Monday, November 22, 2010

Shalom, Salaam, even better

Yesterday I had the great privilege to accompany our 8th, 9th, and 10th graders on a visit to the local mosque. Along with a couple of other teachers, these teenagers from Temple were able to engage with Muslim peers and adults from the Islamic Society of Michiana (ISM). Building on the outreach we had begun at Rosh HaShanah/Ramadan (see earlier post), we wanted to provide an opportunity for the young people of our congregations to continue fostering bridges of understanding between our two communities.
Beginning with our "prep" conversation, and evident through our discussions at the mosque, it quickly became clear to members of both groups that we need to explore and celebrate the many common values, ideals, customs and practices that we share. The students discovered their connections from elements of language (such as "Islam" coming from the same root as "Shalom", "mosque" being related to "mishkan", and "Hajj" (the Islamic pilgrimage) being identical with "Chag" (Hebrew for holiday/festival) to our mutual focus on foods as part of religious observance. There was a collective "aha" in the room each time someone mentioned an idea that resonated with everyone else.
As we fisrt went around the room, we all introduced ourselves by name, and for the students, also by their current school and grade level. The responses were similar. Just as when our adults visited previously, there was already a comfort among the youth, as several (of course) attend the same schools, and live in the same neighborhoods. The children went on to express very similar feelings about what it means to be part of a minority, and how it can be challenging and even demoralizing when one's religious culture is misunderstood (or viewed negatively). A beautiful and positive outcome, shared by Jewish and Muslim alike, was the comment that "real friends are sensitive and accepting of your differences." One young lady even noted "now my friends really know me as a person, they think Islam is cool."
This would have been a phenomenal visit at any time; I do feel that because of the world situation, the press, and yes how things have "changed" since 9/11, this was a truly monumental occasion for our small community, and more so for the 50 of us who were present. May this experience also be a gift that keeps on giving.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sacred is as sacred does

Over the years, a great deal has been written about "meaning", "depth", "impact", and "fulfillment", especially in terms of faith and one's religious experience. Traditionally, established institutions (church, synagogue, and other "affiliation-based" entities, which later hold sway as what we know as modern denominations) maintained somewhat of a monopoly regarding what these ideas meant, and when/how/why the functions that provide them were distributed.
In the last several years, there has been a breakdown of this establishment hegemony over "organized religious life." With the various innovative efforts on today's scene - from "non"-denominational and "post"-denominational congregations to the appearance of "emergent" and "store-front" opportunities, it is no wonder that the traditional churches and denominational movements have been working frantically to "transform" and "reinvent" themselves. Yet this is nothing new. Historically, religion and its apparatus have always evolved to remain relevant, which is the key.
For today's world, which is so interconnected through the ongoing communications revolution, it is crystal clear that "usual" forms of religious affiliation and activity are not singly sufficient (though I argue still necessary because of their potential to provide their range of worship, programming, education and social justice endeavors) to engage people in the most meaningful ways. The goal of religious involvement, remains true: to enhance people's lives through a sense of community that reflects their striving for the Divine. The human condition is one that seeks sacred community - whether within a customary setting (one of the usual "affiliation-based" entities), or (now more prevalent) beyond them. As has been demonstrated, a new generation of seekers is looking for community without congregation.
To me, a sacred community has certain key elements: it provides and fosters loving relationships, in which people feel powerfully and positively connected to one another; it offers experiences to mark our lives with sanctity (like Sabbath and holiday worship, transformative prayer and celebrating the stages of the life-cycle); and it promotes ongoing learning (religious and secular) as a prioritized value. Here's the lasting question for each of us: what are YOU looking for in terms of religious community?

Monday, November 15, 2010

where's the "wow"?

I’ve been considering a thought provided by two colleagues, Terry Bookman and William Kahn. One a rabbi, the other a management professor, together they do congregational consulting. In their compelling publication, called “The House We Build”, they remind us:

Synagogues are places where Jews go to pray, learn, and become part of a religious and spiritual community. But they are more than that. They are also places where we go to feel a deep sense of comfort and familiarity. Many of us find great pleasure in singing the prayers and songs as well as humming the melodies with which we grew up. Holiday festivals stir up deep-seated memories of our childhoods. Rituals offer us a sense of connectedness to generations in our pasts, our own and those of the Jewish people. Even the physical surroundings – the light coming through the stained glass, the feel of the seat cushions, the way the ark opens, the smell of old wood – all these sensory experiences create in us a sense of the way a shul should be.

In such ways, the sights and sounds of a synagogue can be emotionally powerful for us…this experience of deep familiarity is part of what we often find comforting and meaningful about synagogues.

I agree completely. It is the emotional resonance that allows our Jewish experience to be meaningful. When something strikes a chord inside, it makes us feel truly alive. This is not about how we act Jewishly; it is why. The need for emotional fulfillment doesn’t tell us how to seek a spouse or partner, it causes us to socialize. Looking for professional satisfaction doesn’t inform us what coursework to pursue; it pushes us to strive for excellence as we explore. Knowing we can support our neighbor doesn’t give instructions about what to do for a grieving family; it impels us to do so. The obligation to be responsive to the world’s brokenness doesn’t teach us what issues deserve our attention; it inspires us to perform tikkun olam – acts to repair the world. In all these ways, a friend repeats, “it’s what we do!”

Emotional response is what reminds us that we are, according to Jewish teaching, living, breathing agents of divine in this world. When we are overwhelmed by joy, or feel like we’ve been kicked in the gut, that’s when we realize our humanity. Emotions tug at us all the time: we’ve all cried at the end of a sappy movie. We’ve all rooted for an underdog on the ball field. We’ve hollered at the person who cut us off. We’ve marveled at a breathtaking painting or piece of art. When I speak with families around their life-cycle events, I always find myself saying that these profound (though even sometimes fleeting) moments are the times when we are prompted to ask the “big” questions – “how did this happen?” or “why me?” and “what do I do now?” or “how awesome is this?” Many times, the response we find is just “wow!”

What inspires such a sense of awe in your life? Which activities, relationships, experiences and sights? That is, what fires your emotions to say “wow!”?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What's your greatest hope? fear? desire? dream? All good stuff to think about....

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

"His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,

Arthur James Balfour

This letter, known as the Balfour Declaration – which established Great Britain’s support of for a Jewish homeland in Palestine – paved the way in part for the fulfillment of traditional Zionist hopes and dreams. Without this vital document, and the exertion that led to it (as well as subsequent Jewish maneuvering afterward), the process that led to the founding of the modern state of Israel would have unfolded much differently, if at all.

For modern Jewish history, today, November 2 – the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration – should be much better known. And yet, due to a variety of factors, this remains one of those “important dates in history that goes unnoticed.” I find this phenomenon fascinating.

What other significant historical moments go unnoticed? Share your thoughts, and we can all learn a bit together.