Tag: social sermon

Facebook Post becomes Serious Sermon

OR: How the Whole World Planned this Shabbat’s Service

It all began two weeks ago with a simple question on Facebook:

Need sermon input. This week we read about the splitting of the Red Sea. When have you experienced a time when the seas split (metaphorically) for you so you could walk forward more freely into your life?

Who expected the depth of responses from all over the country?

When I left my husband
When I finally asked my Dad for a hug
When I came out
When I figured out how to balance career and family
When I began taking Lexipro
When I was marching in Washington to celebrate Marriage Equality
When I made aliyah to Israel and founded Kibbutz Lotan
When I returned to my first love, acting
When I began my new course of anti-anxiety medication
When my husband died and I had to figure it out for myself
When I found God and lost all that weight…

The private Facebook messages were even more revealing and poignant.

Welcome to the Social Sermon
So began another Social Sermon, an experiment which weaves text study and personal reflection through social media to create sermons and worship experiences that engage people in the preparation and giving of a sermon. On Yom Kippur, the whole congregation wrote its rabbi’s Rosh Hashana sermon. Thanks to inspiration from Jewish Techie Lisa Colton (and earlier the Covenant Foundation), we are trying it again to illuminate the lessons of Shirat HaYam.

This week, around the world, Jews are reading Shirat HaYam, the song of the sea, from the Torah portion Beshallach (Exodus 15). We are transported back to the future, as we read (chant/sing) the very same song that Moses, Miriam and the Israelites sang after they crossed through (some say: were crossing through) the Red Sea. It is a story overflowing with meaning – we can flee from pain; that like the Biblical Nachshon we need to take the first step; God still works wonders in mysterious ways; sing out your salvation with joy; sing out your salvation with sadness for those harmed by their own helplessness. This Torah portion cries out darsheini (“interpret me!).

Interpreting Torah through Song
Our amazing Cantor Doug Cotler has prepared eight different musical versions of the Mi Chamocha prayer-song, and invited a diverse group of congregants to participate: adult singers, congregant-composers, a LoMPTY teen songleader, a post-Bar Mitzvah student who would reprise his Torah reading of Shirat HaYam (the song of the sea), a cantorial student, a host of musicians, and so many kids who went to Jewish summer camp and would know and sing Debbie Friedman’s Miriam’s Song. We enjoy the music of Debbie Friedman, Doug Cotler, Sheryl and Daniel Braunstein, Kyle Cotler, Seth Marlon Ettinger, and “When You Believe” from Steven Spielberg’s Prince of Egypt.

Ripping off TED Talks
Following the power of TED Talks (where real people share real stories that teach rally powerful lessons), we are inviting real people to share their stories of when the sea split for them:

  • Congregant Seth Front reflects upon what we leave when we go through the Sea.
  • A friend from back east talks about when he finally asked his heart attack surviving dad for the hug he desired all his life.
  • A congregant 12-steps, sharing her experience of finding God and thus discovering a way past the overeating that was literally killing her.

Clergy from All Over Weigh In
Rabbinic Intern Jonathan Rothstein-Fisch, a uniquely talented soon to be ordained rabbi (whichever congregation hires him this year will have “stolen” one of our movement’s most precious gems), is weaving the metaphor of the sea splitting metaphor into his iyyunim (reflections) leading into the Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing and the Kaddish.

Over lunch at the PARR Rabbinical Convention, Stockton Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff and Cantorial Soloist Lindy Passer provided chomer ladrush, insights to illuminate lessons from the Torah portion and prayer-song.

Who Knows How the Service will Play Out
But we know this: that while the service won’t take place for another twelve hours, it seems to already have inspired so much reflection and connection between people all over the universe and our sacred Song of the Sea. That’s what prayer and study is supposed to be about, right?

Bring a friend to services this Shabbat for Shirat HaYam, as the sea splits to allow us freely to walk forth freely into our lives.

We are LIVE Streaming Services
If you absolutely cannot make it, we are streaming our services at www.OrAmiLIVE.com (thanks to Bronze Productions and Jacob Braunstein).

After services, go to Facebook or this blog to share your experience!

What’s My Most Recent Sea Splitting Experience?
This social sermon process has been an inspiring experience for me. Since I always work better as part of a team, I am able to expand the input, insights and iyyunim which inform my own study and preparation for these sermons and Shabbat services. The results – whether I actually speak the words or just guide others – are always uplifting and spiritually moving.

How a Whole Congregation Wrote its Rabbi’s Yom Kippur Sermon

The Genesis of a Social Sermon

Utilizing a process called the Social Sermon, I developed my Yom Kippur morning sermon this year in partnership with Facebook Friends, TED talkers and a group of insightful congregants. To be blunt, this year, the whole Congregation Or Ami wrote its rabbi’s Yom Kippur sermon.

Where Great Sermon Ideas Come From
Rabbis explore sermon ideas from within the Machzor (prayerbook) and Torah, through conference calls organized by Jewish non-profit organizations, and at sermon seminars run by local Boards of Rabbis. Ideas are generated from Jewish text study, current events, issues in the public sphere, bestselling books, and powerful movies. Some clergy ask friends, colleagues, congregants for ideas. Deciding upon topics and themes for High Holy Day (HHD) sermons can be a multi-month process. The social sermon encourages rabbis to engage the congregants (and other contacts in the social media sphere) in the process of exploring the topic and teasing out important themes.

