Categories
Technology

From Star Trek to Paper T’filah: “Live Long and Prosper”

Logical. Unemotional. Alien. As Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek television series, Leonard Nimoy found himself trying to bring depth and detail to a character that hadn’t yet been fully fleshed out; it was up to Nimoy to contribute much of what made Spock who he was—including the famous “Vulcan salute.”

Nimoy said that one day on the set, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry asked him to come up with a greeting to use when meeting the Vulcan matriarch, and into his head popped an image of the chazan in his childhood shul giving the “priestly benediction.” And with that, this ancient Jewish hand gesture was introduced to the world.

It’s the blessing by which Aaron blessed the people, the blessing that kohanim still say over worshippers in synagogues today, and it’s the blessing that my wife says over our children every Shabbat (and yes, she does the thing with her hands). “May God bless you and keep you,” she recites. “May God deal kindly with you, and be gracious to you. May God’s face shine upon you, and grant you peace.”

I’ve always connected to the Vulcan salute and the words that accompany it (“Live Long and Prosper”). Perhaps it’s because it seemed so obviously (to me) Jewish, and yet slipped under the radar of my non-Jewish friends. Whatever the reason, I used it to structure my papercut, “Live Long and Prosper,” which I made with cut-up Star Trek comic books.

Yeah, cut-up comic books. For those of you who missed my last post, that’s what I do: I incorporate cut-up comic books into my work, drawing parallels between comic book mythologies and religious traditions. So within the delicate cutaway panels of my “Live Long and Prosper” papercut can be found images of Nimoy as Spock giving the Vulcan salute, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and the beauty of comic book outer space. I also included parts of a chumash that had been headed for the g’nizah for ritual burial: words of the priestly blessing in Hebrew and English, side-by-side with the Spock and his crewmates.

The image is a representation of blessing and strength, and I’ve made it the starting point for the Paper T’filah Visual T’filah I designed for the CCAR. It’s my intention to anchor this visual liturgy in an image both immediately familiar, for multiple reasons–a mix of reverence and amusement, and a statement of intent: this service will boldly go where no one has gone before … and I hope you’ll go there with me.

My wife and I have made “Paper T’filah” an element of the “Paper Midrash” residencies that we lead around the country: worship and study and papercutting workshops that bring together contemporary art, pop culture, and scholarship. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, and I couldn’t be more proud to have brought something new to their worship experience.

Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik is a Jewish artist living in Southern California. He cuts up comic books and reassembles them into work made of clean lines and patterns, sinuous shapes and sharp edges, large fields of color and small intimate spaces.

Click here to view a sample of Paper T’filah by Visual T’filah. It is now available for purchase on the CCAR Press website. For more information on how you can bring Paper Midrash to your community, email Isaac or visit his website.

Categories
High Holy Days Prayer

On the Same Page

How to get 6000+ people on the same page for a service? When we started Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars more than a decade ago, we didn’t even know this was an important question to address.

Laura Black, a decades-long member of the congregation, mentioned her idea to Cantor Judi Rowland while both were working out at the gym. She told Judi that while her adult children had no interest in joining her for our ‘regular’ services, she thought that she could persuade them if we would hold a service outside somewhere, maybe in a park. We were taken with the idea as Cantor Rowland, Rabbi Rex Perlmeter and I thought about the possibilities for engagement and outreach.  We began plans to take our ‘Alternative/Family’ service out of the social hall and into Oregon Ridge Park where the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra regularly holds their summer concert series.

As we concocted that first RHUS, we had a couple of principles in mind that still hold 11 years later. We wanted the service to be free, open to the public, accessible and warm. We wanted people to know that even though they would be welcome wearing shorts, eating picnics, not shushing their kids, that this would be a service and not an “event.” For that first year, our clergy team put together a small service booklet and ambitiously printed double the number of attendees we expected. “If 500 people show up,” we thought, “that will be incredible!”  When that first Erev Rosh Hashanah arrived, we found that we had over 1500 in our remarkable congregation.

