Sign In Forgot Password

 

Our building is closed but we are still here for you! Please visit our Online Services and COVID-19 pages for info.

Religious Life Committee Blog

15 Tammuz 5780 / 7 July 20 

ZOOMING TOWARD KEVA AND KAVANNA 

There was a moment in March when everything upended in our country and along with it, our shul.   With Coronavirus numbers rising at startling speed, song-filled gatherings understood to be a primary way for the virus to spread, and many religious communities moving to online services, rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) struggled with what advice to give congregations.  The Conservative Movement’s long-standing position has been that a minyan cannot be constituted by counting daveners who join by electronic means, although if a minyan exists in a prayer room, then others can participate by joining electronically.1  This post explains how we got from there to daily online-only minyanim and makes suggestions for getting the most from them.

March was a crisis situation.  If Jews continued to gather for prayer, lives would be lost, perhaps many of them.  On March 17, the chair and co-chair of the RA’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) released an advisory declaring that the dire circumstances of COVID-19 justified a more lenient position on constituting a minyan.  Relying on the ancient themes of she’at ha’dehak – extraordinary moment --, and pikuah nefesh – safeguarding life --, R. Elliott Dorff and R. Pamela Barmash wrote: 

“Some of us hold that in an emergency situation such as the one we are now experiencing, people participating in a minyan that is only online may recite devarim shebikdushah, prayers that require a minyan, with their community. The participants counted for the minyan must be able to see and hear each other through virtual means and be able to respond “amen” and other liturgical replies to the prayer leader.”2 

In this crisis situation, and with Conservative/Masorti rabbis everywhere moving to allow online prayer services, R. Kaiman sought support of CSI’s Executive and Religious Life Committees and decided that our minyanim would move online both on weekdays and Shabbat/Yom Tov.  

Two long months later, the CJLS issued a responsum examining the many halachic questions involved in using electronic Internet communication for prayer services on weekdays and on Shabbat and Yom Tov.  In the responsum, R. Heller and colleagues recognize the she’at ha’dehak and the need for pikuah nefesh at the present time, and at length work through considerations of Shabbat violation and larger communal considerations.  They conclude that it is permissible in this crisis moment, to conduct online services on weekdays and on Shabbat and Yom Tov.  They express a preference for minyanim in which ten Jews are present in the prayer room, yet allow the possibility of counting the minyan using Internet participants.  They prefer arrangements that do not require manipulation of electronic equipment: so livestreaming is preferred to web conferencing, but they allow the possibility of web conferencing.3  

Shearith Israel has had a learning curve in Zoom, the software we use to facilitate our web-conferenced services.  While services have taken place every morning and evening since mid-March, it was a few weeks before we mastered the scheduling and “choreography” necessary for these to flow smoothly. Weekly Torah study has been an important part of Shabbat morning services.  We’ve come to understand that communal singing is near impossible across the Internet.  Yet, we found ways to include Torah reading in our services, and have called three young women to Torah as b’not mitzvah.   To the surprise of some, attendance has often been equal to, or in some cases goes beyond, what we were used to in in-person services.  There are some families who have not made the switch to online prayer, some for halachic reasons and some because of the technology needed.  On the other hand, we’ve enjoyed the regular participation of some new members of the minyan who join from other states, and in two cases, even other countries. 

As the shul discusses re-opening scenarios, and as we plan for this fall’s High Holidays, it might be useful to review a few of the lessons we’ve taken from the three-month experiment so far.  

While there is a temptation to view a prayer service on a computer screen much like a TV show, it is important to think of it as “going to shul”.  Dressing in shul clothes, sitting in a situation that allows good posture, standing and sitting at appropriate times, all help reconstruct the atmosphere of the beit knesset (sanctuary) and help us achieve a sense of kavanna or intention.   

The computer microphone creates a window into our homes.  Muting our microphones when we are not addressing the gathering is a fundamental of web conferencing that is vital for prayer services.  Background noises like children playing, lawn mowers, and trash trucks are magnified by the condenser microphones on computers.  Even whispers can sound like shouting.  Each service has a designated “Zoom host” who is charged with muting any sources of noise that are coming through.  The host cannot unmute you, however, so we want participants to unmute themselves for portions of the service that require a congregational response, such as for the kaddish, the borchu, and the kedusha.  A headset or earbuds can help reduce the chances of feedback when your microphone is on. 

