02 April 2011

161: Hope and Promise

Each Saturday morning at 8.30 am, I teach a class based on the text Avot d'Rabbi Natan, an expansion on the Sages ethical guide, Pirke Avot.  It's a blast, I must admit.  So if you live nearby, join us some Shabbat morning.  You won't be sorry.

I wasn't the main rabbi leading the service this week so I got to sit in the congregation with my family and take things in from a participant's perspective and I am so proud to report that contrary to what people ordinarily think of as a "Reform synagogue" on Saturday mornings, CBE is insanely active.  On Friday nights when announcements are made our shul president, David Kasakove, waxes enthusiastic about all the goings-on for Shabbat.  It's a pretty extraordinary sight to see.  I share his pride.  The music, the teaching, the joy, the multi-generational commitment of so many people to be present, and, perhaps most significant from a perception-busters perspective, the free and easy way we've dealt with what the Reform movement president Rabbi Eric Yoffie refers to as the "God of Soccer."  70% of our Yachad students come to school on Saturday.  The excellence of the teaching and the program, led by Rabbi Shira Epstein and her extraordinary staff, keep scoring goals.

There's a lot of modeling that goes in the pedagogy of a Saturday morning service--not only are parents learning how to do Judaism along with their kids but all the other non-official liturgical expressions are being taught as well.  Shabbos greetings, shaking hands, sidebar comments, kiddushes, shmears, shmoozing--all of it combines into a greater texture of the Shabbat experience.  When I sit in the congregation once in a great while, despite how totally and humiliatingly embarrassing it is to my kids, I love shmaltzing it up with the little kids so that they can have that sense of play attached to greeting one another on Shabbat.  High-fives and fist bumps go a long way in cementing positive associations in Shul.  It's now a demonstrable fact.

So is embracing the Hebrew language fully.  And that's something we don't shy away from at all.  Hebrew is a gateway drug for a richer, more complex relationship to Judaism, Jewishness, and the deep rivers of the historic, civilizational reality of our people.  So this year we introduced Tal-Am, a modern Hebrew curriculum that has as its basis the idea that language is most relevant to Jews when its, well, useful.  We introduced it to 2nd and 3rd classes and will be expanding it next year--an experiment in supplementary school education that we're nerdily excited about.

Full-disclosure:  I travel and will occasionally spend money on the Sabbath.  Having said that, when the morning ended I went into Manhattan with my youngest kid to attend the 88th birthday of my dear friend and former boss Naomi Levine, who decided to celebrate her special day by inviting alumni from Camp Greylock for Girls, which Naomi ran with her late husband Leonard.  As usual, this truly powerful force of nature presided over a room of more than 300 women with an intelligence, grace and humor that is unmatched in New York today.  Last summer on our way to Montreal we drove through the Adirondacks and spent a night with Naomi, so that my kids could get a better grasp on the scope and scale of this legendary person.  My eight year old summed it up best yesterday afternoon when, after Naomi's party, we hiked over to Aroma for a boureka treat:  "She's the nicest scary person I ever met."

Back to Brooklyn and then over to the Toast to Tupper Gala in Prospect Park, to celebrate one of the most truly inspiring leaders New York City has known in the last 30 years, Tupper Thomas, who transformed Prospect Park into one of the crown jewels of our city.  It seemed half the CBE board was there and it had me reflecting on the ways in which great institutions overlap and learn from one another, sharing pride in the endeavor of loving what one represents and how to convey that sense of team outward so others can benefit as well.  Few institutions in the city have that cache and Prospect Park is one of them.  I even contributed something to the silent auction which actually sold--two 3-part lessons on the history of Judaism and the history of Israel.  For a brief while during the night there was a bidding war for the lessons in dramatic $50 increments that I watched unfold on my iPod Touch.  Not quite the old fashioned United Jewish Appeal method of calling out your contribution but nonetheless, it was pretty cool to realize a contribution to the Park be made in exchange for Torah and history.

As we walked home through the Park toward midnight I checked ESPN on my Blackberry.  Shawn Marcum, the much heralded new pitcher for the Brewers, brought over from Toronto in December, stumbled in his debut with the team, giving up five walks in four innings and forking over a 4-2 loss with only 46 strikes among his 83 pitches.  Ah, well.

The midnight canopy of trees above was too good, too comforting in this late walk home to spoil a day, even if I was all too aware of a regrettable 0-2 start to the season.  In the evening light, one could see the forsythia just in bloom, its bright yellow flowers that expression of hope and promise, despite these cold evenings in April, which reminds you of summer's long stretch into Fall.

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