Rabbi Sherril Gilbert, with inspiration from Hashem, Reb Zalman and Rabbi Malka Druker
Several years ago, I had the honour of leading High Holyday services for Chavurah Har Kodesh. We held services on the evening and first two mornings of Rosh Hashanah, but there was no service planned for the evening of Day 2. I was still feeling a longing to be in community that evening, and a need for some deep prayer. Two women friends and I decided to head over to a little Chabad shtiebel on Decarie Boulevard, near Monkland. Actually, the shtiebel was a kosher sushi shop, which had been converted to a shul for the High Holyday period. Chabadniks do that, you know.
We had to wait until there was a minyan, because in Orthodox circles, women are not included when counting the ten people that are required to say certain prayers. So we were 8 men and 3 women waiting outside the sushi restaurant, and finally these two young men in simple black suits approached and unlocked the doors for us. These were the rabbis. Giving a friendly greeting to everyone, they opened the doors and we all went in to pray the evening service. It was good to be there, to hear the voices of those young men in earnest and wholehearted devotion, those young men who had been adults for all of a minute. And it was good to be in the “audience” for a change, not leading the service, but just sitting back and opening myself up to giving prayer and receiving the flow of divine energy. It was a sweet and simple service.
Afterwards we were invited to the back of the restaurant for a little kiddush. The rabbis introduced themselves to we three women. As is my practice, I was wearing my kippah, and one of the rabbis asked me about it. I said I was a rabbinic student. He said, “Which yeshiva?” I said, “It’s called the ALEPH Seminary”, and asked them if they had ever heard of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Well, I tell you, I almost fell over backwards when, with a great big smile, one of them said, “Are you kidding? We just came back from Boulder and we were studying with Reb Zalman!” That was my first surprise. My second big shock of the evening came when one of the rabbis said, “Nu, so teach us something!” I was happily taken aback, and gave over the first teaching I could think of, something about Modah ani, the morning prayer. When I finished, I said, “Now it’s your turn!” And the rest of the evening was spent learning from and teaching one another. How remarkable is that?
Later, walking home with my friends that evening, we reflected on what had occurred in that little shtiebel. We were all feeling rather amazed at how things had unfolded. Those of us who identify with the Jewish Renewal movement know how it plays out in our own communities, but we rarely have the opportunity to see first-hand just how much Jewish Renewal and Reb Zalman have impacted the larger Jewish world. What transpired that evening was, to me, quite precious.
We live in a time when the number of North American Jews who consider themselves
religiously observant is continually dropping. Twenty years ago 20 percent of Jews called
themselves only “culturally Jewish,” and now the number is approaching 40 percent.
But we are still here. One thing we can say about Judaism is that it has survived because it’s been both flexible and tenacious enough to grow and learn how to remain potent for each generation.
The first great paradigm shift happened two thousand years ago, when the destruction of the Great Temple ended Judaism’s priestly leadership and its practice of animal sacrifices. While many lamented the end of Judaism as they knew it, a new generation shifted the path to God through prayer, rather than through ritually putting living creatures to death. The prophets and our Sages made it clear that God wanted good deeds more than God wanted sacrifices.
Then, in the 18th century, when the tradition had become brittle with scholarship, legalisms, and excluded all who were not learned, the Ba’al Shem Tov and his students brought us back into balance with their ecstatic worship. These chassidim believed that we were created in joy and to be joyful, and they loved God with all their hearts, souls, and might. All Jews were members of the club; no educational requirement was necessary. You only needed two things: an open heart that felt that life was a holy gift, and the willingness to thank the divine Gift-giver.
In the early 20th century, the philosopher Martin Buber saw a gaping divide between the synagogue and God, and between the needs of the community and the individual. He wrote that when we see each other as objects that either help or harm us, we are blind to the holiness within every living being, and we miss experiencing God. But when we are open to seeing the Divine in one another, then the relationship between us becomes precious and holy.
