A Listening Tour weekend in Boulder

26868253500_2dc4d1a770_zThe ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour began in May of 2015 with a weekend in New York, co-hosted by Romemu and by Yeshivat Maharat. (I wrote about that right after it happened -- Sidewalk havdalah.) As it turned out, our final Listening Tour trip took place one year later almost to the day.

Rabbi David, our executive director Shoshanna, and I arrived in Boulder late last Thursday night and went directly to the home of ALEPH Board member Judith Dack, who graciously hosted us for the weekend. On Friday morning, after Rabbi David and I indulged in some early mountainside davening, we went to the campus of Colorado University for a focus group. The Boulder focus group featured rabbis and laypeople and academics, as well as representatives from the CU Boulder Jewish Studies department, the Boulder JCC, and the Denver-based nonprofit organization Judaism Your Way, among others.

27142757465_a58905eb2d_zThat afternoon we toured the new Boulder JCC campus. That wasn't originally on our agenda, but I'm so glad we managed to add it to the day.  The campus is beautifully-designed, and every element of its construction seems thoughtful and well-chosen. While there, we had the opportunity to visit the Reb Zalman room -- a room in the JCC's library that is filled, floor-to-ceiling, with books that had been part of his own home library. It's only a tiny fraction of his rabbinic library, most of which is still in the house where he lived, but it offers a glimpse of who he was through the lens of some of the books he cherished.

After a dinner with the Nevei Kodesh board, we davened on Friday night at Nevei Kodesh with Rabbi Sarah Bracha Gershuny and the house band (which, to my delight, featured not only piano and violin but also standing bass!) I was particularly moved by their choice to set Ahavat Olam, the evening prayer that speaks of God's enduring love for us, to the melody of the love song "Erev shel shoshanim"... and by the fact that before counting the Omer, we sang "Bati l'gani," Reb Zalman z"l's setting of verses from Song of Songs.

We davened on Shabbat morning at Pardes Levavot. The co-rabbis there, Rabbi Victor and Rabbi Nadya Gross, were out of town at a family simcha (joyous occasion), so we experienced a contemplative chant-based service led by a congregant. Here too there were sweet nods to the memory of Reb Zalman z"l -- including the use of his four-part chant "It is perfect / you are loved..." Services were followed by a potluck lunch where we held a Listening Circle, harvesting stories and frustrations and hopes from members of that community.

27058465342_0e42083932_zDuring the afternoon, Rabbi David and Shoshanna and I went to Reb Zalman's kever (gravesite.) I was moved to see -- and to add to -- the collection of pebbles and small precious items that people have left on and around the headstone. We davened mincha (the afternoon service) there on the grass beside his stone. Then we sat for a long time and talked about Reb Zalman and about our own hopes and dreams for what the future of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal might be.

Late in the day we met with the board of directors of the Yesod Foundation. It was a pleasure to be able to thank them for everything they did to uplift Reb Zalman and his work, including establishing the Reb Zalman Legacy Project, and to talk with them about what their future might hold. That was followed by a potluck dinner at Nevei Kodesh, which was in turn followed by a poetry reading. I shared poems from Toward Sinai and from Open My Lips -- poems for the Omer journey, and poems for the poignant liminal time when Shabbat begins to give way.

After the poetry reading we moved into a community open mike, harvesting yearnings and "ouches" and needs and hopes from the Nevei Kodesh community. That open mike began in a unique way: before we began moderating the conversation as we usually do, everyone in the room took a turn telling us something they hoped we would carry away with us from our time with their community. We wrapped up the night by meeting with Rav Bracha to talk about her community and the Listening Tour and ALEPH and what might come next.

On Sunday we met with Eve Ilsen, a teacher and writer and student of noted mystic Colette Aboulker-Muscat. (She's also the widow of Reb Zalman.) Reb Eve will be teaching with us at Shavuot at Isabella Freedman in a few weeks (sign up now!), and will be teaching at this summer's ALEPH Kallah, too. (You can sign up for that now too.) We spent the morning bringing the Listening Tour to her, receiving her hopes and dreams for the ALEPH that is to come. After a final lunch meeting with Rabbi Tirzah Firestone and David Friedman, we bade Boulder farewell and began the long journey home, grateful to all of our hosts -- and to all who participated in the weekend's conversations -- for opening their homes and their hearts.


Davening with the deer

On our first morning in Colorado, Rabbi David and I are still on east coast time, so we're both awake by five-ish. Around six we tiptoe out of the house where we are staying, get into our rental car, and drive into the foothills. 

The friend (and fellow ALEPH Board member) with whom we are staying lives on a lovely residential street only moments away from the eastern flank of the Front Range of the Rockies. We drive to Flagstaff Mountain to perch at a beautiful overlook called Panorama Point.


A few of our morning companions.

As soon as we arrive, the first thing we see are mule deer. First a pair of does, then a brace of bucks with soft furred nubbly antlers. We freeze and look at them, and they look at us, and for a moment all is still. After a minute or so we start breathing again, and when they don't turn tail and run we murmur joy to each other quietly, and they stay near us and munch on grass.

We daven at the very edge of the world, watching the sun rising higher. We are at the place where the plains meet the Flatirons. This is where east meets west. We're near where the continent divides. Before us is a vista of flat land as far as the eye can see: trees, roads, some residential streets. Immediately behind us the hills rise up, peppered with pine trees. 


More members of our morning minyan.

During the shema, as we are singing the words which remind us to take notice of our tzitzit and be reminded of the mitzvot which connect us up, we are visited by a gleaming green and black hummingbird. The hummingbird hovers near us, rests on a branch briefly, and sips delicately from a nearby flowering bush. Its presence feels like a blessing.

During our silent amidah, which we daven standing at the very edge of the hillside -- I have taken off my sandals, in remembrance of Moshe and the burning bush, and I stand barefoot in the dusty Colorado soil -- a hot air balloon rises at the horizon. By the time we are finished davening, there is a minyan of hot air balloons soaring over the distant plains.


The plains, before the hot air balloons.


Jewish Renewal Listening Tour: off to Boulder

6a00d8341c019953ef01bb0883e9fc970d-320wiToday I'm heading off, with Rabbi David and with our executive director Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin, on the final trip of our yearlong international ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour. The idea for the Listening Tour came to David and me on the plane home from Colorado two Januaries ago when we had just learned that we would be given the opportunity to serve ALEPH and Jewish Renewal by taking on a three-year term as co-chairs. It seems fitting that the last physical trip we're taking is back to Boulder.

Our weekend will feature a focus group hosted by the Jewish Studies department of Colorado University - Boulder; a dinner with the board of directors of Congregation Nevei Kodesh; Kabbalat Shabbat at Nevei Kodesh (where Rabbi David will be the darshan, offering a d'var Torah); morning services, followed by a Listening Circle, at Pardes Levavot; a session with the board of directors of Yesod; meetings with other area luminaries, among them Rabbinic Pastor Eve Ilsen; a se'udah shlishit (festive "third meal" of Shabbat) at Nevei Kodesh where I will offer poetry and teaching leading into havdalah and a community Open Mike where we'll harvest hopes, dreams, feedback, "ouches," and yearnings from the broader Jewish Renewal community.

