Wednesday, March 24, 2010

You Shall Tell Your Children

I had a profound experience a few nights ago. I sat on our couch with my son Elisha, just shy of 2 ½, and an illustrated haggadah, and I used the pictures to tell him the story of the Exodus. As I talked I was overwhelmed by a feeling of deep fulfillment. For my whole life I have read, studied, and analyzed the verse "you shall tell your children on that day, this is because of what God did for me when I went out from Egypt." I can offer ten different approaches to understanding its meaning. The whole seder experience is really a grand exegesis of these two words, vehigadeta levinkha, you shall tell your child. Yet in a way it feels like all of the sedarim I have participated in and led were just place-fillers until I could do exactly that – sit with my son and tell him the story.

It is what I imagine the medieval sages felt who finally saw the Land of Israel after a lifetime of imagining it in their prayers. It is also the most profound message of arami oved avi, the biblical passage whose exegesis is the heart of the haggadah. This short passage is a brief history of the Israelites' journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. They went down to Egypt and were enslaved, but then God brought them out and brought them to Israel. What is most important about this text, though, is when it was used. It was recited when an Israelite brought the first fruits of his land to the Temple to give thanks to God. In other words, an Israelite living peacefully in Israel and enjoying the rich fruit of the land would come to the Temple bearing that fruit and say, I am the end of the story. All of the travails and hardships that my grandparents endured were to enable this moment to happen. This moment is the realization of that vision. In the words of Sweet Honey in the Rock, "We are our grandfathers' dreams." A simple moment of living life, a simple act of giving thanks. The Seder is, in a way, our first fruits moment, when we sit as free people and acknowledge the ways in which this moment, and our blessed lives, are the fulfillment of the dreams of many generations of ancestors.

This telling is also about the challenge of conveying who we are. I have been steeped in the story my whole life. For as long as I can remember it has been self-evident that this is my story, that it is essential to who I am and to my place in the world. Now I look at my own son and ask, how do I actually shape that experience? How do I encourage him to embrace this identity and see it as a source of pride? This is the first moment where I am not just teaching him things – words, ideas, behaviors. It is where I begin to tell him, this is who we are, this is our story. It is a task which will occupy many years, one whose path is uncertain but whose outcome is deeply important to me. It is a moment where I acknowledge that I have a vision for who I want him to be, a vision that I will try hard to impart while always knowing that I do not control who he will become.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Do shuls want to be fixed?

Last week, Rabbi David Starr posted this comment:

"A note to all of you elitist minyanaires out there: what would it mean for you to try to fix problematic shuls rather than forming affinity groups just for folks like you?"
This is a challenge often made to Indy minyanim. The premise is that there are lots of existing, established institutions which are underperforming, and that young Jews should be working to transform them to meet all of the religious and social needs that are currently not being met rather than deepening their crisis by investing resources in new institutions.
If the rationale is that we should support these struggling institutions because they are there, it is not compelling. Few of us believe in sustaining ineffectual institutions for their own sake – for an extreme formulation of this attitude, see Elie Kaunfer's new book. So let's focus on the idea that we can actually accomplish more by working through existing institutions than we can on our own.
Elie argues that, by not being tied down to real estate, Independent Minyanim can be nimble, have low overhead, and focus on their primary mission. This idea is attractive but has definite limits. Many have been limited by challenges of space. There is no room for proper children's programming, or the space is not always available. There is also a severe limit to resources – organizing the range of offerings that its constituency needs demands much more money and time than a lay-led, nomadic minyan can invest. These are things that established shuls often have in abundance. And we need shuls to get involved with because no place will have the concentration of like-minded people we have on the Upper West Side of NY, Dupont Circle in DC, etc. Creating a symbiotic relationship should be both obvious and easy.
Why isn't it? Here are some key reasons:
  1. Most shuls that want to be "reinvigorated" actually want an influx of young people to enable them to keep doing what they have always done. They do not want experiment with new models of prayer or programming. This is especially the case in struggling shuls whose membership tends to be older and more deeply attached to "the way things have been". But this culture is precisely what needs to be changed in order to bring in new life. Even where the leadership promises that they are open to new ideas, change is in reality extremely slow and laborious.
  2. In many shuls, the religious needs of the membership and of young observant families barely overlap. At one shul, there is little integration between the populations despite years of joint programming, mostly because they have little in common. Another has wonderful children's programming which minyan families avoid because it is full of shabbat violations.
  3. Some of the things Indy minyaners find most onerous are built into the culture of many shuls. Five different special blessings for various celebrations. Bnai Mitzva being given such prominence that the rest of davening feels like an afterthought. Rabbis who conduct and control the flow of services from up on the bimah, even in shuls with an educated membership who don't need it. Hazzanim who discourage participation rather than encouraging it. And so forth.
I do not speak for everyone, but here is my understanding:
We would love to find shuls who would welcome us and where we could be part of revitalizing a community rather than starting a new one. Most of us are willing to make significant compromises to make that possible. We are also willing to invest in making that happen. But it can only happen in places where the shul and shul leadership are willing to fully understand what we are looking for and what it would mean to cultivate this kind of culture. I don't know KI in Brookline (Rabbi Starr's example), but I know that its rabbi is someone who understands and embraces that culture. It is certainly the right kind of place to start.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Becoming Passe