During the second and third year’s planning meetings, I fretted that many of those booklets had not returned to us. I was concerned about the potential chilul of where those booklets might have ended up and about the environmental waste of resources that would not be re-used and possibly not recycled. I wanted to revise some of the language we had chosen, but didn’t want to get rid of all the books we still had on hand. Some time between the third and fifth year I encountered Visual T’filah at a convention. At first I was wary – prayers projected on a huge screen felt too ‘megachurchy,’ too ‘non-Jewish’ for all the obvious reasons. But I also found the pictures accompanying prayers engaging and the images added intriguing layers of meaning.

I reached out to Rabbi Dan Medwin, Visual T’filah’s creator, and gathered a small group of smart and creative congregants. We studied the Erev Rosh Hashanah service and decided on imagery. One offered his own photography, another her own artwork. We went through revisions with Dan and finalized a beautiful prayer book that would be displayed on a jumbo screen flanking the band shell transformed into a bima.  In 2011 Visual T’filah became the prayer book of RHUS. In the years that followed, we were able to change translations, swap songs and add or remove images without any of the attendant waste. After a year or two, as ipads and smart phones became ubiquitous, we wanted people to have the option of downloading the service in advance. This felt especially important for the attendees toward the back of the ever-growing crowd. Dan devised and revised the download process so that attendees could have it in hand or watch it on the big screen.

Who knows what alchemy has allowed RHUS to grow to over 6000 attendees in the decade+ of its existence? We now have two jumbo screens as well as banks of enormous speakers. There are families whose children have never known an Erev Rosh Hashana without Visual T’filah, lawn chairs, and fantastically vibrant community. BHC members come together with unaffiliated Jews, folks who belong to other Reform, Conservative and even Orthodox congregations in Baltimore, Washington DC, Virginia, and Pennsylvania and a handful of non-Jews who just want to share in the celebration of a New Year with us. It is truly a blessing to have 6000+ people together on the same jumbo page, if only for one service a year.

Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen is one of the rabbis at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation where she has served for 14 years.

Categories
Technology

Circular Rainbows, Fractals, and Spiritual Technology

“Renew the old and sanctify the new.”  – Rav Abraham Isaac Kook

The thoughtful use of technology can enhance Jewish spiritual practice and engagement. This summer, I was privileged to witness and facilitate a few exceptional examples of this while serving as faculty at the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy.  At this overnight summer camp, currently celebrating its 4th year, campers and staff utilize science and technology as tools to strengthen Jewish identities, develop Jewish community, and enrich Jewish practice.

One Shabbat afternoon during an all-camp picnic, electrified chatter began to spread through the community. Campers and staff excitedly pointed to the sky.  I ran out from under one of the large oak trees shading the main lawn to witness a sun halo, or circular rainbow surrounding the sun.  Many exclaimed they had never seen such a marvel, let alone known that something like this was possible.  After capturing a quick photo (which will be published in PopSci), I ran over to the mic.

Fortunately, I have the CCAR Daily Blessings app on my phone, which contains, among others, the blessing recited upon seeing a rainbow.  After giving a short explanation of the importance of rainbows in Jewish tradition, I was able to lead everyone in the blessing.  This unexpected experience was enhanced and transformed into a Jewish teachable moment by technology, which allows us to access innumerable resources at a moment’s notice.

Even the more traditionally routine moments of Jewish practice at camp are enhanced by the spiritual use of technology.  Each Friday night, we pray together using a Visual T’filah that contains videos of campers sharing their thoughts on the week’s scientifically-focused Jewish value. (This week was kesher, connection.)  Campers who might otherwise be too shy or nervous to get up on stage are able to share their thoughts, and to marvel at their larger-than-life participation in Shabbat services.  Because the camp utilizes a Visual T’filah Template, the director of Jewish life (a self-declared novice at PowerPoint) is able to easily refresh and expand the Visual T’filah each Shabbat, even when I’m not there.  Visual T’filah, like the other spiritual technologies I help develop at the CCAR, offers new opportunities for engagement and meaning in Jewish practice.