The schedule follows the pattern we've evolved over the last year. We'll have opportunities to daven in different places. We'll have focus groups to harness the voices of longtime Renewalniks as well as those who may be outside of our usual spheres but are doing work which resonates with ours in heart and in spirit. We'll have meetings over meals, and an open mike where we will curate a broad community conversation. In these structural ways I expect this weekend to be parallel to the other Listening Tour Shabbatonim we've done across North America -- from Boston to Vancouver, from New York to San Francisco.  And, of course, we'll bring the same questions, and the same open-hearted readiness to listen, as we've brought everywhere we have gone.

In other ways, I know this weekend will be unique. Every place we visit has its own ta'am, its own flavor, its own way of doing and being Renewal. And Boulder is infused with a special kind of Jewish Renewal history and energy because it's where Reb Zalman (z"l / of blessed memory) lived for the last many years of his life. Maybe because it was Reb Zalman's last home, Boulder has special importance in the history of Jewish Renewal. Like Boston, Philadelphia and the Bay Area, Boulder is one of the places where Renewal first took root in its current forms.  Boulder too continues to lean forward into the newest iterations of what Jewish Renewal can be and become. CU Boulder is home to the Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi Collection at the Post-Holocaust American Judaism Archive, and we are working toward an ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Archive there as well. 

It's both exciting to be heading to Boulder for these conversations, and a little bit bittersweet to be approaching the end of this year of travel. We've learned so much during this year about the depth and breadth of Jewish Renewal: where we've come from, what we've done well and what we could do better, where people hope we're going next. It's a privilege to hear people's deepest yearnings for a Judaism that will truly nourish and connect them. And this year-long practice of receptive listening, setting aside our own hopes and ouches and visions in order to truly take in the hopes, ouches, and visions of hundreds of others, has been a powerful discipline for me... and I know that the vision for the future that emerges from this adventure will be immeasurably enriched by everything we have heard.

This weekend's trip doesn't mean that we're "done." We still have more focus groups scheduled via videoconferencing, to hear from people in places we haven't been able to visit in person. We're still collecting responses to our Listening Tour questions (find the questions, and an address at which to email us, at the Listening Tour webpage.) We'll spend the summer turning our hundreds of pages of notes into the report we'll issue at Rosh Hashanah to share what we've learned about how y'all understand Jewish Renewal's past and present, and what y'all (and we) hope will emerge in Jewish Renewal's future. And even once the Listening Tour is done, we still hope to travel to Jewish Renewal communities and to continue hearing from you about what you yearn for! But this weekend's trip will be the last official trip of the Listening Tour.

For now: if you're in the Boulder area, we hope to see you, whether davening at Nevei Kodesh or Pardes Levavot or at the havdalah and open mike on Saturday night.

Among the roses

IMG_3662What happens when one visits a rose garden on Shabbat afternoon with a group of rabbis, having already taken part in Shabbat morning services; when one takes menucha (rest / rejuvenation) time to enjoy nature, to enjoy friends, and to sit with the still-resonating experiences of the preceding week? 

One might wind up finding mystical resonance in everything one encounters. Such as, for instance, the realization that this particular rose garden has seven tiers, seven levels to descend and climb.

Seven is a powerful number in Judaism. To a Jewish mystic, seven immediately suggests holiness. There are seven days of the week and seven colors of the rainbow, both of which point to the seven "lower" or most accessible sefirot (which one might understand as aspects or qualities of God, or as channels for divine light.) 

As soon as the seven levels are noticed, the rabbis in question might start skipping from level to level, naming each as they go: this level is chesed, lovingkindness; this one is gevurah, boundaried strength; this one tiferet, balance / harmony... These are the same qualities we mark daily and weekly as we count the Omer. In this rose garden we move from one to the next with only a few steps.

Or take the fact that the very lowest level -- the one that corresponds to malchut or Shekhinah: nobility, sovereignty, immanent Divine Presence, the Divine Feminine, embodiment in creation -- centers around a free-flowing spring. There is a free-flowing spring in the very heart of the garden. This is almost too remarkable a literary allusion to be coincidence.

In the Zohar, one of the foundational works of Jewish mysticism, malchut is compared both to a rose and to a free-flowing spring. And when each of the seven "lower" sefirot are mapped to days of the week, malchut is mapped to Shabbat -- the very day on which this rose garden visit is taking place. 

Long after returning home, those who wandered among the roses might pause and smile, remembering the sweetness of that Shabbat, the delight of finding an inhabitable map of the cosmos in which all paths lead to the well of divine abundance at the heart of all things, and the heady scent of roses in bloom.


With gratitude to the friend who suggested a visit to the Berkeley Rose Garden during a break between open mike conversations on the California swing of the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour. Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.

Article in the Vancouver Independent


Thanks to the Vancouver Jewish Independent for the lovely article about our recent visit to Vancouver as part of the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour! (Though they magically transformed me from a Barenblat into a Rosenblatt.) Here's a taste:

“Every stop on the ALEPH: Jewish Renewal Listening Tour is different, and every one has been amazing in its own way. But I suspect that our weekend in Vancouver may stand out in memory as one of the most memorable experiences in a year-plus of remarkable experiences,” wrote Rabbi Rachel Rosenblatt on her blog, the Velveteen Rabbi...

“When ALEPH decided to go on a listening tour, it initially was to take the pulse of the Jewish Renewal movement, but it has come to mean for us and for stakeholders in the broader renewing of Jewish life so much more than that,” said Markus. “There is a yearning in Jewish life today that reaches through all the denominations … we are seeing a global consciousness arise about the need to reconnect Jews with the heart and soul of tradition, to experience the riches of spiritual life, and to address emerging social and ecological challenges.”

photo - Rabbis David Evan Markus and Rachel Barenblat, co-chairs of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal

Rabbis David Evan Markus and Rachel Barenblat, co-chairs of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. (photo by David Kauffman)

Markus explained that Jewish Renewal has grown organically, and was not created on the basis of strategy or design. “The time has come,” he said, “to introduce an element of design.” How should the Renewal movement take its rightful place in ecosystem of Jewish life? What does Jewish life need now? How to meet the needs of millennials? Summing up, Markus said, “How are we relevant for the 21st century and beyond?”

Read the whole thing: Or Shalom Hosts ALEPH Tour.

An ALEPH Listening Tour week in California

25790244914_d8ecaa678c_zHow can I begin to write about the sum total of ten days of ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour travel? This is our twelfth of thirteen trips over the course of a year. The others were weekends or conferences: deep and intense, but relatively brief. This one lasted for more than a week, and the level of depth and intensity did not falter. 

