Coming home into Shabbat

Kabbalat Shabbat feels like coming home. Or it can -- and this past Friday night, it did. I was in Boston for the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour (note the spiffy new webpage!) and was blessed to daven with a shtibl (home-based minyan) which met in Rabbi Art Green's living room. He greeted us, handed out siddurim (prayerbooks), and we began to daven. As others arrived, they joined in.

The siddur was one I had never used before. It featured beautiful Hebrew typesetting, and some nifty nusach Sfard changes from what I usually daven with. I didn't know most of the people in the room -- though of course there were a few souls there (including an ALEPH board member, and of course David, my co-chair) who are already very dear to me; my Renewal hevre (friends) are chosen-family.

But what really felt like a homecoming was diving into the words in a room full of people who were also diving deep. When I am with people who are welcoming Shabbat with heart and intention, I am home. No matter what melodies we're using, no matter what siddur, no matter where I am -- when we're singing to welcome the Shabbat bride, ushering in Shabbat consciousness, my soul comes home.

We davened. We dined. And then after Shabbat dinner there was a lull in the conversation, and Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel offered a new niggun she had recently written. Not surprisingly, it is beautiful. We sang it and sang it. Harmonies arose, and we kept time gently on the table. And then came the sweet, satisfied pause after the song, and Rabbi Art reached for a Hasidic text to give over some Torah.

He taught about how each of us writes a Torah with our own deeds, and how collectively we all fulfill all of the mitzvot which none of us could fulfill alone. As we sang the niggun again to seal the learning in our hearts, I felt as though I were sitting at a Shabbes table on high with the angels. What a gift it was to welcome Shabbat together into our midst, and to welcome ourselves home into Shabbat.

I'm grateful to be doing the Listening Tour for a lot of reasons. One reason is that I'm already learning a lot about the depth and breadth of Jewish Renewal's impact in the world. Another is that it's giving me the opportunity to have meaningful conversations about the future of Judaism. And a third reason is Shabbat evenings like that one, where I get to be in community in a way that nourishes my soul.

Bringing the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour to Boston!


This weekend, my ALEPH co-chair Rabbi David Evan Markus and I are bringing the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour to Boston! Via emails, video chats, phone calls, coffee dates, and weekend visits to a variety of places around North America, we're spending our first year as ALEPH co-chairs actively listening to what people want Jewish Renewal, and Judaism writ large, to be in years to come.

Everywhere we go, we bring the set of questions we posed at the beginning of this adventure: What do you most cherish about Jewish Renewal, and what would you change? How can we cultivate continued spiritual and organizational innovation, both within ALEPH and in the broader phenomenon which is the continued renewing of Judaism? Given that Renewal is bigger than ALEPH, what role should ALEPH play, and how can we best bring together different people, places, and institutions doing the kind of heart-centered and innovative work we value? What are ALEPH's strengths and weaknesses? And what question should we be asking which isn't on this list -- and how would you answer it?

The format we've evolved for Listening Tour weekends features some public events and some small-group events. This weekend a small group will daven together on Friday night at a home-based minyan, and share Shabbat dinner afterwards, hosted by Rabbi Art Green. On Shabbat morning we'll meet at B’nai Or, an established Jewish Renewal community, for joyful and spirited davenen. Afterwards there will be a Lunch & Learn / Open Mike during which David and I will share about the Listening Tour and will harvest hopes, dreams, and feedback from the community. (If you're in the Boston area and want to be part of the conversation about the future of Jewish Renewal, please join us! Shabbat morning, and the Open Mike / Lunch & Learn, are open to all.)

On Shabbat afternoon and Sunday morning we'll host small-group sessions for a curated group of invited guests. We're making a practice of ensuring that in every place where we go, some of the people in our curated group are "within" ALEPH / Jewish Renewal, while others come from outside the self-identified Jewish Renewal community. All are interested in the future of Jewish life generally and heart-centered innovation particularly, and all are leaders who have a stake in what ALEPH and Renewal are and become. Shabbat afternoon's conversation will be a Vision conversation, aimed at big-picture dreaming. Sunday morning's conversation will be a Tachlis (practical details) conversation, aimed at taking Saturday's vision conversation and bringing it into reality.