Perhaps my most impactful contribution to camp this summer, however, was the short teaching I gave during Boker Big Bang (the morning ceremony during which a blessing from Nissim b’chol yom is studied, and, using chemistry, something is blown up).  Our blessing for the day was “she-asahni b’tzelem Elohim,” who has made me in the image of God.  I explained to the campers that I especially enjoy using scientific metaphors to help myself and others understand God.  This is, in part, because when I was their age, as a scientifically-minded youth, I had trouble believing in a god for which there was no tangible proof.  It was my awareness that someday I might believe in God that kept me involved in Jewish life long enough to recognize that even the early rabbis needed metaphors to try to understand God.  God as a king or ruler, one of our most popular metaphors, may have worked for them back then, but did little to aid my understanding of God in modern times.

 

One of my favorite metaphors for God imagines God as wifi. It surrounds us and with the right tools we can connect to it, each other, and the rest of the world.  Another metaphor I love is God as computer programmer.  In the same way that computer code can be used to create entire universes through 1s and 0s, I imagine God creating the world with 1s, 0s, and -1s (i.e. protons, neutrons, and electrons).  Finding a scientific metaphor to understand the notion of b’tzelem Elohim (humans being created in the image of God), however, was always out of reach.  Last year, a rabbinic colleague, who is also my wife, gave me the metaphor for which I had been searching.  After waiting more than half the year, I was finally able to share this metaphor with the campers at the URJ 6 Points Sci-tech summer camp.

The metaphor, which perfectly expresses how we were made in the image of God, how we are a part of God but separate, and how we are all connected to each other through God, is: Fractals!  In these complex images, elements are repeated on such a scale, that zooming in reveals that each smaller section looks equivalent to its larger counterpart, and each part is unique but still connected to and a part of the whole. This metaphor clearly had an impact because later that day, a camper in a coding workshop decided to write his own program that would draw a fractal. Another camper expressed that during my talk she felt as though I was speaking directly to her.

While these campers and counselors might be more naturally drawn to scientific metaphors and technological tools, they represent an important path of the future of the Jewish people and the trajectory of contemporary society.  And while some of us may find technological tools only applicable in work settings, or to be a distraction from certain aspects of life, intentionally integrating these tools into our spiritual practice can breathe new life into Judaism and usher in a new age where religion and technology are not seen as at odds with one another but, rather, as mutually beneficial.

Rabbi Dan Medwin is the creator of Visual T’filah and the Daily Blessing app as the Manager of Digital Media for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He also serves as a founding member of the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy Camp Council.

Categories
Books Technology

High-Tech & High-Touch Visual T’filah at URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy

A camp that blends Reform Jewish values with science and technology is practically a dream-come-true for me.  It only makes sense that as the Digital Media Manager of the CCAR, I should spend a week there on faculty.  I can confidently say that both the camp and I grew from the experience. I had conversations about apps & ebooks, Minecraft & Star Wars, and even gave a drash on how God is like wifi. But perhaps the most exciting part of my visit was spending time working with campers and staff to create the Visual T’filah for Shabbat services.dan 2

At the end of services, the camp director, Greg Kellner, climbed the steps to the bimah to address the community. I could see that he had been moved to tears.  When he asked all of the campers who played a role in creating the Visual T’filah to rise, we were all taken aback when roughly half the camp stood.  “I can’t believe so many of you helped create this Visual T’filah,” he exclaimed. “And I can’t believe how beautiful it is!”  Whether they explored camp taking pictures in the “Spiritual Photography” chug (elective) or we recorded a video of them explaining their own Jewish evolution, these campers were meaningfully engaged in crafting the payer service for all of camp.  And they were proud!

While Visual T’filah has already become a regular part of the Sci-Tech camp experience, I was fortunate to be able to bring my decade of experience creating Visual T’filah to raise the production and design to new levels.  The hardworking camp educator, HUC-JIR rabbinic student Rachel Heaps, has dodan 1ne amazing work so far. However, the finite amount of time she is able to dedicate to creating the Visual T’filah each week, given her other responsibilities around camp, meant that her scope was limited.  Now with the introduction of the CCAR Visual T’filah Template (which includes the text of Mishkan T’filah prepared and formatted for the big screen) as well as a few other stylistic and design upgrades, her task will be much easier each week.

