Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Wisdom from Building Our House - May 2018

A Homeless Congregation?

Wisdom has built her house. She has hewn her seven pillars. Prov. 9:1

Our congregation is ever growing and ever renewing.  When I first arrived at Temple Sholom of Plainfield in 1999, we had been in one location for almost ninety years.  The building was large enough to fit all that we needed, but was feeling a little tired. Finding new members was a struggle, and old members were moving away.  The month before I began, the new congregational president promised that we would move to Scotch Plains by the time his term was over.  The announcement was a surprise to some; of concern to others.  We spent the next two years deciding what it meant to be a thriving congregation, and then realizing we had a decision to make - would we move, merge, or maintain?  In the end, to save our congregation, we took a leap of faith and sold our building, finally leaving in 2003, and setting ourselves up as the guests of the Fanwood Presbyterian Church.  In the end, it took fifteen years (and almost seven presidents, with one repeat) to find our new home in Scotch Plains.

In the beginning, we thought the toughest part of a move would be getting to a decision.  We thought it would be easy to move from one old building into a new one.  It turns out that you need a pretty big float of money to do that.  We needed to proceed in steps: move out to temporary quarters, sell the old building, find the right new site, purchase the site with money from the sale of the old building; raise money, get approvals, build and then walk the Torah scrolls to our new home.

Many of our current members only know us in Scotch Plains, and are surprised we have been around for over a century.  While we were in Fanwood, many of our members only remembered the church and Union Catholic high school.  Only those who have been a part of the community for more than fifteen years remember our building in Plainfield, and the leap of faith it took to begin our journey.

In our wilderness period, we constantly told ourselves that our congregation was more than a building; that our community existed without walls.  It was ironic that our congregation, which had been one of the founders of a temporary homeless sheltering program found ourselves without a home and unable to house those in need.  We used that time to change our self-image - from a congregation that hired people to do things, to one that did things ourselves; whether it was listening to a talented cantor and organist, or serving coffee at the onegs.  We learned that our congregation was only what each of us collectively contributed.  In the end, that was the only way we could build a new home, by finding the means within ourselves.

In the end, it almost didn’t happen.  When faced with the uncertainty of a large mortgage, many congregants who had joined since Plainfield wondered why we needed to make such a leap of faith.  To those older members, we were already in the middle of the leap, and we needed to find a place to land.  We felt that we were starting to be seen as the little congregation that couldn’t, and each passing year would make it more difficult to stretch out and reach our new home.  So, we gathered ourselves together, and we took the leap - and here we are.

Here we are - but our journey and period of homelessness has taught us several lessons:  We need to keep our long-term goals in mind, and keep faith with those who helped us get to where we are today.  Sometimes, we need to take a risk and to trust that we will land safely.  We need to remember that however big the journey, we only make it by helping each other take the important steps.  Our congregation - building or no - is still only as strong as its members, and as healthy as we choose to make it.  Finally, we know what it was like to be without a home, and we feel more strongly to help others in an analogous situation.

Proverbs teaches us that Wisdom built a house and set a table to attract those who would learn.  We have done the same, but the shell is the house and the table, the real attraction is the wisdom.

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Let Us Learn in Order to Do; Let Us Teach, So They Will Act - April 2018

A Nurturing Congregation

Listen, my child, to the mussar of your father, and do not turn away from the torah of your mother. Proverbs 1:8

We have heard a lot of commentary of the students who have risen to activism following the shooting in Parkland, Florida. People have said they are not really students, that they are actors, that they are trained.

They are not actors. They ARE trained - and many of them are ours. It is important to share this fact, because we can be proud of them, whether or not we share their political views. What they are doing is what we have hoped they would do; what we have trained them to do.