We've been honored by the caliber of people who've been part of these conversations thus far. When we did this in New York, our curated group included Maggid Yitzhak Buxbaum, Rabbi Jeff Fox (the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Mahara”t), Rabbi Jay Michaelson, Amichai Lau-Lavie (of Lab/Shul), and Maggid Peninnah Schram (among others), and our Boston group is equally luminous. This coming Shabbes, we get to sit down at a table with Rabbi Art Green from Hebrew College, Rabbi Jill Hammer from the Academy for Jewish Religion, and Joel Segel who with Reb Zalman z"l co-authored Jewish With Feeling and Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer (among others) to talk about the future of Judaism! We both feel incredibly blessed to be able to have these conversations.

Our New York weekend was co-hosted by Romemu (where I just went for Simchat Torah) and by Yeshivat Mahara”t, the groundbreaking seminary ordaining Orthodox women to serve as kli kodesh ("holy vessels," e.g. spiritual leaders.) Our Boston weekend will be co-hosted by transdenominational seminary Hebrew College,  by B’nai Or, and by transdenominational mikveh Mayyim Hayyim. Later this fall we'll be doing something similar in Philadelphia and in Washington, DC. And in the secular new year, if we can secure the funding and can make everyone's calendars line up, we're hoping to visit Montreal, Boulder, southern California, northern California, Seattle, and Vancouver.

(For those who aren't in any of these places but would like to chime in about what you hope the future of Jewish Renewal will be, you're always welcome to email us at [email protected])

David and I have made a commitment to a year of receptive listening, a practice which is familiar to both of us from the pastoral work we do in our rabbinates. Our job is to be open and to receive what people have to say -- the things we're happy to hear, and also the things we may not be thrilled to hear -- about Jewish Renewal in general and ALEPH in particular. And our job is also to connect that conversation with a broader conversation about the future of Judaism in decades to come.

It seems likely to us that the future of Judaism won't have the same top-down, denominational shape that's become familiar to us over the last century. We think that the future of Judaism is going to be co-created by a variety of people and institutions working together -- not a hierarchy, but a network. We hope that the future of Judaism will be characterized by the kind of meaningful innovation which has been a hallmark of Jewish Renewal from the beginning -- and we want to partner with others who are engaging in that kind of work. The Listening Tour is both an opportunity to hear from our constituency about what they want from Jewish Renewal, and a step toward bringing together some of the people and institutions doing the work of renewing Judaism across the board so that we can brainstorm together about what we want our Jewish future to be.

And when we say "our constituency," we mean both those who already self-identify as part of ALEPH or part of Jewish Renewal, and also those who don't. We want to hear from everyone who has a stake in the success of this pivot point in Jewish life – whatever your denominational affiliation may be, and regardless of whether or not you see yourself as part of Jewish Renewal now.  The fact that you are reading this post is proof that you are part of the circle of people from whom we want to hear.

If you think what we're doing is worthwhile and want to support the Listening Tour and help launch the future of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal, please donate to ALEPH. (You can earmark your donation for the Listening Tour in the comments field at the bottom of the page.) And if you're in the Boston area, I hope to see you at B'nai Or for Shabbat davenen and the Open Mike / Lunch & Learn to follow.

Sidewalk havdalah

WineThere are so many moments which stand out from me from this weekend in New York city, the first stop on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal listening tour. Moments from our davenen at Romemu. Moments from our meals together. Moments from our amazing afternoon and evening and morning of conversations about Jewish Renewal's history, its present, and our hopes for its future.

