My Vision for Connecting with Jews in the 21st Century. Here’s What I’m Doing (Part 2)

IMG_1458-SMILE(Click here to read part 1)

 

Here’s the Question I Ask Myself? If we create sacred spaces outside the walls of our synagogues, will Jews Participate?

 

I believe that Jews want to engage in Jewish life and want to be part of a Jewish community. For many Jews the current model of the synagogue does not work and it is time to create innovative ways to connect to those Jews. And to create different models of what it means to be a rabbi in the 21st century.

 

Since the day I entered the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College my vision has always been to find ways to connect with Jews who do not feel welcomed in Jewish institutions, find ways to connect with those who do not want to belong to a synagogue, and to build an inclusive Jewish community, one that is welcoming to all who want to come. BTW it is not enough to just say “We are welcoming.”

I want to meet Jews where they are in their lives and create sacred spaces outside the boundaries of synagogues. I want to talk and listen to Jews about Jewish life and to help them be with the God of their understanding. I think this is important because, as many of you already know, just because we built a synagogue does not mean Jews are going to come. I’ve been to some amazing synagogues and one of the reasons I’m studying to be a rabbi today is because I am a product of this amazing synagogue, and I had an amazing rabbi who mentored me and provided the best example of how I want to be in the world.

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According to the 2013 Pew Study of American Jews 94% of Jews are proud to be Jewish and they have expanded what it means to be Jewish and express and see their Jewish identity very differently than previous generations.

So… how do we connect with those Jews. I’m going to share with you all what I am doing and what I hope to do in the future. I want to challenge other rabbis and rabbinical students to share what they are hoping or planning to do to engage the Jewish community.

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This Spring, I received an Auerbach Entrepreneurial Mini Grant (which supports innovators in launching a series of bold experiments that seek to reconstruct Jewish experience and engagement for the 21st century) to lead Shabbat services once a month during late spring and through the summer of 2016 at Arnold’s Way Cafe in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. The owners of the cafe have strong Jewish identities but do not belong to a synagogue. They believe in the Jewish people but have been let down by synagogues. Leading services at the cafe is attractive to the Jews in Lansdale. It’s a relaxing environment, people can come as they are and more importantly it is not a synagogue. If this experiment is successful I plan to continue leading services for the remainder of 2016 and through the summer of 2017. You can read more about my efforts in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Connecting with People through Technology.

I have been a technology geek for most of my adult life, always trying new Smartphones, computers and different types of social media. This geekiness has given me a sizable following on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Today more online experiences are happening through mobile devices. A trend has started among social media apps and these trends are updates that are meant to be consumed on the spot, and disappear into the digital sky of the web. Apps such as Snapchat and other messaging apps behave very differently than traditional social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Snapchat’s public videos and pictures disappear after 24 hours; Periscope, Facebook Live and Busker and other live streaming apps focus on live video with built-in chats that streams over the phone. These applications are growing fast and are attractive to people, especially those in their 20’s and 30’s.
Over the last few months I started using these types of social media apps to connect with people. I’ve tested a variety of live streaming applications and believe that Periscope, Busker and Facebook Live attract the largest audiences. And I started testing Snapchat. I’ve been using these apps to celebrate shabbat, to share my insight as an emerging rabbi, to teach liturgy, sing Jewish music, and to give a divrei Torah. All of these applications provide creative ways to connect with people and are amazing opportunities to connect with Jews. For example, I opened a Snapchat account which allows anyone who wants to connect to connect. A growing number of people are following me on these channels and are finding my knowledge helpful. Both Snapchat and live streaming are amazing and provide new and innovative ways to reach people who are not engaged in Jewish life, or who want alternatives.
There are very few rabbis using these platforms. The rabbis that do use these apps are not using these platforms the same way that I am. The one exception is Chabad. Chabad has always been very forward thinking in their social media and I want to add a progressive Jewish voice on these platforms.
Let’s Talk About Snapchat

Today many people, especially Jews in their 20’s and 30’s are on various forms of social media and are using messaging apps to connect with people. Snapchat provides an amazing opportunity to connect with people, especially Jews in their 20’s and 30’s, through storytelling. Keeping with part of my mission to meet Jews where they are in their lives, I am using Snapchat’s storytelling features to give mini Torah lessons on Mondays, Thursdays and on Shabbat, and give other Jewish lessons on blessings and discuss major Jewish holidays. There are over 30 people following my Jewish lessons on Snapchat, which is amazing considering I started the account in April and there was a pretty steep learning curve. The Jews and non-Jews who are watching are engaged and responding to Jewish snap stories on Snapchat.IMG_3306Now that you know some of what I am doing to connect with Jews outside the walls of synagogues, what are you doing?

My Vision for Connecting with Jews in the 21st Century. The Problem (Part 1)

Cross posted from – Medium 

The role of the rabbi is rooted in Torah (teaching and learning), service of the heart, and acts of love and kindness, and it is our job to adapt as the times change. And the times have changed.

