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Jan. 16, 2023, 6 Shevat 5784

01/15/2024 03:39:14 PM


Recent reports have focused on isolation as a lasting post-pandemic issue. From ancient times, Jewish communities have sought to combat the kind of lone existence that other communities promoted through monasticism and even celibacy. A focal period of old was obligatory times of mourning, when recitation of the memorial prayer was ritualized in mourners’ Kaddish—one of a limited number of activities requiring a minyan, or quorum.

For traditionally observant Jews, the extended shutdown of public meetings and restrictions on ‘work’ on Shabbat and festival days was especially trying. Among more liberal synagogues, there were some that adhered to strict Halacha, while most moved to virtual services in “Zoom rooms” as a substitute of necessity. Some call such temporary lifting of restrictions hora’at sha’ah, or emergency rules. For congregations with wider vision, establishment of geographically diverse virtual congregations seems the birth of a meta-diaspora that meets genuine needs though through a strategy whose broader and long-term effect is entirely untested.

As we entered the new millennium two decades ago, many raised the question of the meaning of affiliation with synagogue, movement or other voluntary association. In history, the nineteenth century for German Jewry—among the largest of early emancipated Jewish populations—was an age of associations. Jewish communities with legal authority to enforce religious law were dissolved by Napoleon ca. 1805. Synagogues still existed, but Jewish communities had to be reformed; some became Reform, others Orthodox or Conservative.

In more recent years, maintaining that affiliation among American Jews has grown more tenuous. Larger communities often use economies of scale to professionalize congregations. With a broader range of members, a small increase in budget shared by hundreds of stakeholders still offers a larger budget. Additional services for educational, social, and personal development can be incorporated even if the usage is limited to a smaller core of participants.

Many are likely to ask of themselves, is this enough? What of the core functions of a congregation? And in periods of heightened pressure, the perception of need is also likely to change. 

My current thinking, 100 days after October 7, and two years after the siege at CBI, is that we might be in such a time of re-evaluation. The scars of 2022, with the discomfort of hostages in these days, and the anguish of Israel spilling over into record-breaking escalation of antisemitic hate crimes, begs each of us to ask questions about belief, practice and participation. For the youngest members of the community, whose identity is still in formation, the recorded and suppressed instances of bullying, intimidation and even personal attacks, should lead to new responses to the critical question: how do I/we live as Jews in this newly hostile environment?

At CBI’s recent Casino Night I had a brief conversation in one of the quieter spaces. The discussion verged on politics—a subject I try to avoid in public statements—to which my response is: I prefer to speak of the Prophets. It is in those areas of Jewish heritage that issues of power, corruption, manipulation and false goals were addressed of old. Sadly, these issues arise time and again, even in modernity. Ancient texts that might seem irrelevant in more comfortable periods take on new meaning as metaphors for contemporary life, often hard to contemplate and uncomfortable to address. 

In this week started by commemoration of the US Civil Rights Movement led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, who based so much of his non-violent activism in Scripture, and whom significant Jewish thinkers of those years (still clouded by the then recent memory of the Shoah), illustrates the power of the Prophetic voice. Bob Dylan—recent Nobel laureate for literature born Robert Zimmerman—captured much of the symbolism in his shirim —which might be translated as poems or songs. Cantor Debbie Friedman, z”l, used the words of Zechariah (4:1) to express it: Not by might and not by power, but by spirit alone shall all men live in peace.

Yes, even in our age of technology, of AI, drones, smart bombs and clever fakes, addressing our own spiritual concerns takes a leading role. As Jews and as members of a Reform congregation, we are to be the vanguard, the leaders, the fore runners of those focused on the growth of each person in wisdom, in understanding…especially in empathy.


Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784