Shemini Atzeret and Sanctifying Time

Happy Shemini Atzeret! It’s a holiday. I’m blogging.

The Torah says not to work. On Shabbat, while I don’t follow all the traditional rules, I don’t post online, e-mail, or type on a keyboard. That’s work: מְלָאכָה (melakhah), the prohibited creative work that changes that state of the world. (As opposed to עֲבֹדָה (avodah), labor. No, leading services isn’t melakhah just because you’re a paid cantor.)

Last year, I went to work on some holidays, thinking: if my company wasn’t open, I’d be in synagogue. Now that I’m a “full-time Jew,” I don’t have an excuse, except that it can be really hard to make sacred time.

Shemini Atzeret is its own holiday because we celebrate one-day Biblical festivals for two days in the Diaspora, since ancient times when the Diaspora was Syria and Babylon. In Israel and in Reform congregations it’s concurrent with and overshadowed by Simchat Torah. There were historical reasons about seeing the new moon, but crucially, it means humans determine the days of the festivals. I learned last week this is why the festival Kiddush ends מקדש ישראל והזמים (Mekadesh Yisrael vehazmanim, “sanctifies [the people of] Israel and the times [of the year],” whereas Shabbat, on a God-given seven-day cycle, doesn’t need Israel to make it holy, so Kiddush ends simply: מקדש השבת (Mekadesh HaShabbat, “sanctifies the Sabbath”). I find it more authentic to be liberal with the extra day of a festival. I also believe it’s important to join a community, so, even though last night/today is the holiday in Israel/Reform congregations, I’ll celebrate Simchat Torah tonight/tomorrow along with my Conservative congregations.

When I used to go to work on holidays I wouldn’t say anything on social media: “don’t ask, don’t tell.” What I’ve found working in the Jewish community this year is that it’s more respectful to people to be honest about what I’m doing. Pretending I didn’t see an e-mail from my synagogue job when I’m checking e-mail is not particularly increasing holiness in the world. (I still avoid e-mail on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.) Maybe some synagogue won’t hire me someday because someone read this, and they expect the Cantor to be a model observant Jew. As a Jewish educator, I’d rather discuss what it means to sanctify holidays and observe mitzvot, and how Judaism can be meaningful and valuable even when it’s not easy and you’re not perfect at it.

And for those of you who find that Shemini Atzeret is the peak of your holiday season—maybe I’ll get better at sanctifying holidays next year.

Finally. Thankfully!

Cantorial school started last week. I no longer have a full-time job in the software industry and instead I’m a full-time graduate student in the Jewish world.

I was sitting in Panera in May 2010 with my laptop when I registered JHacker.org, which is as good a point as any to mark when I started thinking about a way to return to professional work in the Jewish community. Like all good things, COSEL wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I started on that path. I guess my journey has taken me to where I needed to go.

Being in school is a little different as an adult. I like learning and am excited to be back in school. Like school at any age, there are teachers and books and classes, and the chance to grow and change. Also, at this level, school is a big, serious career investment. It’s more professional. Unlike high school and being overwhelmed with extracurricular activities, now being overwhelmed is more like starting a company and figuring out your business model. Compared to college, juggling family and self-care and practical issues is just like being an adult with any other job. More than some of the jobs I’ve had, it matters more now to dress and act professionally.

It’s also a change from seeing rabbis and cantors mostly as people at the front of the room to them being, well, almost everyone, all day, every day. We’re all just people who need to eat lunch and drink water and go to the doctor. And it’s going to be different now that, when I do go to buy a coffee or get a haircut, I’m doing so as a (student) clergy person, and I can’t take off my religious hat now that it’s the answer to “what do you do?” (Even if I actually still can take off my kippah. Especially for a haircut 🙂 ). I’ve known this, but it’s even more obvious that clergy are people with the same characteristics that make all humans weird and beautiful.

