Ordination Statement

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָֽאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ.

God created the human in their image; in God’s image, God created them. (Genesis 1:27)

לְאֵל בָּרוּךְ נְעִימוֹת יִתֵּנוּ.

To blessed God, they sweetly sing. (Morning Liturgy)

I didn’t expect to become a cantor. I simply wanted to make a difference in the world. I wanted to make the world a better place—what we call tikkun olam, “repair the world,” a term that is about spiritual work as much as temporal justice. What greater purpose is there? And I had a lot of faith in Jewish tradition to guide that work.

Standing in front of the room doesn’t come naturally to me. For a large part of my adult life, I avoided it. As I kept seeking my path, I eventually realized I was going to need to challenge myself to take on more visible leadership roles, including as a teacher and as a singer. Going back school has been a significant transformative experience, more than I ever expected. A lot looks different than it did a few years ago, and I’ve learned as much about myself as I have about the liturgy.

There are two big lessons I’ve learned while at Hebrew College. One is the meaning of “blessing.” As a cantor, my work is reciting blessings. What does that even mean? To bless means to empower, to recognize the strength inside someone or something. We bless God to recognize a power that in the universe that is beyond us as individuals. More importantly, we ask for God’s blessings for us, and so bless each other, affirming that each one of us is good and special and powerful. That’s what it means to be made b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image.

The other lesson is that by studying texts, we are learning to listen. That’s why learning is at the heart of Jewish practice. Here’s a secret: being a spiritual leader isn’t about talking, it’s about listening. To the texts, to your innermost voice, and, most importantly, to the people you encounter. Judaism believes that each person matters, and we get to elevate their voices. For those of us who serve as cantors, literally so, in meaningful song, as means to improving the world.

I feel privileged for being able to complete this program of study. I am also grateful for the caring of many teachers, friends, and family over the past few years. Finally, I want to acknowledge my children, Hannah and Max, who as young adults have already embarked on their own paths of tikkun olam work. They are an inspiration who give me boundless hope for the future.

This first appeared as my ordination statement on the Hebrew College website. Thank you Deena Freed for taking my photo.

Announcing My Cantorial School Capstone Performance

Music serves many roles in the synagogue. A helpful way of understanding this is the “4 M’s” model of Cantor Benji-Ellen Schiller: Meeting, Meditation, Memory, and Majesty.

On Thursday, May 13 at 7:30, via live stream, I will present a program of music that I have learned in cantorial school that is meaningful to me, organized by the “M’s.” In between pieces, I will explain how cantors use music to elevate prayer and lifecycle ceremonies.

Master’s Thesis: Applying Learning Science to Chanting Torah

Here’s my Master of Jewish Education thesis, How Do We Know What Works? Using the Science of Learning to Consider How We Train Torah Readers. In the coming weeks I hope to add a video of my presentation and share work on additional projects based on this research.

Abstract

Cantors and other educators have methods of teaching Torah reading skills in synagogues (primarily to b’nai mitzvah). This paper investigates whether those methods are consistent with what is known from cognitive psychology research about how people learn, and considers whether evidence-based learning methods could benefit the field. Relevant literature from the fields of Jewish education and the science of learning are reviewed, along with findings from a survey of educators, and analysis of these findings is presented.

Read the full text (PDF)

Build Something Beautiful

This following post reflecting my current thinking as a Jewish leader was written as an assignment for the Leading Through Innovation class offered by CLAL and Glean Network, taught by Rabbi Elan Babchuck, Rabbi Julia Appel, and others. Facts, figures, and ideas contained within are in many cases from class materials and discussion.

“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”


Thoreau

It sometimes seems like religion and change are any oxymoron. Faithfully following God’s eternal Word leaves little room for innovation, so it would seem. If there’s anything new in the sphere of religion, it’s a story of decline. Population studies from Pew and others show this decline, in particular “the rise of the nones,” an increase in people responding in surveys that they have no religion. Does religion have a future in today’s engineering and technology-driven world?

For sure, the world is changing, and religion is changing along with it. It’s true that sometimes, religious institutions don’t change as quickly as some of us might want. But the reality is that institutions in all areas of life come and go. Some change and some don’t. In this changing religious landscape, what I’ve come to believe is that hitching myself to an existing organization or form of religious leadership might not be the path I want to put myself on. Like Thoreau said, I’m going to step—or as a cantor, sing—to the beat I hear, the beat of a different drummer.

