Shabbat at the Kallah with United Synagogue

Prayer, song, Torah, God, and Shabbat all were on the agenda of United Synagogue’s kallah

by Joanne Palmer

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Shabbat Candles

Bo-ee kallah, Bo-ee kallah…

“Come, queen, come, queen,” we sing, standing, bowing to welcome the invisible force in all her serenity and glittering splendor.

The words had a double meaning in La Jolla, California, as the sacred community – the kehilla – welcomed both the Shabbat queen – the kallah of Lecha Dodi, the lovely, haunting song that brings the Kabbalat Shabbat service to a climax – and Kallah 2011, United Synagogue’s biennial convention.

Kallah 2011 both was and was not a convention. In the literal sense certainly it was – it was a group of people gathered for a common cause. There was some shop talked, some business ideas exchanged, some networking done. But it was not the kind of business-oriented, workshop-heavy middle-of-the-week convention that United Synagogue usually holds. Instead, it focused on Shabbat and on the spirituality, intangibility, and yearning that is at the heart of what we do.

The kallah was so named not because of the Shabbat queen who was at its emotional core but because the word also and coincidentally means a convention of scholars. It is easy to see the emotional connection, whether or not the etymological one is real.

The kallah was December 1 through 4 at the Hyatt Regency at Aventine in La Jolla, California. After a welcome from United Synagogue’s international president Richard Skolnik, it began with a discussion of spirituality in North America with our CEO, Rabbi Steven Wernick; a lay leader, Fran Gordon Immerman, and (thanks to the magic of Skype) the Reverend Dr. James Wind of the Alban Institute. In other words, a rabbi, a Protestant minister, and a deeply involved Conservative Jew.

Quoting recent research by Dr. Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist who wrote Bowling Alone and American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Dr. Wind said that about 59 percent of Americans reported that they pray at least weekly and only 18 percent said that they never do. “What I take from these statistics is that the United States is an unusually religious country,” he said. This is not news; statistics have shown similar results for decades. What is new is a new category, people who may pray, who may consider themselves to be spiritual, but who do not identify with any organized group. These people – Dr. Wind calls them the “nones,” – represented about 7 percent of the population in 1970. Now, it is between 20 and 30 percent of the postbaby boomer generations.

Innovative worship is on the rise, as well as “a dramatic and surprisingly rapid adoption of electronic technologies.” All this shows that although fewer people are in pews, and this is a serious problem for institutions, what we are facing is not declining spiritual vitality. “Connections to strong religious traditions are getting thinner, and religious literacy is on the decline,” Dr. Wind said. “We live in a period of prayer options like never before. We live in an environment of amazing choices. People have so many options as they seek to express their spirituality. Helping people find their way through all these options is one of our challenges.”

Rabbi Wernick put those statistics in a Jewish context. “There are five essential barriers that must be addressed,” he said. First is the barrier of Hebrew literacy. For Conservative Jews, there is the question of decoding the words, and even if people can decode them, can they understand them, particularly as they pray them?

The next barrier is the question of having prayers answered. This is not a Jewish concept, but comes from the world around us. We must remember that we pray for ourselves. God does not need our prayers. The majority of our prayers are medieval poetry, which does not resonate with most of us, and the siddurim that we use do not translate them well enough.

The next barrier is time. “People must be willing to commit time to praying, often in a language they don’t understand and with a theology that they don’t find relevant. It’s a huge disconnect,” Rabbi Wernick said.

The fourth barrier is music. “The challenge is the changing nature of what meaningful music in a congregational setting sounds like,” he said, adding that the cantors at the kallah know intimately the challenge of balancing the beautiful music of the last 200 years with changing musical tastes.

The fifth barrier, Rabbi Wernick said, is demography. “How do we balance the needs of multiple generations with multiple points of view, looking for multiple portals of entry? The era of one size fits all is over.” The challenge, again, is to balance competing needs.

Ms. Immerman, who lives in Cleveland and calls herself “a child of the movement,” a one-time USYer (the second girl to be president of CRUSY) and Hebrew school survivor, agreed with Rabbi Wernick’s points, putting them in the context of her own life. She argued forcefully for a Judaism that is not pediatric, is not afraid to talk about God, and is more demanding of Jews. She was particularly firm about music. “It connects us with the divine,” she said.

Later that day, Rabbi Edward Feld, editor of the new machzor Lev Shalem, talked about the importance of words, and how the words of the liturgy seduced him. There are four truths about liturgy and prayer, he said. First, it is not clear to whom it is addressed. “Frequently it is addressed to us, but we want God to overhear it. Sometimes it is addressed to God but we should be overhearing it.” Next, he said, “prayer is instructional. It teaches us how to be a religious person and a full human being.” And prayer is poetry. “It is not philosophy and it is not a credo. It is not the kind of analysis we do with a rational mind. It is prose poetry that has rhythm and meter that brings us to a mythological place.” And finally, “if prayer works it is experiential. If it works we are different people going out than we were coming in.”