In one of our activities, there was a chance to consider the character trait of הכרת הטוב (hakarat hatov), gratitude, or more literally, “recognition of the good.” Gratitude is the first thing Jews pray in the morning (modeh ani). It’s something I’ve learned as a practice from contemporary mindfulness teachers, and something Cheryl has recently reminded me about, too. For too many of the past several years, while sitting in a corporate cubicle—acknowledging that I’ve done some fairly cool things for what you can do sitting in a corporate cubicle—I’ve been envious of people who have started businesses, traveled, learned, taught, sang, and done things other than collecting a salary and sitting in a cubicle. And yet I’ve been anxious about doing anything else. My intention is to practice more gratitude. If I get frustrated about something, I need to be grateful for all the things I have, and especially the family, friends, and colleagues that have been amazingly supportive. If I get envious or anxious about something, I need to recognize how many things have already, and will continue to, work out. I hope to work on this more in the coming year.

As I used to sing in the Shira Kline song with the kids in tot Shabbat, “Barukh atah Adonai—thank you God.”

National Havurah Committee Institute 2017

Thanks to the generosity of Gary Orren and the Merle Orren Scholars Transformation (MOST) program of Temple Emanuel I’m spending this week at the National Havurah Committee Insitute being held this year at the University of Hartford.

The National Havurah Committee is an organization of groups knows as “havurot” (the plural of “havurah,” from the Hebrew root meaning both “friend” and “member”) and has existed and been running this event since at least 1980. Many of the participants return to the Institute year after year, some for more than 20 years. Being at Institute is a little like grown-up Jewish summer camp; there are always activities going on (more than any one person can do). You sign up in advance for two longer classes which are held daily, plus there are various other workshops, activities, and experiences to attend. For example, I attended a workshop where I learned how to crochet a kippah (not that I actually can do it yet, but I can appreciate better how the ones I wear are made). For my main classes, I’m attending one on the “Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto,”a Polish Chasidic rebbe who uniquely bridged tradition and modernity in ways we can learn from, and most of whose works were lost until his manuscripts we found buried in Warsaw after he was killed in the Holocaust. My other class is “Visual Midrash” taught by a professional artist where we’ll get to work on parchment to create art.

Havurot are typically small, volunteer-member-run groups, either independent or part of large synagogue. The independent ones tend to function as synagogues for their members in term of having services, and overlap with “independent minyanim” that have been popular in recent years. It’s certainly a different approach to Judaism than being part of a large synagogue, but being here makes me realize that we’re all in the same boat: just as synagogues need to be participatory places with small communities to involve people, havurah members also participate in schools, camps, and synagogues for Jewish education and community. At a program last night, the Institute’s Liturgist in Residence Mitch Chefitz shared how at his synagogue, the few remaining Shabbat morning regulars always wait at Kiddush for the rabbi to bless the challah, an echo of the ancient past where the priests had a special role in the Temple; but what’s happening more and more today is “partnership Judaism” where all of us are partners with God, and they’re looking for ways to do that.

Another interesting thing about this year’s Institute is that it coincided with Tisha b’Av, the sad fast day of the Jewish calendar, a remembrance of the destruction of Temple in Jerusalem. Being with a Jewish group that was marking the day made it more meaningful and I actually completed the fast. And, while many synagogues hold services outside of the sanctuary to symbolize the exile, being actually outside my synagogue did that even more. As the fast was drawing to a close, just before the sun began to set, I saw a rainbow over the campus. I searched with my phone and found (on Chabad.org) and said the prayer for seeing a rainbow: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֶלוֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם זוֹכֵר הַבְּרִית וְנֶאֱמָן בִּבְרִיתוֹ וְקַיָם בְּמַאֲמָרוֹ—that God remembers and is faithful to the covenant (he made when showing a rainbow to Noah) and keeps his word. The idea that after a hard time we still have God’s covenant seemed like a very appropriate theme as the close of Tisha b’Av is soon followed by the season of Jewish holidays.

I’ve heard about the Institute various times over the years and am glad I finally had a chance to attend. It’s given me Jewish experiences that are expanding my knowledge in ways I wouldn’t ordinarily have, and that no doubt I’ll find myself reflecting back on in my future involvement in the Jewish community.

Why I’m becoming a cantor

This fall, I’m going back to school at Hebrew College, in the Cantorial Ordination for Spiritual Education and Leadership (COSEL) program, a unique, intensive track offering ordination as a cantor along with a master’s degree in Jewish education.

