Archive | September, 2009

High Holiday Sampler Plate Adventure–Part IV: Humbled at Hadar

This series has been crossposted to Jewschool. Here is the Intro.

To those of you who were worried that I was unhealthily smug, worry not. My day of davening at Hadar was the most humbling prayer experience of my life. Many have complained, mostly in the comments here, that this High Holiday Sampler Plate Adventure series has been rather smug. I’ve often been accused of smugness and I won’t go so far as to deny it.

First, let me apologize to anyone who was actually looking forward to my reflections on watching Kol Nidrei live streaming at Jewish TV Network. I couldn’t get it to work right, so I just went to bed frustrated. I was gonna live-tweet it and everything. But alas.

Uv’chen, I’ve been hearing about Kehilat Hadar since I moved into this part of the world and I’ve been told for a couple years now that I need to check it out. I dunno if Yom Kipur was the best day to make my first trip to Hadar or not, but I had a great time. And by a great time, I mean a deeply reflective time.

Inrecent years, I’ve had Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist prayer experiences, not to mention post-, non-, anti-, and multi- denominational ones. Hadar is the closest I’ve ever come to Orthodox. Despite the deeply various backgrounds of the people who come to Hadar, the founders and the feel is certainly as close as you can get to Orthodox while remaining egalitarian.

Which is to say that I can’t remember the last time I spent about 50% of Jewish service as confused and lost as I was for most of yesterday. I’m normally someone who prides himself on his facility with the sidur. Even the machzor, which I don’t know as well as the daily or Shabat sidur, has never been hard for me to navigate. So normally, when things in a service don’t got just the way I want them to, I’m frustrated or annoyed or exasperated.

I was certainly frustrated yesterday, but in a good way. I felt challenged yesterday by a lack of knowledge. And when it comes to gaps I discover in my liturgical knowledge, my instinct is always to fill the gaps. Mostly, I was humbled. Yes, you read that right. I said I was humbled. There were tunes I’d never heard before, sung loudly and raucously with clapping, dancing and podium-pounding.  It was an attitude I’d never encountered before on Yom Kipur. There was excitement, but the proceedings still managed to remain as somber as I ordinarily think of Yom Kipur as being. These nearly joyous outbursts of song nicely paralleled Rabbi Shai Held‘s sermon, easily the highlight of the day, in which he spoke of a bizarre Talmudic verse which calls Tu B’Av and Yom Kipur the most joyous days of the Jewish year.

Aside from the new (to me) tunes, this was my first encounter with an entire congregation that prostrates itself during the Avodah service! Not to mention the part of the service when everyone at Hadar lays flat on the floor, face down. That one was new to me, so if anyone wants to leave a comment with an explanation, it’s much appreciated.

Yesterday was an endurance test. I arrived at 8:50 a.m. and shacharit has started five minutes earlier. Finally, at 7:30 p.m., about eleven hours later, we wrapped up Ne’ilah. (That’s eleven hours of davening, with only a one-hour break, for those keeping score at home.) Yes, I thought! Now I can go eat. Without skipping a beat, they launched right into Ma’ariv. I briefly entertained the idea of sticking around, but my grumbling stomach and aching head said otherwise. Luckily, Hadar was handing out candy, juice boxes and water bottles on the way out!

I’ve never felt so truly reached by the liturgy of the day, so I’m glad of Hadar’s part in helping the fast and the davening do their intended work on me.

I’ll now move on to a few thoughts about Hadar as a community. Keep in mind that I’ve never been on an ordinary Shabat, so I don’t know what Hadar is normally like.

I’ve heard the charge leveled at Hadar that it is elitist or cliquey. I suppose I can see that from this limited experience, but it is not as if I arrived not knowing anyone in the room. Within the cavernous, packed church multi-purpose room we occupied for the day, I spotted about five bloggers I know (including a few Jewschoolers, including our BZ and Jen Taylor Friedman). I also spotted Tamar Fox, who gave me my first break blogging anywhere other than my own blog, sitting directly in front of me. My boss, a former coworker and about a half-dozen of our volunteers were there too. I ran into a few other friends as well, some of them Yeshivat Hadar alumni and some current Hadar students. So I felt comfortable because of all the familiar, friendly faces, but I can see how others would not have the same experience.

All in all, a good gmar chatimah, I think. Hoping yours was good too.

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URJ to college students: “Don’t let the door hit you in the way out”

I’ve been somewhat alienated from Reform practice for sometime, but for the first time the URJ has finally told me to go away.

Do we know that people in our society are most religiously vulnerable in college? Yes. Chabad knows it. Hillel knows it. Koach, the Conservative movement’s college program knows. (Although they may be in serious danger right now.)