I began in Las Vegas at a P'nai Tikvah Shabbaton for which I was the visiting scholar. Rabbi David began in San Diego at the Spiritual Directors International conference, connecting with spiritual directors both inside and outside of the Jewish Renewal community, and did a community Listening Tour open mike with Elijah Minyan and Shirat HaYam

We met up in Los Angeles. We did a community open mike there, with a ma'arv service, hosted by Holistic Jew. We met with a focus group at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and with Ziegler's dean Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson. We met with Rabbi Mike Comins of Lev Learning. We met with a focus group from the Academy for Jewish Religion California and talked about interseminary collaboration. We davened on the beach.

We traveled north. We did a dinner and a community open mike at Chadeish Yameinu in Santa Cruz. We had a lunch and a focus group conversation with the Aquarian Minyan. We met up with Rabbi Noa Kushner from The Kitchen, and Jeff Kasowitz and Rabbi Adina Allen from The Jewish Studio Project. We met with a group of millennials and young leaders convened by Hazzan Shulamit Wise Fairman of Kehilla. We met with Rabbi Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun.

26408034396_dc4d38be1c_zWe co-led davenen at Holistic Jew in LA, and participated in leading davenen at Kehilla Community Synagogue. At Kehilla Rabbi David was the darshan -- teacher of Torah -- on Friday evening, and I was the darshanit on Saturday morning. We leyned from Torah on Shabbat morning before a beautiful community babynaming. We spent Shabbat afternoon holding a community open mike session.

We dined with theKehilla Community Synagogue board and the Chochmat Ha-Lev board. We traveled from hither to yon across communities and neighborhoods in the Bay Area. We stopped often to marvel at California's palm trees, blooming roses, sea otters, and vistas where Pacific waves are rolling in to shore. We did a community open mike at Chochmat Ha-Lev, once a Jewish meditation center and now a congregational community of practice. We flew home. 

26369480892_9b059b9258_zThose are the outlines of our itinerary, but they barely scratch the surface of the conversations, the deep sharing, the hopes and dreams articulated, the rebuilding of bridges, the new and renewed connections contained within our week-plus on the road.

Everywhere we go, we hear some things that are unique to the place that we're visiting. No two communities have the same history, the same needs, the same story. And everywhere we go, we hear some things that resonate with things we've heard in other places we've been, which means that the harmonies of common notes are beginning to emerge. I'm beginning to get an idea of what it will be like to begin working on Renewing Renewal, the report that Rabbi David and I intend to offer before Rosh Hashanah. What will be the integration of this fifteen months of traveling, opening our hearts, and listening with all that we are?

25848716563_0c688f9266_z (1)Right now I'm thinking about (what were for me) unexpected similarities between Vancouver and California, and about the West Coast and its general friendliness to innovation. I'm thinking about how deliciously different is the davenen at each of these Jewish Renewal communities -- and also about what makes the davenen feel similar in heart and spirit even when it takes different forms.

The Bay Area has a unique Jewish Renewal history, and I'm fascinated to see that some of the spectrum of differences spanned within ALEPH writ large is also spanned within the Jewish Renewal communities of the San Francisco Bay Area. I love this evidence of Jewish Renewal's multivocality.

We have one more Listening Tour trip to go: the Denver / Boulder area in late May. We have online focus groups scheduled with states and countries we couldn't manage to reach in person. We're always receiving emails in response to our big questions about what you hope the future of Jewish Renewal will be. And as we move into summer, the Listening Tour will reach its conclusion and we'll dive into synthesizing what we've heard -- though of course the holy work of listening will always be part of our service as co-chairs, even when the formal tour is complete.

26198300790_2d9b2e44f5_z (1)It's humbling to hear people's deepest yearnings for Judaism and for spiritual life. And it's awesome to have an opportunity to serve an organization that I think can bring those yearnings to fruition.

Special gratitude is due to Rabbi Diane Elliot of Embodying Spirit, Enspiriting Body and Rabbi David Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue for facilitating our connections with various branches of the Bay Area Jewish Renewal community.

Photos from top to bottom: us with dean Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson from Ziegler; with an Aquarian Minyan focus group; with a focus group of young leaders convened by Kehilla Community Synagogue; at Chochmat Ha-Lev. These photos and many others are in my California Listening Tour flickr photoset.

Taking the leap: on spiritual housecleaning, the ALEPH Listening Tour, and making God's Presence real

(A Listening Tour d'var Torah for Shabbat HaGadol and Shabbat Metzora at Kehilla Community Synagogue)


Shabbat Shalom.  I come bearing perhaps surprising news: Pesach is almost upon us. This is Shabbat haGadol, the "Great Shabbat" immediately before Passover. Traditionally, as Reb David mentioned last night, this is the day when rabbis are supposed to give sermons about preparations for Pesach.

Preparations for Pesach take many forms. For some of us this is a season of intensive physical house-cleaning, when we strive to remove every crumb of חמץ / hametz (leaven) from our homes. For many of us, this is a season of intensive spiritual house-cleaning, when we strive to clear the spiritual hametz from our hearts so that we may walk ever more upright into a future of renewal opening right before us. I don't much enjoy the physical housecleaning, but the spiritual housecleaning is my idea of a good time. I love that our tradition gives us this opportunity for reflection as Pesach draws near.

If I believed in coincidences, maybe I’d believe that our visit to Kehilla for the ALEPH Listening Tour just happened to coincide with this season of renewal.  But I think it's no coincidence that our time with you here, in this city which is one of Jewish Renewal's beating hearts, comes at this sacred season.

We set out on this year of listening to invite self-reflection – and reflection by all who care about ALEPH and Jewish Renewal -- about where our movement came from, where it's been, and where we might want to take it next.  We did so knowing that a future of renewal, all that this movement can be, is starting to open right before us -- and also knowing that it wasn’t yet clear what that future would be or how we’d get there.  There’s a certain leap of faith that we’re all taking -- being here in such a self-reflective way, visioning a future perhaps difficult to see, making ourselves vulnerable to the truths of what needs fixing, and going forward before our plans are ready.

In a nutshell, that’s the story of Passover -- going before we’re ready, not yet knowing how or where, trusting the way forward for transformation and renewal, and taking a leap of faith not despite not-knowing but precisely into the not-knowing.

Our people have done this before.  Our ancestors left a familiar enslavement with no idea where God would take them or how their lives might unfold. With the Exodus we reboot the story of Jewish peoplehood, the story of becoming who we most deeply are. Each year we're called to rededicate ourselves to taking the risk of leaving enslavement and choosing to become.

That's exactly the spiritual challenge that Jewish Renewal places in front of us. Are we willing to take the risk of reshaping Judaism so that it truly speaks to this moment of such profound social, generational and planetary change? Are we willing to take the risk of co-creating that kind of Judaism, risking that we might fail? Reb David and I, and everyone at ALEPH, are taking the risk to trust that your answer is yes. 

Continue reading "Taking the leap: on spiritual housecleaning, the ALEPH Listening Tour, and making God's Presence real" »

Oceanside shacharit

26118979020_91dc1d7b7f_zOne of my dreams, for this week in California, was to manage to daven one morning on the beach. As it turns out, it's only about a block from the friend's house where I've been staying to the edge of the Pacific.