Judaism has always been important to me, including sharing it with others. As Rabbi Tarfon said, “the day is short, the labor vast.” A few years ago, I’d have said I could contribute to the Jewish community just as well as a lay leader. While I had a Jewish studies degree and some experience working in a religious organization, I also had a secular career and could pay synagogue dues and preschool tuition to support the work of talented clergy and educators, and surely my computer skills would be useful to some volunteer project.

In that mode, I learned Torah trope from my cantor, filling a gap in my skills. I signed up for a class with Rabbi Art Green at Hebrew College; his authentic and positive approach to Judaism, and how it influenced their new pluralistic rabbinical school, resonated with me. I also had a backlog of ideas for Jewish ed-tech projects that, frustratingly, never gained traction. I found I enjoyed teaching and leading prayers more than committee meetings, and the more I did, the more I wanted to learn.

Two things drew me to the cantorate. First is the range of disciplines involved. There are technical skills, like nusach and vocal technique. There’s rabbinics and scholarship, education and pedagogy, leadership and art. Second, public prayer is the central activity of religion. More than an intellectual pursuit, ritual inspires people to receive sacred truths, and a cantor is the professional making it relevant, meaningful, and beautiful—in the classroom, the sanctuary, or at a life cycle ceremony. Especially in the 21st century, a hazzan’s job will include, but not be limited to singing, and I believe COSEL will help me make an impact.

I’m really excited to spend more time on this important work, and honored to serve the Jewish people. Keep an eye on this blog for occasional thoughts from this new chapter of my career.

See you in services!

InfoArtist Reprise

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I’ve been having déjà vu over the past year or so, since I’ve started brushing up on my music skills.

I’ve done something like this before. Almost 20 years ago, when I was trying to take my software skills up to a professional level. I was spending my spare time reading books and articles to learn the technical details of the field, practicing and going to public events to learn more, volunteering to do any computer-related thing at work.

Of course, some of the details are different. I remember reading paper magazines on bus trips to Boston back then, and am more likely listening to podcasts in my car now. Ok, I’m not exactly volunteering to sing at work, but I’ve similarly been finding opportunities to lead and teach sacred music at home and at my home synagogue.

People who’ve met me since I’ve moved to Boston probably assume that software was the career I went to college for, but actually it was a career change I made early on. The other familiar side of this is not knowing yet if I’ll ever feel like a “real” part of the new field I’m learning about, if I’ll be accepted and make it a career change or just a story to add to my experiences.

Around the time of that earlier career transition, I used a screen name “InfoArtist” on various services, because my passion was bridging creative work and information technology. I’m not planning to resurrect that name, but “geeking out” on a new mix of artistic and technical subjects is still fun.

Not everything is the same now: at this point in my life I am in some ways more confident and yet sometimes more measured in in what I do. I know that who I truly am is more than any one job or even profession, and there’s enough left to learn to last a lifetime.

Singing in Harmony

Had my first time singing in harmony, on stage, since I was in college, this past weekend singing with Hebrew College’s chamber choir Kol Arev as part of the Byzantine Music Festival.

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It’s worth noting “Byzantine” here does not refer to the ancient empire nor is it being used as you might hear it as an adjective meaning something like “complicated.” It’s referring the Byztanine Rite, i.e., the rituals of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Of course, our Jewish music wasn’t part of the Byzantine Rite, we were providing an interreligious counterpoint for our hosts, a Greek Orthodox seminary.

It was also my first time singing tenor in a choir. Which is harder than bass, not only to hit the higher pitches, but because my instincts are to sing the root note of the chord and my muscle memory from years ago still makes me want to look at the bottom staff of the system. It was good a challenge for me!

Are you a bridge or a gate?

Last weekend I went to Let My People Sing, a Jewish singing retreat at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.

It was a great opportunity to learn, sing, take risks, and celebrate Shabbat in a different way in a supportive community.

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Lead teachers Jessi Roemer, Joey Weisenberg, and Dafna Mor performing.

Like any retreat or conference, the question at the end is, how do I take my learning and inspiration and bring it back to “real life” and my regular communities? I get that what happens at Isabella Freedman isn’t everyone’s cup of (organic, Kosher, gender-pronoun-aware) tea. It is, as we’d say at a synagogue where I spend a lot of time, a “gate”; one of many gateways into Judaism. But this bothered me: it’s not enough for people to just be happy doing their own things, there is value in learning and sharing together.