Several of the students speaking out are Reform Movement children. They grew up in our camps (URJ Camp Coleman) or are active members of their NFTY region. They have become Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Reform congregations. Several of the students were recently at a training for select first and second year camp staff, where they shared their experience - not the speeches they give to the general public, but the feelings they could express to their friends and peers. Zoe Turner, finishing up her term as Social Action Vice President in the STR region, was elected national Social Action VP soon after the shooting. The next week, she headed up to Tallahassee to speak with her legislators about what needed to be done. You can read about it here - https://nfty.org/2018/02/22/nfty-teens-made-history-tallahassee-not-done-yet/ When Zoe spoke - and said to a Florida legislator - It is not your job to finish the task, but you are not free to desist from it, she carried the words of our tradition in Pirke Avot into the world we live; she used the experience she gained in our Reform youth movement. When she and her peers needed more training, they reached out to the Religious Action Center, where many of them had attended a L’taken weekend. Zoe will be bringing this experience and this energy to our national movement, and we are lucky to have her.

The URJ - as an organization, mobilizing the Religious Action Center, and the Youth Department - decided soon after the shooting that the most important thing that we could do would be to support our youth and let them lead. On Saturday March 24th, as students gather all over the country, Reform synagogues in Washington, DC will have opened their doors and floors to marchers. The RAC will have rented a space, nearby the rally, for our youth leaders to lead a Shabbat morning service to imbue the event with Jewish meaning, and to bring our community support and strength.

We at Temple Sholom have done our part as well. Each of our B’nei Mitzvah students is asked to complete not only 13 “mitzvah” hours, but also to complete a mitzvah project. The goal of this project, as we tell parents and students, is that if they see something wrong with the world, they should not need to find someone else who is fixing the problem, but they should feel that they can themselves begin to set things right. We so regret that these Parkland students need to speak up on this issue, but we are so proud that we taught them how to speak up and gave them the experience and courage to do so.

This nurturing of our children is the best that we can do as a congregation. Whether we will it or not, they will be what carries on the world that we leave for them, and the Judaism that we hope will continue. If we can give them the Jewish tools to make the world better not just for themselves, but for generations to come, then we have truly understood what it means to pass on the covenant we received at Mount Sinai. They are trained - by our Jewish teaching - and if they are actors, they are acting in the world through tikkun olam.

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham

Thursday, March 1, 2018

I'm Glad to (Re)Meet You - March 2018

A Welcoming Congregation

A house is built by wisdom, and dedicated with understanding - Proverbs 24:3

1925 Lake Street is not where Temple Sholom began. When I came to the congregation, we were located in Plainfield in a large building that had been built and added to over the congregation’s first nine decades. The sanctuary and social hall were huge. We had sixteen classrooms and a chapel in a separate wing. On most days, when it was just me and the office staff in the building, it felt deserted.

When I first came to Temple Sholom in 1999, we considered ourselves a welcoming congregation. Now every congregation thinks it is warm and welcoming - no one advertises themselves as cold and impersonal. Yet, at the oneg after Shabbat services, congregants only talked to the people that they already knew. They were embarrassed to introduce themselves to others, because they were afraid the person they thought might be there for the first time, was really a long-time member. We wanted to be welcoming; we were just afraid. The sad proof of this fact was when an African-American woman came to services, everyone “knew” she was not a member, and she was inundated with well-meaning welcome.

In 2003, the congregation made the leap of faith to sell our building and set up temporary quarters at the Fanwood Presbyterian Church. We told ourselves that we were more than a building; that our congregation was a community. That truth was proved by the fact that we grew as a congregation while in exile, and were able to summon the energy and resources to build our new home in Scotch Plains.

This house we now live in was built by wisdom. The wisdom was that the life our congregation was in knowing who we are and finding a way to share that with others. If we wanted to be a warm and haimische congregation, then it was not enough just to say it, we had to do it as well. We trained ourselves to say hello to people at our oneg shabbat - whether we thought we knew them or not. We changed our fundraisers from an expensive yearly gala, accessible only by a few, to many, smaller, more social events. (We talked about putting the “fun” in fundraising.) We moved our worship space into a semi-circle. We brought down the height of the bimah. We made our worship more accessible. Even our Hebrew school moved to an open classroom model.