As we walk down to the beach, the sun is shining brightly in a sky of pale robin's-egg blue. As we draw closer to the water, the wind lifts up my featherweight rainbow tallit around me like wings. 

We settle on the sand. Whoever feels moved offers the beginning of a prayer -- either a beloved melody, or the beloved lilt of weekday nusach -- and the rest of us join in. We work our way through the whole matbeah, the ancient ladder of the prayer service.

At the appropriate moment I chime in with part of the Song at the Sea, because -- well, here we are, at the seashore on the cusp of Pesach. Ozi v'zimrat Yah -- "My strength is in Your song..." Next time I sing those words at havdalah they will have a different feel.

Seagulls fly overhead. A sandpiper pecks at the wet sand by the water's edge. Two wetsuit-clad surfers paddle out into the water, and from time to time I see one of them stand and glide a ways in toward shore.

We move in and out of nusach. We have moments of silence which I spend beaming. We sing "Mi Chamocha" to the melody of "Adir Hu," a Pesach song, which evokes years of Passover memories. When we rise into our amidah, our standing prayer, I have a shivery moment of recognition. Recently I had a mental image of a doorframe on the beach at the edge of the sea. Suddenly the sea ahead of us here reminds me of the view through that door.  

We close with "Eli, Eli," a setting of a poem by Hannah Szenes. In English, it can be rendered as "My God, my God, I pray that these things never end: the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of the heart." As we walk away from the beach, the prayer of my heart is a fervent Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.






Four happy daveners, primed now for fabulous morning meetings!

(L to R: me, Rabbi T'mimah Ickovits of Holistic Jew, ALEPH's Rosh Hashpa'ah Rabbi Shohama Wiener and my co-chair Rabbi David Evan Markus.) 

Many thanks to the kind stranger who graciously snapped our photo so we could all be in the picture.

Jewish Renewal on Radio Centre-Ville

Radio-centre-ville-3When we were in Montréal last month on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour, Rabbi David and I -- along with Rabbi Jan Salzman, visiting from Burlington, and Rabbi Shalom Schachter, visiting from Toronto -- were interviewed by Leslie Lutsky for Radio Centre-Ville.

The interview will air on April 9th at 8:30 in the morning on 102.3FM and online at Radio Centre-Ville. It will also be available as a podcast for a week.

Here's a taste of what we had to say:

Jewish Renewal is the most recent expression of the yearning of the Jewish spirit. We understand Judaism and all spiritual life to evolve. We have been doing it for thousands of years, and we never imagine stopping. Jewish Renewal understands this , and evolves pathways of spirituality that are based in the ways of the earth, based in the collectivity of political, economic, social and spiritual expressions, understands that Jewish life has never been frozen in a time or place or one way of doing things or being…and so ALEPH, as the umbrella organization for Jewish Renewal, understands and seeks to achieve a world that is beyond denominational lines, that is beyond the fractures of one way of being spiritual or religious, and to work with others who are like-minded and like-hearted in bringing that kind of Jewish spirituality into the world. -- Rabbi David Markus

Jewish Renewal takes a variety of forms. It’s not one single thing everywhere you go. It’s characterized by heart, by spirit, by direct experience of connection with the holy and with God, by music, by creative liturgy, innovative approaches to liturgy and prayer, by a commitment to social justice and transformation of the world... [In] anything that identifies as Renewal, you will find most if not all of these things. -- Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Deep thanks to Leslie for interviewing us, and for giving us the opportunity to share some of what's exciting to us about Jewish Renewal with the listeners of Radio Centre-Ville. 

On the road again: the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour is going west!

25986325352_54ab1309e9_zWe're setting off today for the next stops on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour! Rabbi David and I are heading in different directions for a few days: I'm going to do a Shabbaton in Las Vegas, he's off to the Spiritual Directors International conference in San Diego. I'll be offering a poetry reading and a facilitated conversation about the future of Jewish Renewal in Las Vegas; he'll be leading Shabbat services and having conversations about Jewish Renewal at SDI. 

We'll meet up in Los Angeles for a Sunday evening event hosted by Rabbi T'mimah Ickovits and Holistic Jew. Plans include a ma’ariv evening service on a deck overlooking the water, a dinner, and an open mike / curated conversation about ALEPH and the future of Jewish Renewal. (To inquire about participation, email [email protected].) While in LA we'll also be connecting with folks from B'nai Horin and from two rabbinical seminaries, the Academy for Jewish Religion CA and Ziegler.

Later in the week we'll spend some time in Santa Cruz with folks from Chadesh Yameinu. On April 13th they'll be hosting an event which will feature both a community conversation about the future of Jewish Renewal, and a poetry reading by yours truly -- I'm hoping to highlight both Open My Lips (new from Ben Yehuda Press) and Toward Sinai (my collection of Omer poems), which feels appropriate to the season given that Pesach is right around the corner and the Omer begins on the second night of Pesach.

Then we'll move on to the San Francisco Bay Area, where we'll connect with folks from the Aquarian Minyan,  Wilderness Torah, The Jewish Studio Project, the Kitchen, and other local institutions -- and we'll participate in Shabbat evening and morning services at Kehilla Community Synagogue, and hold a havdalah / Listening Tour open mike at 7:30pm at Chochmat ha-Lev. (If you want to join us for Shabbat davenen or for the havdalah / open mike, there's information on the Kehilla and Chochmat websites.)

It's going to be an action-packed ten days. I'm looking really forward to meeting people in all of these different places, and to hearing their hopes and dreams for the future of ALEPH and their visions of what a renewed Judaism might look like and how we can work together to make those visions real.


Photo by Dave Kauffman; taken on our Listening Tour visit to Vancouver.

A Listening Tour weekend in Vancouver

26058278726_157e7bec26_zEvery stop on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour is different, and every one has been amazing in its own way. But I suspect that our weekend in Vancouver may stand out in memory as one of the most memorable experiences in a year-plus of remarkable experiences.

Maybe that's in part because we traveled such a very long way to be there. Maybe it's in part because we were visiting such a storied community, one of the largest and longest-standing Jewish Renewal communities in the world. Maybe that's in part because the people at Or Shalom welcomed us with such open hearts.

Our visit began with a dinner gathering with members of the host committee, and then after a too-short night of sleep continued with brunch with a group of Or Shalom millennials who spoke to us about their spiritual lives, their hopes, and what "doing Jewish" looks like for them. 

On Friday evening I led a sweet and intimate family Shabbat circle, a few prayers and a few songs and a meditation on the week which was then drawing to its close. Then we davened with the Or Shalom community, savoring a service co-led by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan and Rabbi Hannah Dresner (along with musicians Charles Kaplan, Martin Gotfrit, Joe Markovitch, David Kauffman, and Nomi Fenson.) We danced around the room, we sang and prayed, and we marveled at the beauty of the clearing evening sky as we opened the door to welcome the Shabbat bride. (And Rabbi David gave a beautiful d'var Torah about keeping our spiritual fires burning.) After davening and dinner we heard origin stories and histories from Or Shalom's almost forty years of existence, starting with the early years as a havurah in Reb Daniel and Reb Hanna's living room.