As my wife Cheryl recently wrote, “I was taught to sing… [and] those songs would make the world better.” I don’t know if there is really more discord than ever these days, but with Trump, #blacklivesmatter, ISIS in the news, it sure feels like it. And music can be a way to bring us together. Music makes humans respond in a way that is more universal than words and less individual than pictures. It’s a bridge, not a gate.
So, I struggle with how to be a bridge between the different gates I find going through. One weekend it’s with progressive, renewal type of community that you find at Isabella Freedman. This Shabbat, I’m teaching and leading among the deeply committed, adult community who comes to shul in all weather. And this year I’m also part of the community of b’nai mitzvah parents who, each in their own way, finds something sacred in the complicated challenge of becoming a teenager.

At Let My People Sing, the lead teachers were the bridges. Each of them brought experience, talent and songs that could engage people anywhere. I’ve noticed that great religious leaders bridge the gates—often it’s a rabbi or other leader that can bring people together across the different groups and circumstances that make up a larger community.

The truth is, a city isn’t built with only bridges or only gates alone. You need both. (And lots of other things.)

At the closing circle of the retreat, one of the organizers spoke about how we had worked at unearthing parts of our tradition we might have been disconnected from. Certainly the theme of this blog, “Finding My Voice,” is about returning to something I had become disconnected from.

I hope that I will make music that is a bridge and, may it be God’s will, many voices will sing along.

Welcome

For most of my adult life I’ve worked behind the scenes. I’ve done things with computers, written a lot of code (that you may have, without knowing, directly or indirectly used), and been able to do things like buy a home and start a family along the way. I’m thankful (not often enough) for all that.

I used to see people who could get up in front of a classroom, conference room or sanctuary—or down on the floor with kids for that matter—and think: They’re doing an important job; I wish I could do that, too, but I can’t. Some people are born with charisma, being a “people person,” and I wasn’t. My place was behind a computer screen.

The Phantom of the Opera
The Phantom of the Opera could sing, but thought no one would like him so acted in ways that that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s not the path I want to be on, though I might enjoy singing some Andrew Lloyd Weber music! Photo credit: Greg Willis via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

How I came to limit myself that way is hard to say. It might have been an experience early in my career, a relationship early in life, a random firing of neurons in my brain, or some combination of these.

But, eventually, with a lot of support, I volunteered to teach something. It actually didn’t go so well the first time, but I tried volunteering to teach other things. Sometimes in my professional life as a software engineer, but most often teaching other adults in Jewish education which is a field I had been in but left at the beginning of my career. And I loved it, and got positive feedback, and started building up my confidence. I took an amazing online graduation class in Jewish education. Through it all, I learned I don’t have to be like anyone else and it’s okay to fail sometimes.

And then I remembered: I liked to sing. I liked music. Some of what I’d been doing behind the scenes, behind the computer screen to make a difference in the world related to Jewish liturgy. But the really useful technical skill related to liturgy was not editing it on a computer, but using one’s voice to lead a prayer community. And I could do that; in fact, I used to do that. (Maybe it could even be a good synergy with my skills on the computer?)

I’m Finding My Voice. Where exactly this will go, I’m not sure yet. Thanks for joining me on the journey.

Rabbi David Paskin: A Rabbi’s Voice

Rabbi David Paskin, who I’ve heard of over the years although I don’t know him personally, is an experienced rabbi and musician who is now looking for a job, which may or may not have something to do with his activism at the AIPAC conference. Although his story is not exactly the same as mine, this piece about “a rabbi’s voice” resonates with some of the reasons I started this blog, and I appreciate him sharing his thoughts for us to learn from. Click through to read the whole thing.

As a rabbi, one of the most powerful tools I have is my voice. For reasons I, to this day, don’t fully understand, many people are willing to listen to me drone on and on in divrei Torah on Shabbat, bulletin articles, adult education classes, public forums and online. A rabbi’s voice is perhaps the most important tool that we have as clergy to inform, teach, persuade, convince, question and debate.

Source: Rabbi David Paskin