First of all, something needs to said about innovation and constraints. Innovation is obviously about new ways of doing things. But, innovation thrives within constraints. Consider smart phones. Smart phones have constraints to make things smaller and more efficient. There are constraints about the technology of networks, physics of radio waves, and what fits in our pockets. Within these constraints, we’ve created amazing devices. Of course, there needs to be an openness to something new, but that’s not the same thing as saying there’s no constraints. Similarly, within the realm of religion, great art, music, and literature has been composed. The great cathedrals of Europe stretch up to the open sky, but they were constructed within the law and dogma of the medieval church. The Talmud was written within the constraints of Jewish law and exile, not to mention daily life in the early Middle Ages, and is arguably the greatest written work of its time.

It’s also important to note that religion is quite a big industry in the United States. Estimates vary, but as an industry religion is between a $1 and $5 trillion dollar industry, putting it head of the top 10 technology companies combined. While 4-10 thousand houses of worship close each year, that’s out of 344,000 congregations; with a 1-2% failure rate, are houses of worship doing worse than any other type of business? Certainly, you can point to declining attendance at certain traditionally-well-attended congregations, but it’s a mistake to assume that informally collected examples are a true sample of the bigger picture. Similarly, even if budgets in some places are declining, it’s not valid to extrapolate that a large industry is quickly headed toward zero (even if the truth makes a less compelling narrative for op-ed pieces).

That doesn’t mean that specific institutions aren’t in trouble. What it does mean is that what used to look like a good career path of linking your fate to a specific institution might not be the only viable, or even best, option. For example, the Conservative movement has seen a reduction in membership. But remember, getting small doesn’t mean quickly and inevitably going to zero; many clergy will still have long careers in Conservative synagogues. Nevertheless, expecting that career success is a simple matter of making the typical seminary, practice, union, and congregational job choices of that movement because it’s the largest, is not the case as it may have been 20 or 30 years ago. Personally, I identify with the Conservative movement if I must pick one of the larger movements to identify with, but this is exactly the sort of area where I know I need to march to my own beat.

Trends can be good, bad, or unimportant depending on how we frame them. In this, and in other areas, we’re fighting the decline of “always.” Yes, the way things have “always” been done might be declining; but the fact is that most things that seem like “always” were new and innovative, maybe not even that long ago in the whole timeline of Jewish history. The decline of membership in Conservative synagogues doesn’t mean the inevitable decline of the center of American Jewish life. Instead, it means it gets to be organized differently. Conservative synagogues, for example, have long been led by some of the most knowledgeable clergy and volunteers. These are exactly the people who can build compelling independent communities outside of a movement, and we’ve seen exactly this sort of “leaderful organization” have a positive impact on American Jewish life, for example at Hadar and its related institutions. Intermarriage, usually seen as a disaster, is really only disastrous to the old way of doing things. Intermarried families bring new people and ideas into the community; and those who assimilate and leave the community, might, to be truly honest, leave behind a strong community than we would have had if we could count them as members but they weren’t really interested in being here.

Some of the statistics that might point to a declining Jewish community are what we can call “vanity metrics.” This means things that are easy to measure, but don’t really tell us if we’re meeting any underlying criteria of success. What’s success for a religious institution, anyway? Some measure of financial solvency is always a prerequisite, but numbers of money and members are not what a faith community is about. It’s easier to be a for-profit business, in the sense that money is both a necessity and a goal. That’s not true for a religious group. Religious groups have lot of goals, but let’s say the goal is, generally, to build a community and help the members of that community be better people. If we consider that the maximum network size of a community is about 300 people, being as big as possible is not the way to build a true community of people who can support each other through life’s ups and downs. A worthwhile strategy is to “upgrade the person, not the product”—consider what your community members truly need, and how you can help, when you’re thinking about what will bring them to a religious community. It’s probably not “services” or “Shabbat dinner.” It might be a connection to God, a moral compass, socializing, support through a difficult time, or a way to connect with family.

As a fellow student told me, “don’t fight the dinosaur,” instead build something “beautiful.” Many of the major Jewish organizations still around today (or that have closed or merged in the last 20-30 years) were created at the turn of the previous century. For most of my career, I’ve working on making change from within: taking jobs in existing organizations and using my skills to make incremental improvements. If I’ve ever thought about doing something completely new, it was always still with the assumption I’d be building something that looked a lot in form like existing organizations. If I saw a need in the community, my usual thought was, there needs to be a new organization with all its trappings like a board, staff, an office suite and tax-exempt certificate. I think the challenge for me, and the way I can create what Elan Babchuck calls a “bright spot,” is going to be to build something without knowing what organizational structure is going to hold it. That might mean taking on a bit more risk. (Potentially, even personal financial risk, which I’d hope would lessen once I finished my cantorial studies.) In finance and elsewhere, more risk is related to more reward. I’m coming to think that it might be for lack of risk I haven’t always found rewards. For individuals, as well as for institutions, doing things they way they’ve “always” been done is not a reliable path to greatness.