25481624483_023d3430dd_zOn Shabbat morning, Rabbi David and I co-led p'sukei d'zimra, the first section of the morning service. (As it turned out, we chose melodies wisely, and the community sang along with spirit.) Then we enjoyed a Shabbat morning service led in turns by Rabbi Hillel Goelman and then by Rabbi Hannah. I was privileged to offer the d'var Torah that morning, on what it means to me to be a nation of priests and how that dovetails with the work we seek to do in ALEPH. After another festive meal we facilitated a community open mike session, harvesting ideas, yearnings, "ouches," dreams, and hopes from the community at large. 

On Sunday we breakfasted with ALEPH Canada colleagues at a vegetarian Vancouver institution, spent the morning with the Or Shalom board of directors, lunched with congregants and clergy, and spent the afternoon with a 2o+ person focus group of involved and invested Or Shalom folks. In between these meetings and meals and meetings-over-meals, we managed to walk a bit by the water; to marvel at the blooming trees and the view of Mount Baker in Queen Elizabeth Park; even, briefly, to see a harbor seal in its natural habitat! Our visit wound down with a final meal, and some debriefing and visioning for the future, with Rabbi Hannah before we regretfully made our way to the airport to begin the three thousand mile journey home.

We have hundreds of pages of notes from the Listening Tour so far -- from the nine stops we've made in person, and also from countless phone calls, zoom videoconference sessions, and emails. And we have many stops yet to go -- we're nowhere near done. We're beginning to see some common themes which are emerging (which are beginning to spark our conversations about what might be in the "Renewing Renewal" report we'll be putting forward before Rosh Hashanah). I'm fascinated by the things which are parallel or similar everywhere we go, and equally fascinated to see things which are different in each place we visit.  I continue to be endlessly grateful that we get to do this work. It's an honor and a privilege to get to sit with people and hear their yearnings and hopes for what ALEPH and Jewish Renewal might become.


Dave Kauffman took some terrific photos from the Listening Tour weekend. Thanks, Dave! And deep thanks to the organizing committee and to all of our Or Shalom hosts. 


A nation of priests

(A Listening Tour d'var Torah for Shabbat morning at Or Shalom)


This week's Torah portion includes a description of the smicha (ordination) of Aaron and his sons -- the first ancient Israelite priests. The word smicha comes from a root meaning "to lean," as in the laying-on of hands. Aaron and his sons place their hands on a ram, which is then slaughtered. Blood from the ram is painted along their ears, thumbs, and big toes, perhaps representing the charge to seek holiness in all that they hear, in all that their hands create, and in every place where they walk.

When I received smicha from ALEPH, my teachers placed their hands on me as they spoke the words which transformed me into a rabbi. I experienced the press of their hands as a conduit for the transmission of wisdom and blessing. Afterward the only thing I could compare it to was the birth of my son: a feeling of yielding to a great transformative process which was rewriting me from the inside out.

My ordination as a rabbi, the seal on years of study, happened on a single day -- but the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests lasted for seven. Seven is a meaningful number for us. Think of the six days of creation culminating in the seventh day which is Shabbat, or the seven colors of the rainbow, or the seven weeks of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot. The Hebrew word for seven, שבע, contains the same root letters as the verb meaning to swear an oath or make a covenant. With seven days of ordination, Aaron and his sons entered into a covenant of service to the children of Israel and to God.

Here we are on Shabbat, the seventh day, reading about the ancient priests and their seven-day ritual. And maybe this ritual feels distant and foreign to us, as maybe the priesthood itself feels distant and foreign to us. But Torah also teaches (Exodus 19:6) that the hereditary priesthood of old isn't the only kind of priesthood. The whole community of Israel is instructed to be a ממלכת כהנים, a nation of priests. The priesthood wasn't just for them or for then. All of us are called into holy service. Shabbat, as the seventh day, is the day of smicha for everyone: the completion of readiness for holy service.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that access to God didn't depend on mastery of Talmud. He taught that God is available to all of us, no matter who we are or what we know. For the Baal Shem, connection with God was for everyone. Deep spirituality was for everyone. Jewish joy was for everyone. As the idea of being a nation of priests expands the hereditary priesthood to the whole community, the Baal Shem's teachings expanded God-connection to the community of all who yearn.

That democratizing impulse has always been part of Jewish Renewal, which Reb Zalman described as a new "turning" of Hasidism. Reb Zalman, z"l, reached deep into the treasure trove of our tradition. He translated prayers and teachings and experiences into a vernacular designed to reach people where they are. Today it is his students, and their students, who carry on that holy service of connecting seekers with our tradition and with God. 

Continue reading "A nation of priests" »


VancouverWe're on the road again! The next stop on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour is the one for which we'll be traveling the furthest: Vancouver, British Columbia.

Our weekend in Vancouver will be hosted by Or Shalom, Canada's Jewish Renewal community of longest standing. As their history page on their website notes, they began in 1982 as a havurah, a group of friends meeting in people's homes. Or Shalom's first rabbinic leadership came from Rabbi Daniel and Hanna Tiferet Siegel, with whom I studied (halakha and spiritual direction, respectively) in rabbinic school.

More recently the congregation was led by Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, another dear rabbinic school teacher and friend. Today it is led by Rabbi Hannah Dresner, yet another dear friend from rabbinic school! I am delighted that all of these luminaries will be joining us for the weekend. This will be Reb Hanna's second stop on our Listening Tour, as she was with us in Boston last fall when we enjoyed beautiful morning davenen and our first open mike session at B'nai Or in Boston

As has become our custom, the Vancouver weekend will be chock-full of a variety of different kinds of encounters. We'll have opportunities to daven with the Or Shalom community (and we'll participate in leading the davenen, too.) We'll hold open mike sessions, offering members of the community the opportunity to share their stories, remembrances, frustrations, hopes, fears, and dreams. We'll meet with congregational leadership and with young people. We'll talk about big-picture questions of the ecosystem of innovation, and smaller-picture questions of what Or Shalom and Jewish Renewal in British Columbia need from ALEPH and what ALEPH needs from Or Shalom and from Jewish Renewal in BC in return. 

I imagine that some of our conversations in Vancouver will be parallel to the conversations we had in Montréal about the unique valances of Jewish Renewal in Canada. I imagine that some of our conversations will be unique to this place and this constellation of participants. And I imagine that some of our conversations will echo conversations we've had in other cities -- and also with other communities via videoconference when our lives, finances, and "day jobs" haven't permitted us to visit in person. (If you are in a place which is not on our itinerary, and would like to speak with us about your hopes and dreams for the future of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal, email [email protected] and we'll do our best to set up a videoconference!)

I know that our time in Vancouver will be too brief to adequately have all of the conversations we want and need to have. (And don't even ask me whether we're going to do any sightseeing. We're flying out today, and back via a redeye on Sunday night; this is the very definition of "short and sweet.") Our mantra has become "to be continued," because every conversation is inevitably only part of the story, and there is always more that we can learn. But even though it won't be "enough" time, I know it's going to be delightful. We can't wait to daven, listen, and learn at Or Shalom this weekend. To our hevre (friends) in Vancouver, we look forward to seeing you soon! And to everyone else, stay tuned; I'll aim to report back next week with notes from the road.