This house we live in now was dedicated with understanding. The gift of a new building means we had to meet all ADA building codes, without the added expense of retrofitting. Our inclusion committee led the way in helping us understand what it meant to be welcoming to all - no door jambs to stumble over, a hearing loop to listen, bathroom facilities for any identity, and a religious school tailored for each of our students. We no longer see ourselves as one particular hair color or ethnic last name, but we run the gamut of many of the heritages that we find in our United States.

Have we become a welcoming congregation? Yes. Can we do more? Absolutely. Last month I was on a call that addressed some of the issues that Jews of color feel. One participant said that she did not want to feel welcomed into a synagogue, as if she were a guest, but rather made to feel at home, because she was a part of the family.

How do we move from welcoming the stranger as a guest to making them feel at home? Start with yourself. Rather than ask someone who they are, tell them who you are; introduce yourself. It is not easy to remember all of the 260 families in the congregation. If you cannot remember someone else’s name, it is not hard to imagine that they may have forgotten yours as well. Beyond that - be accepting and forgiving. Do not be indignant if the person you sat next to for four hours on Yom Kippur does not remember. Be glad they are reaching out again to have a conversation.

How do we build our congregation? How do we strengthen our community? By realizing the wisdom that it takes work every day, and the understanding that we all have to try to connect with each other.

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham

Monday, January 1, 2018

What Did You Say? January/February 2018

Wisdom belongs to those who seek advice - Proverbs 13:10b

First of all, I want to thank the entire congregation for the celebration last month of my first 18 years at Temple Sholom. I was touched to see so many who were able to be there for the dinner and service, or sent kind regrets; those who have contributed memories or thoughts to the scrapbook, and those congregational alumni who sent words to be read at the service. It was wonderful to be able to look back with all of you and now to continue to dream forward.

Speaking at the service, I was drawn to the depiction of the bush burning unconsumed on our Ark. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner explains that the miracle is not the bush itself, but that Moses took the time to notice that it burned without becoming burnt out. What is the secret of continuing to give light, to constantly renew oneself, without running out of fuel? That is my challenge at what may be the midpoint of my rabbinic career. How do I continue to inspire the congregation? By being inspired in turn.

At the service, I shared that I would like to spend time with you, as individual congregants, to discover what brought you into the congregation, what inspires you, and thereby, where we can all go together. As some congregants know, I am always happy to go to lunch. For those of you who are able to take time for lunch in our area, let’s find a time to sit down and talk. If lunch is not possible in your schedule, perhaps we can find time for coffee in a morning or evening, or on a weekend. I will be reaching out to some congregants - but there are a lot of you. If I have not gotten to you yet, please reach out to me.

Ben Zoma asks, “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone.” (Pirke Avot 4:1) That is a rather large task, but there is a Torah that is each of us, and we teach by sharing who we are. As quoted above, Proverbs says, “Wisdom belongs to those who seek advice.” Advice is often freely given, and even without asking, but the learning behind that advice is only found through deeper listening.

In looking back over my past 18 years, we have talked about being a reflective congregation - on that learns from its experiences, and changes in order to grow. The way that we reflect is by knowing who we are. We are a congregation that cares about each other - not only to we show caring by paying attention to others in our community, but we build that community by deepening our ties. So, as I set out to learn from each of you - I challenge you to learn from each other as well. Be bold - approach a fellow congregant whom you know only in passing and invite them and their family over for Shabbat dinner. If you are a little less bold, then start up a conversation at an oneg or social event. You may have something in common. They may have a different opinion that expands your view of the world. Seek out their wisdom and honor it. Thank them for sharing.

When the sage Hillel was stumped for the answer to a question of Jewish law, he decided to crowdsource. He said, “But leave it to the Jewish people; if they are not prophets to whom God has revealed His secrets, they are the sons of prophets, and will certainly do the right thing on their own.” (Pesachim 66a). We are the great-grandsons of those prophets, and between us, we know the right thing as well, we just need to listen to each other to figure it out.

