When confronted with the first of many “shelter at home” quarantine orders, many houses of worship struggled with a perplexing dilemma: Who are we if we couldn’t be together? The story of one synagogue’s journey to answer that question illustrates the power of perspective and the potential of pushing through uncertainty into the unknown.
When the Jewish High Holy Days arrive, is it necessarily more appropriate to log out of our social media apps, or can social media enhance the spiritual experience of these traditional days? Must Twitter, Facebook and texting just pull us back into our own private (even narcissistic) world or can they provide individual connections to a communal religious experience?
Recently, the New York Times reported For Young Jews, a Services says ‘Please Do Text‘ on one synagogue’s experimentation in a service for Jews in their 20’s and 30’s. Congregation Or Ami, always open to innovation, similarly experimented with Facebook, Twitter and texting during this year’s Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur morning services.
What is the Shofar Sounding Saying to You?
Rabbi Paul Kipnes [planned] to encourage congregants with smartphones to use Facebook to reflect on the shofar after it is blown for the second time during the service. “Maimonides says, ‘Awake sleepers.’ Most of us hear the shofar and continue sleeping through it,” Kipnes said. “It’s [not] a show, not an alarm clock. I’m saying OK, everybody, sit up, wake up, reflect.”
Given that so much of the High Holidays liturgy is in the collective — “We have sinned” — Kipnes says it is appropriate for congregants to share their thoughts collectively during the service.
“Prayer,” he said, “is not supposed to be a spectator sport.”
On Rosh Hashana morning, dozens of texts, Facebook messages and tweets responded to the question, What is the shofar sounding saying to you? Worshippers responded:
- It reminds me that I have a chance to redeem my past actions to work toward a brighter year.
- The shofar sounds like an ancient song coming to us from thousands of years ago.
- We need to wake up and see what is happening in the world we live in. We are at a tipping point and at stake is the existence of both the State of Israel and the life we cherish.
For the first time in a long time, people did not clap after the sounding of the shofar. Does this mean the invitation to respond by social media turned them inward? It was unclear. While such innovation can be meaningful, such breaks with tradition can also alienate others. We did hear how social media engaged some participants more deeply in the experience. One Or Ami congregant texted after the service, “Thanks so much for today. The texting during the service was engaging.”
There is Holiness When…
On Yom Kippur morning, we twice invited the congregation to interact through social media, promising that their thoughts would become part of the sermons. As LA Weekly reported in Texting During Yom Kippur Services? How One L.A. Rabbi IsBringing Social Media to His Synagogue,
…giving congregants tacit permission to mentally check out of
services was not Kipnes’ intention in bringing social media to the bimah (the
stage); in fact, it was quite the opposite. “Look, worship is supposed to
be an interactive experience, but in many places it stopped being that,”
he explains in an interview.
Before a particularly inspiring prayer-song on kedusha (holiness), we invited worshippers to complete the sentence “There is holiness when…” The responses, shared as part of a drash on holiness, included:
- When I am with family and friends, people I truly love.
- When we are humble.
- When you realize you have wronged another and you then correct that wrong with a right. That is truly holy.
- When you wake up every morning and walk out of bed and get ready for the day ahead.
- When we all come together to pray to the One who gave us the power to pray.
- When all hatred fades, when all differences dissolve, when all judgment dissipates, and when we can all look at each other as one under God.
To Me, the Brit (covenant) with God Means…
Lisa Colton, Founder and President of Darim Online, has been agitating for rabbis to experiment with the Social Sermon, wherein rabbis announce topics ahead of services and invite social media conversation during the week. The sermon that is preached (or the Torah discussion that ensues) on Shabbat, incorporates the discussion that has preceded it. The Covenant Foundation similarly has blogged about grassroots-driven preaching, in Twitter + Community + Jewish Education = Social Sermon.
Marrying the social sermon with our willingness to push the boundaries of traditional prayer, we wove a d’var Torah in realtime as the congregation responded to the statement “To me, the brit (covenant) with God means…” Since Or Ami like many Reform synagogues reads Nitzavim (Deut. 29-30) on Yom Kippur morning, the slew of social media messages allowed a wide ranging exploration about our connection today to the brit between God and the Jewish people. As worshippers explained, “To me, our Brit with God means…”
- To stay with it NO MATTER WHAT. To never give up on the truth of our souls.
- Dedication to an unbreakable chain.
- To do the right thing when no one is looking, and to pass down our value system to the next generation.
- That God does God’s part and we must do ours.
- Our covenant is continued, when our Torah breastplate, rescued from the ashes of Kristallnacht, still adorns our scrolls and dances through Jews 74 years later.
- That we can even question our brit with God.
On a holiday meant to generate inward reflection, does it
make sense to ask congregants to take out their phones but avoid the plethora
of temptations, distractions and push notifications?”
What do you think? Wave of the future or Techno-Heresy?
Challenge: Over 1,000 congregants gathered for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. All 1,000+ worshippers want to be able to touch or kiss the Torah during the Hakafah. We have only two aisles in the Fred Kavli theater in Thousand Oaks where we worship, and those aisles go up the sides of the theater. Too much of a balagan (craziness) when Torah scrolls are carried up the aisles because of the lack of space in those side aisles.