I was also blessed to be able to utilize some of the special camp resources to explore some new techniques.  Campers were filmed in front of one of the camp’s green screens, allowing the campers to appear to be standing in front of the beautiful images taken by the campers in “Spiritual Photography.”  Campers faded in and out in succession to tell how their relationship to Judaism has been enhanced by rabbis, by camp, and by other people and events. Then as the last camper in each video group faded out, the prayers themselves appeared floating over the images selected to convey the meaning and spirit of the prayers.  The result was a seamless prayer experience, greater than the sum of its parts.

It is my great pleasure to experience and demonstrate how the use of Visual T’filah can increase engagement and participation, and play an important role in crafting a meaningful prayer experience.  To be able to offer my time and expertise to enhance a community’s prayer life is really a gift.  I look forward to seeing how the continued use of Visual T’filah at Sci-Tech engages and inspires the campers, and how Visual T’filah can continue to transform prayer in other communities as well.

Rabbi Dan Medwin is the Digital Media Manager at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  Check out his blog from last year’s camp as well

Categories
Books General CCAR Passover Pesach Technology

Post-Pesach Blog: Zero-Based Seder Leading with Sharing the Journey Haggadah

Passover might be over, but it’s not too late (or too early…) to look back and start to bank ideas for next year.  Rabbi Eddie Goldberg shares thoughts from his seder experience. 

Recently a stressed-out father asked me what haggadah would be best for a family with youngish children.  I was happy to recommend Sharing the Journey (CCAR Press), by Alan S. Yoffie and illustrated by Mark Podwal. But I reminded the dad that the haggadah does not a good seder make, by itself.  The more important question is not which haggadah but what is one trying to accomplish.  Indeed, a case in Chicago could be made for taking the children to Lake Shore Drive and asking them to imagine reaching a large body of water with a hostile army in pursuit.  What would they do?

Nevertheless, due to Chicago weather (it was snowing during the seder) and inconvenient rules involving religious rituals on state beaches, the seder we conducted last night was a close second to being the most authentic Pesach moment for the eleven of us, mostly cousins, who shared a seder for the first time ever or, if not, then in about thirty-five years.

In preparing for the seder I knew that the new haggadah would serve us well with its respect for tradition, beautiful appearance, transliteration (mostly) and contemporary spin.  I also spend a lot of time on a Power Point (or Keynote) component.  (I even have a version of the new haggadah on my iPad.)  Although I found the Visual Tefilah Haggadah supplement well done, I chose after considerable thought to use instead my own, which does not follow the new haggadah so much as provide a midrashic complement to it.  In general I see electronic tefilah (or seders) as an enrichment and not mirroring of the worship or ritual experience.

I am glad to report that, due in some measure to my efforts and the invaluable help of my 23-year old USC computer science grad, the seder came off without a hitch.  The incredible culinary talents and warmth of my wife did not hurt either.  It was great presenting a seder experience to contemporaries who thought that Maxwell House equaled the tip-top of haggadah offerings.  We also had a nine-year old cousin who had never attended a seder before.  She entered visibly scared and annoyed and left the star of the seder and having asked all the right questions and more!

Tonight the seder will be presented at our congregation with the new haggadot.  I know the food and atmosphere will not be able to  match last night’s efforts but I am delighted that, if we succeed, the haggadah will have proven its worth once again as a sacred component of an evergreen evening.

RabbiGoldbergSeder-2014

Edwin Goldberg, D.H.L., is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago and is one of the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR machzor.

Categories
Books Passover Pesach Rabbis Reform Judaism Technology

Pesach Blog: Why is this Haggadah different from all other Haggadot?