And the URJ seemed to briefly grasp this simple notion. For several years, we had Kesher, the URJ’s college program.

Kesher was, for its entire existence, chaotically disorganized, underfunded and undermanned. It sponsored chronically under-attended college tracks at URJ biennials and similarly under-attended LTS–Leadership Training Seminar–events every year at a different college campus.

Last year, a sophomore in college, I attended Kesher’s final LTS. Manned at the time by a single URJ employee and a confused, under-advised student board, Kesher was clearly struggling to figure out what it was.

The tiny event, held at McGill Hillel in Montreal, was attended by only 30-some-odd Reform college students. Social inbreeding was rampant. There were only six or seven people I didn’t already know. Four or five of them I had heard of or were very close friends of my close friends.

We spent the final full day of the long weekend spring break event crammed into one little room re-imagining Kesher. Mostly we yelled and got frustrated with each other. I was at times entertained and annoyed. Was this the support, the organization that the URJ wanted us to use to maintain Reform lives on college campuses across America.

Kesher has always been different from campus to campus. At some schools a Kesher chairperson is on the Hillel board, along with Koach and Orthodox chairs. At others, Kesher exists once a week during a Reform-style erev Shabbat service. At still others, it is a small subset of Hillel, sponsoring events with Reform values within the larger Hillel. These differences were evident at LTS in the the complete inability of everyone to understand what everyone else needed from Kesher. The poor URJ staffer who made up the entire college department at the time, an old counselor of mine from my first summer at Kutz, seemed overworked, confused and defeated. His attempts to get us to figure out what we needed had resulted in a meeting which had devolved into a shouting match.

I can’t recall what the outcome of that weekend was. Months later, the URJ re-organized. The college department disappeared. Kesher exists now only college campuses where Reform students meet under the Kesher name. It is an unfunded embarrassment to the Reform movement. We don’t generate income through synagogue dues, so the URJ has abandoned us.

We grew up at your camps, URJ. We grew up in NFTY where you taught us to be good little Reform teens and twenty-somethings. We grew up in your synagogues, your day schools. And then we graduate high school and you toss us out onto college campuses with no support.

Today, I saw this. It’s the website of something called the Kesher Constitutional Convention. This site is hosted with no support from the URJ on a free googlesite. It appeared in my gmail inbox with the following message from the final Kesher president, Aaron Cravez:

Last year at LTS in Montreal we worked hard to create the document of guiding principles and that document is now in the process of becoming an official constitution for the organization of KESHER. With the Union for Reform Judaism only providing very limited support, it is now more important than ever to come together to define KESHER’s identity.

Please join the KESHER Leadership Council at Indiana University in Bloomington, October 23-25, 2009 at the KESHER Constitutional Convention help define the organization designed to connect college students across the country.

At its best, this event could be a watershed moment, the creation of a true force on college campuses. My best guess, however is nowhere near that optimistic.

URJ, the message you’re sending is this: We can’t make money from you, so we’re not going to bother figuring out how to make this work.

Goodbye, URJ.

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High Holidays Sampler Plate Adventure–Part III: Better repentence through art and puns

This series is being crossposted to Jewschool. Here’s the Intro.

Rabbi Dan told me that it all started with a pun.

The New Shul is currently installing their new senior rabbi, and former assistant rabbi, Dan Ain. Being a congregation that revels in throwing off every vestige of what you might expect something with Shul in the name to be, they knew that they couldn’t simply have a luncheon and guest speaker and say, “Poof! Rabbi Dan has been installed.”

So they were attracted to the idea of a week-long art installation as the home of an ongoing installation festivity for Dan, who is currently installed behind the bar at the House of Awe and Repentence Cafe through Saturday, Sept. 26 every day from noon-8pm. Except for Thursday. That’s his day off. The Cafe is located on Manhattan in an otherwise vacant storefront at 13 E. 8th Street, somewhere between Broadway and the general NYU area.

Being as atypical as they can at every turn–and sometimes trying too hard–The New Shul appreciates Dan, a JTS grad who was once threatened with being ordained, but not given membership in the rabbinical assembly. As you might imagine, he quaked in his boots. He also ran intro trouble with the authorities at JTS repeatedly when he consistently refused the wear a kipah on the grounds that his female classmates didn’t have to wear one. Dan was behind the bar when I arrived, wearing white t-shirt with small, black text that said “Rabbi Dan.”

So here’s the installation itself: Continue Reading →

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High Holidays Sampler Plate Adventure–Part II: How to make frumpy Jews clap uncomfortably

This series is being crossposted to Jewschool. Here is the Intro to the series.