Idea: Have you ever seen a concert when the musician on the stage turns around, leans back, falls into the up-stretched arms of the crowd? It is called “crowd surfing“. Sometimes it looks like this.
Solution: What if the Torah went crowd surfing?
This year, after removing the Torah scrolls from the ark, we had congregant honorees carry two scrolls, one up each of the aisles. Then…
Introducing Torah Surfing (TM): Before the Torah service we explained the following:
Since we have so many congregants who want to honor Torah by touching it or kissing it, and since we only have two aisles down the sides, we want to introduce Torah surfing. After we remove Torah scrolls from the Ark and sing the appropriate prayers, we will send two scrolls up the side aisles, and two scrolls up the center of the crowd. If Torah comes to you, hold it like you would a baby. Use clean hands (and a pure heart); adults only hold it. Using all necessary means, do NOT drop the Torah (which results in a 40 day daytime fast for this whole community; or instead, expect to quadruple your High Holy Day pledge). Go slowly so that everyone has a chance to kiss Torah, using either their tzitzit, their machzor (prayerbook) or their CLEAN hand. Ushers will be at the back of the sanctuary space to receive the Torah scrolls and bring them back to the bimah.
The Result? Check out this video by Michael Kaplan (Torah Surfing (TM) may be seen midway through are pictures/video). Worshippers lovingly carried Torah, held it alot, and stretched out so others could get to touch/kiss the Torah. It was freilich (happy, joyous) and meshugenah (crazy). And it increased Ahavat Torah (the love of Torah).
- Amazon’s Kindle was made in Israel?!
- A World Autism Center is being build in Israel?!
- Israel’s have discovered how to float solar panels on water?!
- A bracelet made in Israel can tell caretakers when an epileptic seizure is happening?!
- The Mideast’s first synchrotron is being built in Israel with researchers from across the Mideast?!
I recently rediscovered a fabulous website about Israel: Israel21c.org. It is well worth a look or two or three.
Israel, to the extent that it is understood by Americans at all, is generally seen as a place of war; a place that is characterized by virtually nothing but the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. So often we focus on the conflict in the Mideast.
Yet, Israel is regularly is having a major impact on our world in very positive ways. Israel and Israelis are having an impact on individual lives through their efforts in health, technology, culture, democracy and clean tech.
Israel21c, a non-profit educational foundation with a mission to focus media and public attention on the 21st century Israel that exists beyond the conflict, identifies, researches and reports on how Israelis create, innovate, improve and add value to the world.
Studies substantiate that when Americans learn about the ways in which Israel adds value to their lives, their affinity and respect for Israel increases. We improve Israel’s image around the world by allowing people to understand the reality; Israel is seen through the lenses of its humanness, its diversity and all that it contributes through medical advances, technological innovation, art, culture and acts of human kindness.
Check out these innovations that Israel21C is bringing to light:
- Amazon’s Kindle: A Made-in-Israel story: They made Java “cool” again by using it to develop a device for reading the Kindle, and once again a major tech invention emanates from Israel.
- World autism center in Jerusalem: At the first global research and education center for autism, to be built in Jerusalem, the plan is to integrate all the systems that work.
- Solar energy that floats on water: Award winning Israeli company Solaris Synergy has designed solar energy grids that can float on water, reducing energy production costs, and preventing water loss.
- Swift help for epilepsy: The new electronic EpiLert bracelet under development in Israel will signal caregivers when the wearer begins to suffer a dangerous seizure.
- Open SESAME – building the MidEast’s first synchrotron: Politics aside, researchers from across the Middle East are working together in the name of science on a futuristic project that will enable scientists to study everything from proteins to archaeological…
When the author of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes complains ein chadash tachat hashamayim – there is nothing new under the sun, he seems to express a disappointment, even frustration, perhaps with the stagnant routine into which his life descended. His insight stands in direct opposition to another strand of the Jewish experience, namely the search for chiddush, for the innovative idea. As the world changes, as our lives are transformed by these realities, we seek new answers and new connections with community and with divinity. Enter any Beit Midrash (Jewish study hall) around the world and you will find people searching the ancient words for a chiddush, new insight, to make life feel alive and meaningful.
Our synagogue, Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) – so energized and flexible – is a light for so many people in significant measure because of our commitment to remain vibrant and innovative. We eschew what has been described as Ecclesiastes’ cynicism. We embrace constant transformation, insisting that like the Israelites who left Egypt but retained a slave mentality, we will not become enslaved to the “way we have always done things.” We demand of ourselves petucha, openness, and self-reflection that looks at who we are and constantly strives to refresh and rejuvenate. Our cantor keeps abreast of the newest trends in Jewish music and melds old melodies with new harmonies to keep us humming a praise-song to the Holy One. Our rabbi attends seminars in person and online to keep reflecting, evaluating and refreshing our community. Our graduate student interns bring fresh perspectives from their teachers, the greatest thinkers of our generation. And our leadership and project chairs – committed to serving in a position no more than two years – seek out the energy and enthusiasm of all our members – veteran and new – to deepen the way our Or Ami community touches lives. This is how it should be.
Toward the end of his life, Ecclesiastes looked out at the world and resigned himself to routine. Or Ami looks out and sees opportunity and possibility, new ways to connect Jewish families to the Holy One, Torah, Israel and each other. That is why I am constantly energized by Or Ami and why Or Ami has a stellar reputation locally and nationally.