Things are beginning to change in our congregation. If you have come to our services recently, you may have noticed a different kind of energy on the bimah, different orders of prayers and blessings, different kinds of teachings and formats. All of these changes reflect some fundamental values that guide our new vision: Truth, compassion, Halakhah, respect for our traditions, Justice, and the Torah that can be found everywhere. When I think about synagogue life, I am guided by an over-arching concern about community. When people come to services at Adas Israel, I want everyone to be struck by a palpable feeling of belonging, of being welcomed, of sensing that we’re a part of something powerful and transformational and loving. I want people to feel like they have come home to something that is familiar and joyful, even if they have never been to our synagogue before. Anyone who enters this building--from ‘regulars’ to new-comers--can always be greeted with warmth and a smile. My goal is that when anyone takes a seat in any of our services or minyanim, he or she feels welcomed and not alienated. This means that our services are marked by a feeling of openness and acceptance, with an energy that is up-beat, spiritually engaging, and participatory. Our teachings and discussions must continue to be on a high intellectual level as befits our community. But I also want us to be open to experiences that are emotionally moving and inspirational. I favor services that can even be playful: now it’s dignified, now intellectually engaging, now fun and musical, now serious, now spiritually uplifting, now challenging, now filled with laughter and joy.
Since I believe that everything that happens in synagogue is about the community, I relish coming to synagogue on Shabbat and holidays not entirely sure what’s going to happen! I don’t mean to suggest that I arrive unprepared. I mean that the community itself will reveal its Torah to me. Every day, every moment that we’re together can reveal a new way to relate to and engage one another. The community itself will chart the tone and feeling of our services and experiences. Sometimes the community wants more intellectual challenges, sometimes more spiritual insight. My goal, together with the other clergy, is to hold onto a sense of spontaneity and responsiveness to where we are right now.
With all of this in mind, my job is to create the proper conditions where this joyful, textured, and participatory kind of experience can be possible. Together with the Religious Practices Committee, I have already instituted some changes in the way services are conducted in the Charles E. Smith Sanctuary service, particularly when bnai mitzvah are celebrated. I am a big believer in the wisdom of the time-honored flow of our services. When we simply let the prayers flow in the way they are laid out in the siddur, with minimal interruptions except at ‘teachable moments’ and moments of natural breaks in the service, this sense of a relaxed, natural spontaneity and engaged community participation can arise together with the ebb and flow of the prayers themselves. So, for example, bnai mitzvah parents present their children with their tallit and bestow blessings over their children at such natural break-points at the beginning and end of our Shabbat services. I often walk off the bimah and present teachings standing on the same level as the congregation. This may seem unusual at first. I am deliberately working to overturn the conventional understanding of the bimah as the only place where ritual happens, where the congregation is like an ‘audience’ watching a ‘performance’ on the bimah. By teaching on the same level as the congregation, I’m working to communicate the opposite message: that what happens in our services is not about the clergy on the bimah, it’s all about the community itself. I like to use the analogy of an orchestra when thinking about the relationship between a bimah and the congregation. It’s not that the congregation is the ‘audience’ to the bimah. Rather, we, the clergy on the bimah, are the ‘conductors’ of the ‘orchestra,’ which is everyone in the seats of the congregation. You are the music. You are show, the main attraction. We on the bimah are here to celebrate you, to guide you to discover the meaning and Torah that you already are, and to remind you that you have a spirit and a connection to heritage that is worth celebrating!
Change isn’t easy. It takes time, and it must be handled judiciously and sensitively. Most importantly, change has to be handled with a willingness to be flexible, to try new things, and to let go of old ways that don’t properly serve us any longer. As the rabbi, I, in turn, have to be flexible and willing to listen and to be responsive. Ultimately, I hope that we can be the kind of community that is always willing to try new approaches and experiences, so that we can continue to evolve throughout the years to meet the changing needs of our community. We can be brave and open-hearted enough to try some ideas that might not work, and to let them fail if necessary. This process can make way for new approaches that can work even better for our community. It really is an exciting time for us in our congregation. So long as we remember that everything we do is about the community itself, we can continue to grow together and stay healthy and vibrant for generations to come.