The Real Menshes on Benches

I met two menshes on benches the Friday of Thanksgiving. You may now have the image of the Mensch on the Bench Hanukkah toy, but unlike this stuffed elf counterpart, these were true mensches.

One of the rules for this toy is that a “true mensch is one who puts smiles on other peoples’ faces.” The word mensch is Yiddish for human being. It means to be a true human; to live up to the depths of kindness, generosity, integrity and love that a human can muster. The two mensches I met put a smile on my face for sure.

My parents moved to Philadelphia over the summer from Boston to be near my youngest brother and his family. They joined Congregation Rodef Shalom which is near where they live. They joined because they had heard the synagogue was an architectural gem, which it is, that the clergy are accessible and warm, that the preaching and teaching is intellectually stimulating and that the worship is full of music and joy. As soon as they joined, another synagogue family called them and invited them out to dinner (which my parents were thrilled about since they don’t have any friends there yet). The synagogue staff greeted my parents at the door for several weeks after they moved to welcome them in and make sure they were getting acclimated. My parents were immediately swept off their feet with the ruach—the spirit—of the service. They kept telling me what a wonderful community this is. They love that each week there is a Shehecheyanu prayer sung after those in attendance share the good news that is happening in their lives.

Dickinson Park

Rabbi Ari and her kids at Dickinson Square Park

My family and I were visiting for Thanksgiving and my parents were so excited and proud to take us to their new temple. Well, my 5 and 7-year-old are not well behaved in synagogue. You might be surprised considering my husband is a pulpit rabbi and they go to synagogue a lot. My children are high energy, antsy, loud and boisterous. They get thirsty and have to pee a lot during services which requires them to go in and out of the sanctuary. They whine. They get hungry. No matter how many little activities and small snacks I bring, we have not fully mastered the art of sitting respectfully in synagogue with a “calm body” as we like to say.

On this Friday night, they were exhausted which mellowed them a little. But, my youngest ate through the whole hour long service (I so appreciated that the service was one hour including a Torah reading and short sermon). This synagogue has a quiet room where you can hear the service but people can’t hear us. However, we braved the actual sanctuary because my parents wanted the kids to try to fully participate. Wouldn’t you know, they did (sort of). When the time came to share a Shehecheyanu moment, my 5-year-old raised his hand for the microphone and said, “I am visiting my grandma and papa” which just made my parents kvell (swell with pride) and everyone in the community ooh and ahh with his cuteness.

During the Lecha Dodi prayer, they form a dancing chain and my children joined right in! The Rabbi made sure to welcome us specifically at the start of the service as well and he called my children up for the honor of helping to undress the Torah. Actively participating definitely helps one stay engaged, no matter how old you are. But, my kids were not perfect during that hour by any stretch of the imagination. There was a trail of popcorn under our seats to prove it.

After the service the two women sitting right behind us (on actual pews/benches) said, “Your children were such a delight. We loved their energy. We loved their dancing. They are so beautiful. What a joy to have you visiting.” They didn’t say, “Next time, you could try the Quiet Room.” Their response made me smile. It warmed my heart. It took a load off. I had been wondering how annoyed they would be sitting right behind us. It made me want to come back again. I told you I met two menshes on benches! They embodied what it means to be gracious, welcoming and empathetic.

Creating Positive Community Memories

Community

This year on Rosh Hashanah, our synagogue tried something new. All of the kids were invited onto the bima to witness the blowing of the shofar. It was amazing to watch the kids’ faces while the shofar sounded. My daughter even jumped back a little at the sound initially. It was a sight to behold on many levels. First, I loved seeing all of the kids at the synagogue. Most of them were in awe of the Torahs, the Rabbi and the shofar. Second, when I spoke to my son later, he said he never realized that there were that many people at the synagogue. He seemed impressed that there were that many people observing the holidays. Since he attends a school with very few Jewish kids, he felt excited that “he wasn’t the only one” observing the holiday. Third, the Rabbi said that the twisting shape of the shofar is like life – there are ups and downs, twists and turns that keep going on a unique journey. Again, watching the kids comprehend this concept was gratifying.

I know that for a long time, synagogues would keep the kids in a different area of the building during services so they didn’t disrupt the adults and the prayers (I suspect the parents liked having a “break” from the kids, too). Some congregations create a group that prays and another group that discusses. There may be another group for the teenagers and another group for the toddlers. Unfortunately, some kids grow up thinking that synagogue is just for kids. I think that this is all fine and good but at some point, we should all be together.

I learn so much from the whole community: from my kids, from my friend’s 92- year-old-grandmother, and from the pleasant gentleman two rows back with a great smile. Our kids should see what their future looks like and we should look back on our childhood with wonderful memories. The good memories are what keep us going so we can manage the twists and turns of life.

Many people are part of the community of their neighborhood, preschool, elementary school, gym or office. I find that these communities are wonderful but fleeting; the people move, the kids grow up, the gym down the street offers a better deal or people get new jobs. The Jewish community is a little different on the holidays. No one has to send out an invitation, but lots of people show up to celebrate the holiday. We see families grow up and evolve. A hug from an old friend is commonplace. We may hear a tune that reminds us of a relative or humorous incident from childhood.

