinking that were anathema to their own? When I read through the pages of the Mishna looking for inspiration, it is clear how vivid Judaism was in the ancient world, filled with fire jugglers, water drawers, burning ovens and calls for community. As we head into calendar year three of Covid-Times, may our bodies heal through the Radical Power of Together. May our prejudices melt from the presence of another, whose live, beating heart inspires the Jewish imagination to continue to grow and transform through these turbulent times, just as we always have.


Rabbi Lori Shapiro is the founder and artistic director of The Open Temple in Venice. 

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Hot and Bothered

If voters don’t act to protect the future of their grandchildren and their grandchildren’s grandchildren no one else will.

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.