Remaking Jewish Community – Creating Option 3

…there has never been a better time to be a liberal Jew

This is the link for the podcast we will be listening to and discussing: Judaism Unbound.

Cantor Barbara and Bill began the talk by singing Lincoln’s Niggun by Joey Weisenberg. Listen to it yourself.

For me, it is difficult to be moved to tears by a prayer, but when I heard that L’cha Dodi at a service, I wept. It is called Lincoln’s Niggun, and it is by Joey Weisenberg. Joey is a gifted musician who is the Creative Director of the Hadar Center for Communal Jewish Music in Brooklyn. His mission is to build singing communities. I want to relate the story of how Joey Weisenberg was inspired to write Lincoln’s Niggun.

Cantor Barbara told me this story, so hopefully I get it right!  Joey talks about being a multi-generation American, and as such, felt that Jewish music should reflect American roots rather than having to be eastern European in origin. One day, while watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, Joey was moved by the music, and created Lincoln’s Niggun, with its roots melody.

Joey Weisenberg is not much different from Salomon Sulzer. Sulzer lived in 19th-century Austria, and wanted to change synagogue music, using the influences of Catholic and Protestant music, and of the contemporary composers of his time, Liszt, Schubert and Schumann. As you might expect, his music at the time was considered radical.

Today, Sulzer is considered perhaps the most influential cantor of his century.

It’s hard to imagine our own worship service without this 19th-century radical.

I don’t know if Joey Weisenberg, or Josh Nelson or Danny Maseng will be thought of in the same way as Sulzer in 2150, but Debbie Friedman might!

Changing tunes is one way that we keep our practice fresh. And there are many other ways. But for many of us, Judaism is anything but fresh. In fact, for so many people it is stale. It’s not just among the so-called unaffiliated, those who do not participate in synagogue or other Jewish community life. I have had more than one person comment to me that they or their friends are members of the synagogue, but really not engaged. Jewish community is not meeting their needs either.

Anybody here a big podcast person? I’m usually not. But lately I’ve been tuned in to Judaism Unbound, which describes itself as a project that catalyzes and supports grassroots efforts by “disaffected but hopeful” American Jews to re-imagine and re-design Jewish life in America for the 21st Century. Whew. In other words, how to we get people back into the conversation.

The hosts are a thirty-something and a twenty-something, Dan Libenson and Lex Rofes, who are both deeply involved in Jewish community leadership. They interview major guests: Anita Diamant, Richard Elliot Friedman, Jonathan Sarna are the bigger names, who all bring different perspectives.  They have conversations at a both a strategic and tactical level, and I find that the podcast introduces conversations that you didn’t know that you weren’t having.

One such conversation is one with Rabbi Benay Lappe, who is the Founder and Rosh Yeshiva of Svara, a traditional radical yeshiva, and a respected Jewish community thinker. She puts forth what she describes as her crash theory: Many times in its history, Judaism has seen a crash of its master story, the story that helps people answer the important questions of life. According to her, we are experiencing such a crash today, with the increasing numbers of Jewish people who are not connected to Jewish life.

Rabbi Lappe describes 3 responses to a crash:

Option 1 – Deny that there is a crash and revert to master story.

Option 2 – Reject the old story and go to new master story.

Option 3 – Stay in and re-tell the story.

The example that she gives is the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple. The Option 1 people are the priests and the Sadducees who want to re-establish their way of worship and regain their power. Ninety percent of Jews go Option 2; they have lost their temple, and figure that God is gone from their midst. They assimilate. Option 3 people are the Rabbis of the Talmud, who create a new form of Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism. They create a system of law and worship dedicated to the notion that there can be holiness in every act. They give voice to our interpretive tradition.

The crash need not be viewed as a catastrophe. The Rabbis were working on their system well before the actual crash occurred. The crash provided them the opportunity to use Option 3, the retelling and reframing of the master story.

Closer to home, take the case of American Jews. They came to America to rewrite their master story, which had in so many cases crashed for them in Europe. And in America, there is a different mindset. Jonathan Sarna points out that if we could break away from Britain, we could break away from the synagogue down the street. When the master story of Old World orthodoxy ceased to work, American Jews expanded the reform movement that had begun in Germany. When the Reform story failed many people, they started the Conservative Movement. America is a land of Option 3, of retelling the story.

In Silicon Valley, we frequently use the word “disruption” to talk about products that serve a new market or create a new category. Think iPhone. In the Jewish world, what more disruptive innovation can we think of than the inclusion of women as fully able to participate in the religious and social life of the community! Option 3 is disruptive change and sometimes it is radical change.

