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spirituality Technology

Klei Kodesh: New and Old Tools to Create Holiness

The extraordinary disruption and stress of facing the coronavirus has impacted my rabbinate in ways unlike almost anything I have experienced in over twenty years in the pulpit.  

However, in a sense, the work and the primary goal is still the same: to create meaningful and sacred moments for the members of my congregation and for the broader community.  

I have found myself reflecting on the tools I am using over the last several weeks. Each day, I learn more and refine my skills. Each day, I encounter both satisfaction and frustration in these efforts. 

I have been using computers ever since my ordination in 1999, however the depth and breadth of that activity has grown exponentially over the years.  It has become routine, for example, to communicate with people through email, and to post information on our temple website.  

In these last weeks, email has become even more critical, with the absence of in-person activities. I find myself asking a question, though, each time I start to write an email: Does this need to be a phone call or video chat?  Whereas before emails were a valuable tool that gave me flexibility and efficiency, I find that now there is a hunger to connect in the most direct way possible. I am making many more phone calls than I have in a number of years.  

Part of my Shabbat practice for many years has been setting aside my cell phone and computer. This wasn’t so much about my understanding of the halachah of using electricity as it was about my need to create a certain restful and inward focused space on Shabbat. Simply put, I needed to unplug.

Now, my cell phone has become a critical part of offering robust and meaningful Shabbat study and worship. My colleagues and I are leading from three different locations. On Pesach morning, we offered a service jointly with our sister congregation, and we led from six different locations!  

My cell is now a tool that helps me create holiness. When we text one another, it is a powerful way of coordinating and ensuring that the prayer experience happens the way we want.  

I never thought of tech support as a sacred task, but when I use my cell to text with a congregant to help them log on to a service or study session, it is a powerful tool in the sacred work of engagement. 

Using Zoom and other platforms for meetings, worship, and pastoral counseling is a new and challenging activity. Here too, rather than set aside technology, it enables me to forge connections that are so critically important right now. The computer becomes a tool that can alleviate the isolation felt by everyone, especially those who are living alone.  

But, of course, what happens when the internet connection fails in the middle of a service? Or when screen sharing doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to?  

In the thousands of services I’ve led, I’ve never had an experience with a conventional service where my fellow service leader disappeared right in the middle of the service! Or where all of a sudden the prayerbooks vanished from everyone’s hands at once!

When these things happen, I try and remind myself that these are just unique parts of using these tools to create holy experiences. The holy experience comes when we open ourselves up to those who are in need, when we extend ourselves to those who are facing challenging circumstances. Each time we use these tools, we get better and better, and things run much more according to plan.

It is a reminder to me that “smooth” is not the ultimate goal. In a conventional setting, we may finish the service or class and be pleased that everything went smoothly. We started on time, hit all our cues, and everything unfolded the way we hoped.  

Now, in this new reality, I try and focus on something bigger. There may be pauses or glitches or even the need to change something on the fly. But, the bottom line is that these new technologies, these new klei Kodesh, enable us to honor Shabbat, to retain Torah study as a nourishing part of the community, and to bring people together, even when we are physically apart.

For most of my rabbinate, I have done the Torah reading by taking the scroll from the ark with the traditional ritual, opening to the weekly portion, and reading and translating the prescribed chapter. I have done so out of my fervent belief that my role was to transmit the Torah in a meaningful and engaging way. While musical and comfortable with the cantillation, I rarely chose to chant through the portion.

With the shift to Zoom services, I quickly realized that one of the elements of the service that would be hardest to replicate would be the Torah reading ritual. With everyone in their own homes, we didn’t have an ark or a scroll.  There would be no hakafah and no hagbahah.  

I wanted to provide a sense of continuity and connection to tradition. And so, what I’ve done each week is put up on the screen a picture of the inside of the scroll for everyone to see, and I’ve chanted the portion for the congregation for everyone to hear.  

I believe this enables everyone to receive the Torah in a meaningful and engaging way. While they can’t touch and kiss the scroll, every single person is able to see the sacred calligraphy of the Torah. Even while sitting in their homes, we are all able to hear the powerful sound of the Torah, just as it has been heard for so many years.  

So, even in this brand-new world, and with the use of all these technologies, I am finding anchors in the continuing ancient traditions. The blend of old and new is what has always sustained us and is still the case now.  

Many years ago, when I was living in Jerusalem, I was attending Friday night services at a synagogue that was just in the process of building their building. One week, right in the middle of our singing and praying, the electricity went out. We found ourselves sitting in the dark!  

