During a recent CCAR Board meeting, our colleague and board member Rabbi Mona Alfi selected a pasuk from Parashat T’rumah on which to d’rash: “ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Included in her chosen source texts was a passage by Mordecai Kaplan, a segment of which follows:
“The presence of the multitude in public worship creates an atmosphere that profoundly influences the individual participant. It stirs up emotions of gratitude and confidence that one could not experience in isolation” (A Year with Mordecai Kaplan, p. 73).
The ensuing discussion invited an evaluation of Kaplan’s (and other commentators’) assertion amidst this continuing stretch of isolation when the concept of “presence” has taken on entirely new meaning. Can a “multitude” comprised of silent individuals, visible in small boxes filling our computer screens, still engender an atmosphere rich with emotion, gratitude, and confidence? For many, the answer was a definitive “yes.” Even in their silent Zoom sanctuaries and classrooms, colleagues noted that the mere presence of engaged and participatory congregants and students effects greater spiritual meaning and enhances the level of joy for all involved…with one caveat. The present multitude to which Kaplan is alluding is achieved when, virtual or not, individuals actively engage and participate in the worship (or learning, or community-building, or meeting, or…), and not simply log in to check a box or listen passively while trying to work simultaneously on other tasks.
Admittedly, the learning focused my attention as much on events to come as it did on experiences during the past year, in particular, our approaching CCAR Convention. Contemplating the potential and hoped-for impact of our Convention, even as we gather from our respective homes and individual spaces, the aspirational qualities that Kaplan describes aptly named are a now-familiar longing for countless among us—an atmosphere that profoundly influences the individual participant, one that stirs up emotions of gratitude and confidence not experienced in isolation. That we happen to be gathering by virtual means is, in truth, an inconsequential variable. With the stellar leadership of our colleagues Rabbi Amanda Greene (Convention Chair) and Rabbi Peter Stein (Vice-Chair), this year’s Convention possesses the undeniable potential to make a genuinely needed, positive and enduring impact in each of our rabbinates. However, the remaining variable in the realization of a spiritually renewing, heartening, confidence-boosting, enriching, educational, and joyful gathering rests not in the hands of the Convention planning leadership, but in each of ours. It is our collective determination to be present that will enable the restorative atmosphere we seek.
This past Rosh HaShanah, our congregation’s first pre-recorded service began with an invitation to members to “enter with intention.” Appreciating that it would have been easy enough for people simply to watch passively, as if with popcorn in hand, we encouraged congregants not to allow the fact that the service was pre-recorded to dissuade them from engaging and participating fully and sincerely, as if they were sitting in the sanctuary.
Looking ahead to this year’s Convention, the sages remind us that our mutual commitment to presence, our decision to engage fully and participate actively—to enter the days with intention—will foster an atmosphere in which renewed gratitude, confidence, and joy can well up and flourish. So, if not done already, clear your calendars for the days of this year’s Convention. Treat the few days we have together as if we were sitting together in the grand ballroom of a Convention hotel. The commitment we make to be present—for ourselves and for one another—will ensure this year’s Convention with all of its virtual creativity, realizes its full potential as one of the best Conventions yet.
Rabbi Ron Segal is President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs, Georgia.
CCAR Convention 2021 will take place online March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.