VT1Purim is over so Pesach is not far away.  My congregation has the new CCAR Haggadah (Sharing the Journey) set and ready to go for a second night congregational seder.  Choosing a haggadah was the easy part in that the new Yoffie/Podwal is beautifully done and user friendly.  The challenge is creating an experience at a community seder that feels authentic and participatory.  I am planning to use Visual T’filah and group singing to help create community as well as engage participants.  I can also plan some shtick.

Fortunately there is much more that this new haggadah offers.  For instance, one can choose to buy on iTunes an electronic version of Sharing the Journey.  Why bother?  I decided to try it myself.  This is what I discovered:

STJ3First, it is very cool that I can tap on a song in the e-book and the melody is sung.  Think how nervous or musically challenged seder leaders now have support at their very fingers.  There are even choices between different melodies, say, for the four questions.  In addition, there are interactive things to do with the e-book that will make the seder more fun for a child.  If that were not enough, there are also notes for leaders that are accessed by tapping on a leader’s guide icon.  I am sure there is more to discover as I explore the interactive book.  (Btw, I foresee a revamped MT iPad tool that offers instructive tips and spiritual iyonim with a timely click.)

I will definitely use my iPad edition to lead my seder, and model it for others.  I don’t suppose the CCAR will have a Haggadah iPad Case by April so I will most likely go with my official Mishkan T’filah case.  But one can dream!

Edwin Goldberg, D.H.L., is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago.

Categories
Books Passover Pesach Prayer Technology

Passover Blog: Using Visual T’filah at Your Seder

Mah Nishtana halaila hazeh?  What makes this seder different from all others? 

For many families and synagogues this year, it will be seeing the haggadah in a new light.  This year, the CCAR Press is excited to offer a Visual Tfilah companion to Sharing the Journey: The  Hagaddah for the Contemporary Family

Dan1Visual Tfilah, grounded in historical Jewish practices and built on modern technologies, mingles text and images on the large screen for all to enjoy. The images help give deeper meaning and connection to the ancient words, and the words up on the screen allow us to lift our eyes, our voices, and our hands. Visual Tfilah has become a popular way to enhance prayer services, and now it can enhance our Pesach seders, as well.

One of my favorite things on Pesach is to open the (printed) haggadah and see wine stains and crumbs from seders past.  It reminds me that in this ever-changing world, some things stay comfortably the same.  Its the same story we retell year after year.  The same rituals.  And yet, Im always excited to see what new materials, readings, and activities the seder leader will bring to the table.  While the story of redemption and freedom never changes, we are always changing, and finding new ways of reconnecting to the same story is essential to keeping the messages relevant and engaging.  The haggadah, after all, at its core, is meant to inspire us to ask questions.

Dan2A few years ago, a number of colleagues and friends participated in Tweet the Exodus.  Not only was it amazing to see the story told in 140 character segments, but some of the tweets contained links to exciting multi-media resources to tell the story.  A particular favorite of mine was a Youtube video of a family caught in their car surrounded by a massive locust swarm. (http://youtu.be/wxHOxCmbs-8). It was terrifying and awe-inspiring, and helped me understand better than anything else what it might have been like to witness this plague.  Can you imagine being able to share some of the other plagues this way? Or what about showing a short clip discussing what scientists have said most recently about the splitting of the Red Sea? You could even show a map tracking the 40 year journey of the Israelites stop by stop. Unfortunately, you cant embed Youtube videos in a printed haggadah.  But you can put them up on a screen.

Dan3And thats what I love about using Visual Tfilah at a seder: you can add new readings, videos, and more to enhance the experience and enrich the story (without creating a handout and adding yet another item to juggle on the table).  You could insert a PollEverywhere (polleverywhere.com) into the Visual Tfilah to ask your participants to vote on their favorite plague or even to pick the closing song.  You could ask participants to record a short skit ahead of time to be shown during the seder.  As long as you have the screen set up, you might even want to Skype in Bubbie who couldnt join you at the seder this year.  In fact, the screen becomes a blank slate for including almost anything you can think of, and the Sharing the Journey Visual Tfilah gives you the framework from which to unleash your creativity.