Today, many Jews do not belong to synagogues, many live outside the reach of a synagogue. Still others have been turned off by synagogues for a variety of reasons, ranging from dues structure, to not feeling welcomed or simply not wanting to go.

Let’s talk about the dues structure of many synagogues. When Maya was a young woman in her twenties, she wanted to learn more about her Judaism. She did not have a lot of money and could not afford the dues of her local synagogue. The synagogue reached out to her and offered her a scholarship for membership. With the help of the scholarship, she joined that synagogue and loved it. She loved the singing, the challah and learning about Judaism. Sadly, when the scholarship ended, the synagogue wanted her to pay the full dues. She still could not afford the dues and stopped going, not just to that synagogue but to all synagogues. Today, Maya is happily married with three kids and does not belong to any Jewish community and has not reached out to a synagogue because she still believes that synagogues are too expensive and you have to pay to belong. Maya’s oldest daughter is now ten years old and Maya would love for her daughter to learn about Judaism.

Maya’s father, Arnold, is seventy years old. He spent a lot of his young adult life living in Israel on different Kibbutzim. He loves talking with me about Israel, and talking with me in Hebrew. Today, Arnold is a secular Jew who believes in the Jewish people but he will not go to a synagogue because he feels like they want too much money.

I’ve spent a good chunk of my time as a rabbinical student thinking about these kinds of issues and how my role as a rabbi can help foster Jewish community in the 21st century. The ever-evolving Jewish community challenges rabbis to meet people where they are in their lives, help people make discoveries about themselves and their place in society, and maybe even find their connection to God. What we also need to do, however, is think more creatively about how to reach out to and connect with Jews.

As an emerging rabbi, I’ve learned that people still need access to clergy, even when they don’t belong to a religious community. One night, I was at a local pub and Jay, a guy I’ve gotten to know from the neighborhood, walked in. Jay is not Jewish but he came up to me and said, “You’re a rabbi, right?” I told him I’m a student but will be a rabbi one day. He says “I’m going into the Fire Academy and won’t be around for two months. Can you give me a blessing?” I was touched, moved and honored that he would ask. I put my hand on Jay’s shoulder. Some of his friends joined us, and there were also Jews in the bar who joined. We closed our eyes as I offered Jay a blessing that wished him well on his new journey to becoming a firefighter and prayed for a safe return. The look on Jay’s face was pure joy. In that moment I was able to be Jay’s “rabbi,” he needed pastoral care and I was honored to provide it for him and since then, the Jews who were in the bar that night, most of whom are in their 20’s or early 30’s, have discussed many things with me: their trips to Israel, their time in Hebrew school, their childhood rabbi, and much more. I also want to add they do not attend a synagogue and are not active members in a Jewish community.

These stories emphasize why it’s important to broaden our view of what it means to be a rabbi today. Of course we don’t want to get rid of synagogues, but we can also find other ways to meet people where they are in their lives. We can find ways to work outside the boundaries of our synagogues, talk with individuals, and listen and engage with them about Jewish life.

Click here for Part 2.

Shabbat Shalom to my Two Musketeers

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Julie and Ariel

This is dedicated to my two Musketeers, Ariel and Julie. I am so honored and so blessed to have spent this time in Israel with my two sisters. We are not connected by blood but we will forever be connected by this experience which has been full of highs, lows, joys, and sorrows. We stand up for one another, provided listening ears and laugh at the craziness that is our world. Shabbat Shalom

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A few weeks ago I played this for our landlady’s husband. I wrote this prayer for all victims of gun violence, and…

Posted by The Rabbi-IT and Guitar on Saturday, November 28, 2015

Modah/Modeh Ani

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Every morning when I awake I thank God for another day.  This is the meaning of the blessing Modah/Modeh Ani. We are thanking God for a new day, another day and for restoring our souls.

One of the classes I am taking at the Conservative Yeshiva this semester is about the practical aspects of Jewish law in our daily lives. One of our assignments a few weeks was to think and reflect on the morning blessings. I focused on Modah Ani and came up with this chant/song/prayer.

Modah ani lefanecha ruach Chai V’chayam
Modah ani efanecha ruach Chai V’chayam

Every Morning when I awake I thank you for another day
Modah ani lefanecha ruach Chai V’chayam

Modah ani lefanecha ruach Chai V’chayam
Adonai Adonai help me find my way today

Modah ani lefanecha ruach Chai V’chayam

Modah ani lefanecha ruach Chai V’chayam

she-he-chezarta bee nishmatee b’chemla, raba emunatecha
Have a great week

Hair

Before I left Philadelphia, I told Ollie, the guy who cuts my hair to cut it really short in hopes that I could make it through my time in Israel without getting a haircut. I was wrong, because the other day when I woke up in the morning and saw myself in the mirror, it was like my hair had discovered it’s own freedom and was happy to be set free and decided to grow all over my head. I started to have flashbacks to what my dad’s hair looked like in the 70’s. I thought to myself, “I can wear a baseball cap,” but then I had flashes of images in my head of black baseball players in the 70’s and 80’s and decided that wasn’t going to work either and the best solution was to find someone to cut my hair, but where and by whom.