Finally, it’s useful to think ahead of time about the way one appears to the Zoom screen.  If there is a bright light behind you, your face may not be visible to camera.  Better to have room lights in front of you, not behind.  And, check out how you appear in your Zoom tile when seated and when standing.  We’d like to see your face; some other parts, um, less so.  You can use the CSI prayer Zoom room off hours to test out these adjustments.  

In these perilous times, our shul is trying to assist member families in every way possible.  Educational, social, charitable and pastoral missions have continued, each in its own COVID-unique way.   The form of personal prayer is one aspect of Jewish life that perhaps needn’t change much at all in these pandemic circumstances.   But, communal prayer has become something very different.   Despite the challenges, your rabbi, shul staff and lay prayer leaders have worked hard in the hope of helping you retain keva, routine, and kavanna, sense of intention, in your communal prayer.  If you haven’t tried the online prayer services, I hope you’ll give them a try.  You’ll be surprised at how well they support spiritual moments.   

L’ chaim!

Baruch Stiftel

1. R. Avram Israel Reisner. Wired to the Kadosh Barukh Hu: Minyan via Internet. OH 55:15.2001.  
https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/Reisner%20-%20Internet.pdf

2.  R. Elliot Dorff and R. Pamela Barmash. CJLS Guidance for Remote Minyanim in a time of COVID-19. 17 March 2020. 
https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/story/cjls-guidance-remote-minyanim-time-covid-19

3.  R. Joshua Heller. Streaming Services on Shabbat and Yom Tov.  OH 340:3.2020a. 
https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/2020-05/Streaming%20on%20Shabbat%20and%20Yom%20Tov%20Heller.pdf
 

 

8 Nisan 5780 / 2 April 20

MATRIARCHS IN THE AMIDA

On Shabbat before we temporarily stopped in-person communal prayer, a long-time Shearith Israelite asked me when our shul would move to always using the Amida text that names the Imahot (Matriarchs): Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah; as well as the Avot (Patriarchs): Avraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  

It is now eighteen years since CSI joined the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and sixteen years since women are counted in our minyanim. While our siddurim provide two alternatives for the first two brachot of the Amida, and each of us decides for ourselves which one to use in our personal or silent prayers, for the past six years, we have looked to the sheliach tzibbur, the prayer leader, to decide whether to use the alternative text naming the Imahot in the public repetition of the Amida.  

The reasoning in favor of including the Imahot is powerful.  The Matriarchs were vital to the evolution of early Judaism, taking decisive action that changed the course of our history again and again. In making the decision to become egalitarian, our movement and our shul have responded to the dramatically changed roles of women in 20th - 21st Century western society. Language and literature have been rapidly changing to reflect these changing roles as well as to correct the frequent omission of women in our acknowledged history. The Rabbinical Assembly permitted approved text including the Imahot for the Amida in 19901.

Jews have been very slow to change liturgy, much of which goes back almost 2500 years. Phillip Birnbaum wrote in the introduction to the time-honored siddur he edited:

Editors of the Siddur should not take liberties with the original, eliminating a phrase here and adding one there, each according to his own beliefs. Such a procedure is liable to breed as many different kinds of public worship as there are synagogues and temples. The danger of rising sects is obvious, sects that are likely to weaken still more our harassed people2.

Despite the reluctance to change, our Siddur Sim Shalom, embodies a small number of significant changes from the ancient liturgy.  We add the word  בעולם (b’olam – universal) that does not appear in traditional liturgy, in praying for peace at the end of the Amida: “Grant universal peace.” Less obvious perhaps is the omission of וְאִשֵּׁי יִשרָאֵל  (v’eeshay Yisrael  - fire offerings of Israel), from the Shabbat Amida in the Avodah blessing, and the removal of the phrase, שֶׁהֵם מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהֶבֶל וְרִיק וּמִתְפַּלְלִים אֶל אֵל לא יושִׁיעַ , (shahem mistahaveem l’hveil v’req, u’mitphal’lim ail ail lo yo’sheah - for they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god which helps not), from the Aleynu prayer; both of which were changes made in the Morris Silverman edited siddur that Conservative shuls used for half a century prior to launch of Siddur Sim Shalom.  