Buber challenged traditional practice by declaring that true religious experience has nothing to do with religion. For the tradition to have spiritual relevance, for it to change people’s lives, it would require a dramatic shift of perspective.
Enter the great mystic, social activist, and writer Abraham Joshua Heschel. Descended from a family of powerful rebbes, he absorbed piety and wonder in the air that he breathed. God suffused every moment of his existence, until he attended the university in Berlin. There he encountered brilliant but closed minds that were either ignorant or unaware of transcendence, grace, and miracles.
When Heschel fled from the Nazis and arrived in the United States, he encountered another spiritual challenge. The synagogues were grand, but he found they lacked heart and mystery. He described the synagogues as suffering from a “tremendous cold.” Where was the radical amazement he experienced in his father’s shul?
His teachings, which translated his Hasidic vision into a language that spoke to mid-20th-century Jews, were like a shofar calling the Jewish people to embrace the living fire of their tradition. He offered a model of a heart-centered and more emotionally engaged Judaism.
In the late Sixties, a new generation, spiritually awakened by the political and social
movements of the time, went searching for transcendence. They found it in the evolutionary voices of Buber and Heschel that offered them a Judaism that they could claim. They saw how it could be a kli kodesh, a sacred vessel which could contain the cosmic energy generating the massive shift of consciousness occurring in the Western world.
And then there was Reb Zalman. Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi passionately loved the tradition and burned to offer its gifts. His name is synonymous with Jewish Renewal, and like many reformers, his roots run very deep. Born into an illustrious rabbinic family, he fled to the US from Vienna in the 1930s as a teenager, and became one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s emissaries in New York City. It was there he met a generation thirsting for meaning and a greater purpose.
But Chabad was too evangelical and narrow for Reb Zalman. He found some of its teachings on homosexuality, women, and the rest of the world to be exclusive, often offensive and unethical. Responding to a yearning to find a spirituality that was both meaningful and moral. With his friend Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Reb Zalman explored outside of Judaism and learned new ways to connect to the holy from Sufism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. He befriended the spiritual leaders in these traditions, and they in turn learned from him, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Reb Zalman’s message was both old and new, and simple: “It’s all about love, Yidn! We’re here to learn to love.” You didn’t hear many rabbis using the “L” word back then. Havurot, small communities without rabbis, became the living laboratories of love for the new forms of worship emerging in Jewish Renewal. Reb Zalman modeled joyful behaviour through his natural cheerfulness and his playful, occasionally audacious use of popular tunes in the liturgy.
When Reb Zalman leads a service with a wordless melody from his childhood, his yiddishkeit and his wisdom bring a generation back not only to their grandparents but to their very essence. He taught us to aim our prayers at the heart and not just the head, and he taught us to use music as a key alchemical element. Music that invites us to join in and sing and clap our hands and move our bodies and dance –shifting the energy within us and raising us up.
And I think this is one of the gifts of Judaism: the opportunity to rise above our nature so we can mamash see ourselves, and then return to the truth, the essence, of who we are in our bones. From Reb Zalman, my beloved teacher, I have learned what it means to feel my Judaism, and not just to think it. To experience davvening with profound meaning, davvening from my heart. Through him, I found a spiritual path that gives my life joy, sustenance, and purpose.
Now, almost fifty years later, Reb Zalman’s dream has become ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal. It is a one-stop shop for Jewish spirituality. It’s my yeshiva and it trains rabbis, cantors, chaplains and spiritual directors. And it’s also a world-wide federation of communities like us that identify as Renewal.
B’nai Or Montreal is unique in that we are the only Renewal synagogue in town. That is a blessing, but it also means that sometimes people don’t know how to see us, or where we fit in the Jewish scheme of things. I’ve heard B’nai Or described in various ways here, including Reform, which we are not; and Egalitarian Orthodox – also not. We are certainly not Jews for Jesus, a Christian Messianic cult. Perhaps Chasidic Reconstructionism describes us best – chasidic because of the joy and reverence for the holy; and reconstructionist because of our egalitarian inclusivity. Actually, it doesn’t really matter to us how you define or describe our congregation; the important thing is that you feel welcome and at home here. We like being a laboratory for the spirit, and we like being human beings in formation, and we like knowing that we’re part of the future of Judaism in our experimentation.
