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The term “back room” can have various connotations depending on the cultural context in which it is used. It often refers to something clandestine, a place to meet when perhaps skirting the law. Images of cigar smoking and private poker games for high rollers come to mind. As was confirmed for me once again the other day when I was in Boston, however, the back room can also be a place where remarkably positive things occur. While browsing at the Israel Book Store, the clock struck 2 PMâ€”time for mincha (afternoon prayer services). Obviously not the first time that I have been asked to participate in such prayer services, I was invited to the back room of the store to join a small group of menâ€”mostly those who worked in the Brookline neighborhoodâ€”who quickly worked their way through the afternoon service, making sure that there were enough to say Mournerâ€™s Kaddish since one among us was still observing the period of mourning and there is a requirement of at least ten for Kaddish to be said. (I realize that women were not invited, but I believe that my point is still valid.)
The brief service was led by a local Chabad rabbi. Those who assembled represented various levels of affiliation and traditional observanceâ€”even a couple of youth group boys who happened to be in the store at the time. What impressed me most, as it has anytime I have joined a “pick-up minyan (prayer quorum)” was that no-one asked who I was or where I came from or how observant I was. We were all there together in the back room forming an improvised community; I was there to participate in the creation of a kinship through prayer and therefore I was made to feel welcome. True, taking part in this makeshift mincha demanded a level of literacy. There were no page numbers on the prayer books, nor any announcements to inform those who might not know what to do next. But those are minor quibbles compared to the positives that came from joining in the services with this ad hoc minyan. That day in Boston, I once again learned the pleasure of being welcomed into a community of strangers who simply wish to share a spiritual momentâ€”and that good things can happen in the back room.
Last night a good friend of mine sent me an e-mail with the subject line â€śPretty much the only thing that’s ever made me want to go do something Jewy.â€ť [Note: while the word â€śJewyâ€ť may not be the most politically correctterm that my friend could have used, she was using it to convey colloquially a different tone than would have been achieved had she used the word â€śJewishâ€ť] The e-mail contained a link to a blog post on Mah Rabu, a blog that deals with a variety of issues related to independent Jewish communities, progressive politics, physics, and basically everything else I hold dear (with the notable and tragic exception of chocolate). The postâ€™s author, BZ, discusses his creation of a Kabbalat Shabbat (prayer service involving the singing of beautiful psalms to welcome the Sabbath) service that uses the traditional words to the Friday night liturgy sung to the tunes of the songs from the R.E.M. album Automatic to the People. According to the blogger, this inventive arrangement was a success in appealing to newcomers. BZ describes how a wide swath of people from his university turned out to attend Friday night services done to these modern tunes:
My friendâ€™s desire to be part of this creative Jewish programming shows that blending pop culture with traditionâ€”and other innovative twists to the liturgyâ€”can have the power to attract those who might not be compelled by traditional synagogue services. Experimenting with tunes and liturgy are ways to draw those who may not be as interested in standard services into the Jewish communityâ€”particularly when these services are cleverly advertised in both Jewish and secular locations. BZ did not discriminate when it came to hanging posters publicizing these contemporary music-based services at his university, hoping to reach a wider and more varied audience. Is there a way you can create an event which will make someone exclaim that it is â€śthe only thing thatâ€™s ever made [them] want to go do something Jewy?â€ť
I remember the feeling I felt some years ago when Edgar Bronfman addressed a major gathering of Jewish communal leaders when the STAR (Synagogues: Transformation And Renewal) initiative was announced. There was an audible gasp when Edgar shared his feelings (or, perhaps more appropriately, his criticisms) about synagogue life. He found the worship experience generally boring and uninspiredâ€”not to mention uninspiring. Since many in attendance were pulpit rabbis, it came as no surprise that, overall, the audience did not agree with his assessments.
Recently, Edgar penned an op/ed that, while not quite as critical, does encourage rabbis to experiment with those areas of worship that seem to be the most challenging for people in attendance or potentially in attendanceâ€”beginning with the length of the morning service and the accessibility of the Torah reading. Just as I found myself among the few who concurred with his comments some years ago, I found myself again agreeing with much of what he had to say:
I am an omer counter, that is, I count down each day from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot. I know that it is a requirement of Jewish ritual, but for me, it is more than just marking the days in the midst of evening prayers. It is really a countdown that anticipates the giving of Torah at Sinai. It is a framing of the ongoing dialogue the Jewish people have had with the Divine, accented by two significant occasions at either end: Exodusâ€”the delivery from Egyptâ€”and Shavuot.
I realize that for many, especially those living on the periphery of the Jewish community, feeling in sync with the rhythm of this time may be challenging. Many of the traditional activities marking Shavuot abound with insider speak, the kind that may require a level of Hebrew or Jewish cultural literacy in order to enter the conversation. But I still believe that we have witnessed a change in the nature of the holiday. This holiday of Shavuot, perhaps obscured because of its brevity (the other two so-called pilgrimage holidays are much longer) never really captured the attention of the liberal Jewish community. The Reform movement, for example, insinuated Confirmation (a ceremony borrowed from Protestant Christianity) into Shavuot in order to bolster the holiday. A large segment of the Conservative movement followed suit. But today, those same synagogues have tikkun leil Shavuot (night-long study) programs and are attracting new people to their institutions. At JOI, we have developed our own model called Up All Night which takes its cue from our notion of Public Space JudaismSM and the application of outreach best practices.
But I think that there is still more that we can and should do as this holiday continues its evolution. There exists a growing number of men and women who have cast their lot with the Jewish people, committed to raising Jewish families even when they themselves may not be Jewishâ€”and I believe we should celebrate them. Shavuot, with its traditional requirement to read the book of Ruth (the most famous example of a person from another background choosing to join the Jewish community), seems to be the perfect holiday to do so. Just as the Jewish womenâ€™s movement has laid claim to Rosh Chodesh, perhaps those of us involved in reaching out and welcoming in those of other religious backgrounds who are part of the Jewish community, should lay claim to Shavuot. What do you think?
As a child growing up in Illinois, I knew that the first Monday in March was different from all other Mondays â€“ but I wasnâ€™t entirely sure why. Every year, the first Monday in March provided a welcome respite from school, due to something called “Casimir Pulaski Day.”
I didn’t know the story behind the holiday, but curiously, no-one at my grammar school seized on the “teachable moment” created by this obscure observance. Everyone was content to simply enjoy a long weekend without mentioning the Revolutionary Era hero it recognized.
At times, it may seem as if Shavuot is the Jewish holiday equivalent â€“ it often comes and goes somewhat quietly, and many seem uncertain as to the exact origins and current relevance of the day. For that reason, JOI has a section devoted to the story of Shavuot as well as some of its traditions and themes.