Fleshing out a Topic
Over the summer, as our community struggled to deal with illnesses and deaths of beloved congregants, I knew it was time again to explore Unetaneh Tokef, the haunting HHD prayer most remembered for its opening lines: On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is Sealed… Who shall live and who shall die. I read this text as a cosmic wake up call: God reminds us that “stuff” happens. Unetaneh Tokef forces us to face this reality and to decide: how are YOU going to deal with it?


The prayer offers three responses to the severity of life’s decree of misfortune, pain and death. We may reach around (teshuva or repentance – by fixing our relationships with those around us), reach inward (t’filah or prayer – by finding our center and the truth within), and reach up (tzedakah or charitable giving – by lifting up others we lift ourselves).

But how did this play out in real life? What lessons do people learn from enduring the hardships or challenges that life throws out way?

Facebook Friends Chime In
For assistance, I turned to Facebook (and Twitter) where my personal and congregational pages yielded some poignant answers to the question, What did you learn from going through hardship or challenge? Responses poured in from all around the congregation and around the country. The question struck a few heart strings as people posted publicly and some privately about the tsuris (problems) in their lives. Face-to-face conversations with other community members elicited many significant lessons learned. From these responses, as well as those from people I spoke with over the course of a few months, three categories of hardship rose up as being particularly challenging: financial ruin, turmoil from dealing with children with special needs, and horrible medical diagnoses.

TED Talks Provide Inspiration
Around that time, I was watching some TED Talks and became inspired by the stories I heard. About people in challenging situations, who found meaning and purpose nonetheless. The most moving sermons include powerful personal stories to illustrate the central message. It occurred to me that rather than my telling those inspiring stories, I would ask a few congregants to tell their own stories. After all, High Holy Day services offer just the forum for Jewish TED Talks. Thus was a sermon born.

I invited three congregants reflect on what they learned personal through their personal challenge. Their initial drafts were poignant. Each participant had learned powerful lessons on how to overcome the “stuff” of life on which Unetaneh Tokef focuses. Guiding the speakers to understand how their experiences embodied teachings similar to those in Unetaneh Tokef, I worked with them to weave references into their sermonette.

Simultaneously, I crafted a short introduction – utilizing a sledgehammer, if you believe it – to sharply make the point that Unetaneh Tokef comes as a Divine wake-up call. Like a sledgehammer, Unetaneh Tokef comes to break down the walls of naivety and denial that keep us from accepting a simple truth: that between this year and next, so many will live but many will die. Some will experience success; others failure. So many will encounter the unpredictability and pain of life. We are left to discover how do we keep ourselves from becoming angry, embittered, and crotchety, from giving up?

Congregants Tell their Own Stories
At different points in the service, these congregants and our President shared their stories:

Their presentations were poignant. Worshippers sat at the edge of their seats, listening in silence. Certain moments were unforgettable: When Eric and Jill Epstein spoke just after their 14 year old son Ethan led the congregation in prayer. When Mike Moxness was moved to tears as he recalled the overwhelming mix of sadness and gratitude. When Congregation Or Ami President Hedi Gross, in the traditional end-of-service Presidential sermonette, recounted her Jewish spiritual journey, including their struggle with fertility issues, unexpectedly reemphasizing the theme of the sermon and service.

Suffice it to say, the responses to the Jewish-TED-talk/HHD-social-sermon touched and moved so many worshippers.

What Lessons were Learned?

  1. Social Sermons Work: A number of worshippers later described the Facebook discussion on Facebook as a meaningful way to get them to prepare for the Holy Days. Others reflected on the Facebook discussion as an inviting way of previewing am upcoming sermon theme.
  2. Jewish TED Talks Inspire: In comments about the High Holy Days, this multi-speaker sermon topped the list of worshipper kvells (positive comments). Unanimously, post-service comments called the congregant presentations inspiring, powerful, very real, and intensely thought-provoking.
  3. Rabbinic Tzimtzum Fosters Deep Reflection: As clergy “pull back” from their up front role as sermonizer to work in partnership with congregants to craft a Jewish teaching, the message becomes that much more influential. In an increasingly DIY (Do It Yourself) Jewish world, involving other Jews in the teaching/preaching/liturgy leading roles cements their relationships to the community, the synagogue and the rabbi.
  4. Weaving in New Technologies and Methods Animate CommunitiesDarim Online and The Convenant Foundation introduced me to the Social Sermon. TED Talks inspired me to invite congregants to speak. Just Congregations of the Union for Reform Congregations taught me about listening campaigns. eJewish Philanthropy constantly pushes me to explore new perspectives and methods. Visual T’filah of the Central Conference of American Rabbis propelled me to rethink the entire worship experience. Finally, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz’s 1973 essay, Tzimtzum: A Mystic Model for Contem¬≠porary Leadership, has long goaded my rabbinic style to pull back to invite others in.

What’s next? Already, congregants are wondering which congregant speakers will elucidate which themes next year.  And so am I!

But I do not expect to wait until the High Holy Days to invite my congregation to write my next sermon!