In particular, I’m looking for ways to use my skills from years of life before I went to cantorial school. Some of these are very specific, such as software development skills, which including designing user experiences, a skill which has value in looking for how to design what people experience in Jewish activities, both online and in real life. Others are related to the Jewish community. I have a well-developed personal network in the Boston Jewish community and beyond. I understand the needs to different communities from different parts of the religious spectrum, and have found ways to speak and lead, including prayer leading, that can address all of them. I also have transferable skills. I have soft skills of working with people, and I have business skills understand how systems and organizations work, from years of having jobs in different types of companies, living through different parts of the life cycle, or even owning a house. It’s hard to make all these experiences and skills line up with the typical synagogue professional job description. For that reason, I might not be the right fit for a typical job as “the Cantor,” where the one and only thing they do better than anyone else is the singing. A way I need to change myself is to reframe this way I’ve been looking at things and do better seeing and using what’s unique about me as an asset.

The other thing I have is great passion for and confidence in the value of combining Jewish tradition and innovation to bring great things into the world and people’s lives. I look forward to doing more of that in the next chapter of my story and in the story of the Jewish people.

The Infinite Depth of Judaism (in Israel)

Make sure you also check out my Instagram feed from the past couple weeks and the Israel 2019 story highlighted on my profile. Thank you to my hevruta partner Michael for the picture of me studying a text.

As my final blog post of my 2019 Israel trip, I’d like to philosophize about two points, both related to this trip and related to my Jewish experience beyond this trip. First, that Jewish knowledge is seemingly infinite makes an inability to truly master it a “feature, not a bug.” Secondly, and necessarily following from the first point but more visible in Israel, there are infinite shades of religiousness, which sounds obvious but is often not.Much of the past couple years has been spent stressing that I will not master all there is to know in my short few years of school. Do I need to take more time in school? Am I just hopelessly incompetent? These thoughts play on my anxiety. Learning at Pardes, though, where to goal was not to master anything for an exam, I still felt this way. Even more, I found my fellow students and even teachers had gaps in what they knew. Sometimes they knew things I didn’t know, but there were still things they didn’t know. I learned the Talmud is the longest ancient text by far, and that not even Rashi mastered it well enough to be the actual author of all the material we think of as “Rashi” in Talmud commentary. The great sages were always debating and, in the reports of those debates, coming from places of imperfect knowledge and acting in error.

I‘m starting to think that this that this is the whole idea. Jewish life and learning is supposed to humble you. It’s not supposed to be something you can master. Mastering a certain subset well enough that I can serve a congregation professionally, well, I may be getting there. But feeling like I have unquestionably mastered everything I might need? Not going to happen, not because of some problem with me particular, but because I am just one person, imperfect compared to the aggregate of our tradition’s wisdom, which is still imperfect compared to all the wisdom that could be known.

Someone pointed out it’s like a driver’s license. You get a license when you know enough to drive on your own. You keep becoming a better driver for years and need to keep practicing it for a lifetime.

An idea that might not seem related is the range of observance that exists in Judaism. There is religious vs. secular; certainly that’s how things are often framed in Israel. It’s easy to feel that one is secular compared to the religious people who observe “all” the mitzvot; that the men with black hats and payot are a different category from me entirely. Except, it’s not like that: Jewish life and learning has no end for everyone.

One way to explain this could be to point out that, when you’re among Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, it’s obvious that even Orthodoxy has so many divisions and Orthodox people are people who have all the regular range of people and personalities you find in any population. You could look closely and notice that there are different types of hats and jackets and facial hair, different standards of modesty for women, different ways of studying and praying.

The other way to explain this is: there’s all type of people going to Burgers Bar in the Old City and having a hamburger. Or some have schnitzel. It’s not like the Orthodox Jews in the Old City only have a pure spiritual experience and that every action they take is some Orthodox practice that secular people don’t do. People are excited to be out at night in the city and having a hamburger with their friends or family. Meanwhile, secular people, in Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv, are excited to be out at night in the city and having a hamburger with their friends or family. Maybe one hamburger is kosher and the other is a cheeseburger. Still, it’s easy to pay attention to the differences between people, but of course people have much more in common than different. And if you think about it, this even is true about practicing Judaism, especially among Jews in Israel. Secular cultural Jews still end up doing mitzvot and religious Jews aren’t perfect. Honoring your father and mother is a big commandment, but it’s not like you can ask someone if they keep this mitzvah and know if they’re “religious” or not.