The nice thing about VT is that it doesnt negate the use of your printed haggadot.  No matter your inclination or comfort level, everyone can be included. Many folks are accustomed to using print haggadot and will be resistant to giving them up.  And anyway, who can deny the fun of being able to flip ahead to count how many pages are left, or even the benefit of being able to linger on a reading or an idea on your own?

Sharing the Journey VT is designed for both large communal seders, as well as smaller in-home seders.  If you dont have your own large built-in screens and projectors, smaller portable ones or even flat screen TVs will work perfectly.  In fact, an iPad and an AppleTV can be the perfect way for the seder leader to lead from her seat.

Sharing the Journey is also available as an ebook for iPads. (ccar.co/journey). One can follow along with the seder, just as in the book, but also find interactive features and embedded audio.  (Please note: we discourage disDan4playing the ebook on a large screen.  It is not designed for this and will be too difficult for seder participants to read.  Conversely, the VT is specifically designed to be projected and read from a distance.)

So while youd never want to spill wine on your iPad, nor get crumbs up on the screen, we hope Visual Tfilah becomes another tradition at your seder table, and a way to help all of us actually return to the table to finish the seder after the meal is served.  Chag sameach!

 
Rabbi Dan Medwin is the
Publishing Technology Manager, CCAR Press.

p.s.: A Seder Leader’s Guide, complete with two CD’s of music, is also available for Sharing the Journey.  In addition, the music can be downloaded from iTunes 

Categories
General CCAR Prayer Rabbis Technology

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).

PaulKipnes1But 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 Contem­porary 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!
Rabbi Paul Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This post originally appeared on his blog, Or Am I?
Categories
CCAR on the Road General CCAR Prayer Rabbis

What Makes for Great Prayer?: Reflections on the NFTY Convention

2013-02-15 20.03.26Last week, I was given a wonderfully challenging task as the CCAR rabbinic staff member at the NFTY Convention:  Take fifty participants from the Youth Engagement Conference and a two-hour prayer lab session, and plan multiple services for about 900 NFTY Convention participants.  While seemingly impossible, I jumped at the opportunity.   After all, we produce Visual T’filah and all the prayer books for the Reform Movement – I could do this!

Working with my colleague Rabbi Noam Katz and Jewish musician Dan Nichols, (and joined by Rabbis Erin Mason and Ana Bonheim) we were tempted to provide a handful of creative service examples (e.g. drumming, yoga, Visual T’filah) and to plan the services as quickly as possible.

But the conference was on youth engagement and simply presenting options and saying “pick one and go plan a service” did not seem to be an appropriate fit – and not consistent with CCAR’s current approach toward engaging people in prayer with many different Visual T’filah options.  It was a lab, after all; we did not want to focus too much on product, but rather the service experience by the NFTYites.

We initiated the YEC prayer lab by asking the participants “what makes for great prayer?”

2013-02-18 09.43.15This conversation was modeled upon a version of Open Space, one of the frameworks for intentional conversations guiding the CCAR convention beginning just a few weeks after NFTY Convention.

YEC participants stood up one at a time and offered to host conversations around a topic of prayer particularly interesting or exciting to them.  Topics included Hebrew in prayer, who is the service leader, using apps & cellphones in services, engaging through multiple intelligences, and more. Rather than utilizing the moment to plan a service, we spent our time talking about great prayer.  The prayer lab participants were fully engaged, far more than if we had simply given them pre-determined service options, and we provided an amazing model for them to bring back to their youth groups.

And it worked! YEC prayer lab participants exclaimed that this was one of the highlights of the conference for them.  One even said, “This is exactly what I needed.”  Even more, the prayer experiences they crafted were some of the best moments of NFTY convention for the participants.  One teenager said in reflection, “This was my first real moment of transcendent prayer.”

As the Youth Engagement professionals gathered at the end of the conference for a debrief and wrap-up, I was asked to summarize our learning and said:  “We often hear that ‘if you build it, they will come.’  If you build a great service or program, the youth with come. But we learned through this prayer experience that ‘if you build it with them, they’ll already be there!”