In three weeks: a Shabbaton in Las Vegas

VegasOver the weekend of April 8-9 -- three weeks from this coming weekend -- I'll be the scholar-in-residence for a Shabbaton (a Shabbat retreat) hosted by Congregation P'nei Tikvah in Las Vegas, Nevada. 

The weekend will feature a Friday night dinner as our kabbalat Shabbat experience; a Shabbat morning Torah study and brunch; and a Saturday evening poolside havdalah and dessert gathering -- complete with poetry reading!

I'm looking forward to meeting members of the P'nei Tikvah community, and to spending time with my host there, Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, who I have known for many years through OHALAH, the association of Jewish Renewal clergy.

This isn't officially part of the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour, but on Shabbat afternoon there will be some conversations about Jewish Renewal's past, present, and future even so.

If you are in or near Las Vegas, I hope you'll consider joining us for the Shabbaton! The organizers are asking people to sign up (and pay) by April 1, so -- please let them know if you're planning to join us.

(From Las Vegas I will be moving on to the California stops on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour, so if you're in southern or northern California, stay tuned for more information there.)

A Jewish Renewal Shabbaton in Montréal

25781973295_27746cd55c_zEvery stop on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour is different -- because every community we visit is unique. Every community has its own dynamics, its own history, its own needs and yearnings. And, of course, every stop on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour is similar -- because there is always common ground among and between the places we go, because we bring the same questions with us everywhere we go, and because as different as we all are, we're all part of the same greater whole. 

This past weekend I was blessed to travel, with Rabbi David Markus  and Rabbi Evan Krame and ALEPH's executive director Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin, for a Listening Tour Shabbaton in Montréal. Our gathering was co-sponsored by by B'nai Or Montreal Community Shul, Mile End Chavurah, and our colleagues at ALEPH Canada. Many of the participants came from the broad Montréal Jewish community. Others came from as far afield as Newfoundland, Ottawa, and Toronto. 

Our weekend began with Shabbat dinner, graciously hosted by R' Sherril Gilbert, director of ALEPH Canada. We sat around the table with friends and family and members of the organizing committee. We blessed candles and wine and bread. We dined, and talked about Jewish Renewal, and after dinner we lingered at the table and sang songs of Shabbat, passing the guitar around the table, sharing favorite melodies and harmonies. This is one of my favorite ways to end any week. What a joy!

On Shabbat morning, we met at the Jewish Community Centre for davenen. This was a morning service with a large number of moving parts: a collaboration between clergy and lay leaders, between folks from B'nai Or and from Mile End and from Dorshei Emet (the local Reconstructionist shul), between locals and we who were visiting from afar.


I was honored with the privilege of leading shacharit, the part of the service containing the shema. Rabbi David and Rabbi Shalom Shachter collaborated on the Torah service (and I got to hear Rabbi David chant his bar mitzvah Torah portion, which was a delight). Rabbi Evan gave a stunning d'var Torah about Judaism "on the move," in which he made the case that Jewish Renewal is quintessentially a recognition of the fact that Judaism has always been evolving. I was particularly delighted when he connected the עשן, the smoke rising from our offerings of old, with an acronym for עולם, שנה, נפש / space, time, and soul. 

After a lovely potluck lunch (during which I had the opportunity to meet soferet Jen Taylor Friedman, of whose work I have been a fan for many years) we moved into an open mike conversation. Rabbi David offered some framing remarks, noting that exactly 40 years ago this month Reb Zalman z"l came to Montréal for a Jewish Renewal Shabbaton! (Forty, of course, is a number with great spiritual significance in Judaism -- so this confluence felt especially sweet.) And then we entered into our spiritual practice of reflective listening.

Everywhere we go, it's our intention to take in what people have to offer -- hopes and fears, kvetches and joys, the one thing you never want us to change, the one thing you absolutely hope we will change, etc -- without reactivity, and without giving in to the temptation to offer our own response. The purpose of the listening tour isn't for y'all to hear from us: it's for us to hear from you. We heard some really valuable things about what members of this particular Jewish community value most about Jewish Renewal, about the unique challenges of life as a triple minority (Anglophone, Jewish, and Jewish Renewal), and about this community's hopes, dreams, and needs.


After the open mike, we settled in for a focus group conversation with Canadian Jewish community leaders. This too has become part of our practice everywhere we go. During the focus group we aim to shift to a meta-conversation about systemic questions, about how local or regional Jewish Renewal interfaces with the bigger picture of the renewal of Judaism, about networks and models of governance, and about the ecosystem of Jewish innovation and how we think all of these pieces do, or should, fit together.

On Sunday morning there was a more intimate conversation among leaders of ALEPH and ALEPH Canada. We talked about the internationalization of ALEPH, about the both common and uncommon challenges of the next generation finding (and, more importantly, helping to make) spiritual revitalization for itself, about the challenges of serving the scattered people of Canada. I was especially interested in our conversation about the dispersed who may feel disconnected from community -- whether in rural areas not unlike the one where I live, or in urban areas -- and who want and need an ALEPH that (re) connects them. (There was also a radio interview with Leslie Lutsky of Radio Centre Ville. Stay tuned, I'll post a link when that interview goes live.)

After a final meal in Montréal we regretfully bid adieu to the city -- and to Canada, though to the nation itself we were able to say à bientôt, since we'll be heading back across the border in a couple of weeks for our Listening Tour stop in Vancouver.

Many people have asked us how we're able to manage these intense Listening Tour weekends on top of our other obligations -- Rabbi David's congregation, my congregation, his fulltime job as a judicial official, my fulltime job as mother to a six year old. The answer is that while it's true that these weekends are exhausting, they are also incredibly renewing. It is a joy and a privilege to get to visit different Jewish Renewal communities: to see what's similar and what's different about how we daven, what's similar and what's different about our origin stories and our hopes for the future, what's common and what's unique about where we hope ALEPH and Jewish Renewal will take us in years to come.


Next on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour: Vancouver over the weekend of March 26! If you're in or near Vancouver, join us at Or Shalom.

The ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour is Canada-bound


This winter's stops on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour have been at conferences. In January we held one focus group for ALEPH ordination program students, followed by two open mike sessions at the OHALAH conference of Jewish Renewal clergy. In February we took advantage of spending a few days with our Rabbis Without Borders colleagues, and had some great conversations about ALEPH, Jewish Renewal, and the Jewish future while we were at Pearlstone. Now we're preparing for our two March stops, both of which will take us across the border to the north: we're Canada-bound!