Why Jewish Learning? Why in Israel?

For the trip to Israel I’m on now, to complete my iFellows experience, I chose to engage in Jewish learning. Why travel all the way across the world to go to school?

I’ve never before done extended Jewish learning for it’s own sake, like in a yeshiva (at type of traditional Jewish school). Pardes isn’t exactly a traditional yeshiva, and two weeks isn’t exactly extended, but it’s still a pretty good experience. There are some things that are different about traditional Jewish learning than about regular academic learning, even in an ordination-oriented Jewish graduate program like I’m in back at home.

Traditional Jewish learning is essentially a spiritual practice. The idea isn’t that you study something so that you know it; or at least, that’s not the reason to continue in study. I’ve been studying Tractate Nedarim, a section of the Talmud about making vows which is mostly irrelevant to modern life, even modern observant Jewish life.

I think there are two reasons to do Jewish learning. First, there’s the learning method of chevruta: learning in pairs, in the study hall (beit midrash, literally “house of seeking”—love that!). Learning forces you to engage with another person. While the word “chevruta” is related to the word for “friend,” it’s not all about being chums. Looking at Jewish text forces you to actually engage in discussing a challenging issue with another person. It forces you to pay closer attention to what is actually in the text. Essentially, it’s learning how to listen.

Secondly, Jewish learning forces you to engage in disagreement. Most traditional Jewish learning is the study of gemara, the core of the Talmud that is the record of ancient rabbinic disagreements. Rabbis (like Maimonides) since have codified Jewish law, taking out the disagreements, but it’s the machloket (disagreement) we’re studying. This teaches you how to disagree. You can learn about disagreements over nedarim (vows) that don’t really matter but then take those skills in engaging with challenging people and ideas to other areas of life.

In fact, at Pardes, being a not-entirely-traditional-Yeshiva, I’m also taking a class in constructive conflict that mixes traditional learning with psychology and modern media. (They actually have a whole curriculum on it you can buy.)

So, why do this in Israel? It seems like an obvious place to do Jewish study in Jerusalem. I could have done it elsewhere. But I think that Jersusalem is a place where every type of person who takes Judaism seriously congregates, and studying Judaism doesn’t have to be a counter-cultural act. It just seems to be in the atmosphere. I get to see the rhythms of the Jewish calendar on the street, see different types of religious Jewish people praying in different ways. I even got to stop in a much more traditional Yeshiva. Ultimately, the atmosphere of learning in a traditional Beit Midrash is just amplified by doing it here.

Thinking About Religious Pluralism

This past weekend turned out to be quite the pluralistic Jewish experience in Israel. I started out at the Kotel on Friday moring; found my way to some very liberal, somewhat liberal, and secular expressions of Judaism in Tel Aviv; and ended up Sunday night (okay, Sunday is not officially the weekend in Israel) in Meah Shearim (arguably the most religious Jewish neighborhood in the world)!

I didn’t plan it that way. I just had things I wanted to do and experience in Israel, and not a lot of time to do them. And maybe I’m weird: I collect Jewish experiences like other people collect souvenir spoons. I like them all. I like praying in the Orthodox men’s section of the Kotel; I liked going to Beit Tefila Yisraeli, the very liberal (almost secular) service held along the ocean in the classy Tel Aviv Port shopping area. I most liked going to a little Masorti (Israeli Conservative) synagogue, Kehilat Sinai, near my hotel in Tel Aviv. Sometimes I enjoy a bit of secular Israeli culture. I appreciate how the charedim (ultra-Orthodox) live.

What I find challenging is that not everyone is like this. It seems like more people have their way of doing thing that they think is right, and are somewhere between hate and indifference on how they respond to other levels of religiosity; they don’t find it an interesting experience in quite the way I do.

The question, then, is, so what? There are really two ways to approach religion.

There is an inward facing approach. Some people want to do what they thing is the right thing to do and not pay much attention to what anyone else does. People want the prayers to be said in their synagogue, the food to be prepared in the right way at home; or, for that matter, they don’t pray or keep kosher and don’t really think much about that other people do.

The outward facing approach wants to change the world. Religion is a source of moral teaching and the whole point is the make the world a better place.