As of now, we are voting with our words, and with the words of our shelichei tzibbur. While each of us chooses to voice the Imahot or not in our private prayers, those who lead our services are making this choice in our public prayers. I have no doubt that the winds of change are upon us and in time we will move to uniformly include the Imahot. Need I point out that, if this is important to you, you can help it along by volunteering to lead services; then you will get to choose.  

Wishing everyone a sweet, Kosher, and safe Pesah!

-Baruch

  1. Rabbi Joel E. Rembaum. “Regarding the inclusion of the names of the Matriarchs in the first blessing of the Amida.” Responsum adopted by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, 3 March 1990. https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/assets/public/halakhah/teshuvot/19861990/rembaum_matriarchs.pdf
  2. Philip Birnbaum, ed. Daily Prayer Book: Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem. Hebrew Publishing Company: New York, 1949. P. xi.
 

 

26 Kislev 5780 / 24 December 19

SHEARITH ISRAEL’S RELIGIOUS LIFE GOALS

Last summer, deciding on tasks for the upcoming year, your Religious Life Committee was listing things like expanding the corps of prayer leaders (shelichei tzibbur) and updating the gabbai’sRol-O-Dex Hebrew name files (Yes, we are still using Rol-O-Dex!), when Sarah Ossey asked what we were trying to achieve with all the tasks. So, the first item on the task list became, “Define goals for the Religious Life Committee”.

The ensuing process was exhilarating. All of us understood that prayer ritual is important, but writing down why and how to make it more so wasn’t obvious. It took us six months. Here is the result:

CSI Religious Life Goals

The first thing I hope you’ll notice is that the goals don’t stop at the sanctuary’s doors. When the shul By-laws were revised in 2013, what had been the Ritual Committee was renamed the Religious Life Committee. The by-law drafters thought that the Committee, together with the Rabbi and subject to Board oversight, ought to be working to enrich member lives across a range of Jewish practices largely left unnamed. Our Goal Statement speaks about tefila (prayer), kashruth (dietary laws), and Shabbat observance. We’ve been busy with tefila, but you can anticipate that down the road, this Committee will work to help support congregant aspirations in the other two areas as well.

The goals also talk about the importance of the home as a mini-sanctuary (mikdash me’at). We know that the center of Jewish life is the home, so that to be successful we need to be devoting attention to resources to support what happens at home as well as in shul.

Then, as you look across the list, you will see goals that speak to values: k’vod habriyot (human dignity), keva (timeliness), kavannah (intention), a balancing of tradition and innovation, of Torah and science, of promoting our congregation (kehilla) as a real community, as well as individual choice, personal growth, inclusiveness and accessibility. Over the next months, I hope to share the Committee’s perspectives on these important dimensions of religious life. Today, just a bit about k’vod ha’briyot.

The goal of k’vod ha’briyot, literally respect for the people, asks that we commit to avoiding embarrassment. This might seem straightforward, but think about all the ways we assume certain beliefs, knowledge and practices in Jewish life, and how easy it is for someone who doesn’t share some aspect of these to feel out of place or embarrassed in a room filled with others whom s/he assumes do share the belief, knowledge or practice. Then, contrast such a situation with the need to respect the community (k’vod ha’tzibbur), to create a space where Jewish practices are honored and followed, and the members of the community can feel at home.

So, for instance, we have the expectation that electronic devices will not be used inside our shul buildings on Shabbat and Yom Tov. We place signs about this in prominent locations, and we describe the expectation in our paper handouts. As much as some would want the rule to be absolute, we know that visitors and some members of the congregation do not share this expectation, may not even know about it. Some of us politely ask them to stop when they take out a cell phone or start to video record portions of a bar/bat mitzvah service. Others might audibly “tszk-tszk”, or show a disgruntled facial expression. Over the years, on a few occasions, I have even heard strident criticism out loud. Yet, most of us would agree that a doctor on call should be able to answer his or her phone; many would agree that a parent should be able to take an urgent question from a baby sitter at home with a young child. K’vod ha’tzibbur asks that we enforce the device ban; k’vod ha’briyot asks that we do so in the most private and kind manner. Our Committee, responding to Rabbi Kaiman’s teachings, has taken the view that respecting those who join us in prayer, in celebration, in solidarity or in curiosity is a primary Jewish value and should always be in our minds.

Chag sameach Hanukah!

Baruch Stiftel


i The Aramaic word gabbai literally means ‘tax collector’. In synagogues, gabbai’im once had a role to bring donations to the shul from those fulfilling honors. The role today is something of a combination of pit boss and aide to Torah readers.