After a momentary pause, we simply continued singing and praying and honoring Shabbat, relishing the tangible sense of connection. We didn’t need anything other than our voices…and one another. It was a transcendent and sacred experience I will always remember.  

We have many tools at our disposal. I celebrate that we are using our phones and computers and so much more to sustain and even deepen our communities during this most challenging time. Let us continue to have the flexibility and openness to learn how to use all of the tools that we can.  

When we see these technologies as tools that help us create sacred experiences and sustain holy connections, we strengthen our communities.  If this moment is indeed part of the beginning of the next era in how the Jewish community functions, we can be part of a bright future. We have all that we need to come through this time stronger and closer than ever before: we are in this together.


Rabbi Stein is the senior rabbi of Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, New York and an adjunct faculty member at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. He is the outgoing Dues Chair for the CCAR and the Vice Chair of the CCAR Convention Committee.

Categories
CCAR Convention Torah

Baltimore Beit Midrash: Learning From the Greatest Scholars of Our Generation at CCAR Convention 2020

I look forward to the CCAR Convention each year. There are many different facets that I enjoy, including the opportunity to study with colleagues that I’ve known for many years and colleagues that I meet for the first time.  In the rabbinic imagination, there are seventy faces to Torah, and inevitably, I come home from Convention each year having learned a new text or a new insight into a familiar text.

This year, our study at Convention will include a remarkable opportunity. We have assembled some of the greatest scholars of our generation—including Andrea Weiss, David Ellenson, Michael Marmur, Lisa Grant, Elsie Stern, Amy Scheinerman, and Joseph Skloot—to lead us in a beit midrash. The beit midrash, or study hall, will begin our day with a foundation of significant learning. The texts and ideas that will be presented will provide us with a lens for the entire day to come.

So many of us have a commitment to lifelong learning as a foundation of our rabbinic leadership. We create opportunities in our home communities for learning, and in order to sustain this, we need to continue our own learning. Our professors, who will each teach a personal passion with topics ranging from sacred texts of the Second Temple era to understanding Jewish identity in modern times, will provide us with intellectual and spiritual renewal.

I believe that most of us can remember our favorite teachers, from whatever part of our educational career. These teachers cared for us deeply, helped us identify and pursue our potential, and provided us with knowledge and skills that continue to sustain us.

Our beit midrash teachers at Convention have approached this opportunity with exactly these high aspirations. They believe in us as rabbis, they hope to share with us in ways that allow us to flourish, and they are prepared to give us knowledge and scholarly insight that will stay with us when we return home from Convention.

It has been a blessing to work on this particular aspect of our Baltimore program. Without fail, each scholar was filled with excitement, and sought to identify topics that would be inspirational, interesting, and engaging.  I look forward to seeing many of you as we turn the halls of the Renaissance Hotel into a timeless beit midrash!


Rabbi Peter Stein is the senior rabbi of Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, New York and a member of the 2020 CCAR Convention Committee.

CCAR Convention 2020 will be held in Baltimore, March 22-25, 2020. CCAR members can register here.

Categories
Convention

Anticipating Cincinnati 2019

Several of my fellow Convention Committee members have offered reflections in this space about the upcoming convention. I join them in looking forward to the opportunity for professional development and personal growth.

The CCAR convention was held in Jerusalem during my HUC-JIR Year in Israel. There are two things that I vividly remember from that gathering. First, we had the opportunity to participate in the programs with many of the major speakers, including Prime Minister Rabin. Second, I was amazed and uplifted by seeing so many of my rabbis in one place at one time, and to see the love and enthusiasm they offered to one another.

Our conventions are special because they allow us to be together, in person and away from the demands of our daily lives. Yes, there may be a temptation to brag or to only share in superficial ways, but I believe that our conventions provide us with an important chance to open up to one another. The power of coming to Cincinnati this spring lies in the chance to find support in facing our stresses. I have learned over the years that while I can certainly talk about my successes when I see colleagues at Convention, it is much more gratifying and beneficial when I open up and share about my struggles. The time we have together at convention is a unique opportunity to be with people with extraordinary talents, great wisdom, and a definite understanding of what we face in living and working as rabbis.

Yes, there will be several impressive keynote speakers at CCAR 2019. There will undoubtedly be lots of chances to celebrate together. However, what I look forward to most is the chance to bring the fullness of my life and my rabbinate to share with our colleagues, and to find the support, inspiration, and comfort that allows me to recharge and return home renewed in confronting the demands that lie ahead.