I traded in last night’s chazanut for some gospel this morning. I do percussion for a gospel choir here at Drew. Our director, Mark Miller, is pretty well-known as a composer, organist and choir director in his slice of America. A brother-sister rabbinic team, Rabbis Leah Berkowitz and Perry Berkowitz, two of the frumpiest-looking Jews you could every hope to find, hold a full set of High Holidays services every year in a Unitarian church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, featuring periodic bouts of fantastic gospel music. Joshua Nelson, increasingly well-known proponent of “Kosher gospel music” was also on hand for several songs.

The Rabbis Berkowitz, it seems, are far from frumpy. The folks that turn out for these services, however, need some work. The service operates in a loose and free-form sort of liturgical not-quite-structure. A sort of meditative, stream-of-conscious, never-ending narrative springs forth from the rabbis throughout the whole service in topics of alertness, repentance, joy, music and the liturgy itself. The machzor, if you could call it that, is an 8-page packet of 11×17 paper with bits of a variety of machzors grafted on.

Normally, I’m not one who tolerates highly-abbreviated or flippant liturgy, but with these two rabbis, it works. Maybe it works for me on RH, for reasons I mentioned earlier in this series: I don’t like this holiday and I don’t get it. Maybe their non-stop sermon, dribbled as it was all throughout the service gave me enough to think about that I was able to get something out of this service.

The music, of course, was beyond good. Everyone seemed to know that in the congregation, but many seemed unsure of how proper this was. And if it was proper, they didn’t know quite how to respond. Many clapped hesitantly or awkwardly, while others peered over their reading glasses in disbelief. But no one could deny it was good.

The downside: It was four hours long! When I finally escaped the building at 2 p.m., I was so hungry for lunch, I thought Yom Kipur might already be upon us!

The musical highlights: Hearing Mark, whom I know as a gospel pianist, playing along to Rabbi Perry’s perfectly chazan-y Avinu Malkeinu; and Joshua Nelson and his singers belting out Hinei Mah Tov to the tune of When the Saints Come Marching In.

The rabbinic highlights: Rabbi Leah’s shouted stream of wrongs in the world, punctuated by Rabbi Perry’s spastic shofar blasts.

Not to mention the sheer entertainment value in watching the two rabbis jump all over the bimah ecstatically waving tambourines around with such gusto that, as Four Weddings and a Funeral put it, “I feared lives would be lost.” These are two energetic rabbis. The congregation should take a few pages out of their machzor.

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High Holidays Sampler Plate Adventure–Part I: Chazanut with the Chavurah

This series is being crossposted to Jewschool. Here is the Intro to the series.

I thought about beginning my adventure somewhere new, but all adventures begin somewhere similar. So I headed down to my usual haunt for davening, Chavurat Lamdeinu.

A note on CL before I get into it: CL is an oddity in the indie minyan world. It’s in suburban New Jersey and it’s members–who have many of the same complaints about synagogue life that the twenty- and thirty-somethings that are mainstays of the indie minyan world–are all generally at least 25 years older than me. There are a few exceptions to that demographic generalization, but it’s mostly true. The group is what’s left of a library minyan at suburban NJ Refrom synagogue, though it may outwardly appear quite close to Conservative in style. Our Rabbi was ordained at HUC, though her connection to Reform is tenuous these days. Our usual shaliach tzibur is a convert and a current JTS cantorial student. He is freakishly talented and I normally have no complaints about his leadership style on ordinary Shabat mornings. He generally wears a polo shirt and jeans to services, and that’s pretty much the level of dress that everyone in the Chavurah adheres to.

All of the above is why I love CL and why I go there every Shabat. But on Rosh Hashanah, a lot of that flies out the window. Instead of usual 10-20 chaverim, we grow to 30-50 for RH and Yom Kipur. Everyone–except for me, but including the other Shabat regulars–gets dressed up. And the type of accessible, but beautifully led melodies fly out the window, exchanged for all manner of off-the-wall chazanut that no one knows and no one can sing along with.

And this is the problem that always drives me away from my own community–wherever that may currently be–during the High Holidays. People I don’t come out of the woodwork. In an attempt to impress them, the leaders trot out all manner of stuff that is far beyond the weekly norm. The result is that the non-regulars are uncomfortable because they’re not used to being in shul at all. Meanwhile, the regulars are uncomfortable too because of all the weird different shit going on!

Tomorrow, this series continues with what is sure to be a bizarre day of RH with gospel music in a Unitarian church. We’ll see how that goes.

A NOTE FOR THOSE READING THE COMMENTS: Harold, GSM, Ben Sternman and myself are all either members of or former members of the congregation I grew up at, which heavily informs the discussion in the comments below.

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High Holidays Sampler Plate Adventure–Intro

This series will be crossposted to Jewschool.