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham

Friday, December 1, 2017

Keep It Civil (But Not Necessarily Secular) - December 2017

אַל־תָּרֹוב עִם־אָדָ֣ם חִנָּ֑ם אִם־לֹ֖א גְמָלְךָ֣ רָעָֽה׃
Al tariv im adam chinam, im lo gamalcha ra’ah.
Do not trump up an argument with someone, if they have not done you any harm. - Proverbs 3:30

Two classic stories about synagogues:

The new rabbi comes to town.  The first Shabbat that she is leading services, half the congregation stands up for the sh’ma and half the congregation sits.  Immediately, an argument breaks out.  “What are you doing?  The new rabbi is here.  Stand up like you’re supposed to!”  “What do you mean, we have always sat for the sh’ma. What kind of an apikouros (heretic) are you?”  Before the congregation can come to blows, the rabbi tries to engage them in a conversation about the minhagim (traditions) of the congregation.  One half says they have always remained seated for the sh’ma, the other half says the opposite.  No matter whom the rabbi asks, no one has a definitive answer that the others will accept.  Finally, they send the rabbi to the house of the oldest member of the congregation, one of the founders, who has just reached his 100th birthday.  The rabbi asks him, “What is the real minhag of the congregation?  Do we stand for the sh’ma?”  The senior member shakes his head, “I don’t remember that.”  “Do we sit for the sh’ma?”  The senior member shakes his head, “I don’t remember that either.”  “You have to know.  Otherwise, they’ll keep shouting and each other and arguing all the way through the service.”  The senior member’s eyes light up, “Ah, now that’s what I remember.”

Second story - a person goes seeking the famous atheist of L’vov.  She reaches the town and goes to the local tavern, the market, the library, and all the places she can think to look. Finally, out of desperation, she goes to the least likely building in town, she thinks, to find an atheist: the synagogue.  There, of course, is where the famous atheist can be found.  Dumbfounded, she asks him why he would be in the synagogue, of all places.  Is he coming to speak to God?  “No,” he replies.  “Schwartz comes here to speak to God.  I come here to speak to Schwartz.”

One of the unexpected challenges in being the long-term rabbi of a congregation is monitoring and taking responsibility for the tenor of conversation between congregants.  No one wants to be a member of a congregation that is arguing all the time.  Conversely, no one wants to be a member of a congregation where people of differing opinions are not accepted.  Unsurprisingly, being a Reform congregation in a state in the Northeast, most of our members are politically liberal.  However, our diverse congregation includes not only people of different socio-economic levels, backgrounds and educations, but also of differing political beliefs.  Confronting the story of a rabbi who had banned all political discussions in their congregations, we went the opposite direction.  We imagined that, as our sacred space, Temple Sholom should indeed be the place where people can feel safe sharing their opinions, even if they disagree.

Admittedly, we are not there, all the time, yet.  We have created a list of Jewish values that help us respect each other in our conversations (see this column from Summer of last year - http://sholomravtempletopics.blogspot.com/2016/05/ ).  This past election season, dedicated Temple volunteers brought together congregants with widely divergent political views for a potluck meal to watch the gubernatorial debate.  The evening was a great success - and a path forward.  We may not be where we want to be, but we are working hard.  The trick is for all of us to remember - we are all good people, and often believe in the same goals, we just have different ways that we think are the right ways to get there.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sing Unto God, ALL Ye Righteous - Oct/Nov 2017

A house is built by wisdom, and is established by understanding; by knowledge are its rooms filled with all precious and beautiful things - Proverbs 24:2

I believe that one of the things that endeared me to the Temple Sholom search committee way back in 1999 was when I told them that I had grown up at a congregation nearby and knew “New Jersey Reform Judaism”.  For most of my childhood, my father was the rabbi at Temple Beth-El, the next Reform congregation west of Temple Sholom.  While I was growing up, the congregation had, every service, a non-Jewish organist and, for all but our last few years, a non-Jewish soloist, who stood on the bimah next to the rabbi, and sang all the music.  The non-Jewish part is not relevant for their religion, but rather the background. Not knowing Hebrew, she sang the transliteration in much the same way that an opera singer might sing Italian or German - for the sounds rather than the words.  For Classical American Reform, in much of the 20th century, music was performative.  The congregation was allowed to sing along, at certain times, but the purpose of the music was the same as concert attendance - to move and to uplift the listener.  By the 1970’s, the status quo was being challenged by the new folk music coming out of our youth movement (NFTY) and our camps.  The symbol of the classical tradition was the organ and the new style - the guitar.