A comment on my last post and an observation by a friend last shabbat coincided to get me thinking about another aspect of the Independent Minyan problem.

In a comment, BZ noted that there is a major gap between those who finished college before the Indy phenomenon hit full stride and thereafter. Many people who graduated in the late '90s and early '00s moved to NY, DC and other centers expecting not to find the kind of religious community they wanted. When they got there, they either were part of starting up an exciting new minyan or found a nascent community that was far more fulfilling than they had expected. This was the population that enabled the phenomenon to grow and to spread to new communities, and many were both excited about their discovery and committed to helping it grow.

But things change fast in our world. 10 years ago most college students had no idea what was happening beyond the boundaries of campus, whereas today's students, with so much information in easy access, are much more in tune with developments in the larger community. And these minyanim are now so well established that new graduates are barely conscious of a world without them. In part that means they feel less of an obligation – these minyanim don't need their contributions to survive, and are no longer the dawn of a new age. It also means that they feel less of a sense of ownership, since they are joining a group that they did not shape, and thus are less committed to its success.

Then this past Shabbat, my friend Uri, a long-time Hadar member, attended a new, start-up Friday night minyan which met at Shaare Zedek, a local Conservative shul. He described the culture of the group to be quite similar to Hadar's, yet he guessed that he recognized less than a quarter of the (mostly young) faces. There are undoubtedly multiple reasons for this (it's not senility – he's younger than I): some may have been people who get to shul more often on Friday night than shabbat morning, or people just checking out a new thing. But mostly it seems to be people in their early 20s who are interested in participatory, musical, lay-led davening and yet have never or rarely been to Hadar and are not going to Kol Zimrah (I would love to get a KZ person's take on this). I don't have the answers to why they don't come to Hadar, nor do I know where (if anywhere) they are going shabbat morning. But I do know this: Hadar is feeling demographically limited from two sides. Many of the new people who get involved are mid to late 20s people whose friends have been involved for years. But it is starting to seem like for the new crop of 23-year-olds, Hadar is just not the hot new thing. It's the thing that is established, not the thing they have the opportunity to shape. I haven't gathered data about other Indy minyanim, but I wouldn't be surprised if the same issues are surfacing elsewhere.

It may be totally fine that a new generation is doing their own thing. But I think that we assumed that if we built it, they would come – that each successive wave of new grads would gravitate towards our minyanim and the unique culture they were creating. If we were just riding a wave borne of being the hot new thing, then we have to ask how we respond to that and what it means for the future of these minyanim that we value so highly.