 


 

29 Av 5779 / 30 August 19

 

REFLECTING ON (AND THROUGH) OUR LITURGY

 

The Avodah Task Force raised the question of whether Shearith should switch to the new Rabbinical Assembly Siddur Lev Shalem. Lev Shalem brackets the liturgy with commentary and context. It has been adopted by many Conservative kehillot and is available as an alternative in others.

 

Membership chair Jaime Wender suggested in a recent post on the facebook CSI Member Exchange that laminated cards with alternative readings or prayer commentary in our sanctuary book boxes would be informative and interesting for visitors and regulars alike.

 

While these suggestions are under discussion, I want to call your attention to two resources immediately available.

 

First, Rabbi Kaiman will offer an 11-week class this year, Jewish Prayer Series: Getting our Head Around, Our Hearts In and Our Bodies Engaged on selected Thursdays from early September through mid-March. The classes are staged under groupings concerned with our heads (September), our hearts (November), our bodies (January) and Bringing it all Together (March). While the sessions will build on each other, participants are welcome to attend when they can even if they have not attended earlier sessions.

 

Second, Ohr Hadash: a commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals by Rabbi Reuven Hammer, zt”l, is available on the book cart at the sanctuary door. Ohr Hadash is a commentary built around the exact text of the siddur Sim Shalom. Each Sim Shalom page is surrounded by various comments and resources intended to help inform prayer, explain historical origins and relate to modern sensibilities and challenges. In Hammer’s words, “…at no time does the commentary conceal what is thought to be the plain meaning of the texts at the time they were written. At the same time, it offers other ways of looking at them….It also attempts to be inspirational….”

 

Rabbi Hammer, a Syracuse native who graduated from JTS, passed away this month in Eretz Yisrael, where he has lived since the 1970s. He was a founder of Kehilat Moreshet Avraham in Jerusalem, head of the Masorti Bet Din in Israel, and president of the International Rabbinical Assembly. His 1995 book, Entering Jewish Prayer, is perhaps the most widely read contemporary source on Conservative/Masorti thinking about our liturgy and tefila practices.

 

As a teenager I was taught that the siddur was a starting point for prayer, not the end point; that I was always welcome to depart from the liturgy to speak to HaShem in my own words and from my heart. I tried to relay this same message to our daughter as she was finding her way in shul. Rabbonim Kaiman and Hammer offer us wonderful resources to help both understand tradition and find our own words. I hope you’ll check them out.

 

I’ll end with a few of Rav Hammer’s words, “If we are willing to understand prayer as poetry rather than as literal prose, we may find great meaning in it. We should worry more about its effect upon us and less about its effect upon G-d.”

 

Kol tov,

Baruch Stiftel

 


 

29 Tammuz 5779 / 1 August 19

 

A PLAN FOR RELIGIOUS LIFE AT SHEARITH ISRAEL, 5779-5780

 

Your Religious Life Committee has set a seven-pronged plan for the upcoming year intended to recharge CSI’s tefilot. Here are the highlights…

 

Following Rabbi Kaiman’s leadership, we will foster a conversation to better understand what members want from religious life at Shearith Israel and then set goals to support this.

 

We will expand the corps of congregants that lead services, leyn from Torah, and read haftara. If you are interested in learning one or more of these skills or freshening them up, stop by our table at Say Chai at CSI on 18 August, or let Michael Rich or Andrea Seidel Slomka know.

 

We will work with Rabbi Kaiman to be sure that the shul’s approaches and thinking about kashruth, tefila, and Shabbat are well understood.

 

We will review the campus to be sure that members and visitors are not placed in situations that cause them to inadvertently compromise their own religious practices.

 

We will outreach to new and long-time members in a creative effort to engage more of us in weekday minyanim in ways that we find meaningful and enjoyable.

 

As the shul’s Strategic Plan comes into focus, we will work to implement the recommendations of the Plan related to Avodah.

 

We’ll be updating the way in which the shul provides congregant names and Kohein/Levi status information to gabbaim and shamashim so that these officers are best able to widely distribute honors and call olim correctly.

