02 July 2011

What He Said

Being in Jerusalem for Shabbat certainly puts the current American demographic interest in the Indie Minyan Phenomenon into perspective.  In a brief word:  The Indie Minyan is to Millenials and Children of Boomers what the Chavurah movement was to Boomers:  A prayerful, smaller, spiritual independent community outside the Institutional Mainstream of Jewish Synagogue Life.  Lay-led, non-membership driven, relatively unstructured by a lack of hierarchy--in other words, "indie."  They tend to be places that do their prayer as they want, where they want, how they want.  No Rabbis or Ritual Committees to run things through.

Arguably, the Indie Minyan scene in the U.S. has been heavily influenced by the spiritual re-birth in Jerusalem over the past twenty years, a trend that has been both Traditional and non-denominational with an emphasis on the Hebrew language, authenticity, and mixtures of musical and liturgical forms, a kind of generational mash-up of Jewish spiritual varieties.  I'm a big fan of the idea and its champions, particularly because both in Hillel at the University of Wisconsin and during my years at Hebrew University and Hebrew Union College, I intentionally avoided institutions while deriving deep sustenance from what Jews were seeking outside the mainstream.  As a rabbi now leading a mainstream community, I've worked hard to maintain that ethic. 

Friday night I prayed with a group of young people in a small beit midrash above Aroma on Emek Refaim.  They call themselves Shira Shivyona--which I'll translate as the Egalitarian Song--and word on the street is that they are comprised of a number of young people who study at Pardes, an egalitarian yeshiva here that in fact has influenced greatly the development of places like Hadar in Manhattan and Altshul in Brooklyn (at CBE.)  Traditional davenning, totally egalitarian, all Hebrew.  Melodies ranged from classical American Conservative stuff to the now ubiquitous Carlebach melodies.  The group was warm and friendly, the spirit was generous.  No kids.  Just young adults passing a stage in life.  It was Hillel-Next.

Contrasted with that was my experience this morning, at Kol Haneshama, for more than a quarter century now Jerusalem's leading Reform synagogue.  Today I sat in services there, led as faithfully and steadily and meaningfully as ever by the community's founder, Rabbi Levi Kelman, and remembered back to 1985 when Kol Haneshama was meeting as a Post-Chavurah-Proto-Indie Minyan in a school-room in Baka and there were fifteen chairs in a circle for a Friday night service.  My first night there, as a student at Hebrew University, I met Levi's father, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, who kindly invited me to sit next to him, welcoming me into the community.  Levi's father worked for a time with my mentor Arthur Hertzberg; Levy himself is now a grandfather; his wife works in film with my other mentor's daughter; his sister is a friend; his niece works for BYFI.  Many worlds converge when I sit in that shul.

Today, in place of Musaf, the 12th graders from the community, children of those who founded the synagogue, led singing and made speeches (after reading Torah and Haftarah) in honor of their graduation from high school and the next profound moment of their lives, Army and National Service.  Despite rightward shifts in the country during the last twenty years, the community remains committed to co-existence, tolerance and peace.  Among it's membership are journalists, activists, non-profiteers, civil servants and just plain folk who have continually swum upstream against trends of heightened tension, hopelessness and despair.  Rabbi Levi has always projected hope and one could see it made manifest in the tender warmth expressed by the 12th graders today--Israeli kids with Israeli accents, many of whom are the children of immigrants who came here to fulfill a vision of Jewish life that was unattainable in the Diaspora.

Twenty-five years ago, Haredi guys broke into a circle of Kol Haneshama members on Simchat Torah and tried to wrestle from them Torah Scrolls being held by women; today, there are Indie Minyans in Jerusalem trying to be *more* egalitarian than the next, pushing orthodoxy toward greater and ultimately equal roles for women in the synagogue.  And similarly, next Shabbat, Rabbi Levi's shul will host Jerusalem's second Pride Shabbat, an historic religious idea in this ancient and traditional city--the open, public, religious acceptance of the rights of gays and lesbians to live meaningful Jewish lives in relationship to God and Tradition.

I thought of all this during the Haftarah today, when one of the 12th graders chanted Isaiah's words--the special Haftarah for the New Moon, the Hebrew month of Tammuz: "Rejoice ye with Jerusalem and be glad with her, all ye that love her."  And, "for as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before Me, saith the Eternal, so shall your seed and your name remain.  And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before Me, saith the Eternal."

How many different ways to love a place?  How many different Jews to offer their love?  Always renewing, always trying, always raising another generation to love in its own way--men and women, young and old, gay and straight.

I thought of all this and how tired Rabbi Levi must be.  But then the service ended and we met each other in the scramble toward Kiddush.  He shouted my name and threw his arms around me, offering a blessing and practically knocking me over.

His very strength a Kiddush Hashem, a Sanctification of God's Name.

Walking back to my apartment this evening after dinner, past the redolent vines of jasmine creeping over old stone walls, the air was indistinguishable tonight from what it was more than twenty-five years ago.  And the connecting fiber?  Love.

"Rejoice ye with Jerusalem and be glad with her, all ye that love her."

What he said.

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