The outward facing approach definitely resonates with me, although as a pluralist I don’t care exactly how you practice religion or even if you practice anything that looks like a traditional religion, but I want it to be available as a technology for improving the world. I want to teach and see more people finding value (and values) from religious tradition, and I’m happy to participate and serve in any Jewish community except the one that thinks it has nothing to learn and no need to grow. This just seems to be some innate orientation of my personality. I want to see religious groups grow and change to get their sacred message out there more and more.

But I might be totally wrong. There is certainly a traditional way to look at Judaism where God asks me to do mitzvot. As long as I can find a minyan that does things my way I don’t need to care how many people are on the beach (or even at a different synagogue) instead of in synagogue on a Saturday morning. This isn’t my outlook, but it is an outlook I encounter often enough. In contrast to above, it’s that a religious group needs to keep what it considers sacred and preserve it from change and outside influence. I can’t say for sure, but I think this might be a more common view of religion.

I’m not sure if one of these approaches ought to be at a higher level than the other. I’m not sure if they can coexist or which approach better lets us coexist but as far as religion goes, this is not a new issue and so probably not one that we’ll tie up with a bow in a generation. I tend to root for my pluralist outward-facing outlook but I’m also pretty sure this is a place where I should be humble about being sure I’m right about anything. Fortunately this is my blog, i.e., it’s a space where I can write about stuff I’m experiencing that isn’t completely settled.

What do you think?

Back in Earthly Israel

I’m back in Israel. It takes a few days to adjust. I have affection for and familiarity with it, but it is a foreign country.

There is in Judaism an idea of Jerusalem shel maalah and Jerusalem shel matah—heavenly and earthly Jerusalem. I’m back in earthly Jersualem. There are all these little things to figure out. For example, unlike anything I’d ever encounter in Boston, I’ve been warned the Israeli police have been actively ticketing jaywalkers at an intersection near my hotel.

It’s summer, it’s dry, everything outside is hot and dusty. I’m not spending this trip in the center of the city but in a more regular neighborhood marred by traffic and litter and utilities and all the other evidence of humans living in cities that is hidden away when you go to Disneyworld or some other touristy or wealthy area.

Back home, Israel is a talking point (whatever side of “the issue” you’re on); when you get here, it’s just a place you’re visiting.

It’s the little, earthly things that are different. The app to get a taxi here is Gett, not Uber, and that’s new since last time I was here, and I didn’t understand how the payment worked, and the driver got annoyed at me. Sometimes people think Israelis are rude or trying to rip you off but I’ve been here enough to know that’s not the case, but the social norms are still foreign. The driver seemed to be annoyed that he was holding up traffic, which was actually nice compared to American Uber drivers who have no problem blocking the rest of the street while waiting for their customer so they don’t jeopardize a review… it’s just different. Not a big deal, figured out now, but when you touch down in a foreign country and aren’t part of an organized group, suddenly you have to think about stuff you never have to think about: how to order a coffee, whether or not you’ll understand the person at the store well enough to actually get the thing you wanted to order. 

The use of English in Israel is funny. I speak enough Hebrew that I’m not obviously a tourist; some people will hear an accent or see that I have US credit card when paying for something and talk to me in English but it seems to be more based on the temperament of the person in the store. And the things that are in English seem to often be that way because it’s trendy. I was walking around a shopping mall, and there was a lot of English, not in a way that was helpful to foreigners but because stuff with English is foreign, as in, good. I mean like a restaurant name in French or Italian seems fancier in the States… a restaurant name in English seems fancier in Israel.

A long time ago it became a thing to call native-born Israelis “sabras,” based on name of a cactus that was prickly on the outside and sweet on this inside. That applies to Israel as a whole, really: the sidewalk outside is hot and dusty and inside the place you are going, it is cool and clean. There is, maybe even, something Jewish about this: we don’t big build cathedrals to look good from the outside, we make sure the people have hospitality inside. I don’t want to generalize too much about a whole country; people are people, and people in Israeli are mostly trying to be helpful and do the right thing just like anywhere else in the world. Maybe the electric plugs are different, but I can’t help feeling that there is still something about being in the Jewish state that matches with my Jewish values: still a little less capitalism, a little more sense community, people celebrate the same holidays. They sell the good glass Shabbat candle holders at the convenience store.

My view in Jerusalem so far has been less Kotel and Dome of the Rock than average apartment buildings with TV antennas and water heaters on the roof. But some of the trees have pomegranates growing on them!