Rabbi Peter W. Stein serves Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, NY.  Click here to register now for CCAR Convention 2019.

Categories
Convention

Get Yourself a Teacher, Find Someone to Study with, and Judge Everyone Favorably

I will always remember my very first CCAR convention.  I was a first year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, and the 1995 convention was held there.  The students were included in many of the programs and the learning and the camaraderie were very special.

I certainly cherish the memory of meeting Prime Minister Rabin and other important Israeli officials and scholars.  However, what stood out for me in that moment was the experience of having so many of my teachers and mentors in one room…and then being introduced to their teachers and mentors!

I have been blessed with wonderful role models, rabbis who nurtured me formally and informally, in congregations and in classrooms.  I remember the first rabbi I ever saw in blue jeans, the first rabbi who invited me for a meal, and the first rabbi who opened my eyes to the wonders of Mishnah.  I remember the rabbis who held my children as newborns in their Brit ceremonies  and the rabbis who held me close over these last months as I became a mourner.  I believe our Conference is stronger because we are a multi-generational web of teachers who lift one another up through all of life’s challenges and joys.

At our conventions, there are extraordinary opportunities to connect with those who are already or can become our personal rabbis.  In Orange County, we will have the chance to study with several of HUC-JIR’s finest professors.  Every time I attend convention, I always seek out these opportunities, to study text with great scholars, simply for the joy of learning.

Our conventions give us the chance to learn face to face with great teachers and side by side with old classmates and new friends.  This face to face experience is precious.  As much as we can try and stay connected over the phone and through the computer, I believe there is always something limiting about those interactions.  Come to Orange County, and sit in our very own Beit Midrash, able to learn both from the texts and the people.

As we learn in Pirke Avot 1:6, “Get yourself a teacher, find someone to study with, and judge everyone favorably.”

We are blessed to be part of a conference of colleagues, each one of us eager to study and to teach.  When we gather at convention, our experiences together will help us to see the good and the hopeful in the world all around us.  Join me in Orange County!

Rabbi Peter W. Stein serves Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, NY.  He is a member of the CCAR Convention Committee and also serves as CCAR Dues Chairperson.

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Rabbis Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Marching toward a World of Justice

Rabbi Tarfon taught: “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it.”

What is the work we are called to do?  Along with nearly two hundred of my colleagues, I was honored to participate in America’s Journey for Justice.  Along with Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker of Minnesota, I walked the last leg in Alabama, ending the day by crossing over into Georgia.

That particular day, moving from state to state, gave us the opportunity to reflect on the significance and meaning of what the name “United States of America” stands for. Is there equal opportunity throughout our country?  Are we united in ending racism and discrimination?  In particular, I was moved by talking to the men in the group who, like me, are fathers.  What are the realities for their children, when they go to school and when they drive down the road, when they go to the ballot box and when they seek employment?  It was an exciting moment to reach the end of the long day’s walk and cross over from state to state.  The moment of celebration was tempered, however, by what I see as a central aspect of this walk: the desire to create equality and justice all throughout our land.

That particular day was also a Friday, which meant we ended the day by welcoming Shabbat.  We sang Shalom Aleichem and imagined the angels that would accompany us on the journey towards peace.  We made Kiddush together, and celebrated its message that God brought us forth from bondage: and now that we were taking these actions to move our country from oppression to opportunity.  We tore open the rich white braids of the challah and taught our new friends that Judaism’s sacred teachings command us to journey for justice.

In Deuteronomy Rabbah, we read, “R. Joshua ben Levi said: When a man walks on the highway, a company of angels goes before him announcing: ‘Make way for the image of the Holy One, blessed be He.’”

This journey from Selma to Washington is sacred, and God is present in every step down those country highways.  We answered hateful cries with songs of peace.  We met ignorance and bigotry with love and dignity.  We shared stories of vulnerability and fear and we shared hopes and dreams.

And we did it all carrying a Torah scroll, proudly, alongside the American flag.  Torah, which begins with the story of creation, because we are all responsible for one another.

During the weeks of this journey, the scroll will be in places where it has never been seen before.  May its wisdom and beauty and its clarion call to pursue justice inspire all those on the journey.  We may not complete the work, but when the Journey reaches its destination, may we be ever closer to a world of Justice.

Rabbi Peter W. Stein serves Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, NY.  

This blog was originally posted on the RAC’s Blog.