I know that many communities have a Jewish Community Center (JCC) which is a great place to find community. While I am not a member of a JCC, I find that my Jewish community IS my center. It is the most consistent presence in my life besides family. I don’t love everyone there but I enjoy a little something of everyone, young and old. Best of all, we all are collecting and reliving some very positive memories.

Ask the Big Questions

10QWhen I was young, my sister taught me one of the most important things I needed to know about the High Holy Days: Always ask the big questions.

As kids, we attended services with the adults since child-friendly services hadn’t been invented yet. It was long. Really long. Now I lead services and understand why there is so much liturgy. But as teenagers it was tough to sit attentively for that long. My sister always brought a book with her to synagogue. But it wasn’t to pass the time, and it was not just any book. She felt that during the High Holy Days, we should be exploring the depths of religious and philosophical literature about the meaning of life. It was usually someone like Buber, Frankl, Hegel or Heidegger.

She loved finding the same themes they wrote about in the prayer book, and every now and then she would point out to me some kernel of wisdom she’d found or question that came up for her in one book or the other and we would ponder that in whispers for a while. What are we here for? Is there such a thing as a soul? What happens when we die and what makes us so afraid of it? She understood the true meaning of the season: to contemplate life, mortality and purpose. As I grew up, I started to see Rosh Hashanah and especially Yom Kippur as Judaism’s personal therapy session. When do we to put aside entire days to just focus on ourselves and the meaning of life?

My sister taught me that the Holy Days are about asking the big questions of life and death. Those questions are imbedded in our liturgy, but it can be hard to tease them out. These days, there are new prayer books that contain insightful meditations and commentary on each page. If you go to services, allow your eyes to wander all over the page, and allow your mind to wander where it needs to go. Things that come up while sitting in services are probably coming up for a good reason, and are pointing you to the work you need to do this year. If you don’t attend services, there are lots of ways to get into the High Holy Day spirit.

One Jewish organization, Reboot, has a great suggestion for digging deeply. It is called 10Q, for “ten questions.” There are ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that are meant as a time to reflect on the year past and the year to come. 10Q puts a modern twist on this tradition and asks you (digitally) a big question every day during that period about your life plans, goals, relationships and how you relate to world events of the day.  People of any background can use them to delve deeply with their broad, spiritual questions. And in case the craziness of the intervening year causes you to forget what matters most to you, they will send you your responses before Rosh Hashanah of 2015.

However you mark the days of reflection coming up, try to not let them just go by. Whether you spend these days in nature, in synagogue, at home or work, take some time to ask yourself the big questions.

Learning to Pray

This summer I met with the senior staff at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL. The staff told me about a chavurah (fellowship group) that had grown organically at their synagogue, made up of mostly interfaith families with young children. One request the staff at Temple Chai had heard from the parents in this group was the desire to have a learner’s service on Shabbat so that they (and older children) could come to understand the whole Jewish worship experience on a deeper level.

On November 17 at 10:00am, the Learner’s Service: Shabbat Unpacked will take place, and I will be co-leading the service with Rabbi Stephen Hart and Laura Siegel Perpinyal, their Director of Congregational Learning. We have been working on a handout that will unpack five main prayers in the Shabbat morning service. For each prayer we offer three ways to understand it by sharing the history and background information for the prayer, a brief “instruction manual” to understand how to “do” the prayer in terms of choreography, and a timing explanation in terms of when the prayer is said during the service and why.

As we go through the interactive service, we will highlight these five prayers and share even more through music, explanations about the meaning of the prayers historically, and how we can make them our own today. There will be childcare for young children, but children are welcome to join in the service as well.

In order for Jewish prayer to be meaningful, maybe especially for someone who didn’t grow up being exposed to Jewish worship, several things have to happen. Hebrew has to be grappled with. Most people in congregations can’t translate prayer book Hebrew word for word. Yet, through understanding basic Hebrew roots (the letter core of words), which often repeat and shed light on the meaning, one is able to gain a tremendous amount about the nature of the prayer. For instance, the root for “holy” in Hebrew is three letters, koof daled shin. These three letters form the word kiddush (blessing over wine), kadosh (the actual word meaning holy), and kaddish (the prayer said by mourners). Yet even if one knows many Hebrew root words, understanding prayer transcends literal understanding of the words. This is because much of prayer is poetry. So the sound the Hebrew makes and the rhythm is important (this can be understood by just listening to the Hebrew being said or sung). As well, reading the English translation can tell you what the prayer says, although thinking about the imagery and the repetition of words can bring deeper meaning. Thus even though Hebrew may feel like a barrier and a challenge, one can understand prayer on some level even when just beginning to learn Hebrew.

Other ways to make Jewish prayer more meaningful are to learn about the prayers (as will be a goal of this service), to contemplate Jewish views of God and one’s own sense of spirituality, and also to seek meaning in being part of community. Prayer can be deeply meaningful when the images in prayer of peace or shelter, for example, lead us to action to brings these ideals to reality on earth.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s leading theologians, once said those “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.” Jewish prayer can feel mysterious, boring, antiquated, and removed from what we know and understand today. Yet it can also elevate, inspire, and connect us. I hope those of you in Chicagoland will join us for a lively and upbeat prayer experience on November 17.