But right now the moment which is foremost in my consciousness is the experience of making havdalah, the ritual which separates between Shabbat and week, at a little Italian restaurant a short walk from our hotel. We were sitting at a table at the liminal edge between indoors and outdoors. We had enjoyed much terrific conversation and most of a bottle of white wine. And then it came time.

I had brought a havdalah set from home, but it was in the hotel room. So we made do. David sang over his glass of pinot grigio. Shoshanna provided a vial of essential oils for our besamim, the fragrant spices which revive the soul so that the departing Shabbat doesn't break our hearts. We sang quietly. We blessed the table's little votive candle and noted its light reflected in our fingernails.

OilWe blessed the One Who makes separations: between holy time and ordinary time, between Shabbat and the six days of the workweek. We blessed the One Who separates -- and bridges -- all of our distinctions. The One Who transcends and includes. And we poured a drop of wine onto our votive to extinguish it, and sang a good week, a week of peace, may gladness reign and joy increase!

I wonder what the people at the other tables thought of us. Of course, this was New York, and the Upper West Side to boot; many of them were probably Jewish. Anyway, no one seemed fazed. (I suppose it's harder than this to faze New Yorkers.) I wonder what the waitstaff thought we were doing. Had anyone ever made havdalah at this restaurant, at this place on the edge of the sidewalk before?

The moment could not have felt more liminal. There we were, on the threshold between Shabbat and week; between indoors and outdoors; between Jewish Renewal's rich past and the wide-open wonder of our future. This weekend we began a journey of deep listening and learning, a kind of intellectual and spiritual gleaning appropriate to this shmitta (Sabbatical) year. We are poised on the cusp, honoring and blessing our past and opening our hearts to the work which we know lies ahead.

CandleAs we sang there were tears in my eyes. There is something incomparably precious about experiencing Shabbat among my ALEPH hevre, my beloved colleague-friends. Bidding Shabbat farewell is always bittersweet, and it's more so when I have spent it with loved ones who I don't see often enough. But havdalah reminds me to open my heart and not to be afraid of the new week on its way.

One of the things I loved about the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program is how the low-residency format encouraged me (even obligated me) to integrate my spiritual life with my "ordinary life." ALEPH life was always an oscillation: between holy time and regular time; time with my colleagues, and time with my home community; time immersed in Torah, and time immersed in other things.

It was good practice for moments like this one: pausing in our conversation because it was time to sanctify this moment of Shabbat giving way to week, and then returning to our conversation with our hearts opened and our souls enlivened by the few moments of intention, of prayer and song.

The ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour

AlephOne of the first ideas which came to David and me as we began preparing to take on the role of co-chairs of ALEPH (see A new chapter in my life with Jewish Renewal) was a listening tour.

We want to spend our first year as co-chairs doing a lot of listening: to people who are a part of ALEPH now; to people who have been part of ALEPH far longer than we have; to people who were part of ALEPH but have moved into other circles; to people who are not yet part of ALEPH but are nevertheless doing the work of renewing Judaism and who might become part of our extended hevre (fellowship) in time.

We've developed some big questions which we hope will guide and inform the coming year. Among them are: What do you most cherish about Renewal that you hope the future will carry forward?  What would you jettison or change?  What new focus would you recommend in coming years? How can we cultivate a shared pan-Renewal "ecosystem" for continued spiritual and organizational innovation? 

We're going to be listening, and cultivating responses, in a variety of ways: collecting stories and hopes asynchronously (which is to say: you can send us your reflections and your answers to our big questions in your own time, in written form), scheduling video chats with people who want to talk about Jewish Renewal's history and its future, and meeting with people around the country at a variety of different gatherings over the year to come.

We just shared a long post -- containing information about the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal Listening Tour, our list of Big Questions, and three ways that You (Yes, You!) Can Participate -- here: A Listening Tour, Big Questions, and the Next Turning of Jewish Renewal. I hope you'll go and read... and if you have thoughts in response to our questions, I hope you'll share those with us too.