Growing up in the home of a rabbi did not translate automatically into a love for Jewish ritual and practice. Actually, my early years during which I lived on a block overflowing with non-Jewish (or assimilated Jewish) children generated a lot of conflict in me. To begin with, the rites and ceremonies that are part of Jewish life seemed to be my dad’s “business”, and whenever I had to make an appearance at synagogue, I felt self-conscious and conspicuous as his son. The conflict was compounded by the schedule conflict; while all the kids were outside playing on a Saturday at noon, I was inside “enjoying” a formal Sabbath meal, with my heart and mind with my friends out on the street.
In those early years the cantor was (or seemed to be) a wannabe opera singer. I couldn’t believe how long it took to get through some prayers that he lingered over interminably. The Kedusha (the holiest central piece of the Amidah, [standing prayer]) on Rosh Hashanah left us standing for what felt like an hour.
It was through Young Judaea (it makes me sad that Hadassah has stopped sponsoring this wonderful youth program) that I discovered a different energy and meaning to the world of Jewish ritual. Ironically, at camp, as a counselor, I was put in charge of daily services because they figured I knew more, being a rabbi’s kid. Given that responsibility, I approached the ritual differently than the way I was exposed to it in my childhood and youth, (and is still the way in many synagogue settings). First, I discovered I was not the only one turned off to the prayer process; I realized that prayer and ritual observance for many is an acquired taste like learning to eat vegetables. As a result, with the compliance of my fellow counselors, we decided to approach the ritual differently: apart from the doing of the ritual, we paused to explore what it meant and why it was good for you (i.e. as in the need to learn to like vegetables!). That process began a life-long quest to integrate the so-called rote of Jewish observance with its relevance to life on a daily basis. We were surprised to see how much of the ritual became more user-friendly when we put ourselves and our campers into the mix of how its practice could actually enhance the quality of life. While not everyone loves singing (I did and do, and it was singing that opened doors of willingness to look again at ritual’s potential), we saw that doing so energized the group and accordingly the service.
Even as a student at the seminary I still had my allergies to services done by rote and I feared I would be uncovered as someone not worthy of becoming a rabbi. Countering that were my years of leadership in Young Judaea and crafting summer camp services, traditionally grounded (translation: mostly in Hebrew), in which we emphasized that there is purpose and meaning in this ritual. As unit head of 9th graders at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, home to one of the Conservative Movement of Judaism’s outstanding summer experiences, I saw that even kids from the east that grew up with a more formal and rigid approach to Jewish practice were seemingly as turned off to their services as I had been growing up in San Francisco. The counselors thought it was a novel, even revolutionary, idea when I suggested we try to turn the kids back on by taking time to explore what the prayers meant and how they connected us to real life questions and concerns. As it turns out, those New York kids also resonated with that approach to making ritual more palatable.
Years later, I have come to fully appreciate that at the heart and soul of prayer and ritual is the creation of contexts to bring people together to celebrate their life journeys and values that make it worthy and significant to maintain community and a structure that collectively identifies life’s preciousness and the memories we generate.
As Jews, we are in the “business” of seeing and celebrating as many nuances of life’s preciousness as we can. We are given the ritual process as a means to collectively generate moments that become vital memories, markers along the way as we grow older and hopefully wiser and use our life experience to help younger ones, i.e. the children, appreciate the values inherent in the ritual as means to make their own life experiences fruitful and rewarding. That is why one of my great joys is being with the children in a brief service we do during the school year on Sunday mornings. We sing, we gesture the meaning of the words and we pause to explore what the prayers mean and how it all connects to who they are. It is rewarding beyond measure to see them engaged and keeping allergies to synagogue at bay. My hope is that even if they don’t remember the name of the rabbi when they are grown, they will remember that their early taste of prayer and ritual was positive, providing energy that could carry them into adulthood looking at and experiencing prayer differently than I and many of us did in our formative years.
With all this in mind, save Memorial Day Weekend for an exciting opportunity to build life time “memories”: Saturday evening May 26 at 7:30 PM we will welcome the holiday of Shavuot, the gift of Torah, and then Sunday morning, May 27, we will gather at a location that is as beautiful as any National Park: Diamond Creek Vineyard, (see the information elsewhere in the bulletin) where we will join with our friends from CBS Napa to celebrate the holiday in memorable fashion…not to be missed! We arrive at 10:30 and will enjoy a participatory and informal outdoor service in the picnic area, followed by a day that is perfect for a holiday weekend: picnicking, boating on the lake, swimming, walking/hiking, smelling the roses (literally!) and enjoying Al Brounstein’s (of blessed memory) hand-crafted waterfalls and so much more.
This day is an ideal example of integrating the ritual associated with an important Jewish holiday with life in all its joy and fulfillment, even as we pause to appreciate, i.e on Memorial Day Weekend, the unique country in which we live that enables us to be non-self-consciously who we are as a people with a particular appreciation of life and all its precious gifts.