Our Montreal Shabbaton on March 12 will be co-sponsored by B'nai Or Montreal Community Shul, Mile End Chavurah, and our colleagues at ALEPH Canada. (Here's the Facebook event page.) The plan calls for a morning / early afternoon program at the JCC/YM-YWHA, 5400 Westbury Avenue. We'll begin with a Shabbat morning service (in which Rabbi David and I will participate -- he's going to chant Torah, as Pekudei was his bar mitzvah portion!), a kiddush and vegetarian potluck lunch, and an open mike after lunch where we'll curate a conversation about hopes and dreams for the renewal of Judaism.

Our executive director Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin will be with us, as will Rabbi Evan Krame (a member of the ALEPH Board) and Rabbi Shalom Schachter (son of Reb Zalman z"l), both of whom will also participate in the morning's service. (And we're always grateful when Board and staff are able to join us in our spiritual practice of receptive listening -- whether in person as we travel around the continent as life permits, or in the many listening tour sessions we've held via zoom videoconferencing. Alas, we're not able to visit everyone in person, so we are grateful for long-distance ways of listening.)

That evening we'll reconvene at Le Dépanneur Café, 206 Rue Bernard West, for havdalah. Then there will be a community cabaret, which promises to be terrific, though R' David and I will be quietly slipping out after havdalah and before the cabaret. (We've evolved a custom of spending Listening Tour Saturday nights post-havdalah together processing what we've learned and heard -- and also recording as much as we can remember of what was said, since we don't take notes on Shabbat.) Sunday morning we'll hold some meetings and conversations before we out-of-town guests hit the road to head home again.

If you are in or near Montreal, or are able to get there to join us, please do. We'd love to hear your thoughts, hopes, and dreams about ALEPH and Jewish Renewal's past, present, and future. (And if you're in or near Vancouver, stay tuned -- we'll be bringing the Listening Tour to Or Shalom over the weekend of March 26.)

Returning to Rabbis Without Borders

Rwb_logoI'm heading south today for the annual gathering of Rabbis Without Borders fellows at Pearlstone, a Jewish retreat center outside of Baltimore. This will be my third annual retreat. It's always fun to reconnect with this group of colleagues in person.

Like my ALEPH community, RWB spans denominational boundaries. Rabbis Without Borders fellows come from backgrounds ranging from Reform to Orthodox and everything in between. And like my ALEPH community, we're consciously pluralistic, and deeply invested in the work of co-creating a Judaism which will serve the future's needs. 

This year I'm giving back to the community a bit more than in years past. With Rabbi David Markus, I'll be co-leading a Renewal-style weekday morning service on Monday. We're planning a mixture of weekday nusach, beloved melodies, and new uses for Nava Tehila's Livnat HaSapir.  We'll also be offering a session with Rabbi Evan Krame of The Jewish Studio, themed around a four-worlds look at the ecosystem of Jewish innovation. (That ecosystem is being talked about a lot on our Listening Tour.)

Speaking of which, we'll also be holding informal Listening Tour conversations with groups of RWB colleagues over the course of the retreat. We already have hundreds of pages of notes from the stops we've already made, and every time we sit down with people to talk about Jewish Renewal's past, present, and future, I come away more energized about the work we're doing in ALEPH. (So RWB colleagues, if y'all want to share your perspectives on the renewing of Judaism, come and find us.)

If past years' experiences are anything to go by, those of you who follow me on Twitter are likely to see an upsurge in my posting there over the next several days. (This year's retreat is themed around Exploring Rabbinic Risk-Taking -- if that interests you, keep an eye on @rwbclal and #rwbclal.) I expect that when I get home late on Wednesday night I'll be physically tired, but the tiredness will be balanced by the energizing experience of learning, talking, and davening with this great group of hevre.

The gift of another Listening Tour Shabbat

22492482020_0a22a8a39b_zIf you've been reading this blog lately you know that my ALEPH co-chair Rabbi David Evan Markus and I are traveling around North America on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour. We're visiting congregations and communities, visiting rabbinic schools (both trans-denominational, e.g. Hebrew College -- and denominational, e.g. the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College), holding big open mic sessions and small curated conversations, and learning as much as we can about the landscape of Jewish Renewal and about people's hopes and dreams for the future of Judaism writ large.

Celebrating Shabbat on these trips is turning out to be really special for me. One reason for that is that everywhere we go, I am reconnecting with friends who I don't see often enough. My ALEPH hevre (colleagues and friends) live all over the globe, and while it's wonderful to study and daven with them via zoom or Skype, it's far sweeter to be together in person. Another reason is that that everywhere we go, I get to relax into the capable hands of someone else's service leadership and let the liturgy and the melodies carry me. (That's a real treat for a working pulpit rabbi. Usually it's my job to help create that experience for others.)

22627246571_14423cc8d9_zEverywhere we go, I get the opportunity to see some of my Jewish Renewal friends and teachers in the places where they live and serve, which offers me subtly different glimpses of them than I typically see on retreat. I love getting to see my hevre in their home contexts!

And everywhere we go, I know I'm with other people who invest in Shabbat in the same ways that I do. That's spiritually nourishing for me in ways which are difficult to verbalize. All weekend long, I get to daven surrounded by some dear voices, and faces, and neshamas (souls.) In Philadelphia, that was extra-sweet for me because I was davening in the shuls of some of the very people who most taught me how to enter the flow of the liturgy and really pray.

On Friday night at Mishkan Shalom, Rabbi Shawn Zevit led a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat. At the start of that service, the experience of singing Yedid Nefesh -- that gorgeous poem of love and yearning -- cracked my heart right open and let the balm of Shabbat flow in. I had the opportunity to share a few poems during Friday night's service -- including "Texts to the Holy," (a poem I posted here in slightly earlier form as "Missing You") which I had never read aloud to others before. Friday night's davenen opened me up in beautiful ways.

On Saturday morning at P'nai Or davenen was led by Rabbi Marcia Prager and Hazzan Jack Kessler. We began with an opening niggun which I know like the back of my own hand but hadn't heard in a long time. The simple experience of singing harmony for those familiar notes was sweet. By the time we got to the lines in Nishmat Kol Chai which assert that everything within me sings praise, those words were entirely true. Shabbat morning's davenen filled my cup to the brim. And then, after a potluck lunch, we held an open mic session for more than 50 people who shared with us their hopes and dreams for the future of Jewish Renewal -- holy wow.

22492480910_3eb7303f97_zPart of what's fun for me is that each of the services we've attended thus far on the Listening Tour has been entirely different from the others. Each has featured a different siddur (prayerbook). Each has been led by people who were ordained in different places. (Of this weekend's davenen leaders, two hold dual ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and from Reb Zalman z"l whose work inspired and grew into the ALEPH Ordinations Program; one was ordained by the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.) Each has featured different melodies, choices of instrumentation, and styles of prayer. And each has been an authentic expression of Jewish Renewal, because there's no single way to "do" Renewal.

People keep asking how we're managing to do this listening tour on top of jobs and other commitments. This year of traveling and active listening poses a lot of challenges -- from the emotional and intellectual effort to be receptive listeners, to ordinary logistics, to grasping the awesome scope of all people hold Renewal to be (and want Renewal to be).  But the work is its own reward: I can't imagine a better way to spend these weekends.

