Monday, February 21, 2005

Border States

When trying to break down some borders, I forgot about the ones right in front of my face.

For most youth groups, Jewish or not, the nation is divided into regions. Kentucky happens to be a region called Central Region of United Synagogue Youth (CRUSY). But here is the joke: almost every city in our region is over three hours away by car. And the punchline is that there are chapters of our youth group just over the border in Tennessee that we do not even know. And those chapters bear a striking resemblance to ours, especially the chapter in Nashville.

So to fix that problem, I simply called the Nashville chaper and asked if they wanted to get together for a weekend. And after months of anticipation and a flurry of phone calls and emails over the past two week, USY Without Borders was born.

A bulky white 15-passenger van carrying ten kids and me made its way down to Nashville this past weekend to spend time with another chapter. I was worried that the kids wouldn't mix. That each would stick to their own, circling around like wagons under attack.

I was only partially proved correct.

The high school kids that came down with our group took to their group like fish to water. The weekend was filled with dinner, song, jokes, intense conversation about topics that would make parents nervous, line dancing, lasertag, pizza, food, study and fellowship. By the end of the weekend, plans were already in the air for when they would be coming to visit us.

But even with the arbitrary border breeched, there was another border that I did not give enough consideration before the trip. For the latter half of the school year, our chapter promotes the 8th graders to USY (i.e. high school) status. Five of our ten travellers were 8th grade boys. Their counterparts in Nashville only become USY at the end of the summer before 9th grade.

The world that 8th graders occupy bears little relation to the world of high school. I could see the border between then throughout the weekend. At time, it would give way. Others times, it was a steel wall. The Nashville youth advisor and I spent a good portion of our weekend making sure that everyone had a good time. We could tell that they felt left out, teased and made to feel less. Luckily, a lot of the weekend, gave them time to hang out together as a group, which is good, because they are the future of USY in Louisville.

If I could to it over, I would have included their 8th graders or left ours at home. However, I think that those five boys did come home more part of USY than before. Maybe when they are the older bunch, they will think back on this weekend, and treat those new 8th graders differently.

Nah, probably not.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Long and Winding Road

I just returned from a regional convention for middle school kids from all over our youth group region ( I got to play surrogate parent for fifteen of our Kadima chapter's kids. (We would have had 16 kids go, but Jordan broke his arm the night before we left.) The bus ride up functions as a crescendo. Our pre-dawn departure lead to picking up nine more from Lexington, which was followed by a surge of kids from Cincinnati. The peak of the crescendo comes are the kids enter the building and join the entire convention of over 200 people from our five states. That alone makes the trip worthwhile. If I can help kids see themselves are part of the larger Jewish world, that is something right there.

The one major thing that I came away with from this weekend was the I see the need for a high degree of flexibility when it comes to Jewish education. Yes, we are part of the Conservative movement. That means we value both tradition and change. So our prayer services reflect the ones from our synagogues. But the thing is that most adults find our services difficult to draw meaning and inspiration. True that USY provides more singing than some congregations, but the time spent during services does not feel well spent. We need to do the minimum that Jewish Law requires (which is its own valuable lesson) and then spend the freed up time creating and developing a dynamic connection between ourselves and our liturgy.

I am going to take steps to see that we devote more of our time at conventions to creative services and less time to reproducing the same services that these kids see week in week out.

And that bus ride home provided a wonderful parallel to the beginning. Going from a full bus to just our chapter was remarkable. As the bus depleted, the kids from Louisville did not spread out all around the bus. They stuck together, and seemed to form the core of a great Kadima chapter. Maybe this trip prove to be a crucible that forges them together.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Havraya is Born!

Last Thursday night, ten men gathered in a friend's home to form something new. Ten men set out to set aside a fixed time every month to come together to study, share and grow. The biggest challenge was choosing what to spend our time on.Everyone comes from such different backgrounds and levels of knowledge. But we chose to use Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin's "Searching for My Brothers: Jewish Men in a Gentile World." Hopefully this book with help us turn in all three critical directions: into our past, into ourselves, to each other and to the future. I hope that everyone left the room that night with a sense that we had begun something exciting and meaningful. This setting will enable us to get to know each other in a way the men are not encouraged to in our day. My mind is already on March 3, our next meeting

Creating the Beautiful Life

Last night after Shabbat, I remembered one aspect of what makes Judaism compelling for me is that Judaism can make life beautiful. Every moment can be either mundane or holy. Judaism provides ways to make moments beautiful. Yes, one can simply eat. But one can add study, song and prayer to any meal. The meal is elevated from the mundane to the holy.

Last night, we could have all gathered for a small end of Shabbat meal at the synagogue and discussed sports, but instead people chatted, we studied Torah, we sang songs that are traditional for that time of day on Shabbat, and we thanked the Holy One for the food that ate. We made the end of Shabbat beautiful.