I’m a black woman, living in a very Ashkenazi aka white community in Jerusalem. When it comes to hair, this alone can bring out a lot of issues that many black women in American can relate to. Another issue is that I do not fit neatly into gender norms and Jerusalem is a city, where it seems to me as an outsider, has very specific ideas of how men and women should look. Women dress one way, men dress another. Women have long hair, cover their hair or wear wigs and it is the men who have short hair.

In my online search for either a salon or barber shop, I noticed that some places, were labeled unisex, and these places seemed to be the safest bet. I found a salon close to my apartment and after a very long day of classes, I dragged my roommate Ariel with me on my hair cutting adventure, looking for this salon.

I never actually found the salon (I copied the wrong address) and instead popped my head into Moris Hair Design, where I met Yaron and Moris.  I walked into their salon in the evening, introduced myself to both of the them and when I shook Yaron’s hand, his hand was so warm and his face was so kind. I’m sure my face looked pretty pathetic and I said to him almost pleading “Can you cut my hair?” Yaron stated, he was about to leave and could not cut my hair that night but assured me he could do it the next day. Yaron and Moris were both so nice to me and I loved their energy, I just wanted to hangout with them.

I did go back the next day and Yaron did cut my hair and did an fabulous job, but this is not a review of the salon instead this is about connecting with people. 

One of the beautiful things that I love about living in Jerusalem are the random opportunities that I have had to make real connections with people.  People whom I would probably have never met if I had made a different choice.  Yaron was kind, funny and warm and I trusted him and let him work his magic on my hair and during this time he told me about his wife and his daughter and the baby on the way. And I told him about my wife and how she’s at home in Philadelphia and how much I miss her We shared stories, pictures of spouses, children and dogs and I left his salon feeling like I had made a new friend.

I believe a stranger is someone I haven’t met. We are commanded by the divine to welcome the stranger  Before I met Yaron we were strangers only because we had not yet met.  Now we are friends, I understand now that by welcoming each other into our hearts and our lives we are making a connection that brings us closer to the divine.  Shabbat Shalom

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I am Human

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I am human and I am free
Watch me fly above the trees
You can hear my cry and you can hear my roar
but you can’t take away my soul

We’ll fight and we’ll cry and we’ll even abide
We’ll say goodbye just to stay alive
And the day will come to have dignity again

Last week, I went on a trip with Encounter to East Jerusalem.  I saw checkpoints, military, refugee camps and neighborhoods that look very different from my own.  Later, I sat and I listened to Palestinians tell their stories and speak about their realities of living in Jerusalem. I listened to their stories and I listened to their pain and my heart broke as each of them told a room full of Jews what it is like to be Palestinian in Jerusalem.

As I listened, they became my mothers, my sisters, my son and my brother, I could see myself in each one of them. We must strive to always see each other as created in the image of God, because when we do, we treat each other with love, dignity and respect. As the day was ending the words of one speaker, a teenager, was in my head, he said “I am a human…” those words stayed with me the rest of the day and I came home and wrote this song.  

 

The Landlady’s Husband

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Last night I met the landlady’s husband, his name is Michael. He came to collect the rent and what I thought would be a more formal conversation  turned out to be another awesome encounter with a wonderful human being.

When he came in the apartment he saw the guitar on the couch and asked if I played, and then asked what kind of music? I told him I play mostly folk music and I was working on some liturgy and trying to put some music to some of our biblical text. I then asked if he played and he said he did but had not played in a long time and that he missed playing.  And then in this very sweet voice he asked if I would play something for him. I was surprised that he asked and he seemed a bit surprised too and offered me an out.

I decided to oblige him and I played My Kaddish for him, and told him I wrote it for victims of gun violence in the United States and that my heart was breaking every time I learned of another person being killed by a gun.

While I was playing he seemed to find comfort in listening to the song and then told me it was beautiful. I then asked if he would play something for me and he played an old British folk song which was amazing.

When he left the apartment we were no longer strangers connected by a business agreement, we were now two old friends connected by music. And it reminded me how much we need music in the world. We have enough things in our world that divide us and music is one of those things that doesn’t tear us apart. 

The more I play my guitar the more I want to make it a part of what I do in this world as a rabbi. I used to be terrified to sing in front of people, and I still get nervous playing the guitar in front of people,  but Judaism and my dream of becoming a rabbi has unlocked my voice, now I sing all the time and find so much comfort in it.

 

Yitgadal v’yit-kadash sh’mei rabba
B’allma dee v’ra chir’utei

Dear God lift me up in my time of need
Please show me how to live and love in peace
I want to live in a world full of hope
But it’s hard when there is so pain

v’yamlich malchutei,
B’chayeichon, uv’yomeichon,
uv’chayei d’chol beit yisrael,
Ba’agala u’vizman kariv, v’imru, Amen

Adonai, Adonai I praise your holy name
Turn my sorrow turn my pain and show me the way
Adonai, Adonai we bless your name
So that One day may there be peace for us all

Oseh shalom bim’ro’mav,
hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu,
v’al kol yisrael v’imru, Amen