Not only because it's amazing to get to hear from so many people about the Jewish future they yearn for (though it is) -- not only because we get to have these incredible conversations about ALEPH and Jewish Renewal and the future of heart-centered innovative Judaism (though we do, and how cool is that?) -- but also because we get to experience Jewish Renewal Shabbatot in all of these different places. Each Shabbat on this tour has its own ta'am, its own flavor. Each one comes with different melodies, and harmonies, and insights, and sweetness. And each one is a gift.


ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour: Next Stop, Philly!

Banner2This weekend, my co-chair Rabbi David and I are off to Philaldephia for the next stop on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour! (That link goes to our new webpage describing the listening tour -- what we're doing, why we're doing it, where we're doing it. Every time I look at the graphic at the top of that page I want a Listening Tour t-shirt...)

Like our stop in Boston a few weeks ago, this weekend will feature some events which are open to the public. On Friday night we'll have Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night at Mishkan Shalom, which will feature some Torah from R' David and some poetry from me. On Saturday morning we'll be at P’nai Or, where the plan calls for Torah study at 9:15am and davenen at 10:30. There will be a 1pm lunch and a 2pm open mike session at P'nai Or where we will harvest hopes, dreams, and feedback from the community. If you're in the area, have an investment in the future of ALEPH and/or Jewish Renewal, and have an interest in adding your voice to the chorus, we hope you'll join us.

There will also be some events over the course of the weekend which are for a more intimate group of curated guests. We've done this in both of the cities where we've traveled thus far (New York and Boston) and both times it's been pretty extraordinary. Philadelphia is one of the centers of Jewish Renewal life, so this time around our balance of self-identified Renewalniks to others is different than usual. Over the course of our weekend in Philadelphia we'll be meeting with Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center, Rabbi Deborah Waxman (President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College), Rabbi Shawn Zevit  (of Mishkan Shalom and the ALEPH Ordination Programs va'ad), Rabbi Marcia Prager and Hazzan Jack Kessler (of P’nai Or and the ALEPH Ordination Programs va'ad), and more.

As in all of our Listening Tour stops, we're making an effort to listen to "insiders" as well as "outsiders." We want to hear from those who have been part of Jewish Renewal for a long time, and also those who are new to Renewal, and also those who perhaps don't see themselves as part of Renewal per se but are doing the kind of meaningful, heart-centered, innovative re-creation of Judaism with which we resonate. Our conversations thus far have been both broad and deep.

And we continue to make a spiritual practice of receptive listening. We want to hear what you need to tell us about ALEPH and about Jewish Renewal, whether it is praise or critique or a mixture of the two. We want to know your hopes and dreams for the Jewish future, and your suggestions for how to work toward that future. We commit to holding your feedback in confidence. And we will do our best to incorporate everything we're learning and hearing into the State of Jewish Renewal report which we intend to offer next summer at the ALEPH Kallah (July 11-17 in Fort Collins, Colorado -- join us!)

On a purely personal level, and as someone who collects different prayer experiences, I'm especially excited about our Shabbat davenen plans. P'nai Or was founded in the early 1980s by Reb Zalman z"l, and is now led by Reb Marcia and Hazzan Jack. Reb Marcia is the dean of the ALEPH rabbinic program (and Hazzan Jack runs the ALEPH cantorial program), so I've davened with them many times over the years, though never in their home community. And Mishkan Shalom is home to A Way In, an initiative which focuses on Jewish mindfulness practice, of which I have been a longtime fan from afar.

(Reb Marcia and Reb Shawn together run the Davenen Leadership Training Institute, a two-year liturgical leadership training program about which I blogged frequently. DLTI was one of the best experiences I had in rabbinic school, and continues to deeply shape not only how I lead davenen but also how I enter into prayer in order to be able to lead others there. Getting to spend a weekend davening with the two of them is my idea of a good time.)

And I'm looking forward both to the open mike and to the curated sessions. It's inspiring and humbling to sit with people -- some of whom have renewing Judaism longer than I've been alive! -- and take in their insights about where Jewish Renewal has been and where we might yet go. And it's exciting to sit with people who are collaborating with us in the big-picture work of revitalizing the Jewish landscape and making heart and spirit central to Jewish experience -- regardless of whether they consider themselves part of "organized Jewish Renewal" -- and share hopes and dreams for what the Jewish future might hold and how we might work together in holy service to shape that future.

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Our Philadelphia weekend will be co-hosted by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, P’nai Or, and Mishkan Shalom. If you're in the Philadelphia area and are able to join us for Friday night or Saturday morning services, and/or for the open mike after Shabbat lunch, I hope to see you there.


(For more on this, check out An Update on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour at Kol ALEPH.)

Brought to you by diner coffee

I think of myself as pretty good at working with people remotely. I was a relatively early adopter, internet-wise. I've been online for well more than 20 years. I spent three years on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization with no physical address, working with colleagues all over the globe day after day via purely internet-based tools. And yet I can't deny that there is a different energy, a special spark, which arises when I can sit down with someone face to face. Maybe especially if our brainstorming is fueled by a neverending stream of surprisingly decent diner coffee.


This is a photograph of my current favorite diner. This diner is on a relatively nondescript Main Street sort of highway in a smallish upstate New York town. We happened on it purely because the town in which it is planted is roughly midway between where I live and where my ALEPH co-chair lives. And besides, its chrome and mirrors gleam so appealingly on a sunny day! (And when you walk inside, you're greeted by a giant statue of a guy holding a gargantuan coffee mug.) Every so often, when we can swing it, we get in our cars and we each drive a couple of hours, and this is where we meet up.

It's enormous, and although there's frequently a healthy crowd, I've never seen it full. Maybe that's why they don't seem to mind when we show up, order breakfast, and then spend hours with laptops thanking the waitstaff when they come to top off our cups. It was at this diner, some months ago, that we first dreamed up a list of hopes for ALEPH six months, a year, three years hence. It was at this diner recently that we opened up that plan again and marveled at how many of those hopes and dreams are (with help from Board, staff, teachers, and the Holy One of Blessing) coming to pass.

Lately we've been joking that when we issue that State of Jewish Renewal report next summer at the ALEPH Kallah, we should indicate on the flyleaf that it is brought to you by this diner's neverending stream of coffee. Most recently it's where we met with Rabbi Andrew Hahn, "the Kirtan Rabbi" (about whose work I have posted before), to talk about next summer's Kallah, innovation space and the integration of serious text study with heart-centered Renewal spiritual technologies, and more. We only make it there every few months, but it's already becoming my diner-office-away-from-home.

I don't mind working remotely. On the contrary: I love the fact that when the ALEPH Board meets, I see friendly faces (on my computer screen) who are in a variety of locations and time zones. I love the fact that I get to work with terrific colleagues around North America and around the world. But there really is no substitute for facing a friend across a formica diner table, warming one's hands on a cup of joe in a satisfyingly chunky diner mug, making to-do lists and riffing off of each other's ideas, and then together -- dual laptops open, shared document cursor blinking -- diving in and getting to work.