But you know that we can’t do it without you. We will soon be entering our third year as a congregation, and we need your help to move us forward, from strength to strength. Your presence here tonight is such a gift to us. Such a gift to the sacred energy of the evening and the holiday. For two years, we have brought a renewed Judaism to a place that so badly needed it. We have opened up a space for people like you who have been looking for something that you perhaps could not name but you knew what it was once you found us.
We are blessed and honoured to have Fran Avni as our musician-in-Residence, such a gift! We have a dedicated volunteer Steering Committee that meets monthly and implements the values and vision of this congregation. We have had some of the brighest lights in Jewish Renewal visit and teach us over the past two years, including Rabbi Daniel Siegel, Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, and ALEPH Executive Director Joe Laur. We have started a Lay Chaplaincy Training program, which will provide lay chaplaincy services to the whole community. Our lay chaplaincy students join me once a month at Chateau Westmount, where I lead a Shabbat service for the residents; and we are building connections to JACS, a program for Jewish alcoholics and chemically dependent persons. And then there are other blessings that add so much to what we offer, like our interfaith work and our social justice efforts, and Terry and …. .
What you may not have known, however, is that, even with all that we have done, for the past two years we have been running this congregation on the tiniest of shoestring budgets. We don’t charge for our services, events or programming; we only ask for your donations. Our funding has come from small grants from the Jewish Community Foundation, one anonymous benefactor, and the donations you give at our services. Fran and I have never been able to take a salary for the work that we do. We are all unpaid volunteers here, every one of us. But we do have expenses as a congregation, and, even though we are a program of the Y, like all programs here we have to pay rent and we have to pay for security services.
The Foundation grants are only good for two years, and so now we are no longer eligible. Now it is up to us to find other ways of supporting ourselves and becoming sustainable and growing this community. So we are turning to you. We are undertaking our first ever membership drive, and we are launching it on this auspicious evening.
We understand that membership means different things to different people. Sometimes it means drawing a distinction between who is in and who is out, and that is the last thing we are trying to do. Rather than drawing a tight circle that includes some people and leaves others on the outside, we want to draw as big a circle as we can around us that includes all of us, not just Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, but also Hagar and Ishmael – the stranger, the newcomer, the seeker, the wanderer, the Jew who doesn’t think he or she belongs, the other.
On Yom Kippur, we are essentially asked to respond to one question: Faced with life’s
uncertainty and impermanence, how will we live our lives? Making our circle small is not the answer. Even if it makes us uncomfortable some of the time, and even if we’re not very good atit yet, by making our membership circle big we are fulfilling some of the highest values in our tradition.
There is a poem by Edwin Markham that illustrates what I am trying to say:
“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!”
May we all draw that big circle in our lives, drawing others into it with love. If you have foundsomething you love in B’nai Or, if we have contributed in any way to your positive well-being and your growth as a spiritual being, we are asking for your pledges this evening so that we can continue to offer you these opportunities. Whether you pledge your time, your talents, or your treasure, your membership in B’nai Or will help us grow sustainably and plan for the future. Membership and pledge forms are on your chairs and on the tables at the front of the room; we hope you will take them before you leave tonight.
I’m grateful for Jewish Renewal and all that it has given me, the Jewish community as a whole, and the world. May Reb Zalman, who is now in his 90th year, live and be well ad a hundert un svansik. May Renewal continue to renew our days as it shows us how to keep the bridge of connection to our ancestors strong; as it shows us how to draw closer to what is sacred and holy and loving, and as it shows us how to discover the holiness within ourselves and one another. It’s a new day, a New Year. Begin now. Let’s love each other well.