Yes, ritual can be done in a perfunctory and dull manner. But that is a choice we make. Yes, you have to learn something about the ritual to give it meaning, to be able to make it more beautiful. But whoever said that Judaism was something handed to you on a platter. Ask any gardener about the work is takes to make a beautiful garden. Ask any chef about the time it takes to plan, prepare and present a beautiful meal. Ask any parent about the amount of work to raise a mentsch.

There is a meta-mitzvah called hiddur mitzvah, which means to beautify the commandment. We are challenged to make doing the mitzvot beautiful. And knowing the full range of mitzvot, there no parts of life exempt from this.

I also learned this year from the Jewish Federation that a two word slogan can say a lot, so here is my version:

Live Beautifully.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Old Wine in a New Flask

This past Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I was in charge of the Family Service at my wife's congregation. I bring images of paintings and sculptures, poetry and drama that illustrate narratives from the Torah to provides a text for interpretation that anyone can read at almost any age. The dicsussion focuses on the big issues: What sacrifices are we willing to make for our religion? For our families? Is God essentially compassionate or strict? Over the course of these sacred days, I saw that the parents were far more interested in the kind of study that I was going for, especially the fathers. Which got me thinking: What if there were a group here for Jewish men to engage in contemplative study?

IRONY #1: The Jewish world used to be just that almost to the exclusion of all else. Jewish learning was almost exclusively the domain of boys and men studying the Talmud part of full time. And this is still true is some segments of the Jewish world today. Here in the US, Judaism changed into something that was part time for all. And in the liberal Jewish world, there are few places for men to come together for sacred study. It simply does not exist here and now.

Within two days, the idea had almost fully formed: Louisville's first (at least in a while) Jewish men's study group. I even had the name picked out: Havraya. The name is taken from the Zohar, our premier book of Jewish mysticism. In it, a group of men travel together through the Torah which is protrayed as a geographic place. The text is the land! We will journey through it together!

IRONY #2: I went to the web to see what is being done now in the Jewish community at large. In short: nothing. The only websites that had anything to offer were by Messianic Jews or Jews for Jesus, who are essentially Christians posing as Jews. But they had some great ideas.

So finally, I put my head together with my friend BJ, and we came up with a list of people we wanted to invite from various congregations around town, and sent them all a letter about the group. The first meeting is tonight. I have no idea what will actually form out of this first encounter. I'm going to facilitate, and let the group become what it will be. What will we do together? What will the personality of the group be? But I am dying to see what holy sparks we can create together!

Celebrating Rashi's Life, Work and Legacy

Foundation for Planned Giving

One other project that I am involved with here in Louisville is a year long celebration of Rashi's life, work and legacy. Sheldon Gilman, an active member of the Jewish community here was inspired by a biography about Rashi (by Maurice Liber) to have Louisville come together to learn about and be inspired by Rashi's legacy. I am the coordinator of the whole project, which goes from January through December of this year. We kicked off the year with a wrap for the local Jewish newspaper. I wrote some of the articles for the wrap, including an advice column called Dear Rashi, which will appear once a month. We are bringing in a number of scholars, changing our focus and doing some great interfaith work and more. Stay tuned.

Kulanu: All of Us

Kulanu: All of Us

This website is dedicated to isolated Jewish communities all over the world. You may have read of the Abayudaya, the Jews of Uganda. You can read al about their story on this website. Where this whole thing gets back to Louisville is through my friends Rick and Rachel who know Gershom Sizomo, the first member of the Abayudaya to formally study to become a rabbi. Gershom, his wife Tzippora and their two children have moved to LA for Gershom's studies. And what is more amazing is that Gershom is not only their leader of his people, their mohel and founder of their day schools, he is up for a Grammy Award for the album Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda. My goal is to bring Gershom and his family to Louisville for a weekend of learning, stories and song. I hope it all works out!

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Transformative Education

One of the hats I wear in Louisville is director of our branch of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School (, which is a great adult education program geared towards making Jewish adults more Jewishly literate. This jobs actually makes me feel that I am fulfilling my mission as a rabbi. Some of the jobs I have had in the past couple years boiled down to event planning without anything deep or transformative at the core.

Seeing Jewish adults choose to spend their time learning together in a caring communal setting...there are few things as wonderful. So many Jewish adults simply have a weak connection to their roots, their community, to the larger Jewish world, to their inner selves. And I can see a generation of kids with the same disconnect coming down the pipes. It is a privilege to be involved with a program that devotes itself to giving people a present, past and future.

Learning is something that people can do simply to grow in soul. If you have the time, pick up a book that inspires you. If you do not have the time, make the time. Take ten minutes. Read something that makes you feel connected to others, to yourself, to what is most important to you. There is a tale of a young student who rushes to find his rabbi. Upon finding him, he says with an air of self-importance, "Rabbi, I have gone through the entire Talmud!" For those of you who do not know, this is no mean feat which typically takes a least seven years. The rabbis responds, "Fine, but has the Talmud gone through you?"

Learn. Live. Love.