I don’t like Rosh Hashanah and I don’t like Yom Kipur. There are things I like about them–repentance (see Tshuvot!), shofars (see Where have all the shofarot gone? and Why I used a bullhorn last night) and pomegranates–but I have to admit that I’ve never been satisfied with either, no matter where I’ve been and no matter what my age.

So this year, I’m not going to go the same place twice during the season of repentance.

Sophomore and junior year of high school were the last two years I did the same thing twice for High Holidays–I went to the Reform synagogue I grew up at. Senior year of high school, I was in Israel. I spent Rosh Hashanah that year at Kibbutz Lotan (see Shanah Tovah! Cleansing in the desert) and Yom Kipur at Beit Shmuel (see David sees Texans, still hates Yom Kipur, cries), with a brief YK morning stint at an Orthodox Italian synagogue. Freshman year of college I tried a Reconstructionist shul for RH (see I’m not a Reconstructionist, but I play one on Rosh Hashanah). And last year, I did RH and YK at my adopted congregation here in NJ, Chavurat Lamdeinu.

Though elements of each of these years of RH and YK have been fine, I’ve never been satisfied with the overall experience. Whether it has to do with where I go or with my willingness or unwillingness to repent remains to be seen.

I’ll begin tonight with Erev RH services at Chavurat Lamdeinu, my usual place of davening these days.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be at a Unitarian Church where a certain gospel music composer I happen to know will be helping to lead a service that will incorporate a number of gospel tunes. As far as I can tell, this service is not listed anywhere online. If you’re interested in going, it’s at All Souls Unitarian Church between on Lexington between 79th and 80th at 10:30 a.m. Let me know if you’re gonna bet there so I can we can say hi.

If the gospel crowd isn’t doing a tashlich thing, I’ll head over to the Brooklyn Bridge or something else equally iconic and do tashlich.

I don’t do two days of RH (see everything BZ has ever written, this series in particular.)

On Sunday, I’ll kick off my ten days of repentance by heading into Manhattan for The New Shul‘s “The House of Awe and Repentance Cafe“, part of their new senior rabbi‘s season of installation festivities. It promises to be an art installation involving a variety of media and exploring the concept of repentance. Or something. We’ll see.

For Kol Nidrei, I’ll try my hand at an online service by staying in to watch Jewish TV Network‘s live streaming KN service.

And, finally, for Yom Kipur day, I’ll skew more traditional than my norm for a change. As noted, I’ve skewed to the left before when I tried out the Reconstructionist shul, but I’ve never tried something more traditional than what I’m used to. To that end, I’ll be heading back in to Manhattan for Kehilat Hadar‘s traditional-egal take on YK. As one fellow refugee of the Reform mainstream recently told me, “I like Hadar for YK because that’s the one time in the year when I want to feel as frum as possible.” Yeah. We’ll see how I feel about that when I’m still standing around in services trying not listen to my stomach.

Expect posts throughout this season of renewal and repentance chronicling my High Holidays Sampler Plate Adventure.

Shanah tovah umetukah!

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As the world turns, a spiffier logo for The Reform Shuckle

After having somone think my blog was called The Reform CHUCKLE one too many times, and after a rather inspired new title and banner at Jesse Paikin’s blog, I decided to concoct a new header image for this blog.

wordpress NEW STYLE little logo thing

Brand new look! Same great taste!

It bears similarities to the old one in terms of color and design, but I think it looks way cooler. But you tell me, blogosphites, what do you think of it?

The old look

The old look

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Haveil Havalim for Sept. 13 / Elul 24

Earlier this year, a fellow progressive jblogger called the rest of us out for not stepping up and getting as involved with Haveil Havalim, the so-called Jewish Blog Carnival as we should be. With the grand exception of a few progressive regular Haveil Havalim submitters,  most of the folks submitting their blog posts to the carnival are at least a little to the right of those of us here in my corner of the jblogosphere.

So in answer to this call for progressive voices in Haveil Havalim, here I are. And to those of you who are regular readers of Haveil Havalim, but first time visitors to The Reform Shuckle, bruchim haba’im l’The Shuckle. Welcome.

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs — a weekly collection of Jewish & Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It’s hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by Jack. The term Haveil Havalim, which means Vanity of Vanities, is from Kohelet, (Ecclesiastes) which has been attributed to King Solomon. King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and later on got all bogged down in materialism and other excesses and realized that it was nothing but hevel, or in English, vanity.

So the Blog Carnival site now has this Insta-Carnival feature in beta where you can just grab a block of html and copy it into your blogging apparatus and–presto!–you’ve got a blog carnival. So with a little tweaking, that’s what I’m using this week. This is my first time hosting HH here, but I’ve hosted once before at Jewschool. So let’s get started. Continue Reading →

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