The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Friday, February 20, 2015

Bridging a Gap in Religious Life

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
20 February 2015 • Parashat Terumah

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.
(Exodus 25:2)

The verse that begins this week's parashah is popular among fundraisers: "bring gifts!" But at the same time, the second half of the verse reminds us that our heart has to be in it.

These two orientations are like two sides of a coin, two ways to approach Jewish life. The differences between these two approaches were articulated very well in a recent article by Kathy Elias, Chief Kehilla and Strategy Officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, entitled "Why Does Synagogue Change Miss the Mark? Think Structuralist vs Experientialist." She wrote:

Structuralists understand and value synagogue communities. They want to strengthen them. Their approach is to make changes to the existing structure of their community – changing Shabbat service customs, hiring different clergy and staff, tweaking their membership dues models, consolidating their school or merging with another congregation. This is not for the faint of heart. Structuralist leaders are often willing to risk their personal and familial time, peace of mind, and faith in the structures themselves, year after year, trying to find the recipe for a vibrant kehilla.
Experientialists want to strengthen their Jewish lives. They understand and value the myriad of options they have in and out of synagogues to accomplish this. Their approach to get what they need is to create it themselves, find solutions that work, and/or move through experiences until they get the right fit. This is not for the faint of heart, but experientialists see the world built this way in real time all around them – a connected, crowd-sourced, DIY world where technology, the economy and social structures change almost as quickly as an Amazon app on Google Play.
Structuralist leaders say things like, “Why don’t they want to join us?” and “If we only had better … (pick one) … marketing materials, programs, music, participatory services, clergy, ways to explain Conservative Judaism, relational strategies… it would bring in new people.”
Experientialists say, “I value being Jewish, but I don’t need to pay to feel Jewish,” and “Why should I work on a committee and wait for a group to decide what I can or can’t have? It can be created now, and I can find it myself if I need to.”
Structuralists get frustrated when people don't join, affiliate, attend.
Experientialists get frustrated when they feel ignored, not heard, undervalued, excluded, overcharged.

Structuralists ask, why not get involved?
Experientialists ask, why get involved?

Structuralists ask, what program or event can we run to attract people?
Experientialists ask, what interesting people are around that I can be in community with?

It is tempting to see this divide along generational lines, and there is some truth to that framing. Elias again:

The generations of baby boomers and their parents built our synagogue structures, and, in many kehillot, still tend to be the majority in the leadership. Experientialists are probably younger, and may or may not be members of kehillot.
But if you only think only in generational terms, you’ll miss the big picture. Structuralists and experientialists can cut across generational lines. It’s possible for a person to be both, depending on what part of their lives we’re talking about.
The good news is, there is good news. It is possible to bridge this gap. In fact, that task is a great opportunity to reinvigorate our communities, to build relationships and from them programming that speaks deeply to people's real lives, to invest in structures that serve us, rather than serving the structures we've inherited.

To do this, structuralists need to take a step back from what Judaism looks like now, and what it looked like a generation ago, to realize that the structures they hold onto were themselves new, once upon a time.

Experientialists could learn about tools for building sustainable communities of profound and lasting impact, about the value of showing up for others outside one's usual social circles.

All of us should consider the cherubim in this week's Torah portion, intricately described in the instructions for building the mishkan. On the cover of the ark, in gold, are to be two cherubim figures: "The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover" (Exod 25:20). In that space of confrontation, of face-to-face encounter – precisely in that space is where God's presence will be felt. "There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you — from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact — all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people" (Exod 25:22). Confrontation of opposing paradigms can be productive. In the meeting place of opposing ideas we can find our way toward progress.

In the end, we all want a congregation that recognizes and uses our gifts; we want a community that moves our hearts. The blueprint for this work isn't as clear as the Mishkan instructions, but we can realize this vision together.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Grandeur and Stillness

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
06 February 2015 • Parashat Yitro

On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for ADONAI had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. 
(Exodus 19:16-19)

This Shabbat we read the dramatic scene of the revelation at Sinai. It is full of thunder and lighting, smoke and fire, and a loud blast of the shofar. There's an earthquake, too – the mountain trembled. God causes upheaval in nature as a sign of God's awesome and awe-inspiring power. This image of divine grandeur is meant to make us feel small, humble, limited and finite in the face of such power.

That's one version of what revelation is like, of what it's like when God speaks to humans. But there's another type of revelation experience. The best example is Elijah's relationship with God, in the book of Kings. Elijah has fled for his life and finds refuge in a cave. God speaks to him in this time of distress:
“Come out,” [God] called, “and stand on the mountain before ADONAI.” And lo, ADONAI passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of ADONAI; but ADONAI was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but ADONAI was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but ADONAI was not in the fire. And after the fire — a soft murmuring sound. (I Kings 19:11-12)
God brings awesome displays of nature's fierceness, but each time, God is not in that display. Only in the quiet stillness of the final moment does Elijah meet God. That phrase "soft murmuring sound" is often translated "still small voice." It's a direct contrast to the blaring horns of the Sinai revelation. Consider the Hebrew:
קול שופר חזק / kol shofar chazak – a strong blast of the shofar (Exod. 19:16)
קול דממה דקה / kol d'mamah dakah – a still small voice (I Kings 19:12).
The first kol (voice, sound) is strong, loud, blaring. The second kol is small, thin, faint. These two scenes represent the range of experiences of God's presence, or spiritual connection, or transcendence – whichever term you prefer.

There was a time in Reform Judaism when grandeur was the norm. If you've ever been to Temple Emanu-El of New York City, you know what this looks like architecturally.

They wanted to evoke a feeling of awe, of human insignificance in the face of divine majesty, so they built cathedrals to that aesthetic. Adding to this feeling was the liturgy of "high church" music, with an invisible choir intoning celestially from above, along with the formal robes worn by the clergy.

Now, I would suggest, the "still small voice" type of spirituality is ascendant. We want intimacy and accessibility from our religious experience; we want clergy we can relate to. (I think we see this trend in the rise in popularity of meditation and yoga, too, by the way.) And I think a central reason people move here to the mountains is to find this kind of spiritual connection. We seek the beauty of nature, but we are looking for stillness, tranquility, serenity – not to be overwhelmed by God's awesome power in nature.

So my invitation to you is to figure out the way you connect spiritually. Are you a "still small voice" person or a "thunder, lighting, loud shofar blast" person? And then make room for that practice in your life. As the rabbis advise, make "a fixed time" for it – or it may not happen at all.

Shabbat shalom.