Sunday, July 26, 2015

Creating Shaddai, July 26, 2015

אני (I)
עולם (world)                                     Intuitive
                        Tikkun Olam
                                                Bina (understanding)

                                    El Shaddai    Support
Adonai     Covenant
Elohim   Eternity

יהוה (God)

Lessons Learned from the 2015 ACC Convention, delivered on Shabbat Pinchas

            I spent the week leading up to last Shabbat with over 100 of my cantorial colleagues at our annual meeting of the ACC, the American Conference of Cantors.  This annual convention also includes our musical partners in the GTM, the Guild of Temple Musicians, an organization that supports accompanists, synagogue musicians, and choir directors that serve Reform congregations throughout the country and beyond.  The ACC and the GTM meet together every year at the end of June.  The location of the gathering travels throughout the country and Israel allowing cantors to get a taste of regional differences, take advantage of scholars and resources in various areas of the country, and to allow cantors to show off their local communities to their colleagues.   This year’s meeting was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  It was a good conference; still, I never again want to visit south Florida in late June. It was a good thing the only free time was in the early morning or after dark!  We think it is hot and humid in Baltimore during the summer?  Luckily, the offerings of this year’s conference were excellent, so it was easy to avoid the hot midday sun of south Florida in June.
            The theme of this year’s ACC convention was the future of Reform Judaism.   One of the center pieces of the conference was the unveiling of  Shirei Mishkan haNefesh, a musical companion to the Reform movement’s new High Holiday machzor, Mishkan haNefesh.  Our congregation is sticking to the Gates of Repentance, a book published by the Reform movement in 1978, for at least the near future, but this new musical work still provides us an opportunity to inject some musical innovation into our High Holiday worship even if we are not ready to change our machzor. 
            Other highlights of the convention included a panel that addressed the “Future of Our Institutions, Our Movement, and the Community.”  It featured the current President of the Reform movement’s seminary, the Hebrew Union College; the CEO of the Reform movement’s Rabbinic arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis; the President of the ACC; the Director of Communities of Practice, a new project of the Union of Reform Judaism; and, the current director of Jewish Community at New York City’s 92street Y (who also is a retired Reform Rabbi with years of congregational experience).
If I had to sum up the 2-hour plus panel presentation on one foot, I’d say there were two take aways that are relevant to our situation at Temple Emanuel.  One, we are not alone.  In fact, we are far from alone, hence the need for such a panel at a gathering of Reform leaders. Reform congregations throughout the country are struggling just as we are.  Reform congregations throughout the country are seeking ways to respond to a new reality, namely that synagogue membership is no longer considered part and parcel in the definition of Jewish survival.  Gen X-ers and certainly Millennials are simply not joiners when it comes to religious institutions.   They do not, and more importantly, they will not – not matter how much we ask or beg - express their Jewish identity in the same manner as their parents and grandparents. 
            Second, there is no magic pill that will fix what we see as a problem.   No one has the solution that will solve today’s synagogue woes, but all agree “the solution,” so to speak, must be dynamic, multi-dimensional, and flexible.   It cannot be reduced to a compelling program, a charismatic clergy person, the right musical instrumentation, or a shiny marketing campaign.  If it were that simple, there’d be no need for the conversation itself.  One thing is clear, the solutions require a willingness to change and to perhaps change big.  It requires vision, innovation, and frankly money to back that up.  The solutions also require letting go of old vision and of unrealistic expectations.   And, any "solution" must recognize that it is only a problem when viewed from within the synagogue looking out.  The folks who choose not to affiliate or prioritize synagogue life are not looking for a fix to any problem.   Before we try to "fix" anything, we have to be willing to recognize that stark fact, to consider the reality that synagogue affiliation is simply not a primary – nor automatic - vehicle for the expression of Jewish identity for an increasing majority of Jews.  And, we can’t keep functioning under the premise that it is. 
            Another highlight of the ACC convention, one that can remind us of the most important ingredient of Jewish life, was worship itself.  When Reform Jewish leaders gather, we not only study, we pray twice daily: shacharit and ma’ariv, morning and evening.   And, it is an experience that can only be described as awesome: literally as an experience filled with awe.  Imagine, over 100 professional voices joining together as one kahal in song.  The constantly changing blend of harmonies become melody infusing the words with meaning lifting them far off the 2-dimensional page.  The music becomes the kevana – the spontaneous intention demanded of our tradition.  There is no question in my mind that our voices transformed that hotel ballroom into sacred space.
            This indeed is a primary goal of worship: the transformation of space into sacred space.  It isn’t the sanctuary or chapel that makes our worship sacred.  It isn’t a specific location, it is us.  We are that necessary ingredient.  We have the power to create holiness, and a primary way we do so is by coming together as a community to worship.  Without us, it is just an empty room.   Without us, the Torah becomes a relic.  Without us, the prayerbooks remain unopened on the cart to gather dust.  The room helps – a lot, but ultimately, it is up to us to engage and choose to create our own harmonies.