So what holds us back from option 3, from exploring more fully all those ways that we can help people today retell the master story and find meaning in 21st century Judaism? Part of it is that we don’t like change. Part of it is the feeling we get from tradition- we like Sulzer’s now traditional tunes. Part of it is a lack of creative leadership; not everyone can formulate retelling the story and create an Option 3, nor lead that effort. Part of it is a lack of funding. Part of it is that we need a lot of Option 3 choices because many of them don’t really work. A major part is our institutions themselves, which are more interested in self-perpetuation than creating Jewish opportunities. But that’s a sermon for another day.

The main obstacle, though is AUTHENTICITY. We feel that new innovations are somehow inauthentic, not acceptable or accepted because they are different from what is traditional. When Anita Diamant appeared on the podcast, she described the founding of Mayim Hayim, the community mikveh in Boston. The idea behind Mayim Hayim was to provide access for people who wanted to use a mikveh for their transitions in life: divorce, recovery from breast cancer and other physical and emotional traumas; as well, for brides and grooms. Diamant says that the biggest pushback she got was from people who were afraid that inauthentic uses of the mikveh — retirement — would cheapen and dilute the tradition, that it was somehow zero-sum between traditional and alternative.

It’s this zero-sum mentality that frequently gets in the way of our retellings of the master story, Option 3, being accepted. We blend some of the old story with new invented material, but when we stray far from the old story, we feel that a betrayal of what is authentic. I urge us to have confidence in our own changes, and see those as valid and essential. Just because we disagree with Rashi or Nehama Leibowitz, Rabbi Yehoshua, Heschel, or Anita Diamant doesn’t make us inauthentic. To the contrary, it is our honest voice coming through, both as individuals and as community; we find the story that speaks to us, and indeed we author that story.

As one who teaches younger people, I find it ironic that we teach our children to blaze their own paths, not to give in to peer pressure. We help our children to find their own voice, their own footing. Yet too often we don’t look for our own! We have to find our own paths, even as adults, and share those paths with the broader community. The strength in Judaism is in its diversity, in the voices of men and women; in listening to the queer voices; welcoming people of color, and those who aren’t from Jewish backgrounds, whether they have converted or not!

Listening to voices that are not considered mainstream, and creating alternate ways of connection strengthens us as Jews, and as human beings. Just look at our Shabbats here. We engage in different ways at the synagogue- study, Junior Congregation, Traditional Service, Power Hour. And at the end, we all eat lunch together. And people who have their own Shabbat experience, maybe going for a walk, spending time with their kids at sports, doing yoga, going to the beach with their dogs, also join in lunch, creating community even when worshipping beyond the walls of this building, and with their own rituals.

As we think about our creation of option 3s, I don’t want to disregard Option 1, those who still see the master story as their guide. Preservation of the past, clinging to tradition is important — it bonds us to our ancestors and to people in other communities locally and around the world.  Everyone sings Sulzer’s Shema and Vayhi Binsoa Ha-aron. It is important not to throw everything out simply because it’s old or traditional.

Likewise, we need to not label people who are unengaged as Option 2, ones who have completely rejected the master story. Many people who are not participating in the Jewish conversation are not leaving Judaism, but Jewish communal forms that aren’t working for them. Many would like an option 3, a new way of relating to the master story, that speaks to them; something like a Mayim Hayim or closer to home, the Power Hour.

Despite the studies, we are not dying. In fact, there has never been a better time to be a liberal Jew. Mayim Hayim was founded in response to a need, but also to existing practice. Many people were going to bodies of water, swimming pools and lakes, to immerse when they came to those moments in life that they wanted to mark with a water ritual.

This community is one that is open, creative, and driven. Option 3 comes from the grass roots in partnership with the leadership. For a long time, we have spoken of the need to build deep and meaningful relationships, both between clergy and you, and between you and each other. Let’s join together in this quest. I would like to create listening parties this year, just like a Book Group, but instead to listen to and discuss Judaism Unbound, and together to help create the option 3s that speak to us.

In the Kabbalat Shabbat service, we sing two psalms that begin with Shiru Ladonai Shir Hadash – Sing a New Song. Levi Yitzchak tells us that each day is new and deserves a new song. May this be a year where we write and sing our new song, a year where we make Option 3 blossom and continue to rewrite our master story.

Shana Tova.