 

And, of course, we will continue the regular work of supporting tefila through organizing Torah leyners (thank you Andrea Seidel Slomka!); shelachim tzibbur, haftarah readers, gabbaim and shamashim (thank you Michael Rich!); High Holiday honors (thank you Ed Jacobson!); and to organize minyanim each morning and evening (thank you Lynne Borsuk, Michael Froman, Ed Jacobson, Barry Fuchs, Elliott Rich and the others who take on these responsibilities).

 

In future posts, I hope to share specifics about each of the seven prongs, and to introduce the committee members to you.

 

The message that came through to me clearly as the Committee prepared this plan is the fervent desire that Shearith Israel should support congregants in religious growth, in times of celebration, and in times of need, and that we should be a force for advancing the teachings of Torah in the broader community. The Committee has clear direction; please give us your ideas and your energy so that Kehillat Shearith Israel grows in impact across the community.

 

Baruch Stiftel, Chair

CSI Religious Life Committee

 


 

SPRING 2019

25 Adar II 5779 / 1 April 19 

From your new Religious Life chair...

Haverim:

After Faith Levy asked if I would stand for election as Religious Life Committee chair at CSI, I spoke with quite a few of you about what you wanted for the future of prayer services in our shul, I checked with Barry Etra and Pia Koslow Frank, the chairs of the Kadima process to learn what the strategic plan data collection was saying, and I sat with Rabbi Kaiman to better understand his vision for our future. While what I learned reminded me a little of the old adage, two Jews, three opinions, there really were common themes.

 

Shearith Israelites love our egalitarian, traditional-leaning Conservative services, except those who want services to be more innovative, more musical, with more English. We love our lay daveners who lead with joy and ruach, not with a desire to perform, except when they struggle with the Hebrew, have trouble keeping the key, or fail to fully reflect the sex and age diversity of the congregation. We want more meditative moments in services, but we see the meditative preliminary prayers as boring. We love having children in the Beit Knesset, except when they won’t sit still and make it hard to hear. We love having twice-daily minyanim, except when we feel awkward about not knowing what’s going on.

 

In my thinking, I pit these challenges against those of other kehillot I’ve been part of in the past, most of which wished for these problems. As I’ve shared with a number of you, I think of my shul past as having two kinds of communities: consumer communities, and producer communities. The consumer communities were populated largely by congregants who took the shul for granted; wanted it to be there when they needed it, but seldom lifted a finger to make anything happen. The producer communities were populated by engaged, giving Jews, who rose to the occasion to lead services, cook kosher food, teach the religious school, and sit with the dead. I learned about producer communities in a small shul where there was little choice about how we would do any of this because we had to work with the limited skills of those involved and we had to contend with largely empty pews.

 

Shearith Israel has both consumers and producers in good numbers. For a Conservative shul our size, the number of our friends who have learned to daven from the amud or to leyn Torah is extraordinary. The corps of congregants who volunteer to comfort the grieved and the sick, to prepare the dead for burial and to manage our cemetery, as well as to join in the work of repairing the world makes me so very proud to be a Shearith Israelite.

 

So reflecting on the challenges we face, I think (now follow my eyes lifting slightly toward the heavens and my shoulders rising ever so slightly, one palm turned up)… I think we have problems good shuls want.

 

We want to serve Hashem well, but we often disagree how to do that. Isn’t that symptomatic of our namesake, Israel: “one who fights with Hashem.”

 

We are blessed with many volunteer service leaders, of varying ability and talent, who in some ways reflect the diversity of Hashem’s children. So rather than sit back and admire the artistry of a great hazzan, we are motivated to set the key for those around us, or even to step forward and learn how to do it ourselves so that it’s done “right”.

 

When the the noise of children at play diverts our attention, we may need to look deeper for our own kavanah, but we can be contented to be surrounded by the vibrant voices of the next generation of Jews enjoying being in shul.

 

We may feel awkward not knowing what is going on in minyan, but next to us is a friend that would relish the opportunity to answer a question, and once we understand the outline we can walk into any shul in any city in the world and feel at home.

 

We have good problems. Really they are ambitions we should be proud of. We won’t achieve them overnight, but we will make good progress this year and next, because we are a committed kehillah that cares about our spiritual life and our service to community, Judaism, and the world. I relish the chance to work with the other members of the Religious Life Committee these next years to move us forward in addressing these ambitions. We’ll be calling out for you; please step forward in ways you can to enrich religious life at Kehillah Shearith Israel.

 

B’shalom,

Baruch Stiftel

Thu, September 24 2020 6 Tishrei 5781