When I came to Temple Sholom, we still had an organist who played at least once a month at Friday evening services and at every Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  Most of those services were held in the large theater-seating sanctuary, because that was where the organ was. Our sanctuary had seating for about three hundred, a raised bimah (with several stairs) and a very imposing architecture.  The acoustics were designed so that the congregation could hear music from the bimah, but not the singing of the congregation.  There was a large organ and even a choir space which was designed (but I do not know if ever used) for the choir to sing, invisible to the congregation, behind a wall with a mesh screen.  At Temple Emanu-El in New York City, the choir and the organist are actually one story up, above the Ark, behind a similar wall.  The worship space was designed to make the congregant an observer more than a participant.

Following trends which pre-dated my tenure, Temple Sholom had already begun to change.  For several years, we had hired student Cantors from Hebrew Union College, who brought not only the formal style of classical Reform Judaism, but the hazzanut of Ashkenazic Orthodoxy, the neo-hasidism of Shlomo Carlebach, and Sephardic tradition, as well as the new Debbie Friedman camp music.  On the non-organist Shabbats, music was either a capella or guitar.  For the High HolyDays, we had a hired (non-member) choir for the High HolyDays, and the guitar was rarely used.  Services had occasionally been held in the old sanctuary, known as the Nathanson chapel, with more informal seating and a (slightly) lower bimah.  I arrived in the summer, and we began to have summer services seated in the round.  As our student cantors were not available during July and August, we mostly sang a capella. The know well-known rule began - when there is no cantor, the congregation has to sing louder to drown out the rabbi.

Now, however, the secret agenda can finally be revealed.  As we were encouraging our new student cantors to bring more and more guitar music into our worship, we began to alternate our worship between the formal sanctuary and the less formal chapel, based on attendance and feel for the service.  When the time came to leave our Plainfield location, we made two important changes.  In our new worship space, we sat in a semi-circle, rather than in straight rows.  Our new student cantor, Shira Nafshi, developed a volunteer congregant choir.  The new choir practiced every week and sang, formally, every month or so.  Here’s the subversive part.  We knew that many of the members of our choir were regular service attendees.  We consciously taught them new music that the congregation could sing.  The most important time the choir sang was not on the monthly Fridays when they led, but every other Friday when they sat mixed in the rest of the congregation and provided an example of joyous voices coming from the membership, not just from the bimah.  Over the time that we spent in rental space, we transformed ourselves from a listening congregation to a singing congregation.  Over time, one of the most important criteria when we interviewed student cantors was their guitar skills and ability to sing with and not over the congregation.  It is no surprise that our current cantor, who sang from childhood in her congregational choir, was also a songleader in our NFTY region. We created a songbook with transliteration, so everyone could sing, regardless of their Hebrew knowledge.  When the time came to design our new building, our acoustics were intentionally designed for the congregation to hear each other sing, as well as to hear the voice of cantor and choir.

As in our Proverbs quote this month, a house of worship is also built by wisdom and meaningful worship is established by understanding - understanding not just of what prayer may be, but how to participate.  At the beginning of each service, the cantor and I work to bring everyone into worship. Our worship philosophy is that everyone should feel invited to participate in whatever way they are comfortable, but that we make the service as accessible as possible. On a Saturday morning, we spend ten to fifteen minutes introducing that unique congregation to our prayerbook, to our music, to our worship. Our B’nei Mitzvah are trained to be leaders of meaningful Jewish worship - and they know that it is a partnership between leaders and congregation.