During a session about spirituality led by the North American Association of Synagogue Executives, a parallel course introduced synagogue representatives to Sulam, our ambitious, expanded three-part program that helps current, new, and prospective communal leaders climb the ladder of increasing knowledge, expertise and responsibility at the helms of our kehillot.

On Friday morning, a series of Shabbat prep workshops were followed by courses taught by local rabbis and scholars. The range was wide – from Religion and Science to Why the Future of Conservative Judaism Depends on Prohibiting Beef Consumption to Shabbat in Poetry and Piyyutim to What is Jewish Music (among many other choices) – and the level of expertise impressive.

On Friday afternoon, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University, and Rabbi Naomi Levy, the founder and leader of Nashuva, continued the discussion about God. Rabbi Levy “always had some kind of visceral relationship with God,” she reported. Rabbi Artson did not. “I grew up an atheist in San Francisco,” he said. “That was normative. My mother to this day is bitter toward Harvard,” where he was an undergraduate. “She sees it as a place that takes upright atheists and turns them into religious people.” He first met God his sophomore year. Both rabbis have had bad things happen to them, and each has counted on the relationship with God for support.

“Prayer,” Rabbi Artson said, “is like taking a magnet through sand, so the iron filings line up. When we pray we are aligning ourselves with the divine. I do it without an expectation of outcome, because the joining is intrinsically valuable.”

Rabbi Levy said that it is hard to teach faith. “I think it’s ultimately a gift, like the ability to be musical. Sometimes I wonder if there are people who hear it and people who don’t.”

California light is golden. The dining room where we gathered many times during Shabbat had windows and skylights all around, and we were bathed in the honeyed light on Friday, as it was retreating, and then all the next day, until it was replaced by the candlelight and sweet spices marking the new day and the coming week.

We all came together for Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv. Hazzan Joanna Selznick Dulkin of Shaare Zedek Synagogue in St. Louis led Kabbalat Shabbat with beauty, joy, energy, and infectious musicality. The kehilla joined with exuberant pleasure, singing in Shabbat with Lecha Dodi. Hazzan Henry Rosenblum of the Forest Hills Jewish Center took over for Maariv, using the more traditional nusach with equal enthusiasm.

The rest of Shabbat focused on feeling, music, joy, connection, and spirituality. It was a blur of song and discussion, where the theories we had discussed earlier were put into practice. It ended with Havdallah outside, where the dancing didn’t end because no one seemed to want to stop.

Later that evening we honored Jackie Saltz, USYer extraordinaire, at a gala dinner and concert. Ms. Saltz has been a USYer, a youth director, a regional youth director, a USY parent, and a member of United Synagogue’s youth commission, as well as a United Synagogue board and executive committee member. Craig Taubman, another former USYer, sang in her honor.

The next day, the troupe from Beit T’shuva, a Jewish residential treatment program and kehilla, performed Freedom Song. The musical parallels the life of a Jewish family, gathered for a seder, with a 12-step meeting. It is honest, wrenching, and profoundly moving. The actors showed us their souls. Brave and vulnerable, they are in no way assured that their lives will work out. In a question and answer session afterward, we heard that a significant percentage of the people treated at Beit T’shuva relapse; the number is lower than for other programs but significant nonetheless.

The play ends with reconciliation between a daughter and her father, both substance abusers. After it ended, there was stone silence in the room, until someone started clapping and then the audience gave the players a heartfelt standing ovation. It was clear, from the tissues wadded in hands, the sniffles, the red eyes, the running noses, and that dead quiet, that Freedom Song had worked.

The answers from the discussion that followed were unsettling. First, we all have to realize that the Jewish community, like every other community, includes substance abusers, addicts, people who steal and lie to feed their habits, people who can no longer help themselves. What can the community do to help? Some things are obvious. Try to ease the stigma, try to listen, try not to turn away in disgust. Also, try not to enable. Still, as one young woman pointed out, sometimes no one can do anything. “I have good parents and a loving family and a supportive Jewish community,” she said. “I hid everything from them and I was good at it and they couldn’t have seen it. There was nothing else they could have done.”

One thing that we all can do is support Beit T’shuva.

As the kallah ended and people went off to the airport or to the United Synagogue board meeting that followed, it is fair to say that something had changed. Sharing a Shabbat of intensity, music, prayer, and learning brought us closer together. We had created a community. We started Shabbat as acquaintances at best, and we left as a kehilla.