Growing up in a congregation, in our Reform youth movement, in the music of our camps, my favorite song has always been Debbie Friedman’s “Sing Unto God”.  Here it is, in its original, slightly dated, language.  Thank you for singing with me (and over me) for the past 18 years:

Sing unto God, sing a new song
O sing praises to God, give thanks to Him with a song
O sing praises unto the Lord thy God.
Rejoice in the Lord all ye righteous
And cry out to the Lord with joy
Sing out from your hearts, O sing praises to God.
(Bless His name, O sing unto the Lord a song of prayer
Sing praises to the Lord, sing unto God) (2x)
Sing unto God, sing a new song unto (3x) God,
Sing a new song unto God (3x)
Songwriters: Debbie Friedman
Sing Unto God lyrics © A Side Music LLC D/B/A Modern Works Music Publishing

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Happy is the One Who is Anxious Always - September 2017

Happy is the one who is anxious always, as the one who hardens the heart falls into misfortune.
  • Proverbs 28:14

[Having completed 18 years with Temple Sholom - and looking forward to the next 18, I thought I would take this year to reflect back on a life with this congregation.  As I am also turning 50 this year, it made sense to look at the Book of Proverbs.  Rabbinic legend ascribes three books to King Solomon, the wisest of kings: Song of Songs to his youth; Ecclesiastes to his later years; and Proverbs to his middle age.]

After ten years at Temple Sholom, I took a look back at both where I and the congregation had travelled.  At that point, in 2009, we has successfully sold our building in Plainfield, found a temporary home at the Fanwood Presbyterian Church, and raised almost enough money (we thought) to build a new building.  For me, I realized that I had moved from being the new rabbi at the synagogue - who needed to ask everyone else about its history and customs - to finally having some wisdom and perspective.  As I looked back, I focussed on one accomplishment during my tenure - that Temple Sholom had become, in the parlance of the Jewish organizational world, a learning congregation.  The term had been coined by Dr. Isa Aron of Hebrew Union College, through the Experiments in Congregational Education (ECE) project.  The term did not mean that the members of the congregation all came to adult education classes, but rather that the leadership of the congregation was in a place that encouraged meaningful innovation that fit the needs, goals, and vision of the congregation.  Simply put, we had become self-reflective.  We no longer only made changes to fix what was broken; we tried new experiments - some of which worked, and some of which did not - because we wanted to be more than ok; we wanted to be better.  Ten years earlier, when I had wanted to bring the congregation into the ECE project, I was told we needed to meet a criteria of readiness.  ECE could tell us what readiness was, but it had not yet learned how to tell us to get there.  Ten years later, we were there.

As in congregations, so in our personal lives.  Proverbs says the one who is always anxious is happy - it seems that Jewish neurosis is thousands of years older than Woody Allen.  The second half of the verse explains that the opposite of this anxiety is hard-heartedness - unwillingness to change.  Anxiety, in this context, is the drive to do better; to not rest content, but to push ourselves to take the risks to make ourselves better.

In the midst of the month of Elul - the month in which we are expected to begin the process of t’shuvah - of repentance; of turning back to the right path, we are called to be learning individuals; to be self-reflective; to be anxious.  We have constructed a liturgy, different from the rest of the year, that keeps us uncertain, on the edge, anxious, in order to push ourselves to do the hard work to make ourselves better.

This year, our congregation has a new machzor- the CCAR’s new High HolyDay prayerbook - MIshkan haNefesh - the meeting tent of the soul.  The book is designed to help us engage in the process of t’shuvah- of challenging ourselves to make our lives better; to live better - more in the way that we challenge ourselves to be.  The Cantor and I are anxious.  It is our first time leading out of this new book.  We hope that you will be anxious as well - that the new and familiar, but a little different, liturgy will disturb you just enough to make your t’shuvah that much deeper, that much more meaningful, that much more self-reflective.

May we truly have a good year - just anxious enough to keep us moving things in the right direction - the direction of peace, of love, of a better world for us all.

Rabbi Joel N. Abraham